On the Riviera (1951)
On the Riviera (1951) was 20th Century Fox’s third iteration of this story about an entertainer impersonating a powerful man and confusing his girlfriend and the man’s wife along the way. The original version premiered on Broadway as The Red Cat in 1934, and, although the play did not last long on Broadway, Fox scooped up the rights and quickly turned it into Folies Bergere de Paris (1935) starring Maurice Chevalier, Ann Sothern, and Merle Oberon. The studio remade it six years later as That Night in Rio (1941), this time with Don Ameche, Alice Faye and Carmen Miranda.
For its 1951 version, Fox moved the action to the Riviera and signed huge star Danny Kaye to play the dual roles. Starring opposite him is Gene Tierney, who was six years removed from her most iconic role in Laura (1944). But she continued to wow throughout the 1940s in classics such as Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), as well as several film noirs. This bouncing Technicolor musical was a slight departure for her. Unsurprisingly, she looks stunningly gorgeous in the glamorous costumes, though she doesn’t get an especially juicy role.
The other leading lady is French actress Corinne Calvet, who had been working in Hollywood since the late 1940s. But despite Tierney and Calvet, this movie is all about Danny Kaye, and he delivers a typically rambunctious performance with the comedy and the songs.
To the film! We open as a chorus performs a bright song called–you guessed it–“On the Riviera” about the joys of the locale as pretty images of pretty things illustrate the lyrics. I want to go to there! Fun fact: this footage was shot on location, but principal photography was filmed at Fox.
After these delightful scenes of water skiing and sunbathing, we cut to news reports about Captain Henri Duran’s record-breaking, non-stop, around-the-world flight and his imminent landing at Nice.
But before he lands, wee cut to a nightclub where Jack Martin (Danny Kaye) sings “On the Riviera” complete with a Maurice Chevalier impression (did he include the Chevalier impression, and later a brief Carmen Miranda turn, as a nod to the previous film versions of On the Riviera?) The audience delights in his performance, as does his girlfriend, Colette (Corinne Calvet) from the wings.
After his song, news spreads that Duran is about to land, so everyone rushes to catch the historic event on television. Colette and Jack join the crowd, too. They watch as Duran disembarks from his plane and kisses three different women: first two mistresses and finally his wife, Lili (Gene Tierney).
But Colette and Jack are mostly struck by the resemblance between Duran (Kaye) and Jack. Add a monocle, a mustache, and a little grey at the temples, and voila! Fun fact: this was the second time Kaye played dual-roles. His first was in Wonder Man (1945), and he would do it again in On the Double (1961).
After Duran’s landing, Jack’s boss summons him for a serious chat. He is bored by Jack and Colette’s act (even though the audience seems to love it), so Saturday night will be their final performance. Unless, of course, they can come up with a sensational new act in the meantime. Challenge accepted! Also, everything in this movie is that deep cornflower blue. Look for it.
Jack and Colette desperately try to come up with something “sensational” so they won’t be fired. Jack’s Jimmy Durante impression isn’t quite it, and neither is his Carmen Miranda. But maybe an Henri Duran impression?
The next night, the club holds a gala in honor of Duran, and the man himself shows up along with his stunning wife.
Things might get awkward though, because Jack is premiering his new, hopefully fantastic act, “Rhythm of A New Romance.” It’s an elaborate production number featuring Jack as Duran, along with a cast of dozens.
First, a bunch of can-can dancers, led by Gwen Verdon, do their kicks and splits before “Duran” appears. (See how the costumes are that light blue color, too?)
Fun fact: Verdon was one of the greatest Broadway dancers of all time who appeared as a “specialty dancer” in many movies in the 1950s. According to AFI, this was her film debut. In the early 1950s, Verdon also worked as an assistant to choreographer Jack Cole, who oversaw the dances in this movie. Later, she married Bob Fosse and often worked alongside him and starred in such legendary shows as Sweet Charity and Chicago.
Another fun fact: Danny Kaye’s wife, songwriter Sylvia Fine, wrote four of this movie’s songs, including “Rhythm of A New Romance,” “On the Riviera,” “Popo the Puppet,” and “Happy Ending.” She wrote many of Kaye’s songs throughout his career and was especially good at tailoring tunes to his talents.
When “Duran” appears, he kisses everyone, chased by reporters, as he traverses the “world” finding new women to romance. The real Duran and Lili watch, amazed by the resemblance and perhaps a little embarrassed, too.
It’s incredible that this complex number with such a big cast, costumes, and intricate choreography came together so quickly…don’t think about it too hard.
