Awix is the expert. For ridiculous opinions on cinema, you get me.
No, No. . . Not the 'Blue Danube'. . .
Subscribing to streaming services is a great blessing, especially if you ignore the suggestions made by the service in question. No, I don't want to watch Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. It's a really bad film. What else have you got? Aha, here's an intriguing blast from the past, curiously misplaced under 'musicals'. . .
Film: Salome, Where She Danced
Starring: Yvonne de Carlo and other people who should've known better.
Written by: Laurence Stallings, holder of the Croix de Guerre, Silver Star, and a Photoplay Gold Medal. (He really should've known better.)
Directed by: Charles Lamont, prolific director responsible for Ma and Pa Kettle movies and at least one starring Francis, the Talking Mule.
Why I Watched This Film: Yvonne de Carlo. The title's promise: that there would be a hootchy-kootchy dance in there somewhere. In this respect, the film did not disappoint.
You do not watch Salome, Where She Danced. You live it. Therefore, I shall try to recreate the experience of an hour and a half in a far, strange country. Think the Coen Brothers, without their musical taste. There. Let the games begin.
Oh, I Wish This Film Wasn't in the Land of Cotton. . .
The description said this film was loosely based on the life of Lola Montez. Define 'loosely'. It also speaks, this description, of Austro-Hungarian intrigue and the Wild West. So imagine the shock when the opening music swells up, playing Dixie. What the. . . ?
Why are we at Appomattox? And why is Robert E Lee in this picture? Oh, so we can meet some of the main players. Jim Steed (Rod Cameron, deceptively billed as the leading man), hard-bitten, wisecracking reporter for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper1, is covering the surrender that ends the Civil War. Count von Bohlen (Albert Dekker, from an old Dutch New York family) is a Prussian observer. Why is he so arrogant? Oh, it's 1945. Prussians=Nazis in Pickelhauben. We don't like von Bohlen: he must be a Bad Guy. We're not so sure about Cleve Blunt (David Bruce). Blunt is gorgeous and blond, but he's full of it. He tells General Lee that no, he isn't going to go home to his Virginia plantation and build a lasting peace. He's going to go West, and keep fighting. He swaggers away from this sentimental setting of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.
Nobody in this scene remotely attempts a Southern accent. This is a mercy. Ask people in Gaffney, South Carolina about Kevin Spacey. David Bruce was from Kankakee, Illinois. (Not in the South, Brits.)
Next Stop, Berlin
I'm still waiting for Yvonne de Carlo. Here she is, in Berlin. It's the late 1860s, if you haven't been keeping up. Yvonne plays Anna Marie, no last name. She's on stage before a glittering crowd that includes Count von Bohlen (him, again) and Otto von Bismarck. Somebody passes a bad herring joke. Then, oh horror, Yvonne begins to dance. No, not the hootchy-kootchy. She's in a white tutu, think Swan Lake. But she's not dancing Swan Lake. Oh, no. This is much, much worse. She's dancing to the 'Blue Danube'. This is a very recognisable tune, and will clue the audience in that Culture is taking place.
Yvonne is not a prima ballerina. She is a chorus dancer. She executes this parody of a ballet about how you'd expect her to. The result is highly interesting, but Anna Pavlova would have had nothing to worry about.
Jim Steed is also in the audience. He's there to try to find out when the Prussians (grr) plan to invade Austria. Steed concocts a rather tacky plan, even by WW2 standards: get Anna Marie to vamp von Bohlen over a cozy dinner, and then give the info to Steed. She's also free to pass the info onto her bf, an Austro-Hungarian prince. (Romancing the prince was why Anna Marie was in exile in boring old Berlin, rather than living it up in sumptuous Vienna.) They pull this plan off, fortunately without any more music.
Cut to the Austrian front the following day: yes, the Prussians have invaded. The prince lies dead in a stream. Steed falls off his. . . er, horse. We're sure the horse did this on purpose, to get rid of him. Steed finds the prince's body and rifles his pockets, because he's a reporter. He discovers Anna Marie's incriminating letters about troop movements – remarkable for their volume, considering this all happened yesterday – and an astoundingly ugly locket with her picture. It's a musical locket. Steed opens it. . . .no, no, don't. . . it plays. . . the 'Blue Danube'.
Von Bohlen shows up and makes threats. Steed makes counterthreats: if von Bohlen turns Anna in, Steed will expose his intelligence failure. Exit Steed with locket and letters, exit von Bohlen, muttering in fake Teutonic.
Steed hustles Anna Marie and her pianist Professor Max (J Edward Bromberg, born Timisoara, Romania) off to a waiting ship. Steed has a new plan: go to San Francisco and conquer the Gold Coast with the woman he's got a crush on. But first, they have to take the ship to Galveston. Oh, look it up on the map, lazybones. Galveston is on the Texas coast. If they land there from Europe, they can take the stage to the West Coast. But they'll have to go through Arizona. . . oh, no, there is worse to come. . .
Some (Totally Unnecessary) Information About Salome, Where She Danced, Arizona
Let us pause the film here for some unnecessary background information.
