"People have more fun than anyone," sings Rita Hayworth in this '40s musical. Funny, Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees always thought dolphins had more fun than anyone.
"For instance, take a chick like me.
Down to Earth takes the glamorous star known as the Love Goddess of her day, Rita Hayworth (Gilda, Cover Girl), and casts her as a literal goddess: Terpsichore, the muse of song and dance. Although a sequel of sorts to the charming 1941 fantasy-comedy Here Comes Mr. Jordan, in which a boxer played by Robert Montgomery is sent back to earth in another man's body, this Technicolor musical is more of an excuse to show off the glory that is Rita than an exploration of second chances. As only a movie from this era could do, it places its star in the firmament of moviedom as a living, breathing deity—but, lest the audience become too distressed by this vision of what it can never attain, it then reassures us that she's missing out on the normal, everyday joys of being a mere mortal.
Facts of the Case
Director and actor Danny Miller (Larry Parks) is rehearsing his new musical, Swinging the Muses, a boogie-woogie extravaganza that portrays the muses of Greek mythology, the spiritual embodiments of art and culture, as good-time gals with an eye for a handsome GI. Up on Mount Parnassus, the muse Terpsichore (Hayworth) is shocked. How dare this mortal portray her as "nothing but a man-chasing trollop"? She immediately whisks away in search of Mr. Jordan, the mystical being in charge of afterlife existence, to demand that he send her back to earth so she can correct the many inaccuracies in Miller's play.
Accompanied by the fidgety Agent 7013 (the immortal Edward Everett Horton), Terpsichore arrives on earth and immediately manages to oust the actress portraying her. With the aid of a new name, Kitty Pendleton, and a new agent, the nervous Max Corkle (James Gleason), she sets about changing the show to more accurately reflect her own character and history. Recognizing that Miller is smitten with her—as who would not be?—she uses feminine wiles to convince him to change his musical from the crowd-pleasing fiction it is into a highbrow ballet.
What she doesn't know is that Danny's in hock to casino owner Joe Manion so deeply that if his show flops, Danny dies, and this artistic stuff is putting the preview audiences to sleep. Unless Danny is to meet with Mr. Jordan very, very soon, Kitty/Terpsichore must not only swallow her pride but use all her legendary powers to make the show a hit.
Down to Earth is a shameless star vehicle, and a canny one. What mythic figure would be more appropriate for Rita Hayworth than the goddess of singing and dancing? (Viewers who know Hayworth only as a sex symbol may be unaware that she grew up dancing under the tutelage of her father.) She easily transcends the demands of the choreography in the film. When the hero calls her dancing "magic," we agree: She seems to come alive when she dances, bringing energy, grace, and a sense of joy to the film. Best of all, Hayworth seems to be enjoying herself tremendously during every second of the film. It's easy to see why she became such a superstar: Not only is she one of those creatures the camera adores, but she seems to radiate love right back at it.
If her supporting cast can't quite live up to her, well, after all, who can live up to a goddess? Leading man Larry Parks is conventionally handsome and has a pleasing singing voice, but he's not particularly interesting. When Kitty falls in love with him, we can't help thinking that she could do better than him even if she weren't immortal. Danny's best pal and costar, Eddie (Marc Platt, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers), has more verve and charisma, and it's interesting to note that he does more dancing with Kitty than does the hero. A little casting switcheroo could have helped considerably here. As Max, veteran character actor James Gleason (Arsenic and Old Lace) is a carryover from the first film (for which he was nominated for an Oscar), and he provides a solid comic performance as the beleaguered mortal who understands the whole truth but can't get anyone to believe him. Edward Everett Horton is, as always, a joy, but his role (also a reprise from the first film) is quite brief. The biggest disappointment is the almighty Mr. Jordan himself. In the previous film this role was filled by the incomparable Claude Rains, but as embodied here by the bland Roland Culver he lacks not only Rains's mellifluous voice but his sly sense of humor as well.
