The Kissing Bandit (1949)
The Kissing Bandit (1949) follows the adventures of a timid young man who impersonates a big, bad bandit in colonial California. The poster proclaims that it’s “the boldest story ever told in song, spectacle, and Technicolor,” though that’s boastful even for MGM. Notice that they don’t say it’s the “best” or even “great” though…in fact, it’s mostly famous as a flop.
Producer Joe Pasternak oversaw the production, and he applied MGM’s typical big budget style. The sets, costumes, and overall production are as opulent and bright as you’d expect. Plus, it features songs by Nacio Herb Brown, whose music appears in a little movie called Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Along with those two veterans, MGM assigned relative newcomer László Benedek to direct. It was his first feature film. Fun fact: he would go on to achieve his greatest fame with The Wild One (1954) starring Marlon Brando.
The Kissing Bandit stars Frank Sinatra and Kathryn Grayson in their final of three films together after Anchors Aweigh (1945) and It Happened in Brooklyn (1947). It also features several well-known character actors, most notably J. Carrol Naish. He plays a terribly dated, racist character named Chico with a huge, syphilitic false nose and a very 1940s Mexican accent. You can’t expect a movie from 1949 to be more enlightened than its era, but it’s a problematic portrayal. You may recognize Naish from roles in Captain Blood (1935), House of Frankenstein (1944), or Hit the Deck (1955), among so many others, but again you might not. He’s a terrific actor and the nose really changes his face.
Warning: this movie takes place in 1830-ish, but it feels like a fairytale in an unspecified “once upon a time” where everyone wore beautiful clothes and kept very clean. Even the bandits’ “rags” are remarkably tidy.
Like so many movies from this era, The Kissing Bandit drifts free from history and reality. I love that quality, but it can be tough if you’re expecting historical/cultural accuracy. So don’t, and you’ll enjoy the movie a lot more.
In fact, this movie is so fanciful that it reminds me of The Pirate (1948), another famous flop that was released a few months after this one. Both films are visually stunning and incredibly lavish with excellent casts (and colonial Spanish overtones and bandits, oddly enough).
But both films struggle to find their footing: are they parodies? Satires? Earnest but exceptionally whimsical musicals? The Pirate attempts a pastiche of pirate romances, and The Kissing Bandit does the same for westerns, but they’re too sincere to be funny. They both float above any kind of reality, and perhaps go a little too high. But they’re still enjoyable and fun examples of this era of MGM musicals.
To the film! It opens with credits over a scenic vista that looks an awful lot like the wilderness in Out of the Past (1947). That movie was shot at Lake Tahoe and other locations in the High Sierras. According to AFI, some scenes in The Kissing Bandit were filmed around Sonora, California just south of Lake Tahoe. So it could be.
Anyway, after the credits we get this little joke:
Unfortunately, it might be the funniest part of the film. The mail rider drops off a letter addressed to an innkeeper named Chico (J. Carrol Naish.) It has come all the way from Boston from Chico’s friend’s son, Ricardo (Frank Sinatra). The letter explains that Ricardo has been studying his deceased father’s business at school in Boston, and he wants to come to California and take his father’s place.
Everything remains vague and general in the letter, so Chico doesn’t realize that Ricardo has been studying the “business” of hotel management. Which won’t be much help because Chico and Ricardo’s father were actually bandits and the inn is just a cover operation.
So Chico assumes that Ricardo wants to take over his father’s role as chief bandit. He summons the band of robbers and announces the great news: the Kissing Bandit’s son is coming to lead them! Everyone rejoices because Ricardo’s father was the most terrific bandit in history. (He got his nickname because he kissed every woman he robbed, by the way. Yikes.)
But when Ricardo arrives, it’s clear that he is rather different from his dashing dad. For example, he flies through one of the inn’s windows because he can’t stop his horse, and he’s a sensitive, sweet soul. He’s also very, very skinny.
Then he faints when he learns that his father was the Kissing Bandit; he thought his dad was a simple innkeeper and had no idea about his real occupation. But Chico convinces Ricardo to give banditry a try, despite Ricardo’s insistence that he hates loud noises, can’t fight, can’t ride, and would much prefer to run the inn. You can watch the scene here. Sinatra is so skinny in this movie!
