I Love Melvin (1953) is a light-hearted romp about a young lady, Judy LeRoy (Debbie Reynolds), who plays a small part on Broadway. However, she dreams of becoming a movie star in Hollywood. Judy notes in one scene – quite breathlessly, she’s almost panting- that being featured on the cover of a magazine will catapult her career into the movies.
Enter Melvin Hoover (Donald O’Connor), a photographer’s assistant for Look Magazine who is enamored with Judy and promises she will be featured on the cover. The remainder of the film follows a bumbling guy with little influence trying desperately to accomplish such a feat.
Reynolds’ own film stardom was on the ascent at this time, just like that of her character in I Love Melvin. She had a handful of movie titles under her belt by this point, but she was yet to earn the Academy Award nomination for her performance in The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964). Here, however, Reynolds is billed after O’Connor, since he had been a star for well over a decade by the time of the release of Melvin.
O’Connor churned out a number of films as a teen idol for Universal Studios in the early 1940s, some of which were released piecemeal after he joined the armed forces during World War II. He returned with his career intact. But it would take a few years before he would star in the MGM film for which many people know both him and Debbie Reynolds today – Singin’ in the Rain (1952).
I Love Melvin and Singin' in the Rain
The puppy love narrative takes over in Melvin -They are so cute!- and you forget that this is a backstage story not dissimilar to the previous Reynolds-O'Connor film - Singin’ in the Rain (1952). It's simply presented as a light comedy, instead of a more dramatic piece.
In fact, MGM cashes in on the popularity and some of the elements of the previous film.
- The original I Love Melvin trailer sells Reynolds and O’Connor as “The Singin’ in the Rain kids.”
- In Singin’ in the Rain, Reynolds plays Kathy Selden -a newcomer to Hollywood who succeeds in show business. In I Love Melvin, Reynolds plays a wackier and more modern version of a character with similar aspirations, who - it is inferred- may leave for Hollywood soon. Judy Leroy is almost a proto-Kathy.
- Melvin features a virtuoso number for O’Connor called, “I Want to Wander,” where Melvin dances with various props in a photographer's studio. It hearkens back to a similarly wacky, signature piece for the star in Singin’ in the Rain called “Make ‘Em Laugh”, which involves props from various sets at a movie studio.
Debbie Reynolds' previous triumph sets up her character as a Hollywood insider. In Melvin, the movie-going audience must now accept her as a relatable, girl-next-door. How to bridge the gap?
Apart from the actress' own down-to-earth spunk, the answer in Melvin is to make her relatable by presenting her glamour as a figment of the imagination.
The credit sequence shows Reynolds in a stage costume writing the words “I Love Melvin ” in lipstick on a mirror. So far, she's still presented as the show business "It" girl.
After the credits, we see cast and crew milling around camera cranes and prepping for the entrance of a movie star - Judy Leroy. They segue into a production number with candelabras placed on a giant staircase. The number features Miss Leroy in shimmering jewels with a chorus of men in tuxedos and capes, singing, “A Lady Loves.” So far, Reynolds is still shown as a movie insider, like Kathy Selden.
The director yells, "cut"and we follow Judy around as everyone on the set congratulates her. Suddenly, someone screams her name, and Judy wakes up. It is all a dream. The real Judy is not a star, she’s a young lady who lives with her parents, who needs her mother to wake her up for work.
Presenting Judy's sophisticated manner, dress and career as a dream is an ingenious way that MGM eases its audience out of Debbie Reynolds as Kathy Selden, the movie starlet, and into Debbie Reynolds as a character that could be your neighbor. She's almost parodying the world of her previous role.
|Judy is just a kid strolling around in Central Park.|
A Movie About Movies
Melvin is a movie about movies, though it’s not often viewed in that vein since the film is set in New York City (with lovely location shots). Plus, the bulk of the film remains on the first leg of Judy Leroy's journey - getting on the cover of a magazine. Next stop: Hollywood. But we never see the second leg of the journey, except in her dreams. Silver screen stardom is just beyond Judy's reach.
