20th Century Fox obviously spent much of the '40s and '50s trying to find ever-more obscure performers and songwriters from Ye Olden Days to turn into splashy musicals. That's the only explanation to be had for the existence of 1953's The I Don't Care Girl, a tuneful biography of vaudeville's Eva Tanguay (Eva who?) that takes a fanciful look at the Tin Pan Alley period. The movie takes on a strange, flashback-filled structure to tell its historically suspicious story, but it has a few genuinely exciting numbers tailor-made for its perky star, Mitzi Gaynor.
Now out as part of Fox's made-to-order Cinema Archives DVD line, The I Don't Care Girl sheds a little light on the vaudeville era and the popularity of Eva Tanguay (1878-1947), a vivacious dancer and singer known as "The I Don't Care Girl" for her signature song. Those seeking a straightforward biography might best use their time consulting Tanguay's Wikipedia page, however. In true Fox style, this film chucks nearly all semblance of history-telling in favor of nostalgic escapism.
Despite everything, The I Don't Care Girl actually takes on a unique storytelling approach. The plot is framed around present-day Hollywood and the difficulties in making a film about someone who was a dusty relic of an earlier time (that was the impression I got, at least). Making things even more meta is the fact that the film's producer, George Jessel, plays himself as the producer of this film-within-a-film. On the 20th Century Fox backlot, we find Jessel in his office, fretting that he can't get the picture going without crucial information on Tanguay's personal life (as if that stopped anyone). He dispatches a pair of underlings on a fact-finding mission, only to find that an older gentleman who had been a frequent visitor to Jessel's office was once Tanguay's partner in her vaudeville act. Ed McCoy (David Wayne) gives them the scoop on the lively, lusty Eva as she is seen causing a stir onstage with her non-demure singing and dancing. She falls in love with another entertainer, baritone Larry Woods (Bob Graham), then loses him to a sultry singer (Hazel Brooks), ultimately becoming the toast of Broadway in Flo Ziegfeld's legendary Follies. Jessel and company seem pretty satisfied with McCoy's input until they consult with Eva's onetime pianist, Charles Bennett (Oscar Levant). Bennett informs the men that McCoy's story is full of hogwash, which launches the film into another extended flashback in which the supposedly real, no foolin' this time we mean it Eva Tanguay is revealed.
The I Don't Care Girl served as an adequate vehicle for the über-perky Mitzi Gaynor, whom Fox attempted to make into a headliner during the wilderness years when the studio lacked a top-flight female star (post-Betty Grable, pre-Marilyn Monroe). Gaynor gives an enjoyable, lively performance, but the film seems too messy and scattershot for its own good. Predictably, it screws up royally in recreating the feel of vaudeville and the 1910s. The filmmakers accurately depict the basic idea of vaudeville, a crazy mish mash of opera singing, ethnic comedy, drama readings and grab-'em-by-the-collars song and dance. The jazzy arrangements, fashions, and slangy dialogue are completely wrong, however. They do get one thing about Eva Tanguay right, however, and that comes during Gaynor's first performance of the song "I Don't Care." Tanguay's manic, energy-infused performing style came as a shocking departure from the norm, at a time when female singers were expected to stand stock still and convey emotion through their voice alone. Gaynor, director Lloyd Bacon (42nd Street), and choreographer Jack Cole stage it closely to how it could have been in the 1910s. That sequence has some historic merit, but it's smothered over by the film's odd, flashback-filled structure and overproduced numbers such as a reprise of "I Don't Care" with hepcat arrangement, stark yellow sets, and chorus men dressed as gangsters. These over-the-top numbers are totally out of character for the vaudeville-era biopic format, but they're weirdly fascinating nonetheless (Jack Cole and Mitzi were a powerful team-up, but this wasn't the right vehicle for them).
Casting-wise, it's a mixed bag. Mitzi dazzles, yet most of the men in her life are blah (especially the bland Bob Graham). George Jessel is simply an unpleasant ham. Oscar Levant delivers his usual sardonic timing to an underwritten character - he's at his best when tickling the ivories in a couple of excellent scenes (Levant was an accomplished concert pianist, a side of him that rarely got shown onscreen).
These Fox m.o.d.s can be maddeningly inconsistent. Since The I Don't Care Girl came out eight months before Fox dove into widescreen with The Robe, the 4:3 picture is presented on disc with no cropping. The print is dark and grainy, however, and there wasn't any effort made in brightening the color or cleaning up the dusty (yet decent looking) source print.
The mono soundtrack used here is a serviceable job which shows its age. Musical sequences can get a little distorted, but the dialogue is all right within the limitations of the source print. No subtitles on this no-frills release.
None. As per other Fox Cinema Archives discs, chapter stops are placed every ten minutes in the film.
Hey look, it's another nostalgic Fox musical in the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mold! The disjointed, scattershot structure of 1953's The I Don't Care Girl doesn't make a whole lot of sense in retelling the life of vaudeville star Eva Tanguay, however. It's a diverting watch for the vaudeville setting and the piano stylings of Oscar Levant (he plays beautifully). Pert Mitzi Gaynor impresses in some kitschy, overblown numbers. Rent It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist and sometime writer who lives in sunny (and usually too hot) Phoenix, Arizona. Among his loves are oranges, going barefoot and blonde 1930s movie comedienne Joyce Compton. Since 2000, he has been scribbling away at Pop Culture weblog Scrubbles.net. One can also follow him on Twitter @4colorcowboy.