There is actually a town called Salome in Arizona, population 1690. According to Wikipedia, it's pronounced 'suh-LOOM'. The town's original name was Salome, Where She Danced. The real reason for this is supposedly because the town's founder, a comic writer named Dick Wick Hall, made it up. He claimed it was named after his friend's wife, Grace Salome Pratt. She took off her shoes and danced on the hot sand. Dick Wick Hall was also the proprietor of the Laughing Gas Service Station and owner of the world's largest golf course – 40 miles and look out for the gila monsters.
This movie, such as it is, started life as the film version of a short story by one Howard J Phillips. The story, a Western, imagined a scenario involving a Mexican hootchy-kootchy dancer named Salome and some outlaws. Salome danced to keep the outlaws distracted while the townspeople armed themselves for defence. The town of Drinkmens Wells was renamed in her honour.
All of which explains what goes on next in this film. See, it's the core of the story. The rest of it probably just happened. You know, the way scripts do.
Back to the Film
Okay, where were they? Oh, yeah. In Drinkmens Wells, Arizona. Anna Marie and Max are tired of bouncing around in the stagecoach. They feel the United States is unnecessarily large. They stop in this mining town and get a room at the hostelry of Madam Europe (Marjorie Rambeau, a truly awesome veteran stage actor who was actually born in San Francisco in 1889). Naturally, Madam Europe is a becalmed thespian whose troupe ran out of cash in Drinkmens Wells ages ago. And of course she wants to help her fellow artistes. They arrange a show starring Madam Europe and Anna Marie. The show? Salome. Thank goodness. For a minute, I was afraid they were going to mention the dreaded Danube.
The show's a hit with the rough miners. Okay, they are less than kind when Madam Europe sings 'I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls', although I thought she was pretty good considering the material. But the hootchy-kootchy (finally!) was riveting. Timeless. A triumph of shimmying. This was almost the best scene in the movie.
Unfortunately, in the middle of her dance, Anna Marie is interrupted. Rudely. By Cleve Blunt. Remember him? He's turned bushwhacker, like Jesse James, only with a bigger crowd of followers and less class. Cleve's gang steal all the money and run off with the lead chorine, Anna Marie.
Anna Marie is a pro. She's dealt with Cleve's type before. She talks softly to him at the campsite, about home, and longing, and she sings to him. . . and oh, no, say it isn't so, what does she sing?
O Tannenbaum. I was not prepared for O Tannenbaum, I confess. Out of the blue like that. No warning. Just, Wie grün sind deine Blätter. Okay. It beats Die Wacht am Rhein. But oh, holy Hannah. Anyway, she's got Cleve, who was raised on Walter Scott novels. He returns the chanteuse AND the money before the posse can even form. And he announces he's going straight. . . to San Francisco with them. Steed's not happy, but Anna Marie's in love with Cleve, because Cleve looks and acts so much like that other relic of the 15th Century, her long-lost Austrian prince. Off they all go to. . .
San Francisco, Where Count Dimitrioff Shoots a Feather
Okay, this section of the film contains my favourite part. Arriving in glitzy San Francisco, our troupe decide they need to attract a powerful patron to bankroll their next performance. What do they use as bait? Anna Marie, who's used to it by now. They dress up in their best duds and head for a high-toned saloon. Where they run into, accidentally on purpose, Count Dimitrioff (Walter Slezak, born in Vienna if you're keeping score), the richest Nabob (that's a Thing) on the Gold Coast. Dimitrioff is smitten, because. . . Yvonne de Carlo. So smitten is Count Dimitrioff that he immediately purchases a rare Hat Feather from a passing prospector, who just strolls by with the thing, you see, and the Count pays $2000 for it, cash in hand and keep the $500 change.
What happens next makes film history.
Count Dimitrioff is Russian. He is impetuous. And Anna Marie, though dressed to the nines, is wearing a cheap Hat Feather. So Dimitrioff whips out a pistol and shoots the feather off her hat. It's priceless. It's classic.
I suspect that at this point in the script, Laurence Stallings had had enough. He probably just gave in to the madness and thought, 'If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Oh, why not?' And so there we were, totally in the moment. Slezak shooting the feather. De Carlo with an amazed look on her face. A sublimely ridiculous moment. And thankfully, nobody played the Blue Danube.
Unfortunately, Anna Marie does sing that ditty later. (Who knew it had lyrics? Not Johann Strauss, I'll bet.) They put on a show. Cleve pouts a lot and talks about his nostalgia for Dixie and other politically incorrect things that happened in Virginia. Cleve also attempts to turn his outlaws into the Pirates of San Francisco. No, seriously: they try to take over a Chinese ship full of jade and silk and stuffz, only to be foiled by the sage and kindly Dr Ling (Abner Biberman of Milwaukee). So now they've added an ethnic casting crime to their list of misdeeds.
Finally, Dimitrioff, Ling, and Steed decide to be the grownups and end this farce. They trick Anna Marie into chasing the stagecoach Cleve has just stolen (don't ask), and lock the two lovebirds into it and send them off to Old Virginia, much to everybody's relief. Steed is left staring bemusedly at his keepsake, the locket, which he opens. . . and I wish he wouldn't. . . so we end up with 'The Blue Danube' again.
This movie was an amazing experience. Somewhere between an epiphany and getting lost in a badly-organised museum. If you have an hour and a half to kill sometime, look it up in your streaming services' library. Just don't blame me if 'The Blue Danube' gets stuck in your head.