Give a Girl a Break (1954)
Give a Girl a Break is one of the many backstage musicals that Classic Hollywood churned out so regularly. It’s got all the usual elements: a “puttin’ on a show” plot, young talent desperate for a big break, budding romances in the troupe, and a spoiled star who has lost her pure love for the stage.
But unlike some backstage musicals, this one wastes no time getting rid of the star. It also focuses almost entirely on the process of choosing her replacement rather than the show itself, and gives us only a brief look at the finished product.
But, as usual, this was not the original cast. The earliest plans for the movie featured bigger names: according to TCM and AFI, MGM hoped to star Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Ann Miller, and Fred Astaire. But that wish list wasn’t available, so they eventually went with actors a little lower on the stardom ladder. And they cut the budget. The studio knew that the era of big-budget musicals was fading, and their huge, expensive musicals weren’t as profitable as they used to be. So they essentially turned Give a Girl a Break into a B-musical for the Champions and Debbie Reynolds. MGM’s B-pictures generally cost as much as other studio’s A-films, so it was still a relatively expensive film. Just not MGM A-musical expensive.
Stanley Donen stayed on as director through the downgrade, though he wasn’t wild about the project. As he said later, “The idea for the story is so puny that it’s not worth spending a year of one’s life on it.” Singin’ in the Rain it’s not, but Give a Girl a Break still includes some spectacular musical numbers, and I always enjoy watching the Champions, Reynolds, and Bob Fosse.
To the film! We open in the Regal Theatre on Broadway three weeks from opening night. But the show’s star (Donna Martell) refuses to leave her dressing room because she’s miffed at Ted (Gower Champion), the director/choreographer of the show. She wants more praise and compliments, but he says that he doesn’t have time to “palaver” over her. Unsurprisingly, she’s not thrilled at that response. So she quits the show.
Now “Give a Girl a Break” (it’s the name of the show, too!) needs a new leading lady. All the established stars are already in other shows, so the producer, Mr. Jordan (Larry Keating), suggests that Ted call his former partner Madelyn (Marge Champion). But Ted isn’t a fan of that idea. Things ended badly between them.
Instead, they decide on an open casting call. Maybe they will find an unknown and turn her into a star! A newspaper montage and musical number show the great news filtering through the showbiz world.
Suzy Doolitte (Debbie Reynolds), Madelyn Corlane (Ted’s ex-partner) and Joanna Moss (Helen Wood, who would later change her name to Dolly Sharp) see the casting call as they practice their moves. Their surroundings melt into a pastel set where the ladies sing and dance to “Give a Girl a Break” with music by Burton Lane and lyrics by Ira Gershwin.
You can watch it here:
The next day, Suzy, Madelyn, and Joanna, along with dozens of other hopefuls, crowd the theater. Before they start, Ted’s assistant Bob Dowdy (Bob Fosse) warns the women that they are looking for a singer/dancer, so if you can’t do both, you might as well leave. One of the ladies in the back complains, “What do they want, Jane Powell and Vera-Ellen rolled into one?” as she turns to go. Nice in-joke, MGM!
When Bob sees Suzy, he falls in love and becomes convinced of her talent. Fortunately, Ted knows her dance teacher so he pulls her out of the crowd. Then the show’s composer, Leo Belney (Kurt Kasznar), finds his own favorite, Joanna Moss. (Fun fact: Kasznar had worked with the Champions in Lovely to Look At (1952).)
Meanwhile, Mr. Jordan still wants Madelyn for the part. Ted doubts that she is in performance shape after being out of the business for two years, but he’s willing to give her a chance.
Ted and Bob “give the [crowd of] girls a break,” but none are invited back for a final audition the next day except Suzy, Joanna, and Madelyn.
Once the theater is empty, Bob, Ted, and Leo fret about the enormous challenge before them. How can they write, choreograph, and perfect a show in only three weeks? Fortunately, a goofy performance of “Nothing is Impossible” bolsters their confidence.
Fun fact: this number features an “impossible lean” performed by Kurt Kasznar and made famous by Michael Jackson. To achieve the stunt, they hooked Kasznar to a wire and nailed his shoes to the floor. You can see it at 3:43 into the number.
Meanwhile, Suzy, Joanna, and Madelyn give the good news to their mom/husband/boyfriend, respectively. Suzy lives with her mom (Lurene Tuttle), a terrifying stage mother who constantly reminds her daughter how much she has given up for Suzy’s dreams of stardom.