Fun fact: Joseph “J.” Carroll Naish was a prolific actor who appeared in over 200 films starting in 1926. He was born in New York City and worked on stage and in vaudeville before he came to Hollywood.
He earned the nickname “Hollywood’s One-Man U.N.” for his range (he played almost every ethnicity/nationality, including Asian, Native American, and African American characters–it was a different time…), though his most famous roles were often Italian characters, including the CBS radio show Life with Luigi (1948-1953). He was nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor for Sahara (1943) and A Medal for Benny (1945). Naish was a great actor and steals the movie, though one wishes he’d been given a less stereotypical character. And a smaller fake nose.
Meanwhile, in a nearby convent school, lovely Teresa (Kathryn Grayson), the Governor of California’s daughter, prepares to leave for good. She sings to her former schoolmates that “Tomorrow means romance for me!” She’s a silly, romantic girl who thinks that her true love will appear the day she leaves school. You can watch the song here.
Gorgeous close-ups of Grayson are sprinkled liberally throughout her scenes. The movie is basically a series of lovely, shallow focus Technicolor glamour shots of the star. And her splendid costumes.
Walter Plunkett designed the costumes for this film. He is most famous for Gone with the Wind (1939) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952), but he worked on many of the period films at MGM. He goes wild with color and riffs on the traditional mantilla and peineta (veil and comb combo) on nearly all the female characters. He reserves the sparkles for the actors’ outfits, so get ready. Fortunately for fans of visual splendor, accuracy was not a priority for Plunkett. Nor anyone else on the production.
Can you guess who the new Kissing Bandit’s first victim will be? Teresa, of course! And she’s delighted. Since Ricardo is also a silly romantic, we can basically determine the end of the film right now. The new Kissing Bandit and his gang hold up the stagecoach carrying Teresa and her aunt (Mildred Natwick) from the school. Well, it’s mostly Chico. Ricardo stays far away on a majestic crag.
When Ricardo tries to join the bandits but falls off of his horse and causes the stagecoach to careen free from its team and driver. Teresa and Ricardo take a terrifying ride down the mountain.
But afterwards they exchange romantic glances, though no kisses. Poor Ricardo is so struck by Teresa’s beauty that he can’t kiss her (the old-he-loves-her-too-much-to-be-his-typical-jerk-routine). Rather than be flattered by this exception, Teresa is upset. She rather wanted to be kissed by the famous Kissing Bandit!
After the robbery, Teresa and her aunt continue their journey and arrive at the Governor’s mansion. He is upset about the bandits but mostly concerned about another crisis: the King of Spain has sent Count Belmonte and General Toro to retrieve California’s taxes. But the Treasury is empty because the Governor hasn’t collected the King’s taxes in years. Plot #2!
But Teresa doesn’t care about such mundane matters–she is far more worried about why Ricardo didn’t kiss her, especially after her maid (Edna Skinner) with the insane hairdo describes how wonderful it was when she encountered the Kissing Bandit. Apparently she fainted after the kiss, just as every woman does. Fun fact: Edna Skinner would later become famous as the neighbor on the TV show Mister Ed in the 1960s.
So Teresa sings “What’s wrong with me? Why didn’t he kiss me?” into her mirror before the scene switches to Ricardo crooning the song with slightly amended lyrics: “What’s wrong with me? Why didn’t I kiss her?” You can watch it here.
After the song, Ricardo decides he must see Teresa again. When the idea first strikes him, the camera zooms in on his face and a cartoonish “ba-doi-nnng” noise signals his revelation. This happens throughout the movie whenever Ricardo gets an idea, but it’s the only instance of such overt narrative exclamation. So it plays as weird and out of place rather than funny. Anyway, Ricardo very foolishly rides to the Governor’s hacienda to serenade Teresa. It’s lovely but he barely escapes the guards.
You can watch the scene here:
Chico worries that Ricardo’s infatuation with Teresa will get them all killed, so he summons Bianca (Sono Osato) to make Ricardo forget the Governor’s daughter. She performs a super intense dance with a whip, but it scares Ricardo rather than titillates.
