Busy 1950 musical Wabash Avenue accurately represents 20th Century Fox's "hey, it works, let's do it over and over" picture-making philosophy. While this Technicolor backstager doesn't hold any surprises, this Gay '90s escapism counts as a pleasant if shrill late-period vehicle for the studio's vivacious cash cow, Betty Grable. If it all seems incredibly familiar, Wabash Avenue repeats the plot of one of Grable's own singing, dancing flicks from just seven years prior - Coney Island. No wonder Grable spends most of the film being ticked off.
As in Coney Island, Grable plays a burlesque singer-hoofer in a disreputable dive who becomes a classy entertainer with the help of a charming cad. The cad in question is an itinerant gambler named Andy Clark, played by Victor Mature. As the film opens, Grable's Ruby Summers is the star attraction at a bustling saloon run by her frustrated suitor Mike Stanley (Phil Harris), Andy's old friend. When Andy discovers that Mike cheated him out of half-interest in the club, he arrives at the saloon to settle the score and move the abrasive, headstrong Ruby into a more respectable venue. Along with his British pal Eddie (Reginald Gardner), Andy schemes to make Mike believe that he inadvertently killed one of the saloon's regular customers, the perpetually soused Harrigan (James Barton). Eventually, Andy and Mike team up to have Ruby perform at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair in a more demure act that proves to be a smashing success. In a development that shocks absolutely no one, Ruby also winds up falling for Andy and getting engaged to him. The trio's aspirations all appear to go swimmingly, until Mike stumbles across proof that he and Ruby were conned.
Wabash Avenue gave audiences exactly what they were looking for (surprisingly, it ended up among the top ten biggest box office draws of 1950), but seeing it today reveals it to be a chaotic, weirdly over-plotted and messy affair. It's admittedly kind of cool that they endeavored to make the petticoats-'n-beer setting gritty and realistic (director Henry Koster stages many scenes with activity bustling all around, a nice touch), yet it's in the service of a script that couldn't possibly be any more dull and predictable. In a change from Coney Island, the musical numbers are all new. Grable performs them with verve in costumes that show off her famous legs, but the songs themselves are shrill, forgettable and not useful to the plot (it speaks volumes that Grable's big musical moment is a Scandinavian-kitsch monstrosity with Betty in braids). Grable seems distracted and icy throughout, which contrasts with the snaky appeal of Victor Mature and the genial, overlooked Phil Harris. Best known as the voice of Baloo the bear in Disney's The Jungle Book, Harris plays a loveable heel in the same manner as on the long-running radio program he starred in with Alice Faye - his wife and Grable's main competition at the studio. Did Fox ever consider casting Faye as Ruby? It surely would have made for a more diverting project with those two, who never appeared in a film together.
For those seeking brainless '50s-on-'90s nostalgia, Wabash Avenue is a decent yet frustrating watch. The brief appearance of Margaret Hamilton (The Wizard of Oz) as a holier-than-thou Temperance movement activist is a good example of how mishandled it is. The actress is a riot when her uptight character helps provoke a massive barroom brawl at the saloon and becomes a wild woman, but she's gone too soon and we're left with cheerless Betty and her trivial concerns.
Fox tends to be all over the place on these m.o.d.s. For Wabash Avenue, a dark and discolored transfer was used on a decent-looking print. The film sports a few instances of white specks, but it actually has a lot more sharpness than usual (it just seems way too murky). The color is keyed towards the yellow end of the spectrum, leaving the cast looking as if they've all got spray-on tans.
Just the film's original mono soundtrack here, generally decent yet prone to hiss and distortion during musical numbers and the many scenes with loud dialogue. No subtitles.
None. As with other Fox Cinema Archive discs, chapter stops are inserted every ten minutes in the film.
Sitting through the shrill, boring Fox musical Wabash Avenue is the kind of joyless experience that would please hardcore Betty Grable fans and no one else. Victor Mature and Phil Harris offer Grable some good support to this remake of Grable's Coney Island, but why go for a smudged-up carbon copy when the original is available? Skip It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.