Technicolor fantasies like this are largely a thing of the past, and are difficult to try to update (as one can see in the remake of Down to Earth, the misfire Xanadu). These days viewers are a bit too jaded to accept such a fluffy little story, but for audiences in the days just after World War II it must have been a delicious bit of escapism. It's significant that the two male stars in Miller's musical, both of whom are pursued by the amorous goddess, are portraying GIs: America was still assuring its men in uniform (or recently out of it) that soldiers are heroic figures. Similarly, the way the show-within-a-show humanizes the goddesses was probably meant to send the message that that every girl—including goddesses—loves a soldier, and that even mythic immortal beings share good old American values. The plot is slender and insubstantial, to be sure, but the film is like the visual equivalent of a box of candy: It isn't meant to be substantial, just enjoyable. The showbiz setting gives an opportunity for plenty of big musical numbers and lots of colorful, exotic costumes, and the fact that the film is a fantasy frees it from painful reality and allows the audience to simply enjoy the impossible. The humor is gentle, the ending sweetly sentimental, and the entire enterprise is an enjoyable return to the days when movie musicals provided the pastel-colored illusion of simpler times.
The full-frame picture (which preserves the film's original aspect ratio) provides a clear, attractive transfer, with an acceptable amount of age defects. The palette seems a little paler than other golden-age Technicolor films I've seen, but the colors are true. Audio is likewise unremarkable but quite good for its age. Extras consist of trailers for three other Hayworth films.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Unfortunately, one would hope that a musical would proffer aural, as well as visual, delights, and these are in short supply here. The songs, credited to Allan Roberts and Doris Fisher, are forgettable, with a tendency toward clunky lyrics and graceless melodies. Some are so ill-conceived it's difficult to believe no one shot them down before they even got to rehearsal: The purported show-stopper "People Have More Fun Than Anyone" is a dismal attempt at celebrating the trivial pleasures of everyday life, which all the energetic dancing in the world can't save, and the number the stage Terpsichore sings with the two heroes, "This Can't Be Legal," is jaw-droppingly vulgar. One is astonished that Hayworth gets through it without letting any distaste show; she must have been a really good sport, or a consummate professional.
It's a curious facet of the film that, despite its mediocrity and tastelessness, Swinging the Muses is portrayed as being exactly what the public wants. It seems that we are supposed to recognize yet embrace the lowbrow quality of Miller's show: The tone of the film invites us to take a rather knowing and slightly superior attitude toward it. (When the justly revolted Terpsichore describes the goings-on to her sister muses, one of them reflects, "That could only come from America.") Yet tampering with the formula spells death to the show, and the fact that the show's musical numbers are portrayed at great length implies that we are supposed to find them entertaining. The film doesn't have enough of an edge to be satire, so we are left with the odd sensation that either the wool has been pulled over our eyes or our taste has been insulted.
I suppose I'm reading too much into the questions the film raises about artistic merit and popular taste, since Down to Earth, like Swinging the Muses, is meant to be simple, harmless fun. Nevertheless, as soon as the film (in the voice of Terpsichore) questions the quality of Swinging, I think we are entitled to do the same, and to decide whether we, like the insulted muse, prefer our goddesses not to go around waggling their knees and speaking in '40s slang.
Hayworth is remembered for other, better movies than Down to Earth, and justly so, but her presence does much to elevate this otherwise standard escapist fare. It's the kind of film to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon with; you may have forgotten about it by the next day, but you'll enjoy watching it parade its pretty colors while it lasts. There are many more memorable musicals, but there are few more memorable female musical stars than Hayworth. Her achievement is like that of her alter ego, Terpsichore: She renders an otherwise undistinguished entertainment enjoyable.
If the muse Terpsichore herself can forgive the shortcomings of earthly musicals, I would be churlish not to do the same. All parties are released on their own recognizance, until such time as they have to answer to a higher authority—Mr. Jordan.
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