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DVD SAVANT

Belles on Their Toes


Belles on Their Toes
Fox Home Entertainment
1952 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 89 min. / Street Date March 16, 2004 / 14.98
Starring Jeanne Crain, Myrna Loy, Debra Paget, Jeffrey Hunter, Edward Arnold, Hoagy Carmichael, Barbara Bates, Robert Arthur
Cinematography Arthur E. Arling
Production Designer
Art Direction Leland Fuller, Lyle Wheeler
Film Editor Robert Fritch
Original Music Cyril J. Mockridge
Written by Phoebe and Henry Ephron from the book by Frank B. Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey
Produced by Samuel G. Engel
Directed by Henry Levin

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The success of Cheaper by the Dozen inspired this okay comedy about the further adventures of the Gilbreth family. Neatly turning around his nasty intellectual persona (from Laura and The Dark Corner) with family films like the then-popular but now forgotten Sitting Pretty, Clifton Webb passed away at the end of the original show, leaving this sequel with the interesting efforts of his widow (Myrna Loy) to be hired as an industrial engineer and thus keep her family together.

It all prefigures the television sitcom, mining the easy chuckles to be had in a houseful of kids. It's pleasant, fairly progressive, and, as three out of three reviews I have read say identically, "Good clean fun."

Synopsis:

The 1920s. On her own with a brood of kids stretching from college-aged Ann (Jeanne Crain) to tiny Jane, Mrs. Lillian Gilbreth struggles to make ends meet and keep relatives from breaking up the family. She finally succeeds when factory owner Sam Harper (Edward Arnold) hires her to teach engineering to his employees. Several subplots germinate among the kids. Ernestine (Barbara Bates) is attracted to college goon Al Lynch (Martin Milner) but her romance is sabotaged by the scamps of the family. Frank Gilbreth (Robert Arthur) slowly takes on the mantle of elder male. Singer and dancer Martha (Debra Paget) learns to like being a girl. Faithful family cook and helper Thomas Bracken (Hoagy Carmichael) keeps trying to make liquor in the basement. And Ann finds herself in a bind when handsome doctor Grayson (Jeffrey Hunter) proposes, just as it looks like her family needs her to stay at home.

Cheaper by the Dozen was a true story seen through a nostalgic, "Life with Father" haze. Like the best of the family saga comedies, it had a sting of reality about it, acknowledging that tragedy can strike at any time. Belles on their Toes continues this thread but gets a little more homogenized along the way. Life is beautiful in Technicolor and the only real problem faced by American families is how to earn enough money to make it all work. Out of 12 kids there's not a one who isn't sublimely happy or at least agreeable enough to have a civilized response to any social demand made on them. This is how Americans used to like their family comedies, and the "single parent copes with a ton o' kids" format has proved successful in everything from Please Don't Eat the Daisies to The Sound of Music to Yours, Mine and Ours1

The key is making the family involved just as cute as pie. The small fry here aren't given much to do except follow their older siblings around and fill out the compositions on staircases and at the dinner table. (among them is precocious-looking Jimmy Hunt, who would become immortalized the next year in Invaders from Mars.) Most of them are unbilled, along with familiar faces like Robert Easton (as a hick from Atlanta) and major player Martin Milner ("I'll be seizin' ya!"). You can see why Milner would take the job even if he had to pay for the privilege - it's a great showcase.

Robert Arthur (Kirk Douglas' acolyte in Ace in the Hole) is the safe and sane eldest brother, and the namesake of the author of the original book. It must have been a close family for him to perceive all of these relationships, or maybe his sisters all confided in him later.

Part of the formula is music. It's the 1920s, nobody has a radio and everybody sings as social entertainment. Naturally, they sound like professionals and beautiful Debra Paget (looking great in her "impoverished" costumes) dances on the dock. She and Jeffrey Hunter share high billing as Fox hopefuls; although she got lots of work as Indian maidens (Broken Arrow) and South Sea maidens (Bird of Paradise) she didn't go as far as Hunter did, with his perfect blue eyes and disarming smile.

Myrna Loy has always been a charmer and segue'd into "mother" roles much more smoothly than many a top glamour star of the 30s. Considerable screen time is given to the interesting idea that she and her engineer husband had been a scientific team, but when he died, a woman engineer alone was an unemployable embarrassment. She shames an industrialist into giving her a chance and succeeds, although we never really see her at work. She turns out to be an efficiency expert, a work role often alotted to females, although probably not in the 1920s. There's a groundbreaking scene where she's refused admittance to a guild dinner where she was supposed to speak, when it turns out they thought she was a man and the club doesn't allow women. A "liberated" script would have Loy shame them all and prevail or at least extract satisfaction, but Belles on their Toes has her go off in a tizz and crack up her tin lizzie automobile. It's more than credible.

The film squanders the women's rights theme with a pointless bit where Edward Arnold publicizes Loy with a comic newsreel, showing her family being "efficient" by filming them at jerky high-speed.

The last act mines the not-too-convincing chestnut of having top-billed Jeanne Crain jeopardize her future happiness with hunky Hunter, to take care of her younger siblings. Hunter gets in some good jabs about giant, tight families like the Gilbreths locking out outsiders and keeping the eldest daughters as unpaid domestics. With a twist a bit too reminiscent of Meet Me in St. Louis, all is resolved at a gala dance. Hunter gets his bride, poor Edward Arnold gives up on his romantic ideas about Myrna Loy (fans would revolt at the dishonor to the Clifton Webb character) and all ends on a happy note. A flashback wraparound format concludes the show with a grey-haired Loy watching her youngest graduate from college, as if she's fulfilled her mission and can now die.

Belles on their Toes probably wouldn't have made a good 50s TV sitcom because of the stiff payroll and child labor laws - the biggest TV families had at most three kids. It is indeed "Good clean fun", and compared to the vile comedies that pass for Family entertainment now - the Cheaper by the Dozen remake included - it's charming enough.


Fox's DVD of Belles on their Toes has obviously come out as a marketing adjunct to the new remake. The Technicolor film only looks so-so on DVD because it was mastered from a composite color negative that has imperfections, mostly mismatches on the color matrices that make the picture look soft and occasionally introduce color fringing, as in the main titles where the black lettering is ringed with a green tint. None of it is so bad that'd you'd eject the disc, but it never looks as good as one of the rare digitally composited Tech restorations (wildly cost-prohibitive) or a well-preserved Eastman negative.

The audio is also a little crunchy and slightly muffled, and I'd guess the reason is a lack of a good source track. Perhaps the optical track of a print was all that was available. The packaging does say it was remastered in Stereo, however. There's an English mono and a Spanish mono on board as well.

The only extras are some trailers. The original Cheaper by the Dozen appears only in B&W. The cheesy photo on the back shows Debra Paget and Jeffrey Hunter posing in the flashy red car driven by Martin Milner in the movie. No image of Myrna Loy appears anywhere on the packaging.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Belles on Their Toes rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Good -
Sound: Good --
Supplements: trailers
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 14, 2004


Footnotes:

1. Yours, Mine and Ours makes me blanche every time. The last happy "togetherness" event in the film is when the Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda clan sends eldest son Tim Matheson away to fight in Vietnam!
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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