Joanna’s husband Burton (Richard Anderson, who had just played Debbie Reynolds’ suitor in I Love Melvin!) is a music professor who is waiting to hear if he got a job at a college in Minnesota. He’s not thrilled about Joanna’s audition because they might be moving soon, and his job is far more important than hers! Of course she will give up on her dream and move with him.
Madelyn’s boyfriend Anson (William Ching), hates the idea, too. He thought she was through with showbiz; plus he doubts that she will get the part and he doesn’t want her to be disappointed. He asks her (yet again) if she will marry him and give up on the stage once and for all. She’s not sure what to do.
So although Mrs. Doolittle is the only one who is excited and supportive about the audition, but she’s not excited about Suzy’s budding romance with Bob. Mrs. Doolittle forbids her daughter from meeting Bob for a date at the corner drugstore (why the drugstore? Read this History Through Hollywood to find out) because she wants Suzy to practice a new routine then get to bed early. There is no time for boys! Oddly, when she learns that Bob wants to spend time with Suzy in exchange for helping her get the part, she is not concerned about the potential “casting couch” issue. But I think Bob’s interest is a little creepy. There’s an implicit quid pro quo going on, but fortunately he’s a good guy.
Though he does stalk Suzy to her dance studio that night and offer to walk her home. They’ve known each other for almost twelve hours, so they naturally proclaim their love for each other. Then they dance to the delightful song “In Our United States.” Poor Bob falls into the river at the end.
Fun fact: at about 1:15 into the number, Bob does a standing back flip. It was Donen’s idea, and Fosse was nervous about it. As Donen remembered, Fosse hadn’t yet hit upon his trademark dancing style, “but when he did it would be delicate and small with no major physical or athletic moves. He didn’t want to do the back flip, but I staged the number doing what I knew, not what he did.”
Donen helped him practice the move with his arm behind Fosse’s back and Donen poised to catch him if he faltered. When it came time to film the dance, Fosse performed it perfectly in one take. What Donen didn’t know is that even after hours of practice with the director, Fosse was still apprehensive, so he returned to New York and worked on the flip for two days with an acrobatic teacher!
Across town, Madelyn decides to give up on showbiz, so she calls Mr. Jordan and cancels her audition. But Ted finds out and shows up at her apartment. He has changed his mind and now he wants her to play the part because she’s an amazing talent and she’s the only one with experience. He needs a pro who can learn an entire show in three weeks.
She protests that she’s out of condition and can’t possibly jump into the role after so long away. So he forces her into a dance to prove that she can do it.
As we expected, she’s incredible and keeps up with Ted just beautifully as he leaps and twirls across the rooftops.
You can watch it here:
By the way, that fringed gown isn’t Madelyn’s usual at-home attire (what a lifestyle that would be!); she is all gussied up to attend a masquerade party with Anson that evening. MGM designer Helen Rose was in charge of the costumes for this film. I think she makes the most gorgeous “performance costumes.” She plays with sequins, layers, color, and lots of chiffon to create stunning dresses that enhance the choreography.
Anson arrives just as Ted and Madelyn finish their athletic routine. He says that he won’t be a “stage door Johnny” and gives her an ultimatum: marry him and give up on the theater, or audition and say goodbye to him forever. Then he leaves. Now Madelyn is more confused than ever!
That night, the three girls dream/worry about the next day’s audition.
And the next morning, all three appear at the theater. It’s on!
You can watch the auditions here. Joanna’s audition is a weird contortionist piece that’s an odd choice for a Broadway musical audition…
The auditions don’t change anyone’s mind: Bob still wants Suzy, Leo still wants Joanna, and Ted still wants Madelyn. And no one is willing to compromise. But stupid Bob told Suzy before she left the theater that she definitely has the part. But she definitely might not…
As the three men debate, each one has a daydream starring their favorite. First up is Bob with Suzy.
He joins her in a creative, unusual number with acrobatic dancing, confetti, and balloons. Part of the number is played backwards; Reynolds and Fosse leap up the set, glide up slides, and the confetti falls up towards the ceiling. It’s fun to watch Reynolds’ dress poof and expand like a drunken jellyfish as she twirls and jumps in reverse. It looks crazy!
