B Is For… BEST FOOT FORWARD (1941)

Welcome to a new Musical Theatre Monday! Today, we’re continuing a new series of alphabetically ordered posts on forgotten musicals from the ’10s – ’40s. Over the next 25 weeks (note that I will not be doing a post for the letter X), I’ll be covering a different forgotten musical. The only criteria, it has to begin with that specific letter of the alphabet. Last week, A was for Are You With It? (1945). B is for…

 

B. Best Foot Forward (10/01/41 – 07/04/42)

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This is one of those musicals that’s relative obscurity is rather shocking. Not only was the original run a big success that launched several careers, but MGM also produced a glossy screen adaptation in 1943 with much of the score and much of the cast intact, which later yielded a 1963 Off-Broadway revival that starred a young Liza Minnelli and left behind a peppy cast recording. So what gives — why aren’t we performing Best Foot Forward as much as Good News! (1927)? Well, it’s probably the score. Now, don’t misunderstand me: the score, by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, is excellent. But the charm of the music is linked so tightly to the show’s overarching charisma, that taken separately, the songs don’t come off quite as well as they do in the context of the musical. But let’s be clear: this has little to do with an integrated book (this show has no more integration than Let’s Face It, for example, also of 1941) or multi-dimensional characters. Simply, what’s great about Best Foot Forward is its sense of fun — and that extends through the score and into the book. And they go hand-in-hand.

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Like Good News! (1927) and Too Many Girls (1939), this fun is largely the result of an emphasis on youth. But while those two shows set their sights on college, Best Foot Forward ups the youthful ante by setting things in a military academy. The plot concerns a young boy, Bud Hooper, who jokingly writes to a glamorous B-movie actress and asks her to be his date for the upcoming dance. When the starlet accepts, after much prodding by her publicity agent, Bud finds himself in hot water with his girlfriend, Helen, who makes a scene at the dance. Naturally, other students fill out the secondary couples, and everyone ends up happily in the end. Nothing novel, just a grand old time. The original production was produced by George Abbott, choreographed by Gene Kelly, and silently co-produced by Richard Rodgers, who apparently inspired the title of the school: Winsocki. (See below for the only number from the score to remain in the public’s collective conscious, the cheer-worthy “Buckle Down, Winsocki,” which is sung here by the cast of the 1943 film.) The original cast included Gil Stratton, Jr., Maureen Cannon, June Allyson, Kenneth Bowers, Jack Jordan, Jr., Victoria Schools, Rosemary Lane, Marty May, and in her broadway debut, Nancy Walker as ‘Blind Date.’

MGM’s 1943 silver screen adaptation is glorious, retaining Allyson, Bowers, Jordan, and Walker from the original cast, and promoting Tommy Dix, whose only number in the original production was the show’s hit, “Buckle Down, Winsocki,” from bit part to leading man. In a stroke of genius, Lane was replaced by Lucille Ball, who played herself — a B-movie actress in need of publicity. Her comedic press agent: the ’30s favorite sarcastic leading man, William Gaxton! A good majority of the score was included in the film, with Martin and Blane contributing several new numbers, including “You’re Lucky” (mouthed by Lucy) and the happily infectious, “Wish I May,” which is seen below. I’m thrilled, for ONCE on this blog, to recommend a screen adaptation of a forgotten musical that accurately captures the tone of the show. Highly recommended!

Best Foot Forward apparently received semi-regualar play by high schools and drama clubs in the ’40s and ’50s, but the last major production occurred Off-Broadway in 1963. Among the cast was Christopher Walken and Liza Minnelli, who was given a Martin-Blane trunk song, “You Are For Loving,” which became the album’s showstopper. Backed with minimal accompaniment, this recording finds life in the exuberant performances of its youthful cast. It is also highly recommended!

We’ve yet to have a full recording of the original score, however, although almost all of the songs have been covered over the years. Let’s take the rest of the post to appreciate the undersung work of Martin and Blane. Here’s the three main guys’ “Three Men On A Date” from the original motion picture soundtrack with Tommy Dix and Kenneth Bowers. Note that Ralph Blane dubs for Jack Jordan, Jr.

The girls get a trio of their own with “The Three B’s.” This comes from the motion picture soundtrack, with Walker, Allyson, and Gloria DeHaven.

Walker’s “Just A Little Joint With A Jukebox,” reportedly one of the highlights of the original production, was replaced in the film by the jumpy “Alive And Kicking.” But Walker recorded the first number (along with a few others) in 1941. Here’s Ida, I mean, Nancy.

Allyson and Bower’s duet, “What Do You Think I Am?” was filmed but cut before release of the picture. Here’s their 1943 recording of the number. (One of my favorites!)

Another one of my favorites from the original score is Bud’s “I Know You By Heart,” sung here, from the film soundtrack by Tommy Dix.

Because the actress cast as Helen in the film, Virginia Wielder, was, like Ball, not known for her singing, the character’s numbers were reduced and dubbed. In the original production, Helen lead the Act One finale in “Shady Lady Bird.” Helen Forrest sung the tune in the film, but here’s Walker’s ’41 recording.

Helen’s earlier spot, countering Bud’s “I Know You By Heart,” is “Ev’ry Time.” This is Ralph Blane’s rendition of the song.

Also from the same album, here’s Hugh Martin’s recording of “That’s How I Love The Blues,” a number for the starlet and her agent that was in neither the film nor the revival. (I first heard Dinah Shore, Vicki Lawrence, and Carol Burnett sing it in a medley on a 1976 episode of The Carol Burnett Show.)

 

 

Come back next Monday for C! And tune in tomorrow for the best from Season Three of Here’s Lucy!

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4 thoughts on “B Is For… BEST FOOT FORWARD (1941)

  1. Thanks Jackson for another fun review. I really liked the 1943 Best Foot Forward; thought it was one of Ball’s best movie performances. I liked that the film retained a lot of the cast and original music. Maybe that partially explains why it was way way better than the movie version of Good News.

    • Hi, Adam! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Yes, the film adaptation of BEST FOOT FORWARD is much more faithful to the stage show than the ’47 GOOD NEWS! (But I do recommend the 1930 adaptation of the latter, which includes more of the original score and gives you a better flavor of the musical.)

  2. Nice comments on the production. But singing Buckle Down Winsocki, the hit song, and repeatedly stopping the show is hardly a bit part for Tommy Dix who did them a favor. The show was a hit because of his excellent performance. George Abbott made the statement.

    He performed the song with Benny Goodman on record and had a huge hit with it. Dix had been performing on stage, in night clubs and big rooms across the country prior to his role in BFF. He continued singing in the big New York Clubs while he performed in the play he made a hit. Tommy Dix was no bit player.

    • Hi, Pam. Thanks for reading and commenting.

      If you’ve read the original 1941 book, you’ll know that the role of Chuck Green is indeed a small one, charged only with singing the fight song. Yes, Dix, who was moderately well known on radio, became a sensation following his performance in BEST FOOT FORWARD. This earned him a starring role in the 1943 film adaptation. But the character that he played on stage, despite the success he made of his one number, was a bit part.

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