Sometimes in a musical you get it all. Good story, good acting, terrific music, wonderful dancing. This has happened more often lately than in the early days: West Side Story, Sweeney Todd, The Phantom of the Opera. But it’s happened before, too: Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris. More often—and the earlier the movie, the more this applies—you get two movies: a bad comedy, and a good musical. Most of the Busby Berkeley musicals are like that, and the Gold Diggers, and some of the Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy ones. (Some of those, however, are three bad movies: stupid story, bad acting, awful music.) You get used to it. If you are a lover of good music and dancing, you learn to accept it or you just don’t watch movie musicals. So with Rosalie, there’s bad news and good new. First, a stupid story with bad acting. Singing? Well, that would depend on how you like Nelson Eddy, whose singing style is of his time and hasn’t held up as well as some others I could name. The dude had a seriously huge range, from high tenor right down to bass, but his pear-shaped tones and the goofy looks on his face as he sings … well, you like it or you don’t. I like some of it. But what is it with Nelson Eddy and marching? Before we’re fifteen minutes into this movie there are two scenes with him marching with Army cadets and singing hearty marching songs. I’ve seen clips of him marching and singing in half a dozen other movies, too. It just doesn’t work anymore.
So that’s the bad news. The good news can be summed up in two words: Eleanor Powell. She was certainly the best female tap dancer of her generation, and maybe the best of all time. Too bad she couldn’t act. Rosalie takes place at West Point and in one of those Hollywood Ruritanian duchies so small the postage stamps are bigger than the country … though there’s still enough space to stage what may be the biggest musical number ever, with literally thousands of dancers and extras crowded onto the biggest sound stage at MGM. Powell dances solo on a series of drums, the biggest of which could easily contain all the oil spilling from the Deepwater Horizon well. But the sorry fact is, that number is all that’s worth seeing here, so if you find yourself with a DVD of this movie, go to about minute 55 and watch the next 20 minutes. You’ll be astounded.
Originally the music was by George Gershwin and Sigmund Romberg, lyrics by Ira Gershwin and P.G. Wodehouse. MGM commissioned a whole new score by Cole Porter. Can you imagine the wealth of talent available to musical producers in those days? Can you hear Louis B. Mayer speaking to the director, W.S. Van Dyke? “This music by these Gershwins, I don’t like it so much. Hire Cole Porter to write new songs.” Wow. It’s also interesting to see Frank Morgan and Ray Bolger together here, two years before they were reunited as the Wizard and the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz.