We tend to lump all of the musicals of Hollywood’s Golden Age into one warm memory. But of course there were lesser lights — forgotten gems — and big budget blunders, like “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”
A Technicolor musical built around a Mark Twain classic and the reliable crooner Bing Crosby, with songs by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, who wrote the lyrics for the Crosby standard “Swinging on a Star,” which won the best original song Oscar for “Going My Way?” This should have been a laid back easy layup for Paramount.
But while it was by no means a bomb when it came out, it’s neither aged well nor connected with the collective memory of the the great, the good or even the adequate musicals of the day. “Yankee” is colorless despite being colorful, flatly-directed, soundstage-bound for the most part and so lacking in comic bits that work that we’re reminded that there’s never been a version of this Twain novel that truly came off. The Will Rogers take on it in 1931 at least has a laugh or three.
Maybe putting Tay Garnett, the director of one of the definitive noirs, “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and several notable WWII pictures, behind the camera wasn’t the smartest move.
The half dozen songs have a generic, disposable feel, with one even cut from the film after its 1949 premiere.
Crosby, so funny in the bantering Bob Hope “Road” comedies, hasn’t got much that’s funny to say or do here. It’s as if the laid-back “Der Bingle” is too laid back even for a role that admittedly is more of a “reactor” than “antagonist” in nature. The pacing is slow, the comic timing even slower.
William Bendix and Cedric Hardwicke are Crosby’s sole comic foils. They’re usually funnier than this. The movie should have taken the tone of Twain’s 1889 novel, flippant and tart. It’ain’t.
Crosby stars as Hank Martin, an American tourist who drops in on present day Pendragon Castle just to reminisce about the place and contradict the nonplussed tour guide. No, that’s not a crossbow-bolt hole in that (period incorrect) suit of armor. Twas a bullet, my good man. I was there, Hank implies.
Meeting the cute old lord of the castle (Hardwicke), Hank tells the story of his first visit to the place, in the sixth century, when Arthur (Hardwicke again) was an aged grump under the thumb of the wizard Merlin (Murvyn Vye) and his sister Morgan Le Fay (Virginia Field).
Hank, then an early 20th century Connecticut blacksmith trying to adapt to an increasingly automotive America, took a fall off a horse and woke up way back when, with the hapless Sir Saggamore (Bendix) who takes him prisoner and marches him hither.
“That can’t be Bridgeport!” “It’s CAMELOT!”
Hank finds himself labeled “a monster,” under-reacting to anyone in an “iron union suit” (armor), smitten with the fair Lady Alisande (Rhonda Fleming) and having to escape the executioner (Alan Napier, butler Alfred to TV’s “Batman”) by relying on his Yankee wit.
Castle intrigues, jousting and songs follow. But fun? Not so much.
“If there were aught I could say, aught I could do to save thee…”
“Well, ain’t there aught?”
One thing common to every version of this comic fantasy I’ve ever seen is a reliance on Twain’s long-out-of-date misreading of Dark Ages Arthur and Medieval “courtly love” chivalry, with its much more elaborate armor, jousting and what not. Not that anybody expects “period detail” to be a concern in this story.
It’s children’s entertainment, not nearly as droll as “The Innocents Abroad,” which it resembles more than Twain’s “Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn” masterpieces.
But that’s no excuse for not finding more funny lines than this, for not making even slam dunk “magic” sight gags (Hank uses his pocket watch crystal as fire-starting wizardry to effect his first “escape”) work.
Hardwicke is more than game, and makes a wry Arthur. Bendix, trapped in that squeaking “iron union suit” (long underwear jokes were the rage in the ’40s), seems puzzled at being here, and unable to find the funny in the film’s most comical character.
Crosby and Fleming are in fine voice, but there’s little chemistry in their shared scenes.
The villains are drab, the story limps along, and every so often there’s a song, a seriously forgettable song from one of the great song-writing teams of the era.
Lump this one among the lesser musical lights of The Studio Era, and move on.
Cast: Bing Crosby, Rhonda Fleming, Cedric Hardwicke, Virginia Field, Alan Napier, Murvyn Vye and William Bendix.
Credits: Directed by Tay Garnett, scripted by Edmund Beloin, based on the novel by Mark Twain. A Paramount release, on Amazon, Tubi, other streamers
Running time: 1:46