You can watch it here:
Afterwards, Duran claims he was “terribly amused” by the performance and goes backstage to meet Jack. But he gets distracted when he runs into an old acquaintance, a showgirl with whom he has a history, of course. (Where does he find the time?) Colette sees the exchange and thinks Jack is stepping out on her. The resemblance really is striking! As Duran explains the mix-up, he takes a liking to beautiful Colette and invites her to a party the following evening at his house.
Then the pair are joined by one of Duran’s business partners, Philippe (Marcel Dalio, a famous French actor), with some bad news.
Duran, Philippe, and Louis (Henri Letondal) manufacture airplanes, and they were about to fulfill a 50-plane order to Air Europa. But the deal is in jeopardy.
Duran is sure that Periton, a rival, is just bluffing because he knows that Duran is overextended with bankruptcy just one bad deal away. So Duran rushes away to secure a loan from somewhere else.
Meanwhile, Jack entertains the crowd once again, though he only has eyes for Lili.
Things turn flirtatious rather quickly.
But Lili skedaddles home before things get too crazy. The next day, Philippe and Louis worry about their company while Duran searches for financing. The men are terrified when they see Felix Periton (Jean Murat, another famous French actor), Duran’s sneaky competitor, talking with Lili.
Lili invites Periton to the party that night because she doesn’t know about all of the business intrigue. She if horrified when Philipe and Louis explain the situation to her.
They decide to pretend that everything is fine at the party that evening, and fortunately, Lili has an excellent butler who takes care of all the details so she can focus on the charade. You may recognize character actor Clinton Sundberg from various roles in Easter Parade (1948), The Kissing Bandit (1949), Two Weeks with Love (1950), and Duchess of Idaho (1950), among many more.
That afternoon, Philippe and Louis get a note from Duran explaining that he has rushed to London to get the money. But this presents a new problem: Periton will surely know that something is up if Duran isn’t at his own party that night, and he might be able to foil their London plans! So the men hire Jack to impersonate Duran.
The men prep Jack as much as possible, and when the party rolls around, he is ready! But Lili finds out about the plan, though she promises not to tell Jack that she knows it’s him.
But who can keep track of the plot when she’s wearing a Barbie gown like that? Oleg Cassini designed Tierney’s costumes, and Fox’s costume designer Travilla did the other dresses. This ball gown has everything: sparkles, a bow, and yards of pink and purple tulle!
Fun fact: Oleg Cassini and Gene Tierney were married in 1941 but divorced in 1948, though they apparently reconciled and maintained a good relationship though they didn’t remarry. Cassini was also engaged to Grace Kelly at one point.
Back to the film. The only thing that might give the game away is that Jack is far too attentive and romantic with Lili than the real Duran, who is on “formal” terms with his wife. Jack can’t understand why Duran would ever cheat on lovely Lili, or treat her with anything less than adoration. And Lili rather enjoys being adored for a change.
Meanwhile, back at the nightclub, Colette gets some bad news. The boss has arranged to televise Jack’s new Duran number because it is so popular, and the cameras are set to roll that very night! But he didn’t tell Jack…so now Colette has to find him so that they don’t miss this huge chance and get fired. She puts on her sexiest dress and goes to Duran’s villa.
Meanwhile, Duran faces his first real test when Periton shows up. But Philippe and Louis intervene to minimize their contact. They discuss their next move in a room with a striking portrait of Lili. Why, it’s Gene Tierney’s famous portrait from Laura (1944)! Fun fact: the portrait, which was actually an enlarged photograph painted over, also appeared in Woman’s World (1954).
Things get even more complicated when Colette shows up. She flirts with Duran, so he flirts back to prove that she really loves Jack and is just pretending with the Captain. It’s a game of love-chicken.
But then she sees Jack’s glasses in his pocket and realizes that it’s actually Jack. A screaming match ensues before Jack can explain the situation to her. Eventually, they reconcile and she tells him about the televised performance that night. He is determined to play Duran at the party and make it back to the club. But how?
Costume appreciation break. Wowza! Some of Travilla’s most famous costumes clothed Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), and you can see in this dress how good he was at “bombshell” gowns.
Meanwhile, the real Duran arrives at the party, but fortunately he catches on to the game immediately.
And when Jack slips away for the television performance (quite easily, in fact), Duran puts on a tuxedo and joins the party. He even watches Jack’s number, a horrible puppet thing, with some guests. It doesn’t make a ton of sense that Jack would do this number when the whole point of the TV broadcast was to show off his killer Duran impression. But I guess they can’t show us (the movie audience) the same “New Romance” song twice.
You can watch it here. Oddly enough, this became one of Kaye’s most popular songs!
Back at the villa, Duran tells his business partners that he wasn’t able to get the money in London, so the company is still in a very precarious situation. And Periton knows it. All evening, he tries to talk with Duran about the deal, and sometimes he gets the real Duran. But when Jack returns to finish his impersonation at the party, he gets pulled into the Periton conferences, too. It’s all very confusing and silly.
