Movie studios loved to recycle good stories during Hollywood's Golden Age, often with astonishing frequency. Within the brief span of 10 years, no less than three versions of 'The Maltese Falcon' hit the screen, and though 'The Red Cat,' a comic play by Rudolph Lothar and Hans Adler, isn't nearly as well known as Dashiell Hammett's classic detective story, it nevertheless spawned three films over a 16-year period. First came 'Folies Bergère de Paris' with Maurice Chevalier, Merle Oberon, and Ann Sothern; six years later 'That Night in Rio' with Don Ameche, Alice Faye, and Carmen Miranda arrived; and a decade after that 'On the Riviera' premiered, starring Danny Kaye, Gene Tierney, and Corinne Calvet. Whether the third time is the charm for this light romantic confection about impersonation, mistaken identity, and the rejuvenation of love is difficult to determine, because all three movies are practically identical. (Watch the featurette described below if you think I'm exaggerating.) Yet the boundless effervescence of the irrepressible Kaye distinguishes 'On the Riviera' and keeps it buoyantly aloft throughout much of its breezy 90-minute running time. The supremely talented performer almost knocks himself out singing, dancing, mugging, and acting a dual role, all in a herculean effort to entertain us to a fare-thee-well. The only problem is Kaye doesn't know when to quit, and a double dose of the star occasionally becomes one dose too many.
I run hot and cold with Kaye. I love him in 'White Christmas' and admire his versatility, but his high voltage personality is always "on," and that often turns me off. Here, he's running on all cylinders, impersonating the likes of Jimmy Durante and, in a nod to the film's earlier incarnations, Chevalier and Miranda, as well as speaking in French and Scottish accents. Don't get me wrong, he's very, very good; I just generally prefer a more sedate, elegant presence, which is why his restrained work as the French aviator impresses me most.
That French aviator, Henri Duran, is a national hero, but financial problems force him to leave the country to try and scare up funds to close a business deal. And while he's gone, Duran's loyal aides hire his doppelgänger, nightclub entertainer Jack Martin (also Kaye), to impersonate him and, hopefully, stave off his rival. Stepping into another man's shoes, of course, comes with its share of pitfalls, and Jack soon discovers Henri is a serial philanderer, much to the disappointment of his loyal (and stunning) wife Lili (Tierney). Without really trying, the good-natured Jack begins to warm up their chilly marriage, and that doesn't sit well with Jack's possessive girlfriend, Colette (Calvet), who harbors a secret crush on Henri. And when Lili tries to use Jack to rekindle the affections of her husband, just as Jack tests Colette's fidelity while acting as Henri, things get really complicated.
The core story of 'On the Riviera' is clever, satisfying, and at times, quite amusing. Masquerades often can be handled clumsily, but the screenplay by Valentine Davies and Phoebe and Henry Ephron (Nora's parents) is tight as a drum, always letting the audience in on the gag without making obvious gestures. Each major character is alternately in control and in the dark during the tale's circuitous course, which keeps everyone on their toes and creates an abundance of comic situations, some with a delightfully risqué slant. Unfortunately, several musical numbers continually interrupt the mayhem, lending the film a choppy feel. The songs, many penned by Kaye's wife, Sylvia Fine, are sprightly but forgettable and a tad pretentious. They don't develop character or advance the plot. In fact, when Kaye starts to sing, the rest of the movie usually comes to a grinding halt. Even the terpsichorean grace of a young (and unbilled) Gwen Verdon in a specialty dance can't alleviate the nagging sense of ennui that afflicts almost every number. (And before anyone cries foul, let's just make it clear that I'm a huge musicals fan.)
Tierney always adds a welcome bit of sophisticated glamour to her films, and though she's largely wasted in 'On the Riviera,' she's lovely to look at and makes the most of her thankless role. (Eagle eyes will spot the iconic portrait of Tierney used in her most famous film, 'Laura,' hanging on the wall in Lili's living room. The fleeting shot marks the only time the painting was ever seen in color on screen.) Calvet tries to match Kaye's energy level, going slightly over the top in the process, but her lively presence also propels the film. Farce demands big portrayals, and all the actors (with the exception of Tierney, who couldn't play "big" if her life depended on it) assert themselves well in that regard.
Director Walter Lang ('The King and I') tackles the assignment in his typical straightforward manner, covering all the bases, but never coloring outside the lines. The result is an entertaining yet undistinguished picture that's pleasant enough while it lasts, but lacks the panache to make it truly memorable. In the end, how much you like 'On the Riviera' will hinge on how much you like Danny Kaye. It's his show from start to finish...times two.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'On the Riviera' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. The 50GB dual-layer disc features a video codec of 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Fox's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer showcases Leon Shamroy's beautiful Technicolor cinematography. The bright, bold hues of the azure water and surrounding cliffs make the Riviera scenery come alive, while pastels and primaries pop on the glamorous gowns and glitzy garb adorning the dancers. Only a couple of errant specks dot the clean and clear source material, which features a light grain structure that keeps the film's integrity intact. Black levels are smooth and lush, and whites are especially vibrant. Tierney's white fur wrap makes a stunning statement, aided by excellent contrast and marvelous clarity, which allows individual fur strands to be easily discerned. Fleshtones err a bit toward the rosy side (a common failing of Technicolor), but close-ups show off fine facial details well and accent Tierney's breathtaking beauty.
Background elements remain sharp and help achieve a good sense of depth, while solid shadow delineation nicely balances the picture. No digital doctoring seems to have been applied, and no imperfections, such as noise, banding, halos, crush, or pixilation, rear their ugly heads. All in all, this is another stellar effort from Fox, which takes good care of its classic catalogue.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track supplies good-quality sound that serves both the musical numbers and dramatic scenes well. Any age-related imperfections, such as hiss, pops, and crackles, have been eliminated, leaving a clean track that features nice aural shadings. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows with ease, keeping distortion at bay and providing a hearty fullness of tone to the instrumentals. Dialogue is always clear and easy to comprehend, even when Kaye slips into various dialects and alters his speech patterns, and the songs sound appropriately robust, despite their forgettable nature, with plenty of fidelity helping them achieve maximum impact.
For a 60-year-old mono track, this audio is surprisingly spry and complements the on-screen action well. It won't test the limits of your system, but few mixes from that era will.
All the extras, with the exception of the stills galleries and a restoration comparison, have been ported over from the 2007 DVD release. This is a nice collection of supplements that really enhance one's enjoyment of the film.
If you're an admirer of Danny Kaye, then you'll love 'On the Riviera.' Walter Lang's elegant, if disjointed, comedy-musical showcases the versatile performer's undeniable talent without letting his manic energy spiral too far out of control. The lovely Gene Tierney and sprightly Corinne Calvet provide able support, and dance aficionados will enjoy getting an early peek at a young Gwen Verdon in a specialty number. Sadly, those who aren't Kaye fanatics won't find much of interest here, especially due to the tug-of-war between the musical and narrative sequences, which lack any cohesion. Fox's Blu-ray, however, is sure pretty to look at, the audio is solid, and a nice supplemental package rounds out the release. For most viewers, 'On the Riviera' is only occasionally on the mark, which leaves this Golden Age effort in the "fans only" category.