“If you have a ‘Touch of Venus’, men will all react the same—cause with a little ‘Touch of Venus’, a lady can really beat the game!”
“How do you like those little green apples!?” Not too long ago, “Video Artists International” (a.k.a “V.A.I. Music”) happened upon a real ‘find’ for lovers of “The Golden Ages” of both Television” and “Broadway”, when they released a rarely seen telecast of the watershed musical “One Touch Of Venus” on to DVD. Given the current state of the world and the need for ‘social distancing’ very much on the minds of…well, everyone, many are now turning to movies and DVD’s for entertainment and diversion–catching up with any ‘hidden treasures’ they might have overlooked previously—and this is definitely one that is worth rediscovering! Based on Thomas Anstey-Guthrie’s 1885 novella, “The Tinted Venus” (which itself is loosely inspired by the venerated “Pygmalion” tale,) “One Touch Of Venus” features music by renowned composer Kurt Weill with lyrics by distinguished poet, Ogden Nash, who also collaborated on the book with equally noted Humorist, S.J. Perelman. Word is that at the outset, the producers of the 1943 stage extravaganza had hoped to lure no one less than silver-screen siren Marlene Dietrich into the central role of “Venus”, but when she declined, the way was paved for then rising Broadway chanteuse Mary Martin to step in and thoroughly dazzle audiences of the day. Adding to it, when you also take into account the work by celebrated Choreographer Agnes DeMille who completed this Gold-Medal team, its little wonder that “One Touch Of Venus” set the gold-standard from musical theater for decades to follow.
For the small screen, Ms. DeMille’s steps have been pristinely reworked by Edmund Balin—including two ballet sections titled: “Forty Minutes For Lunch” and “The Venus Of Ozone Heights” (not to mention a jivey jitterbug-styled interlude that caps off a fast-paced refrain later in the goings-on called “Catch Hatch”!) Likewise, the cast for this Television rendering is headed by Janet Blair, Russell Nype, and George Gaynes, and also boasts an exceptionally accomplished supporting cast of brilliant character actors, while the direction is by George Schaefer (who would become a television legend in his own right with an Emmy Award-winning career that spanned over 40 years.) Although somewhat shorn for time restrictions, this NBC television adaptation had its debut airing live on August 27th, 1955, with much of the score intact–including such standards as “Speak Low”, “Foolish Heart” and “I’m a Stranger Here Myself”. In typical 1950’s fashion, the opening credits stalwartly proclaim: “Your Oldsmobile Dealer Presents…The Dallas State Fair’s Musical of ‘One Touch Of Venus’”, in reference to an earlier stage production that had a 16 performance run that summer from August 1st through 16th, 1955 as part of “The Dallas State Fair Musicals” (now known simply as “Dallas Summer Musicals”.) Enhancing the authenticity and magic of the ‘live’ viewing experience all the more, there’s even a brief (and totally impromptu) moment in Act Three which captures how a quick-thinking camera operator took swift action to restore a clear lens after a ‘smoke’ effect inadvertently left it clouded! In addition, to better maintain this same authenticity, V.A.I. Music has also included all of the genuine commercials, added here as separate ‘bonus’ material.
Told by way of a trio of “Acts”, viewers are immediately taken to the heart of the “Big Apple”—“The Savory Museum Of Modern Art” to be exact. Up in his office, notorious (and uber-wealthy) Art Collector and New York City Playboy, “Whitelaw Savory”–the establishment’s proprietor, is dictating his memoirs to his quick-witted (and sharp-tongued) secretary, “Molly Grant”. Mentioning how, after many years, he has found a long-lost priceless 3000 year old life-sized statue of the goddess “Venus” (called “The Venus Of Anatolia”,) he adds with eager anticipation that at this very moment, it is on its way to the museum. To him, the figure’s value is far grander than simply being another a work of art—instead, it represents “A girl—the girl that got away”. “That’s quite a tragedy” Molly opines; “For a Collector, Molly,” he retorts (with a surplus of self-satisfaction.) “I lost the girl, but at least I got the statue!” As soon as it is delivered, it’s placed on display in the museum. At the same time, Savory’s Barber–a hapless everyman named “Rodney Hatch”, out of bored curiosity tries contrasting the so-called ‘perfect hand’ of the statue with that of his fiancée “Gloria”, by placing the engagement ring he plans to give her onto the statue’s extended digit. In a flash the stone effigy is (literally) transformed into a flesh and blood woman—with eyes only for him! Escaping from her pedestal and the museum, farcical complications ensue as she then proceeds to take over “Rodney’s” life (even to the point of pushing his already pushy betrothed—and her just as annoyingly overbearing mother out of the picture completely!)
