I did, I swear. Well, Danny Miller did. Kendall was on a Turner Classic Movies bender this weekend and recorded a very strange Rita Hayworth film called “Down to Earth.” She wanted to see it because Larry Parks was Hayworth’s co-star. We screamed in unison the first time we heard Hayworth call out to Larry’s character. His name? Danny Miller. I felt like I was in some kind of LSD-induced fantasy as I kept hearing the gorgeous red-maned actress call me by name: “Danny Miller, you are the most impossible man I’ve ever met!” I know, Rita, darling, but you’ll get used to me. Kendall didn’t seem to mind how thrilled I was at hearing Hayworth seduce me from the screen. Aren’t extramarital affairs allowed if your newfound mistress has been dead for twenty years?
Kendall and I were both surprised we had never heard of this weird 1947 musical from Columbia Pictures. It was a sequel of sorts to their popular “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” in which a boxer named Joe Pendleton dies prematurely and is allowed by Mr. Jordan, one of Heaven’s head honchos, to come back to Earth in the body of a wealthy man who has just been murdered by his wife. (This film was remade by Warren Beatty in 1978 as “Heaven Can Wait.”) The story of “Down to Earth” bears no resemblance whatsoever to that plot, but in a marketing move worthy of today’s desperate movie executives, the studio brought back many of the characters from the earlier film (some played by the original actors such as Edward Everett Horton as Heavenly Messenger 7013 and James Gleason as tough-talking manager Max Corkle) and plopped them into this bizarre tale of the goddess Terpsichore (Hayworth) who is steaming mad about a Broadway producer’s (Parks) mockery of Greek mythology in his latest stage production. The goddess of music and dance comes down to earth to get a part in the show and to set the record straight on Danny Miller’s take on the Nine Muses (which he presents, to Rita's horror, as a bevy of man-hungry babes). Terpsichore (called Kitty Pendleton on earth, another homage to the earlier film) turns Danny’s play into a flop with her attempts to instill historical accuracy into the plot. But in the process, the goddess falls in love with Danny Miller and decides to do it all his way. Hear that, Kendall?
The reason that Kendall was keen to check out this Larry Parks movie was that Parks was married to the great MGM actress Betty Garrett who appeared in one of Kendall’s dad’s plays and is still a close friend of the family. Parks died in 1975 but Kendall knew him during her childhood. In fact, Larry had dinner at the Haileys the very night that he died. His last meal included three servings of Kendall’s mom’s Ozark Pudding (Bess Truman’s recipe, no less) which Betty recounts in her book. Our friend and blogging cohort Naomi is one of Betty Garrett’s closest friends. Naomi, do you remember Betty or Larry ever talking about Rita Hayworth or this movie?
“Down to Earth” was made at the zenith of Larry Parks’ fame, wedged in between “The Jolson Story” and its sequel “Jolson Sings Again.” Then why isn’t he a household name today? Because he was blacklisted in 1951 by all the studios after admitting to the dreaded House Un-American Activities Committee that he had once been a member of the Communist Party. Long before I ever met Betty, my mother used to tell me about her teenaged obsession with Larry Parks. I think she saw each of Larry’s Jolson movies about 10 times and had a major crush on the actor. Although my mother was only 14 when “Down to Earth” came out, it suddenly made me wonder whether I was actually named after this character. I used to ask her where she got the name Danny and she never had a good answer. Hmmm…but couldn’t I be named after a character in a better film?
I knew that Al Jolson supplied his own singing voice for the two Larry Parks biopics, but I’ve also heard songs recorded by Betty and Larry and knew that Larry had a great voice. So I was surprised to hear another singing voice coming out of Parks’ during all his numbers. What gives? Ditto for Rita Hayworth. I had always assumed her rendition of the red-hot “Put the Blame on Mame” in her previous film “Gilda” was her own voice but it turns out she was dubbed by Anita Ellis for several of her Columbia musicals including “Gilda” and “Down the Earth.” I really don’t get Columbia, I’m definitely an MGM man (don’t remind me that the former MGM Studio in Culver City is now called Columbia thanks to several buyouts in the 80s and 90s). Columbia czar Harry Cohn reportedly made Rita Hayworth’s tenure at the studio a living hell. Cohn must have been a real piece of work. After his funeral which was quite crowded, Red Skelton remarked, “It proves what they always say: give the public what they want and they’ll come out for it.”
Of course Columbia made some fantastic movies: “It Happened One Night,” “You Can’t Take It with You,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “His Girl Friday,” and “Born Yesterday” among many others, but with a few notable exceptions, they should have left the musicals to MGM. Most of the numbers in “Down to Earth” are pretty God-awful, except for the great scene in which Terpsichore first arrives in Danny Miller’s theatre and crashes a rehearsal for his show in such a spectacular way that he fires the outraged diva (Adele Jergens) on the spot and hires Hayworth as his new leading lady. But despite our love of Larry Parks and the fact that Rita Hayworth is so freaking beautiful in this film it almost hurts your eyes to look at her, I’m not sure “Down to Earth” would have held our interest for long if not for the Danny Miller connection. I am happy to add Larry Parks to my list that includes Albert Brooks’ turn as Danny Miller in the hilarious “Defending Your Life” (insanely neurotic Jew who feels inadequate and has a big crush on Meryl Streep—what, like it’s not about me?) and Sally Field’s turn (yes, Sally Field!) in the 1971 let’s-scare-the-white-families-that-their-kids-can-become-drug-addicts classic “Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring.”
I guess there’s no real purpose for this post other than to bask just a little bit longer in the glow of Rita Hayworth cooing my name. Writing this is also keeping me from watching the Golden Globes which are on now and which I can’t bear. I still think they’re not “real” awards—the Academy voters are suspect enough, who the hell are these Hollywood Foreign Press Association members? Proof of the shadiness of the awards? Rita Hayworth was only nominated once for a Golden Globe. And which of Hayworth’s excellent films was chosen for the honor? A 1964 abomination called “Circus World” with John Wayne as a 1901 circus owner looking for his long-lost love, former circus performer Lili Afredo (Hayworth) who had abandoned her daughter (Claudia Cardinale) to be raised by Wayne. Oy. Turn the Golden Globes off, people, and watch any movie from 1947!