Fun fact: Sono Osato was a ballerina with the Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo and American Ballet Theatre. She also performed on Broadway in the 1940s with notable credits including One Touch of Venus (1943) and Ivy Smith in the original On the Town (1944). Sinatra would star in the movie version in 1949, but Osato’s part was played by Vera-Ellen. Another fun fact: Future legend Stanley Donen was credited with Dance Direction for this movie.
Plotline #1 and #2 combine when Count Belmonte (Carleton G. Young) and General Toro (Billy Gilbert) arrive at the inn. Count Belmonte is a pompous ass in a sparkly pink outfit who insults everyone he meets. (You might recognize him as Esther Williams‘ husband in Thrill of a Romance (1945). Billy Gilbert was famous for comic sneeze routines, so naturally he has a terrible cold throughout this movie.)
Chico tries to steal his wealthy guests’ valuables, but the Count catches him. So Ricardo and Chico fight and eventually subdue him. When the bandits realize that Belmonte and Toro are heading to the Governor’s hacienda to collect the tax money, they decide to impersonate the men. Ricardo is excited because he can see Teresa, and Chico is excited because he plans to steal the tax money.
And so the next day, the Governor (Mikhail Rasumny) gives “Belmonte” and “Toro” a grand welcome.
Teresa is the only one who recognizes Ricardo and Chico as the bandits. But she has a crush on Ricardo so she doesn’t alert her father.
Ricardo and Teresa enjoy a quiet moment in the garden, but Ricardo quickly ruins things. He falls into the typical mistaken identity trap: he thinks she wants him to be the famous, dashing bandit with tons of romantic experience and an intoxicating bravado, but she actually finds his boasting disgusting.
She leaves in a huff, which confuses Ricardo quite a bit. But it also gives him time to sing “Siesta,” a smooth song about flies buzzing around when you’re trying to nap. Here ya go:
Fun fact: Xavier Cugat and his orchestra recorded a version of “Siesta” on Columbia Records in conjunction with the film’s release.
After the nap comes the big fiesta. First, Teresa searches her gift wrap supplies and puts her finest pull-bow on her head for the banquet.
Fun fact: Kathryn Grayson was tiny (about 5’1) but very well-endowed, and it’s interesting to see how costume designers tackle her figure.
In this film, Plunkett emphasizes her teeny-tiny waist with sashes and other adornments, and balances her bustline with off-the-shoulder necklines and huge sleeves. This stretches her top half horizontally and draws the eye away from her bust. Plunkett also adds ruffles or other details to the bodice in an effort to make the bustline appear “artificially” large because of design elements. In Lovely to Look At (1952), Adrian went with a similar strategy with capelets, eye-catching collars, and other adornments around her shoulders.
Anyway, Teresa gets mad at Ricardo during the banquet and returns to her room. Meanwhile, her aunt, Isabella, has fallen for Chico/Toro despite his clear disinterest.
After this latest fight, Chico tells Ricardo to try a different strategy: why not just abduct Teresa? That’s how Ricardo’s parents got married. So off timid Ricardo goes to kidnap Teresa. He arrives in her room just as she removes her dress, and he gets so embarrassed when he sees her corset and petticoat that he loses his nerve. But she is flattered by his intention to abduct her, so she likes him again! The romance in this movie is problematic, to say the least.
Ricardo returns to the fiesta in time for a dance interlude featuring Ann Miller, Cyd Charisse, and Ricardo Montalban in “The Dance of Fury.” It’s one of the best scenes in the movie, and an unusual pas de trois.
I often forget what a good dancer Ricardo Montalban was because in some of his films he never hits the dance floor. But he’s great, and he keeps up with the extraordinary terpsichoreans Charisse and Miller. But they’re the stars of the number, and it’s delightful to watch these two geniuses show off. I love the opposite costumes (yellow on orange and orange on yellow) with gold lamé sleeves and green petticoats that match Montalban’s costume. It’s all so perfectly coordinated.
Fun fact: some sources claim that this dance was shot after the rest of the movie when MGM needed something to improve the film. AFI does list additional scenes filmed in March of 1948 after the movie wrapped in August 1947. It would make sense that “The Dance of Fury” is that scene. Also, dance director Robert Alton may have been in charge of the number, as several contemporary reviews mention him despite his absence in the credits.