In no time (thanks to Savory’s machinations to finger “Rodney” for ‘stealing’ his precious art relic—to say nothing of “Gloria’s” being listed as a missing person after “Venus” supernaturally ‘transports’ her to the North Pole,) the pair are soon the most sought after fugitives in the tri-state area! Complications further arise with the introduction of a cabal of native “Anatolians”—each Hellbent on finding their missing sacred treasure and returning to ‘her’ to the hallowed resting place in their homeland back in Turkish Asia Minor, which she has occupied for the last three Millennia! As imparted in the third act launcher, little do they know that “Hatch” and “Venus” are hidden away exulting in their anticipated marital and connubial bliss in a modest housing development dubbed “Ozone Heights”. (“You sign the lease you get a year’s subscription to the ‘Readers Digest’!” “Rodney” enthuses.) However, as they reflect a bit deeper, both come to realize a house in the suburbs and PTA meetings are not meant for a Deity, and in the end, “Venus” chooses to set everything (well, most things anyway) to rights again by returning to her timeless state as a breathtaking exhibition in Savory’s museum. “Don’t feel badly,” Whitelaw consoles Hatch; “we were both very lucky she stayed as long as she did.”
Unlike the comparably iconic “My Fair Lady” (–which is also a modern take on the same mythic source-material, and came along a good decade later,) instead of a pompous male protagonist akin to the taciturn “Professor Higgins”, this time it’s the Heroine who is absolutely the one in charge! Recalled as Composer Weill’s most successful musical written specifically for the Broadway stage, it also remains the only “book musical” for which Nash wrote the lyrics. What’s more–as one might expect from such a famed joke-smith as Perelman, the witticisms come fast and are plentiful; yet for twenty-first century audiences, perhaps a few unintended smiles are bound to arise from dialogue that refers to the ‘innocence’ of the times, such as when “Venus”, (still clad in her Hellenic Greek attire,) has “Rodney” uncomfortably acknowledging: “I can see your form!”; or just following, when she makes clear her intention of staying with him in his hat-box small apartment, (so tiny the bed even folds up into the wall–and which comes complete with a nosy and easily outraged landlady.) “But it’s against the law!” he protests; “What Law?!” she demands; “The law of men and women living together!” Nonetheless, such simple exchanges aid immensely in preserving what (in many ways,) is a pleasant and whimsical ‘snapshot’ of those seemingly less complex times.
Broadway luminary Janet Blair is outstanding as the titular “Venus” (–she, whom Whitelaw refers to as “The most beautiful woman ever conceived in the mind of man!”) Blair’s take is equal parts impishness and seductress—and her captivating grin seems to have been made for a television close-up! Gifted with a majestic voice that’s a fine fit for the soaring musical anthems and airs with which she’s been tasked, she validates this straight away with the alluring “I’m A Stranger Here Myself”—arguably the most acclaimed of the scores’ inclusions. She also superbly holds up her end of several duets, (“Speak Low” and “Foolish Heart” among them;) but she especially enthralls late in proceedings with the blithesome “That’s Him” (“Wonderful world—wonderful you!” she rejoices after finally triggering “Rodney’s” devotion.) As the clean-cut, bespectacled (–if often befuddled,) object of her ‘obsession’, Russell Nype is “Rodney Hatch”. Himself no stranger to the “Great White Way” (–he won a “Tony Award” for his role opposite Ethel Merman in the premiere production of “Call Me Madam”,) Nype too, possesses an impressive voice which he puts to terrific use in “Rodney’s” preliminary—and verbally dexterous—outing, “That’s How Much I Love You” (sung to his Fiancée of five-years, “Gloria’s” framed picture no less!) He’s also a knockout holding up his end of the lush duet, “Speak Low”—bestowing some top-notch harmony opposite Ms. Blair, as our boy finally begins to succumb to the Goddess’s charms. Later, “Waiting For Our Wooden Wedding” is enthusiastically conveyed as he dreams of those idyllic days when he and his ‘domesticized’ Goddess are “and old married couple (“—like Blondie and Dagwood!” he gushes.) Meanwhile, George Gaynes—today best remembered for his comedic roles in “Punky Brewster” and the “Police Academy” films, exhibits a ‘suave’ (–if also sleazier–) side to his younger personality as “Whitelaw Savory”. In this, ostensibly the “Villain” role, Gaynes reveals a robust song-styling capability as well as a distinctive finesse for the score’s numerous poetic lyrics, making his ‘First Act’ solo “Westwind” one of the most satisfying of the entire telecast. Then, when “Venus” saves him the trouble of having to leave his penthouse office by suddenly appearing at his door, it leads into “Foolish Heart”–another A-Plus duet between the two, wherein they commiserate over their mutual conundrum: He longs for her, (his ‘girl that got away’) while she pines for “Hatch”, as together they sing, “Poor foolish heart! Crying for one who ignores you! Poor foolish heart–flying from one who adores you!”