Judy is on Broadway, but in a ludicrous way where no one will know her – curled up as a football in a ballet, surrounded by young men dressed in football jerseys who kick her back and throw her around. She walks out of the show with a limp; Judy is a “nobody” in New York.
When Melvin takes Judy on a date to the movies, she has no interest in canoodling, she stares enraptured at the actors on the screen. She's seated in New York, but her heart belongs to California.
Ah, Hollywood! Go West, young lady!
In Judy’s dreams she is not wearing a pigskin. No! Instead, Judy is bejeweled, gowned and faces the camera for a close up. Everyone will know Judy Leroy – the biggest star.
In her dreams, Judy is not surrounded by young, pimply, football jocks. Nay! In her dreams, she dances languidly with tuxedo-ed men. MEN, I tell you! Her first dream scene ends with a significantly older man (Bob Taylor, playing himself) who holds her hands and speaks sweet nothings to her. In another dream, Judy dances with several men in Fred Astaire masks and several other men in Gene Kelly masks. The Hollywood obsession is real.
Judy in real life lives with her parents, but in her dreams she is an independent, sophisticated adult. And La-La Land provides this platform for her.
Debbie Reynolds Plays the Face of Show Business
|Debbie Reynolds in The Gazebo-- via|
MGM had a winning formula for many of Debbie Reynolds' films. Reynolds often plays someone smitten with show business.
Her most famous film - Singin' in the Rain- sees her as a Copa girl who breaks into the early talkies in Hollywood.
In the same year of the release of I Love Melvin, the perky actress is seen again in a show business role, playing in an ensemble cast opposite Bob Fosse in Give a Girl a Break (1953). She meets Russ Tamblyn backstage at her rehearsal in Hit the Deck (1955). Frank Sinatra gives her a pointer or two about how to sell a song to an audience in The Tender Trap (1955).
Even when she steps outside of show business as a dental secretary to a lecherous boss in This Happy Feeling (1958), she quickly runs away into the employ of an actor (Curt Jurgens), becoming his girl Friday. In The Gazebo (1959) with Glenn Ford, Reynolds plays a Broadway performer who is so successful her husband is being extorted for money to keep career-crushing pictures of his wife from reaching the public.
By the next decade, Reynolds plays a woman exhausted by acting and fame and must retire temporarily to the countryside in My Six Loves (1963).
Even in the Wild West period film, How The West Was Won (1962), MGM couldn't resist giving Reynolds the part of a pioneer woman who seeks "fine things." She ends up having a career as a performer on a riverboat with as many petticoats as a woman could want.
In The Rat Race (1960) with Tony Curtis, Reynolds plays a seedier version of the show business person – a jaded taxi dancer, someone who dances with one man at a time for pay.
Reynolds says in her autobiography, Debbie: My Life,
"The Rat Race was going to be a departure for me. I had to play a young girl who has been in New York for five years trying to break into show business. To keep from starving, she models at whatever she can get daytimes, and at night works in a dance hall.”
In terms of style, yes, it's gritty and therefore a departure from her usually upbeat fare. But, The Rat Race is quite consistent with her wonderful oeuvre of movies about show business.
Debbie Reynolds has the talent to portray the everywoman who struggles for something more. Her characters' struggles were sometimes placed in films about show business, a prime example of this is in I Love Melvin .
At any rate, this film should have been called I Love Judy, because it’s less about Judy’s love for Melvin and more about Melvin’s intense, yet pathetic, attempts to bring to fruition Judy’s quixotic dreams. Perhaps I Love Melvin should have been titled I Love Hollywood, since the film is a mash note to show business in the same vein as A Star is Born or Singin’ in the Rain.
I highly recommend this light comedy for a rainy day.
- Debbie Reynolds is featured on Turner Classic Movies’ Summer Under the Stars tribute today. Go and watch her films.
- This entry is for the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon hosted by Journeys in Classic Film.