Another fun fact: it might seem strange to utilize two dancers of Charisse and Miller’s caliber in a specialty number like this, but at the time, neither one was a star. When this movie was filmed, they were basically featured performers, so it’s not surprising that MGM assigned them to this dance.
But bigger things were on the horizon: Miller actually replaced Charisse in Easter Parade (1948) after she sustained a serious injury filming a dance in On an Island With You (1948). Easter Parade helped elevate Miller to parts in On The Town (1949), Texas Carnival (1951), Lovely to Look At (1952), Kiss Me Kate (1953), and Hit the Deck (1955).
It took Charisse a little longer to to graduate from featured roles in Ziegfeld Follies (1946) and The Harvey Girls (1946), to her most famous role in Singin’ in the Rain (1952). That performance was followed by star turns in The Band Wagon (1953), Brigadoon (1954), and Silk Stockings (1957), among others.
I don’t think that Miller and Charisse ever appeared together after this dance, but Charisse and Montalban were partnered in two other movies: they starred together and danced in Fiesta (1947) and On an Island With You, two Esther Williams vehicles.
Anyway, back to the film! Chico sneaks into the Treasury and returns with the unhappy news that it’s totally empty. There is nothing to steal, so he wants to skedaddle. But before he can escape, Isabella drags him onto the dance floor.
Meanwhile, Teresa changes into a bridal gown, basically–she’s not a subtle girl–and returns to the fiesta. Notice the ruffly flowers and sleeves balancing the top half of the costume:
She steps into the courtyard just in time to see Ricardo flirting with Charisse and Miller. And so the pendulum swings back from delighted love to furious jealousy. Ricardo and Teresa are way too emotionally unstable to sustain a relationship.
Teresa retreats to the music room in a huff, but Ricardo knows just what to do: he serenades her! She can’t resist, and soon the two are belting out “Señorita” together in happy harmony.
You can watch the scene here:
They get engaged after the song, but Ricardo’s joy is immediately tempered by Chico’s wise counsel. Chico explains to the stupid youngster that he can’t marry Teresa: what kind of life can the Kissing Bandit offer the Governor’s daughter? So Ricardo sadly watches Teresa entertain the crowd with a buoyant version of “Love is Where You Find It” knowing that he must leave her. There’s some fun fan action, though.
You can watch it here:
Ricardo and Chico try to sneak out of the fiesta, but the real Count Belmonte and General Toro show up just as Teresa finishes her song. The Governor throws Ricardo and Chico into the dungeon and sets his worst guard, Gomez, to watch them. Ricardo and Chico easily convince poor Gomez that they are the real Belmonte and Toro, and the men who crashed the party are the imposters! Soon they’ve escaped the cell.
A running gag throughout the movie sees Colonel Gomez (Clinton Sundberg) repeatedly demoted after a series of mistakes. By this point in the movie, he’s a private. Fun fact: Sundberg was a character actor who appears in dozens of movies from this era. He’s the chatty bartender in Easter Parade, the innkeeper in Two Weeks With Love (1950), the butler in Duchess of Idaho (1950) and the lovelorn organist in The Belle of New York (1952).
Anyway, before Ricardo and Chico escape the hacienda, they run into Belmonte and Toro. Ricardo and Belmonte have a pathetic duel in the courtyard while the Governor, Isabella, and Teresa watch. The Governor debates stepping in to help Belmonte, but Isabella reminds him that since he doesn’t have the tax revenue, Belmonte will probably arrest him if he wins the fight. So the Governor starts rooting for Ricardo.
Fortunately, but inexplicably, Ricardo wins the fight. The Governor expels Belmonte and Toro from California (which doesn’t make sense in the colonial power structure) and pardons Ricardo and Chico for their history of banditry. Then he appoints Chico as his tax man, explaining that no one in the territory has more experience collecting money. Ha!
Ricardo is still determined to break his engagement with Teresa, though. He is about to leave the hacienda when she serenades him just as he serenaded her a few days earlier. After the song, he tells her the truth about his father and his own identity. He sadly says that he didn’t inherit any of his father’s dashing qualities. But then they kiss and she faints. So he did get something from his dad!
Faint-inducing kisses sound romantic, but they would be a real inconvenience. Fortunately, reality doesn’t matter in this world. The End!
