Tuesday, February 2

Good 40s Films: The Dolly Sisters

1945 Musical Biography
From 20th Century Fox
Directed by Irving Cummings

Betty Grable
John Payne
June Haver
S. Z. Sakall
Reginald Gardiner
Frank Latimore
Gene Sheldon
Trudy Marshall

No tribute to the 1940s would be complete without including a film starring that decade's top box office star, Betty Grable.  20th Century Fox had a great deal wrapped up in Grable and they kept her working as much as they could.   Her films, by and large, were carbon copies of all her other films.  She did a couple of worthy dramas in the early 40s as well but her musicals were her bread and butter.  One of the best we're giving some attention to now.

The Dolly Sisters is a fictionalized account of a popular sister act from the 1910s and 1920s.  There are those who call it highly fictionalized.  I never found that to be the case but I'll go for partly fictionalized.  The real sisters, Jenny and Rosie, were twin Hungarians who arrived in The Big Apple and in no time were singing and dancing in vaudeville and wowing Broadway.  Aside from their talents, they were known for their glamour, both on the stage and off.  The public on two continents couldn't get enough of them.  After WWI was over, the sisters moved to France and became more celebrated for their regular visits to the gambling palaces on the continent and for being arm candy to some of Europe's rich, famous and titled.

The real Dolly sisters

The film neglects to cover the fact that Rosie (Haver) was married three times instead of the one they mention and that Jenny (Grable) was married twice instead of the one (involving Payne) or that she committed suicide after she moved to Hollywood.  And of course there's the issue that Grable and Haver were blondes (and boy is that played up in the film) while the real Dollys were brunettes and twins.  The twin situation is never addressed in the film but one could believe the actresses were sisters. 

The colorful film is a beauty to behold... gowns, hair, sets, attitude.  There are lavish production numbers.  Not only are there 10 songs to enjoy but good songs at that.  At the top of the list is I'm Always Chasing Rainbows which is written in the film by Payne's character, Harry Fox, a real person, but not part of the duo that actually wrote it.  It is used to propel Fox to the bigtime, a status he felt he needed to win Jenny.  Also featured is I Can't Begin to Tell You, one of those oldies that I adore, sung at various times by all three leads.

We begin with the sisters as children who are already musically talented.  Before they make it as bona fide stars, they meet Harry Fox and while Rosie doesn't particularly care for him, Jenny is over the moon.  Harry is on the cusp of making it big and wants Jenny to join him as a song and dance team.  Here is one of the changes from the truth... in real life, that is exactly what happened.  The film would keep the sisters together.

Rosie & Jenny about to sing for Oscar Hammerstein

Still, Harry is in their lives and eventually he and Jenny marry.  Shortly thereafter is when the sisters are invited to France to play an engagement at Les Folies Bergere and Harry joins the military.  The distance results in a divorce.  In real life their relationship was over but in the film they are reunited professionally (after Jenny is involved in a horrific car crash) and we are given the impression they will be back together personally as well.  That reunion happens backstage at a benefit and ends up with Harry and the sisters singing I Can't Begin to Tell You.  I always get a little misty-eyed.  Don't tell. 

Movies are all about illusion but moviemaking is sometimes like a war zone.  Grable was always said to be a great coworker.  She got along with everyone, was patient, didn't pull rank, had no star tantrums.  She was seemingly as popular with coworkers as she was with the public.  But it was a whole different story here.  She intensely disliked June Haver. 

Grable had been in a slump.  She hadn't been enjoying making movies of late.  More to the point perhaps was that she was feeling insecure.  At the same time she had been a top pinup girl for the boys overseas but the war was ending (and would be over by the time of the film's release) and she was anxious about losing her popularity.

Additionally all studios usually had someone waiting in the wings to usurp a star's place.  Grable, it's been said, had noticed Haver around the lot and wondered who she was.  It didn't help that Haver was 10 years younger.  Not the best way to start a new project.

When Grable was offered The Dolly Sisters, she was immensely pleased that she would be costarring with her old pal, John Payne, for the fourth (and last) time.  She was giddy about the rumors that Alice Faye might be playing her sister.  Both actresses and Payne had a big hit five years earlier with Tin Pan Alley and Grable hoped that magic would happen again.  She so wanted some magic.  But Faye, in a bitter fight with Fox honcho, Darryl Zanuck, had walked out on her contract and Grable was in a bad mood there would be no magic.

Betty (l) and June making nice-nice

The movie was produced by George Jessel and it was he who insisted on Haver not only being hired but instructed everyone that she was to get the star treatment.  That made Grable doubly nervous and crabby.  When the two finished a scene, particularly a musical one, Haver would often confer with director Irving Cummings where Grable couldn't hear.  Haver would sometimes want something changed and when Cummings would occasionally allow it, Grable took him on too.  Cummings, who had worked successfully with Grable three times before, said he would never work with her again.  Grable, who called Haver a hypocrite, popped when Haver quoted biblical passages to Grable. 

Whatever was wrong between the two and contrary to what Grable may have thought, what I saw on that screen was pure magic.  One would be hard-pressed to find more loving sisters onscreen or actresses who went through their paces in such remarkable tandem.  See?  It really is illusion.

Haver went on to star in 16 films.  She quit movies to become a nun and quit that, as well, a short time later.  Marrying Fred MacMurray, she was swathed in such financial security that she never needed to put up with any Betty Grables again.

I said this in a separate piece on him, but let's say again that I loved films that featured a singing John Payne.  I've seen them all and this is one of his best.  Frankly, it is the best thing Haver ever did and I've already said it was one of Grable's best.

In its day, MGM was certainly the royalty of musicals.  But 20th Century Fox has nothing to hang its head over when it comes to producing musicals.  I thought Grable flicks were a hoot particularly when one consider they were all made to raise the spirits of a country at war. 

If you're a lover of those old musicals and haven't seen this one, may I recommend?  It's one of the best.

Next posting:
Movie review


  1. I certainly saw this movie, because I almost jumped on the chair when you mentioned I Can't Begin To Tell You ( how much You mean to me...). Actually I think I saw all the musicals that came to Italy after the war, mostly if they were in color and if Gable was the star. I am also glad to clear my mind if John Payne really could sing. Now I'm glad He could. I love At Last which he sang in Sunvalley Serenade. Just one question: I know she was far from being beautiful, far from being a good singer, far from being a good dancer but I enjoyed her a lot. I'm speaking of Carmen Miranda. Will you say something on her some day? Arrivederci.

  2. maybe you don't believe it but I m a very regular reader of your blog :) I hope you'll make a post about June Haver and Alice Faye! Keep going with that wonderful blog

  3. So glad you're a regular reader and it can certainly be said you're why i am doing this. Alice Faye is scheduled for my section on the 30s (coming up when the 70s are thru) and while I had no plans to post anything on June Haver, I'll do one on her for you when I get to the 50s. Thanks so much for writing. Touch base any time you feel like it.