Co-Starring as “Molly Grant”–Savory’s never at a loss for the perfect wise-crack Girl-Friday, Laurel Shelby is downright unforgettable–over and above being supremely skilled with a throw-away pun or gag-line. When her boss’s suspicion is peaked over the idea that ‘a nobody of a barber’ like Hatch might be harboring his precious—and very missing–sculpture, in the true manner of many a pulp-novel, Savory makes plans to visit the shop for a surreptitious look-around. “Listen Bub!” Molly warns him; “You’re an eccentric millionaire—not Sam Spade!” Subsequently at the launch of “Act Two”, She gives a breezy (if slightly abbreviated for time purposes,) rendition of the title tune, “One Touch Of Venus” while rhythmically tapping away at her archaic 50’s era typewriter. Monte Marshall too, is a standout as Savory’s ‘Shabby Bloodhound’, “Julius ‘Taxi’ Black”—a would-be ‘Private Eye” who also seems content to do most of the tycoon’s dirty work as long as the price is right. When caught’ looking into a stopped-up sink in “Hatch’s” shop (–which “Taxi” purposely blocked-up in an attempt to distract the barber,) he’s asked “Are you a plumber?” to which this goon-for-hire dismissively counters, “I’ve been working with ‘drips’ all my life!”
Marshall particularly has a nifty way with some of Nash’s cleverest stanzas, as he demonstrates leading the buoyant quartet, “The Trouble With Women”. Performed in “Rodney’s” humble shop, completing this odd-ball quartet (–each of whom get their own sardonically comical verses,) are Messrs. Gaynes, Nype and a pre-“Music Man” Iggie Wolfington (who would eventually originate the role of “Marcellus” for that musical’s official Broadway bow.) Here, Wolfington appears as “Black’s” accident prone, none-too-bright sidekick, “Stanley” (“He’s my wife’s brother—ain’t he brutal?!” ‘Taxi’ offers at one point by way of apology for “Stan’s” general oafishness.) Mildred Trares also serves up her share of chuckle-inducing snipes as “Rodney’s” catty and hectoring ‘intended’, “Gloria Kramer”, while Adina Rice, is her outlandishly hen-pecking mother, “Mrs. Kraemer”. Rice furnishes a considerable amount of funny moments—largely thanks to her expertise at expressing some overstated reactions of shock or indignation: “Gloria!” she sternly rebukes her daughter; “Remember what I told you about Rodney! Be Firm!” When later introduced to Mr. Savory, she salaciously fumes of her daughter’s intended: “I suspected him from the first—there’s something sneaky about him!” she spits; ““He’s one of those ‘quiet ones’—you never know what he’s thinking! He may tell you he’s a Barber but there’s more that goes on in that shop than haircuts!”
Initially released in 2014, “One Touch Of Venus” ranks as a sure-fire spirit-lifter for such ‘challenging’ times of late. Even now this remains one of those productions that’s well-worth revisiting–or if you weren’t previously aware of its availability, there is no better time to get acquainted with this true classic of the American musical theater! Filmed upwards of seven years before communication satellites would, in due course, be launched (—virtually ‘opening up’ coast-to-coast broadcasts overnight,) this telecast has been expertly digitally remastered from vintage black and white ‘Kinescopes’–the manner in which live programs were saved for later broadcast in regions hitherto not able to view them in their original time-zone. Released through Video Artists International, this ‘rediscovered’ treasure from Television’s “Golden Age” enriches any home entertainment collection. To order a copy on DVD, log onto: http://www.vaimusic.com/product/4568.html or call: (800) 477-7146.
Screen ‘Grabs’ Courtesy Of “Video Artists International” (www,VAIMusic.com) Special Thanks To Allan Altman–And To The Memory Of Foster Grimm At “Video Artists International” For Making This Story Possible.