INCENDIARY BLONDE (George Marshall, 1945)

Beautifully directed by George Marshall, with much of the sensibility he brought to Destry Rides Again (1939), but boringly written (by Claude Binyon and Frank Butler) and monotonously acted by Betty Hutton, though with considerable verve and some dignity, Incendiary Blonde is a distinct disappointment. Hutton plays here an actual person: early twentieth-century entertainer Texas Guinan, who rose from poverty to become the singing centerpiece of her own club, where she greeted patrons with “Hello, suckers!” (The film’s explanation of the origin of this greeting is unconvincing.) While Guinan in reality went through three marriages, she remains unmarried in the film. Also, the cause of her death has been changed from am œbic dysentery to heart disease. The film begins with her death and flashes back to her life, ending, hauntingly, with her departure down a darkened corridor. The context—her farewell to lover Bill Kilgannon, who faces a likely prison sentence of five years and doesn’t know that her doctor has given Guinan about two more years to live—gives the film’s ironical ending especial force and sadness. The Guinan-Kilgannon romance and relationship suggests the tumultuous relationship between Fanny Brice and hooligan-gambler Nick Arnstein.

The film is in Technicolor, which Marshall keeps subdued, largely to the point of grayness, to make all the more gorgeous the colorful, glittering costumes that Edith Head designed for Hutton. Indeed, Hutton is a visual knockout in this film. As usual, her singing is excellent, especially with the “sentimental” love song “It Had to Be You.” How odd to find this old gem the “big song” here when it occupied the identical role in the disguised Eddie Cantor-biography Show Business (Edwin L. Marin, 1944) the previous year.

Arturo de Córdova plays Kilgannon listlessly, while Barry Fitzgerald all but steals the show with his irascible turn as Guinan’s father, whose schemes to lift his family out of poverty all fail. Fitzgerald is both funny and poignant.

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