Lionsgate // 1948 // 82 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Christopher Kulik (Retired) // October 14th, 2008
The goddess who invented love!
Here's a true rarity: a film based on a smash hit musical which is stripped of pretty much all its music, save for a few compressed numbers in the second act. Perhaps that's why very few remember it today, as its target audience is robbed of a proper stage-to-screen adaptation. Still, even at its best, One Touch of Venus is little more than a lackluster affair, taking a promising comedic premise and then hardly delivering any laughs.
The plot is simple in the extreme. Savory's department store has acquired a Venus statue to show off in the art gallery. Nebbish Eddie Hatch (Robert Walker, Strangers On A Train) is assigned curtain duty for the statue and while straightening up one night decides to kiss the statue. That's when Venus (Ava Gardner, The Sun Also Rises) herself becomes mortal, and falls instantly in love with him. Eddie is equally flattered and freaked out by this woman; his girlfriend, however, won't feel the same way.
Once the film ended, I was wondering what all the fuss was about. In other words, if the stage musical the film was based on was a raging success then why was the film stiff and uninspired? True, it's happened before, but something screamed inside of me there was a delightful movie buried in here somewhere. Or, perhaps it only had the potential to be a delightful movie, particularly when the stage play was directed by the famed Elia Kazan (Oscar-winner for On The Waterfront) and starred Broadway legend Mary Martin in the role of Venus.
Actually, the reason behind Martin's absence is because she got pregnant. This was a huge blow to Mary Pickford, who was producing the project at United Artists. Originally, it was going to be a big-budget, musical adaptation in color with Frank Sinatra and Bert Lahr in supporting roles; I know, the proposal itself is mouth-watering. In the end, it became a low-budget, b&w film with almost no songs, mediocre direction, and a supreme lack of charm. Who knows? One Touch of Venus could have been one of the great musical extravaganzas; as it turns out, it's really nothing more than a 1940s version of Mannequin.
The film's real Achilles Heel, however, is the lack of a significant character or plot arc. Think of a film like Tootsie, which brilliantly adds more complications and congestions to the proceedings, leading up to total anarchy. The screenwriters of Venus simply go nowhere, as if they have no compassion for the material and hope that a flimsy premise will stretch to 82 minutes without falling flat. As a comedy, the results are only sporadically funny, and even the gags that do work will not make you laugh that loud. Tootsie also had a complex main character, while Eddie is simply a dolt who is bewitched by this beauty and yet doesn't really learn anything from her, mature in anyway, or come to any kind of realization.
Consequently, this major flaw is what hurts Walker's performance. He's certainly earnest, but not likable enough to carry the film home. As for Gardner, she is positively ravishing and I could see how Universal thought she would have been ideal as Venus. What's disappointing is that she's missing a certain type of energy which the role solely needs; her seductive skills are fine, but her attempts at screwball comedy are misplaced and misguided. A perfect example is when Eddie's landlady wants to enter his apartment and he's petrified because she doesn't allow female guests; Ava doesn't do anything more than just be there and smile. I don't blame her entirely, as I'm sure the studio was banking on her beauty to sell the film alone, and could have cared less if her character at the slightest amount of personality.
The songs which survived the medium transition are lovely but not entirely memorable. They have none of the splashy, flashy qualities in which so many musicals of the era had, as they come off more as odes to love. Universal made a bad call by including them because it just makes an audience yearn to see what the original musical was like instead of seeing a Hollywood version which drains all the stage spirit. Aside from the songs, One Touch of Venus has one great element: a dynamite Eve Arden (Grease) in the supporting role of Savory's savvy, sardonic secretary. She alone almost makes the film worth watching; alas, my recommendation remains to skip it.
Universal sold the distribution rights sometime ago -- not all that surprising. So, we now have Lionsgate taking responsibility and releasing One Touch of Venus on a bare-bones DVD. The picture and sound (full frame, DD 2.0 Stereo) is no better or worse than a TCM presentation at four in the morning. Scratches and debris are prevalent in pretty much every frame, though the soundtrack is cleaner than I expected. The disc is also closed captioned, with optional subtitles in English and Spanish. No extras.
While One Touch of Venus is harmless, it's also hopeless and forgettable. The film is found guilty, with Lionsgate free to go for sincere intentions. Court is adjourned!
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 82 Minutes
Release Year: 1948
MPAA Rating: Not Rated