One section of the number features Bob and Suzy “popping” balloons into existence. It’s played in reverse so it looks as though they are conjuring balloons into the air with just a pointed finger when in fact they were puncturing them! Very cool effect.
Then it’s Leo and Joanna’s turn. He directs her with his conductor’s baton before she takes over for some ballet.
She dances en pointe for most of the scene, but then changes into a jazzy outfit for the finale.
Finally it’s Ted and Madelyn’s turn. They dance in a room full of poles, but it’s classy.
The number takes a nightmarish turn with the appearance of Suzy, Joanna, and then a dozen other ladies vying for Ted’s attention. He can’t find Madelyn! But then he slides down the fireman’s pole and they finish the number alone.
You can watch all three dream sequences here:
Costume appreciation break. See what I mean about shimmer, chiffon, and choreography-enhancing costumes? Madelyn’s swirling skirt becomes part of the dance.
After hours of debate, none of the men are willing to negotiate, especially not after dreaming such lovely dreams! So finally Mr. Jordan puts the three girls’ names in a hat and draws out the winner. Cut to Suzy–is it her?
Nope. Poor Suzy and her mom are devastated. They thought she had the part! Now her burgeoning love affair crashes down along with her dreams. How could Bob lie to her about that?! Next up is Joanna. Her husband takes the call because she is too scared to answer it. Burton’s bummed reaction makes Joanna despair. But then Burton tells her to cheer up–she got the part! But he’s not happy about it.
Meanwhile, Ted tells Madelyn the bad news in person. He explains that he did everything he could, and that were forced to draw a name out of a hat. Madelyn takes it well (she’s an old pro!) but afterwards she tells Anson that she’s leaving New York (and him.) She is going where “all dancers go when they’re washed up:” home to open up a dance studio. Once she is alone, Madelyn’s calm facade crumples into tears. It’s a poignant moment. Marge Champion was a better dancer than she was an actress, but she pulls this scene off.
A few days later, Ted oversees a dress rehearsal. But when the curtain rises, Joanna is not in her spot. Mr. Jordan, Bob, Leo and Ted rush to her dressing room where they find Burton and Joanna arguing.
He’s going to Minnesota with or without her, and she’s terribly upset. She begs to go with him, at which point Mr. Jordan reminds her of her run-of-the-show contract.
So then she reveals that she is going to have a baby, so she can’t do the show anyway. She announces her pregnancy with that misty-eyed gaze and soft voice that old movies always use for such moments.
Now Ted, Leo, and Bob are left to pick up the pieces after losing their second star! Bob is thrilled, though, because he assumes (not sure why) that Suzy will automatically get the role. He rushes off to give her the great news.
But when he gets back to the theater, he finds out that Ted and Mr. Jordan want to offer the part to Madelyn. So he has just given Suzy #FakeNews for the second time! She’ll never forgive him.
But it’s okay, because Ted soon returns and says that he couldn’t find Madelyn. She has left New York and she didn’t leave a forwarding address, so Suzy will be getting the part after all! Bob is happy again, but Ted is awfully downcast.
Cut to opening night! Suzy and Ted (he’s the male lead as well as the director and choreographer!) perform “Applause, Applause.” It reminds me of the “All For You” number in Summer Stock (1950). Both have similar tiered, sparse stages, male/female leads supported by a chorus, and “show within a show” conceits.
Gene Kelly and Judy Garland in “All For You:”
But the earlier film didn’t use moving sidewalks and clowns!
You can watch the number here. Fun fact: IMDB claims that George Chakiris is one of the dancers. I think I’ve spotted him to the left of Champion when they’re clapping before Reynolds’ appearance about 45 seconds in. Another fun fact: the tutu and suit from this number were auctioned off in 2012 by Julien’s Live. The lot went for $4,687.
Yet another fun fact: the song “Applause, Applause” also appeared in the MGM cartoon “The Flea Circus” in 1954. You can watch that version here (the song starts at 3:15).
“Give a Girl a Break” is a huge success and Suzy is a star. Plus, she and Bob are in love. It looks like a happy ending! But Ted is not as thrilled as one might expect. Something is missing…
And it returns as he paces the dark stage in the empty theater. It’s Madelyn! She explains that she had to leave in order to find out if she missed him or the stage. Turns out she missed him. She doesn’t even care that she could have starred in the show–she just wants Ted.
