Danny Kaye's 1951 musical On the Riviera is pretty much your basic Prince and the Pauper comedy of errors. Director Walter Lang's film is actually an adaptation of the stage play The Red Cat, which had been made into a movie twice before this. So, there's no pretense here that this isn't well-worn ground. What On the Riviera has that previous versions did not is the charisma and elastic athleticism of one of cinema's finest comedians.
Kaye stars in two roles in the movie: the nightclub performer Jack Martin and the aviation playboy Capitaine Henri Duran. Jack is backed into a corner by the club's owner, who is insisting that the singer come up with something new and sensational or start looking for another job. Deciding to capitalize on the striking resemblance between himself and the Capitaine, Jack develops an act that recreates the pilot's around-the-world tour in song and dance. It's one of the more impressive numbers in the picture, colorfully highlighting the Capitaine's different stops and the women he met there. The music is written by Kaye's wife, Sylvia Fine, and it cleverly uses the various styles of the countries spotlighted to give the scene a special kick.
Jack debuts the new material at a dinner honoring the French hero, attended by Duran himself. Of course, the two fellow's wives also attend. Jack's is a cute dancer named Collette (Corinne Calvet), and Duran is attached to the long-suffering, sophisticated Lili (the lovely Gene Tierney). Though the two men never meet, they do encounter their respective spouses, whom they then try to woo. Things only get more complicated when the Capitaine, fearful of a business deal going south, jets to London, leaving his business partners to hire Jack to play the famous aviator at a party. From there, it's a pile-up of misunderstandings, based on who knows what and who knows whom.
While the tendency for such a plot might be to go overly zany, Lang (who also directed State Fair and Cheaper by the Dozen) knows enough to let Danny Kaye do his thing and stand back. Though he is supported by a fantastic cast, including many European character actors, it's really Kaye's show. He does, after all, play two parts, and he employs a light touch to differentiate between them. The split is mainly physical. The Capitaine has a stiffer posture and conducts himself with confidence, whereas Jack is looser, more of a goof. Kaye almost takes on a third role when he has to play Jack pretending to be Duran. Somehow he creates a composite of the two that is convincing as one man doing an impersonation of another, and yet makes it so we never have any doubt of which character he is supposed to be while we're watching him. It's quite impressive.
Next to Kaye, the other main stars are the colorful sets and beautiful costumes, which both work especially well in the song and dance numbers. These are combined most splendidly in Jack's nightclub performances, but Lang doesn't restrict them to the confines of what should be a much smaller stage. He opens up the set and lets Kaye go wide with it. In addition to the big number about Duran, "Rhythm of a New Romance," there is also a wonderful set-up called "Popo the Puppet." The song itself isn't a knock-out, but it's really just providing context for Kaye's rubbery performance as a marionette being tugged around on strings.
All in all, On the Riviera is little more than a frothy lark, but thanks to its impressive star power and its concise structure, it manages to be a delightful one.
The fullscreen (1.33:1) DVD transfer of On the Riviera has mostly excellent pigments and a clean surface. Occasionally, there is a stray pop or a blob of color, but these show up less than a handful of times. If you're watching this on an old-school square TV, you may experience some excess cropping, but I did not have the same problem when I saw it on a more rectangular screen.
Two English audio tracks, one in mono and one in stereo. These are very good, with nice levels and no extraneous sounds or hiss. There is also a Spanish mono mix, and subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.
There are many bonus features, included both on the DVD itself and as part of the packaging. The disc comes in a standard plastic case, but it's sheathed in a sturdy slipcase with a matte finish. Inside the box is a trifold insert with liner notes giving facts about On the Riviera, as well as an envelope with four postcard-size, sepia-toned reproductions of the original lobby cards for the film. (Why none of Gene Tierney?)
There are six DVD features, including a demonstration of the restoration process, the film's trailer, and five stills galleries. The galleries are broken up as such: Interactive Press Book, Advertisements, On the Set, Glamour Shots (publicity photos of the actors), and On With the Show (photos from the dance numbers).
"The Riviera Story: A Remarkable Impersonation" (10 minutes, 40 seconds) chronicles the development of the story on stage and in film, including comparisons between On the Riviera and the earlier film versions, Folies Bergè starring Maurice Chevalier and That Night in Rio with Don Ameche. The best part of this is how they take the same scenes and graft pieces of the three versions together to contrast the differences and similarities.
"A Portrait of Danny Kaye" (26:35) is a minibiography of the actor, featuring lots of personal photos and film footage and comprised of interviews with his daughter and his friends. Though we learn of his early life and film career, the most attention is paid to his other pursuits, such as working with UNICEF, becoming a pilot and a chef, and his dabbling in conducting symphonies.
Finally, "The Jack of Clubs: Choreographer Jack Cole" (9:50) introduces us to the man that put the spring in Kaye's step in On the Riviera. Cole is maybe most famous for working with Rita Hayworth and Marilyn Monroe on some of their best known screen performances, but this program also looks at his long-term working relationship with Gwen Verdon, who dances with Kaye in On the Riviera.
All of these features are culled from the same interviews, done exclusively for this DVD, and they are all very informative. All killer, no filler.
If you're looking for a good time in a classic Hollywood style, then On the Riviera comes easily Recommended. A musical of switched identities, the material is nothing new, but Danny Kaye brings an appealing freshness to his dual roles that is charming and delightful. Backed up by two lovely leading ladies, Gene Tierney and Corrine Calvet, Kaye is funny, romantic, and entertaining. Informative bonus features make this a quality DVD of a vintage light comedy.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.