This movie was in production from mid-May to August 1947, though additional scenes (perhaps “The Dance of Fury,” as I mentioned) were shot the next March. The Kissing Bandit didn’t premiere until January 1949, though, which was a long time from production to release in those days.
It didn’t bode well; back then and today, it’s usually not a good sign when a movie’s release date gets pushed back. MGM knew it didn’t have a winner before it released the film, and unfortunately the critical response and box office receipts proved them right.
The budget was at least $2.5 million and as much as $3.2 million (sources differ), but it brought in only $1.38 million.
In producer Joe Pasternak’s book Easy The Hard Way, he wrote that The Kissing Bandit was his famous flop, calling it a “cataclysm that still jolts my blood pressure when I think of the red ink.” It became a constant reminder that even if he liked something, it “is the public who have to be pleased” and in that film’s case, “they weren’t.”
In the years since it premiered, The Kissing Bandit has achieved the unfortunate reputation as Sinatra’s worst movie, and a low point in Grayson’s career, too. But MGM knew even during the filming of The Kissing Bandit that the movie wasn’t going to be one of its best. The cast derided the film during production: author Michael Freedland wrote in All the Way: A Biography of Frank Sinatra, that “Kathryn Grayson remembers that they all knew how bad it was while they were making the movie. ‘We used to joke, ‘What are we going to do for the sequel?’ And Ann Miller reportedly said that the movie ‘was just horrendous.'” Sinatra and Grayson would mock the film for the rest of their careers.
When the movie was praised, most of the compliments focused on the lavish production, the songs, and supporting performances. For instance, Modern Screen called the Technicolor “blinding,” and noted that J. Carrol Naish and his “putty nose” walk away with the picture, but “he’s such a terrific actor it’s a pleasure watching him walk.”
Motion Picture Herald concluded that the expensive production, excellent producer and good cast “failed to jell into solid entertainment.” The review singled out Sinatra’s weak acting and the screenplay, but noted the excellent dance performances, which apparently garnered applause at the screening.
Bosley Crowther at The New York Times wrote that if things were a little different, the movie would be the
delightful comic opera that it was plainly intended to be. For Metro has generously given it all the material things that go to make an elaborate and satisfying show. It has filled it with lovely Spanish costumes and lush California-Spanish sets, three or four talented dancers and a not inconsiderable minor cast. It has called upon beauteous Kathryn Grayson to sing and play the leading feminine role and it has rounded up Frank Sinatra (well, maybe we should skip that) to take the lead.
But instead, the script “is as void of spark and luster as the decor and dancers are full. And although it is highly potential, so far as plot is concerned, it offers some bleak and barren burlesque for the ready-and-willing cast to perform.” He continues with his withering opinions, writing that the film lacks the “satire and wit” that it needs, and Sinatra fails in the lead:
Except for appearing gawky, which seems not very hard for him to do, and singing his songs rather nicely, [Sinatra] contributes little to the show. Not so Miss. Grayson, however. She’s a lovely and talented young thing, and she looks and performs in this picture about as well—under the circumstances—as one could. Not many actresses can stand up under the Technicolor camera’s withering gaze as she can—and also deliver a song as pleasantly.
But Crowther praised Sono Osato and “The Dance of Fury,” writing that:
Also, it must be mentioned that Sono Osato comes through with a spirited Spanish dance number in the one opportunity she has. And Ann Miller, Ricardo Montalban and Cyd Charisse stomp and whip with thrilling grace through a thumping and thundering “Dance of Fury,” which marks their one appearance—and the best spectacle—in the film.
But his review ends with this sad comment: “The Kissing Bandit quite significantly contains only one listless kiss.”
Fortunately, the flop didn’t have severe consequences for the film’s stars. MGM partnered Grayson with tenor Mario Lanza in two hit films after The Kissing Bandit, and she went on to star in Show Boat (1951), Lovely to Look At (1952), and Kiss Me Kate (1953). Sinatra redeemed himself in Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949) and On the Town (1949), which undid any damage from The Kissing Bandit. Obviously, Sinatra went on to become a superstar, and this film is mostly an amusing footnote in his career. Fun fact: it was on the set of The Kissing Bandit that Sinatra met producer Howard Koch, who would later become his “resident film producer” on five movies including The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Robin and The Seven Hoods (1964).