On the Riviera Blu-ray Review: Double the Danny Kaye!

A classic Danny Kaye musical now available on Blu-ray.
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There was a time when Danny Kaye was one of the top entertainers in the world.  Although Bob Hope and Jack Benny are better remembered today, in the 1940s and ‘50s he was considered their comedic equal. He was also an enormously talented song and dance man. On the Riviera (1951) is a marvelous showcase for his many talents. The film has just been released to Blu-ray, and it looks and sounds terrific.

Kaye actually has two roles in the film. As nightclub entertainer Jack Martin, Kaye plays a version of himself. He also plays Jack’s doppelganger, a French aviator and businessman named Henri Duran. Jack is an American performer working the cabaret circuit on the French Riviera with his partner/girlfriend Colette (Corinne Calvet). Henri is something of a national hero in France, and Jack decides to put an impersonation of him in his act. Henri is also a suave playboy, who never misses an opportunity to fool around on his beautiful wife Lili (Gene Tierney).

While Henri’s life seems glamorous from the outside, it turns out that his aviation company is in big trouble. Unless he is able to secure a major infusion of cash, the company will be facing bankruptcy. His financier knows this, and is plotting to use it to take over the business. Henri is so depressed that he takes off on the night of a big party he is supposed to be hosting. His business partners realize that if he is not there, then any chance of hanging on to their company is lost. So Jack Martin is hired to play Henri Duran for the night. He is told to just keep quiet and smile if anyone mentions anything about business.

Jack has another motive in agreeing to impersonate Henri for the night. He has developed a major crush on Lili Duran, and hopes to romance her a bit as Henri. The Durans' marriage is on the rocks because of Henri’s philandering, and when she realizes that it is actually Jack she is dancing with, she decides to use the situation to make Henri jealous. Henri comes back in the middle of the party though, and figures out what is going on. He decides to use his knowledge to humiliate Lili.

Besides the song and dance numbers in the cabaret, the whole film basically revolves around the events at the party. For Jack, the night has been very successful. Although he had no idea of what was actually going on, he winds up securing a huge loan from the banker, just by playing it cool. He also has a nice time with Lili, even though that whole thing was a set-up. He even manages to perform on television that night. Since the Durans' house is right next door to the club, Jack slips off to do a number for a live, televised broadcast.

The real crisis is the Durans' marriage. Both Henri and Lili use Jack’s impersonation of Henri to their advantage against each other. Henri knows that Lili knows who Jack is, yet she “makes love” to him anyway. In 1951, making love did not necessarily mean what it does today, but  something happened. Actually, it was Henri and Lili who were together, but Henri makes her think that she was actually with Jack.

It is all a bit silly really, and in the end Jack convinces both of them that they love each other and need to stop playing these games. The Colette character does not have much of a role in all of this, which is the only real flaw. Not that it is a big one, but I do believe that the story lacks some balance in this regard. Colette gets a little jealous when she realizes that Jack has a thing for Lili, but she gets over it pretty quickly.

Like so many musicals, the story is basically an excuse for some phenomenal song and dance numbers. All of them are great, particularly “Ballin’ the Jack,” and “Happy Endings.” When all is said and done though, the reason to own this film is to see Kaye perform “Popo the Puppet.” This is the televised bit I alluded to earlier that takes place in the club while the party is going on at the Durans' house.

While Henri’s business partners are wondering where Jack is, they turn on the TV and see him performing the number. This is a nice touch, as we watch it with them, with the scene framed in the Durans' television set. I had never seen On the Riviera before, so I had no idea of what to expect, and found myself being blown away at just how good this piece is. Even though we know we are watching a movie, and this is just a scene in it, Kaye’s performance as a marionette is uncannily convincing. The singing and dancing during “Popo the Puppet” is so good I felt the same way the first time I saw Gene Kelly do “Singin’ In the Rain” many years ago. It really is that good.

“The Riviera Story: A Remarkable Impersonation” (10:40) is the first of four Blu-ray bonus features and explains the origins of the story. On the Riviera is actually the third filmed version of a play titled The Red Cat. The first edition was the black and white Folies Bergere (1935), which starred Maurice Chevalier. The second was the color That Night in Rio (1941) with Don Ameche. I need to see That Night in Rio, as it is apparently quite a bit more suggestive about what went on between Jack and Lili the night of the party.

“A Portrait of Danny Kaye” (26:37) is pretty self-explanatory. There is some wonderful vintage footage of Kaye performing for the troops during WWII, along with Bob Hope and Jack Benny. Kaye’s long association with UNICEF is discussed, as well as the many films he made before and after On the Riviera.

“The Jack of Clubs: Choreographer Jack Cole” (9:50) is a mini-documentary about the film's choreographer. He is described as “the father of modern jazz choreography” and this biography is an entertaining and informative piece about his career. The final bonus is the original theatrical trailer for the film, which is fairly elaborate and runs for 2:35.

On the Riviera was filmed in Technicolor, and the opening shot of the Riviera is absolutely gorgeous. I have heard of the so-called “Fox curse” regarding their video transfers of Technicolor films, although I did not notice any strange colorations while watching it. The full frame 1:33:1 aspect ratio does result in a somewhat disconcerting “box” look to it, but the colors are sumptuous. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 sounds quite good as well.

With two roles and some brilliant musical numbers, Danny Kaye kicked off what would prove to be the peak period of his career in On the Riviera. If nothing else, see it for his extraordinary  “Popo the Puppet.” This film proves that his enormous popularity was well deserved.

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