Thursday, December 3, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: ON AN ISLAND WITH YOU (1948)

The buoyant charm of Esther Williams drives all of her musical comedies, but some work better than others, and On an Island with You (1948) mostly sinks rather than swims. Its plot, in which an obsessed fan demonstrates his passion for a movie star by kidnapping her, disturbs and confounds, especially since it's played off as romantic fun, with Peter Lawford as the relentless admirer who bribes his way into getting close to the object of his obsession. A vague, stagy Pacific Island setting does little to enhance the picture, although it showcases the figures of Williams and Cyd Charisse in skimpy sarongs. With all its flaws, On an Island with You is definitely not the first Esther Williams picture anyone should see, but it offers some modest compensations in the presence of suave Ricardo Montalban and a funny, sentimental performance by vaudeville veteran Jimmy Durante.

Williams plays Hollywood star Rosalind Reynolds, who is shooting a picture on location in the Pacific Islands with her costar and fiance, Ricardo Montez (Ricardo Montalban). When a young Navy lieutenant, Larry Kingslee (Peter Lawford), is brought on set as a consultant, he pursues Rosalind in spite of her refusal of him and her engagement to another man. Eventually, Larry makes off with Rosalind and carries her to a remote island, where the natives prevent their departure by stealing parts from their plane. The kidnapping throws the movie production into chaos, with assistant director Buckley (Jimmy Durante) torn between his desire to rescue Rosalind and his friendship with Larry. Meanwhile, Rosalind's costar, Yvonne (Cyd Charisse), pines for the attention of Ricardo, both onscreen and off.

Lawford's performance is not particularly compelling in a role that would be difficult to pull off for any actor, but the more serious problem with the movie is its reliance on a frankly sexist and creepy plot. The message here is that "no" might actually mean "yes" if the man just doesn't give up, even when his attentions cross the border from merely annoying to criminal. In a thriller or a horror movie this kind of plot can be very effective, but as a driver for romance it's wildly inappropriate. Williams' heroine collapses into a rapid case of Stockholm Syndrome, even lying to protect Larry from the consequences of his own inexcusable actions. In spite of some paternalistic posturing toward the end of the movie, Ricardo Montalban's character still seems preferable to Lawford's wooden stalker fan, and Montalban at least has some chemistry with Williams and a hefty dose of sex appeal.

The scenes with Montalban and Williams provide some relief from the awkward thrust of the narrative, and the swimming duets are particularly interesting, with the pair performing an aquatic courtship of synchronized strokes. Cyd Charisse has several energetic dance numbers that break up the action, and Xavier Cugat and his orchestra are also on hand to distract us from the dreadful plot with lively musical interludes. Cugat also has a running gag involving a tiny Chihuahua and Jimmy Durante, which is cute even though it has nothing to do with either the central story or the movie within the movie. Durante turns out to be the best thing about the picture; his character, Buckley, is both funny and sympathetic, a sadder and a wiser clown whose glory days are far behind him. His musical numbers hark back to vaudeville days, but he also gives the story its only sincere moments. He might not be as young and handsome as either of the leading men, but he's far more likable, even if he also lets Lawford's character get away with outrageously bad behavior.

Be sure to note young Kathryn Beaumont, the voice of Disney's Alice and Wendy, as the very British Penelope Peabody. For better outings with Esther Williams, see Bathing Beauty (1944), Neptune's Daughter (1949), and Dangerous When Wet (1953). Richard Thorpe, who directed On an Island with You, is best remembered for Ivanhoe (1952) and Jailhouse Rock (1957), but he also made silent Westerns in the 1920s and Tarzan serials in the 1930s and 40s. Peter Lawford is more fun to watch in Easter Parade (1948), while Ricardo Montalban flexes his noir muscles in Border Incident (1949). See more of Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon (1953) and Brigadoon (1954), and catch Jimmy Durante spoofing Harpo Marx in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942).