And now she’s got him! We never do figure out why their partnership ended, or why she retired from the stage two years ago, but don’t worry about it. Just smile that they’re back together now! The end!
Rehearsals started in September 1952, and they began filming in October. The film wrapped in early December 1952 though some additional scenes shot in March 1953. The release date is a little tricky: some give this film a December 1953 premiere, but AFI says it opened on January 1, 1954, so that’s why I use that year.
As I mentioned, this film was originally planned for Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Ann Miller, and Fred Astaire. Stanley Donen was assigned to direct, and experienced screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett wrote the story while lyricist Burton Lane and composer Ira Gerswhin contributed the score.
But those big-time stars weren’t available; plus MGM was starting to realize that their huge, expensive musicals weren’t quite as profitable as they used to be. So they rethought this project. Bob Fosse’s biographer Martin Gottfried wrote about this film’s downgrade in All His Jazz: The Life and Death of Bob Fosse:
There were residual elements of the big project it had once been, a score by Burton Lane and Ira Gershwin [their only collaboration], for instance, direction by Stanley Donen and musical supervision by Saul Chaplin. The screenwriters, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, were estimable too, although in this instance they had written a slender story involving three unknown actresses competing for a Broadway role that becomes available when the star walks out.
Although Fosse would become one of the most famous and influential choreographer/directors ever, when he made Give a Girl a Break he was just a young Broadway dancer on the rise. He’d recently appeared in the revival of Pal Joey in the role Gene Kelly had originated in 1940, but he came to Hollywood when MGM offered him a contract. (You can also see Fosse in Kiss Me Kate (1953), The Affairs of Dobie Gillis (1953), and My Sister Eileen (1955).)
Fosse had dreamed of being another Gene Kelly, but unfortunately he was born about two decades too late. The era of big musicals was fading by the time he made it to Hollywood. Of course there were still excellent movie musicals to come, but the days when studios constantly churned out musicals with big budgets were ending.
Plus, on a more personal level, Fosse realized that his “looks were not those of a leading man.” He also knew, as Donen and others on the project did, that Give a Girl a Break was not going to be a great film. Still, Fosse threw himself into the project, and Donen recalled that he was “the hardest worker I’ve ever known.” High praise coming from someone who worked with Gene Kelly and famous perfectionist Fred Astaire!
MGM wasn’t thrilled with Give a Girl a Break and didn’t give it a big national opening (which is why the release date is confusing) nor national reviews. So I don’t have my usual New York Times writeup. Trade papers for exhibitors did review the movie, and they didn’t find it as terrible as MGM seemed to think it was.
Harrison’s Reports reviewed the movie in lukewarm terms, writing that “A moderate round of entertainment is offered in this Technicolor musical which, though produced on a fairly lavish scale, does not rise above the level of program fare…there is little that is extraordinary about either the music or the dance routines…there is some comedy, but it is no more than mildly amusing. The color photography is fine.”
Film Bulletin agreed, calling it a “routine Technicolor musical” that “delivers entertainment when principals are dancing and singing their way through musical numbers, but suffers from formula treatment…romantic and comedy elements are weak.”
A famously critical review came from Leonore Gershwin, Ira’s wife. According to Stephen Silverman’s book Dancing on the Ceiling: Stanley Donen and His Movies, Ira Gershwin didn’t agree with MGM’s assessment: “True, the picture was nowhere near Academy Award nomination, but it wasn’t this bad.” But after watching a rough cut of the film at MGM, “my wife asked me if I owned any stock in the film company.” He said he owned 100 shares, and she responded simply, “Sell it.” Yikes!
The film didn’t recoup its investment at the box office, earning only about $1.2 million and resulting in a loss of $1.1 million. It didn’t give MGM much confidence in Marge and Gower Champion, either, whom they’d been building up to be stars. After this film, the Champions would only appear in one more movie, Jupiter’s Darling (1955), in supporting roles, before leaving MGM. Fun fact: two decades after starring together in this film, Gower Champion would direct Debbie Reynolds in the Broadway hit “Irene” (1973).
Other actors were reunited later, too: Kasznar and Fosse would work together again on Kiss Me, Kate (1953) and My Sister Eileen (1955), and Fosse and Reynolds would appear together in The Affairs of Dobie Gillis (1953). Helen Wood soon changed her name to Dolly Sharp and became a porn star. She’s perhaps most famous for the film Deep Throat (1972). So there’s that!