Not too bad, not too good, and it's definitely Betty Hutton's movie
May 24, 2011
Fred Astaire may have equal billing, but Betty Hutton dominates Let’s Dance. Her mixture of tomboy boisterousness and unrelenting brashness makes the casual and easy-going Astaire seem as relevant as Percy Kilbride trying to catch up with Marjorie Main. During the Forties, audiences loved Betty Hutton. She was hugely insecure, which probably accounted for her need to give 150 per cent, when 90 per cent would have served her better.
With Let's Dance, It's almost startling to see how Fred Astaire has difficulty establishing his presence against Hutton's unremitting energy and mugging. It doesn't help that the songs, written by Frank Loesser, are tailored more to Hutton's strengths than they are to Astaire's. None of the songs are noteworthy, and they often blend heavy rhythmic repetition, loudness and jitterbug style with ample opportunity for Hutton to grimace and exaggerate. Even the one romantic song, "Why Fight the Feeling," is given to Hutton first to deliver as a comic vamp. Loesser had written for Hutton before and he knew her strengths.
The story is about Kitty McNeil (Betty Hutton), an entertainer for the troops, who marries a rich, socialite Army pilot in London in 1945. He dies shortly after, shot down, but not before Leaving Kitty pregnant with child. Fast forward five years later when Kitty and her son are living with the boy's very rich great grandmother. The woman, snobbish and high in society, believes Kitty is unsuitable as a mother to the boy. Kitty escapes the mansion with her son and, after a few tribulations, gets a job as a cigarette girl in a nightclub. But guess what? Her partner during the war years had been Don Elwood (Fred Astaire). They had sort of loved each other. They met by accident in a cheap diner after Kitty had taken her son. It was Don who helped her get the job in the nightclub where Don did some dancing while he tried to establish himself as a financial whiz.
The story goes on and on. For Kitty, she must fight off her son's great grandmother and the woman's lawyers. She has Don to help her. Of course, all the people in the nightclub, from the owner to the cooks to the dancers, fall for the little boy and try to help Kitty, too. All the while she and Don are edgily moving closer...a kind of boy and girl love each other, boy loses girl… then repeat three times. Finally, boy gets girl along with a five-year-old stepson.
But this is an Astaire movie, sort of, so what of the singing and dancing? "I Can't Stop Talking About Him" is the opening number, sung and danced before the troops in 1945 by Kitty and Don. Kitty is in a bright pink dress, Don in drab Army brown. Your eyes tend to focus on Hutton and the dress. Hutton sings the song and she and Astaire dance. It's all in the Hutton style, loud.
Astaire dances a rehearsal number with two pianos, clambering over and under them and playing some piano himself.
"Jack and the Beanstalk" is a hip version of the old fairy tale which Astaire sings to Kitty's little boy. It's not that bad, and Astaire gets to make a long bean stalk out of a newspaper while singing it. It's little more than specialty material.
"Oh, Them Dudes" is a raucous cowboy song and dance with Hutton and Astaire gussied up like old-time mustachioed cowboys. Astaire did this kind of thing better with Judy Garland in Easter Parade's "Couple of Swells" and would do it better again with Jane Powell in Royal Wedding's "How Could You Believe Me...."
"Why Fight the Feeling," Astaire has said, was a song he liked a lot. In Let's Dance, it just doesn't get a chance to breathe.
The movie's finale, "Tunnel of Love," is another loud production number tailored much more to Hutton than Astaire. They sing and they dance, but Hutton is mugging all the way.
Let's Dance features some pleasant comic turns by Roland Young and Melville Cooper, as well as solid character actors such as Ruth Warrick, Shepperd Strudwick, Barton MacLane and George Zucco.
The movie has never been released on DVD as far as I know. You might find copies around of the old VHS tape. For Astaire completeists, it's a must have. It's one of his weakest movies, and very much for fans of Betty Hutton.