The inconsequential 1942 movie Footlight Serenade had Betty Grable as a pert showgirl whose devotion to fiancee John Payne causes no end of frustration for an arrogant boxing champ, played by Victor Mature. Is it a carefree musical, a torrid love triangle, an unhinged comedy, or a sweat-drenched pugilistic drama? Judging from Fox Cinema Archives made-to-order DVD release, his movie tried to be a little bit of something-for-everybody and wound up unsatisfying on most counts. Oddly, this mishmash of a film was Fox's third Grable/Mature pairing in a row - the studio must have been on a campaign to hype up the two energetic stars as a screen duo, despite their obvious lack of chemistry.
The contemporary backstage shenanigans in Footlight Serenade allowed the perky, 25 year-old Grable to show off her athletic dancing prowess, a talent which got smoothed over as the years went by. Grable was also a decent actress with a pleasant singing voice (not to mention those million-dollar legs), although the girl-next-door appeal that made her one of the biggest stars of the '40s seems a little inexplicable when seen today. With Footlight Serenade, 20th Century Fox furnished Grable's fans with the kind of cheery, bland entertainment they expected - at least it wasn't the studio's usual toothache-inducing nostalgia.
Grable's character in Footlight Serenade is Pat Lambert, a New York City showgirl who lands a part in a stage musical meant to showcase another side of champion boxer Tommy Lundy (Mature). The premise of the show, dreamt up by comedian Slap (Phil Silvers), was to have Tommy sing and dance in a few numbers, followed by a staged exhibition match - but the conceited lummox's constant meddling quickly becomes a headache for the show's producer, Bruce McKay (James Gleason). After Pat and her tarot card-obsessed roommate Flo (Jane Wyman) join the show's chorus, Pat telephones the good news to her unemployed fiancee, Bill Smith (Payne). When Bill arrives at the theater, he winds up getting cast in the show as well, playing Tommy's sparring partner. Despite being attached to Estelle (Cobina Wright), a singing socialite cast in the show to bring in a high-class audience, Tommy takes a special interest in Pat. His behavior leaves McKay flustered, while Estelle and Bill are left fuming on the sidelines. Disinterested in Tommy's attentions yet unwilling to put her and Bill's jobs in jeopardy, Pat goes along the best she can and eventually graduates to being Estelle's understudy. Shortly after Bill and Pat have a quickie wedding, they spill the beans to Slap and McKay - who promptly informs her that she'll replace Estelle as the show's leading lady. Now that the truth is out, can Pat and Bill hold up the charade to the oblivious yet increasingly amorous Tommy?
Footlight Serenade serves up a modicum of escapist fun, despite having a story with a crucial lack of "oomph." Mature's smarmy performance as Tommy makes the goofy boxer not much of a threat to the Pat/Bill relationship, while Payne fails to bring much dimension to archetypal nice-guy Bill. Wyman had more talent than the three leads combined, yet she's wasted in a small, faux-Eve Arden wisecracker role. With underwhelming support like that, where does it leave Grable? She's appealing, yet strangely lacking in the authority which came naturally to Alice Faye, her main competition at Fox. The actress looks fantastic, however, and Lee Garmes' luminous black and white cinematography gives this trifle a bit of spit and polish. Naturally, the highlights arrive whenever Grable is given room to strut her stuff onstage. Sure, the songs are all unmemorable, but Grable's famous gams get a nice workout in a nifty little tap-duet with choreographer Hermes Pan, while another imaginatively staged number has Grable boxing with her own shadow.
Another note, for architecture buffs: although much of Footlight Serenade was filmed in 20th Century Fox's sound stages, one scene has Grable and Payne skipping through the lobby of one of Los Angeles' most beautiful vintage movie palaces, the Pantages Theatre.
Fox's Cinema Archives made-to-order DVD edition of Footlight Serenade uses a relatively pristine print, its 4:3 black and white picture sporting only slight instances of white specks, dirt and wear. One scene has a pronounced wobble, but that's the only outward flaw for this otherwise spiffy looking picture.
The mono soundtrack is a decent listen with a minimum of distortion to the pleasant music and dialogue. No subtitles are included.
None. As with other Fox Cinema Archives releases, this disc sports a simple menu and chapter breaks every ten minutes in the film.
Footlight Serenade is a pleasantly forgettable distraction with a haphazard plot, abrasive characters, and a fake-cheery disposition. The 1942 backstage musical might be worth a peek for fans of 20th Century Fox's leggy, semi-forgotten star Betty Grable; others wouldn't be missing much if they passed it by. Rent 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.