But all of the misunderstandings and mistaken identities never last long enough to create tension, or much humor. Before anything can actually happen, the real Duran steps in, or someone realizes it’s actually Jack, or the plot just switches gears entirely. So you never get too invested.
Fortunately, Jack’s cluelessness in the conversations with Duran actually works in the Captain’s favor. Periton assumes that Duran is being vague and noncommittal because he has a bigger deal in the works, so Periton eventually offers huge amounts of money for the planes. The deal is back on! But the real Duran has no idea what happened.
Once the Periton business is concluded, Jack goes home and Duran turns his attention to Lili. He doesn’t want her to know that it is really him, so he romances her as Jack pretending to be Duran.
Then the next morning he freaks out because she responded to his advances. Idiot. He is devastated because he thinks she thought she was kissing Jack. But she knew it was her husband all along, and she is thrilled that he finally showed some interest in her.
Duran has to know the truth, so he calls Lili and apologizes for not getting home last night. Now she freaks out. She really did think it was Duran! So now he feels better because Lili thought it was him, but she is devastated because she thinks she spent the night with Jack.
So she changes her feathery bed jacket for a satiny robe (as one does) and frets. It’s a mean trick by Duran. Also, double standard much? Duran openly flaunts his many mistresses in front of the world, but everyone freaks out because Lili might have inadvertently spent the night with Jack.
Fun fact: this plotline caused some problems with the Production Code Administration. The PCA actually rejected the screenplay because “the last part of the story…seems to be based in large measure on the suspicion of illicit relationships between the various characters.” But the censors approved a later draft.
A bit later, Jack comes back to the villa and runs into Lili. They talk at cross purposes for a while until the truth comes out. Jack did indeed go home last night, so now Lili knows that she didn’t accidentally cheat on her husband.
Meanwhile, Periton brings Duran a 30 billion franc check for the airplanes, thus saving the business and wrapping up that plotline.
Then Duran returns to the villa to explain everything to Lili. But he runs into Jack, who tells Duran to quit playing the field and concentrate on Lili. It’s delightful to have two Danny Kayes in one scene!
Cut to the club where Jack and Colette perform a new number about preferring movies with unequivocally happy endings. It’s called “Happy Ending,” and reminds me of the “Choreography” parody in White Christmas (1954), though it’s about movie plots, not modern dance.
The lyrics are great, and you can imagine Sylvia Fine thinking about the latest bleak, ambiguous film noir as she wrote it!
A besotted Lili and Duran watch from the audience, making it a “happy ending” all around! Hurray!
On the Riviera was in production September 18 to mid-December 1950, with a few additional scenes filmed in February. It premiered on May 23, 1951.
Bosley Crowther was unimpressed, writing in The New York Times that, “…regardless of Mr. Kay’s penchant for dual (or even multiple) roles and for Twentieth Century-Fox’s economy, something better could certainly have been found for this brilliant comedian’s performance than this hackneyed and unexciting tale.”
He continues with this criticism:
Kaye wrestles bravely—and a little too gravely, much of the time—with the roles of the night-club entertainer and a famous aviation financier. He acts the limp comedy of errors as though he were not aware that the plot is too mixed up to follow and isn’t very funny anyhow…Gene Tierney looks better in new garments than the old story looks upon her. And Corinne Calvet is pretty but neglected as the night-club entertainer’s running mate.
Harrison’s Reports was far more positive, calling the film a “highly entertaining blend of comedy, music and dancing, put over in a way that should make it a top box-office attraction…if enough pictures of this caliber could be made, the motion picture industry could afford to laugh at television.” And although the movie is “slightly sophisticated in parts, nothing objectionable is shown.” Whew!
Variety praised the film, too. It is “an elegant package of entertainment, providing Danny Kaye with his brightest screen vehicle in some time. It is a saucy sophisticated box office offering that should have an easy time at the ticket windows…”
The review concluded that “Kaye’s talented antics, the snappy songs and production numbers, and the beautiful girls are wrapped up in a Technicolor coating that shows off the picture as top escapist film fare…”
Fortunately for Fox, audiences agreed more with Variety and Harrison’s Reports than The New York Times, and On the Riviera became the 22nd highest grossing movie of 1951 with $2.5 million in box office. (The top three were David and Bathsheba with $7 million, Showboat with $5.2 million, and An American in Paris with $4.5 million.)
On the Riviera was nominated for Best Art Direction (Color) and Best Music (Scoring of a Musical Picture), but it lost both awards to An American in Paris. But Kaye won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy, beating Gene Kelly for An American in Paris and Bing Crosby for Here Comes the Groom.