During his mid-20th century prime, Danny Kaye was one of the greatest entertainers in the world. He was a terrific actor, singer, comedian and dancer. Not bad for a guy who couldn’t read a note of music and never took a single dance class. On the Riviera is not Kaye’s best (nor his best-known) movie; that title belongs to White Christmas, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty or Hans Christian Andersen. However, this soufflé-light musical comedy — now making its Blu-ray debut courtesy of Fox — is a nice showcase for Kaye’s considerable talents.
Kaye stars as Jack Martin, a small-time nightclub performer on the French Riviera. The actor also stars as Henri Duran, a celebrated playboy pilot who just completed a record-setting trip around the globe. Jack notices the uncanny resemblance he bears to Henri and begins impersonating him during his nightclub routine. (The result is a showstopper, and the movie’s best musical number: “Rhythm of a New Romance.”) When Henri is forced to be in two places at once to preserve an important financial deal, Jack is hired to impersonate the famous French pilot during a pivotal dinner party. Can Jack maintain the ruse alongside Henri’s cynical wife Lili (Gene Tierney) while keeping his own girlfriend Colette (Corinne Calvet) happy?
The plot is undoubtedly familiar. (In the Special Features, we’ll get into just how familiar this sort of story was within Fox.) All the ideas that come along with this sort of identity switcheroo have been explored in everything from the Odyssey (a husband pretends to be someone else to test his wife’s fidelity) to the Kevin Kline comedy Dave (the impostor ends up being a better man than the man he’s pretending to be). On the Riviera, doesn’t add much to the formula other than a picturesque location and a few catchy tunes. The 1951 film earned two Oscar nominations for Best Art Direction and Best Musical Score. (Alfred Newman picked up the Best Score nomination, but all the film’s original songs — including the aggressively peppy title track — were written by Sylvia Fine, Kaye’s wife.)
Kaye also won a Golden Globe for his dual performance as Jack and Henri. Although the only differences between Jack and Henri are a thin mustache, grayish hair, a monocle and a French accent, Kaye does an admirable job creating two distinct characters. It’d be easy to focus on the more manic parts of Jack’s jittery personality, but I was more interested in the way his insecurity contrasted with Henri’s relentless confidence. And, more than any phony baloney French accent, that’s what makes you believe in Kaye’s performance(s). I haven’t even mentioned the fact that you get to see him croon (“Ballin’ the Jack”) and dance his butt off (“Rhythm of a New Romance”). On the other hand, I could’ve definitely done without the technically impressive, yet grating and overlong “Popo the Puppet.”
The way you can tell Tierney was a great movie star is because she manages to be luminous, despite the fact that Lili starts off as a somewhat dour character who has been hardened by her husband’s casual infidelity. I liked that Lili was immediately made aware that Jack would be impersonating her husband; Tierney naturally infuses the role with intelligence and maturity and Lili would’ve looked like a fool otherwise. (Especially with Jack making constant mistakes.) Unfortunately, Calvet — as a daffy showgirl — comes off looking like a bit of a lightweight by comparison, though her scenes with Kaye are still fun.
For a movie that was made during the days of the Production Code, On the Riviera features some moments that were surprisingly saucy for the time. (They’re downright harmless by today’s standards.) We see Calvet slipping into a considerably more revealing dress to get attention, and Jack-as-Henri asks for specifics when he is told to pinch one of his maids on the cheek. The film clocks in at a sleek 90 minutes, yet the musical numbers feel like they could’ve each been trimmed down. At times, the movie is as bright, lively and enjoyable as a trip to the French Riviera, but it doesn’t come close to being as memorable.
On the Riviera is presented in its original full screen aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 38 mbps. It has the bold, vibrant quality you’d expect from a movie filmed in Technicolor. (The blues, in particular, seem to jump off the screen.) The overall image has more of a painterly quality than some of the sharper restorations I’ve seen in the Fox Studio Classics series. Flesh tones also lean toward the burnt-orange side of the spectrum — which is expected from film set on the sunny French Riviera — but occasionally fluctuate, sometimes within the same scene.
Black levels don’t play a huge role here, but I appreciated the separation between the tuxedo jacket and the slightly lighter lapel Jack wears during an early performance. The presentation is also free of any signs of damage to the original print. (No scratches, etc.) This is a solid upgrade for the film’s Blu-ray debut; if you want to see exactly how solid, I suggest you check out the SD clips in the special features
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track is very well balanced and refreshingly free of any popping or hissing. On top of that, the limited mono track does a fine job conveying both the dialogue and the music. (The dialogue a little better than the music, actually.) Kaye’s voice sounds particularly silky smooth during his rendition of “Ballin’ the Jack.” Just like the video presentation, the most impressive thing about this audio track is that it’s in such good condition after more than 60 years.
All of the bonus material is presented in standard definition.
The Riviera Story — A Remarkable Impersonation: (10:40) Reveals Fox’s penchant for recycling storylines for its movies. The studio previously released two movies that had the exact same plot as On the Riviera. (The others were Folies Bergere de Paris and That Night in Rio) Clips from all three movies are spliced together in an amusing way and show just how much the movies have in common. Experts also break down the subtle differences.
A Portrait of Danny Kaye: (26:37) This enlightening featurette examines Kaye’s childhood, personal life, and career. We also learn about his off-screen penchant for humanitarian work, cooking and more. Includes comments from family members, colleagues and other admirers.
The Jack of Clubs — Choreographer Jack Cole: (9:50) A mini-doc dedicated to the “father of American jazz dance.” Cole’s style fused Broadway showmanship with ethnic dances from around the world. The legendary Gwen Verdon — who appears in On the Riviera — was his muse, and Cole was the preferred choreographer for Marilyn Monroe. (He’s responsible for Monroe’s iconic “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” musical number.)
A plotline so nice, Fox decided to do it thrice! On the Riviera doesn’t belong alongside the great musical comedies of its era. (Not even close, actually.) However, Kaye only starred in 17 movies and this film certainly takes advantage of his vast gifts.
I’m happy Fox keeps granting these lesser-known titles Blu-ray releases, and On the Riviera has obviously never looked better. Although it certainly has its moments, I suspect this movie will mostly appeal to Danny Kaye fans.