Wednesday, July 31, 2013

No Visible Wings!

There is a funny moment near the end of a delightful movie I saw recently, a largely-forgotten flop of a film from 1945, and shot in glorious Technicolor -- Yolanda and the Thief.

Mr. Candle, played by Leo Ames, has just put a cigar in his mouth (above) and told the two crooks sitting across from him on the train that instead of being extradited to the United States and certain prison sentences, they are going to escape -- the train will come upon a bridge washed away by a rainstorm in a few moments, and will start to go back to where they boarded. They are going to escape, says Mr. Candle, with utter confidence.

The train suddenly halts. And begins to travel in reverse. The criminals' eyes widen.

"How the hell do you know that?" they ask. "Who do you work for? The Feds?"

The moment is delicious. Mr. Candle drags on his unlit cigar, and, deep voice, says:

"No. I work... for a higher power..."

And that unlit cigar suddenly ignites!

The look on the faces of con men Frank Morgan and Fred Astaire (above) is priceless.

Yolanda and the Thief is a gem, though it was a major flop when released. It's a simple tale of ditzy girl (Yolanda, played by Lucille Bremer) inheriting a family fortune in a fictional South American country called Patria.

Overwhelmed by the scale of her fortune, she prays to God for a guardian angel. By chance, con men Astaire and Morgan, on the run from justice in the U.S., hear her prayer, and answer it by convincing Yolanda that Astaire is her guardian angel, in order to rip off the inheritance.

There is a 15-minute long dance sequence in the middle, set in a surreal, Dali-esque landscape, where Astaire faces a set of challenges and strange characters as he seems to switch his affections from Yolanda's money to the girl herself.
(When I say 'Dali-esque', I mean that the landscape is so weird-vast-empty-plains and weird melting-things-with-dead-trees that I fully expected Dali to be somewhere in the credits, but he's not; perhaps a case of imitation as sincerest form of flattery?)
One of the odder moments is another visual gag about smoking, where Astaire is asked during his dream for a cigarette, and then for a light for the cigarette, and then for another...and another... and another (see below). The smoking man becomes a sort of many-armed deity of fate.

As they plot and scheme, another supposed crook is also sniffing around -- Mr. Candle (Ames). The twist in the tale, without really spoiling the ending, is of course that it's Candle who is the real guardian angel all along.

It's easy to see why the movie was a flop, if one imagines the mood of the U.S. populace in late 1945. With shiploads of returning military personnel arriving home from the world so recently at war, and with the U.S. suddenly propelled to a position of utter dominance in the world, thanks not least to the invention and use of the atom bomb, Yolanda and the Thief must have seemed like just the wrong kind of frivolous escapism.

Astaire had been saying he was going to retire for a while, and the poor box office for Yolanda and the Thief convinced him to take it easy. He made only one more movie, then announced his retirement... But two years after that, he came dancing back out of taking it easy.

Bremer was given mostly negative reviews for her role as Yolanda, (and she really was terribly... ditzy) and her acting career foundered. But who cares?! Certainly she did not, because soon after, she married the son of the President of Mexico! She opened a luxury spa in Mexico with her new husband, and with her kind of Hollywood contacts... she had no need of a guardian angel in real life.