Fred almost suffocates in Minnelli’s musical
There’s no getting around it: Yolanda and the Thief is one of Fred Astaire’s worst pictures. The film has only two dances and one of them, a ghastly dream ballet, is a disaster from start to finish. Only the charming “Coffee Time,” which comes at the very end of the film, is worth watching.
In 1944, Astaire moved from the comparatively low-budget RKO, where he’d done The Sky’s the Limit in 1943, to MGM, the home of big bucks and bad taste. His first film for MGM, also his first color film, was Ziegfeld Follies. However, the preview audience reaction to the film was so bad that the studio pulled it back and fiddled with it for almost two years before releasing it in 1946. In the meantime, Fred joined with director Vincente Minnelli to make Yolanda and the Thief, released in 1945.
Minnelli had scored a huge success in 1944 with Meet Me in St. Louis and the studio was inclined to give him free rein, a questionable decision with a director as given to fantasy as Minnelli.1 To make matters worse, Minnelli hooked up with the dangerously fey Ludwig Bemelmans2 to come up with a story. But the big problem was the leading lady, Lucille Bremer, a fine dancer but no actor. MGM producer Alan Freed had chosen her as his protégé and was determined to make her a star.
The result of all this negative synergy is an inert, leaden concoction, full of lush Minnelli color values but with virtually no plot movement at all. Fred plays an international con man, looking for easy prey in “Patria,” a made-up country in South America that bears a suspicious resemblance to the Swiss Alps.3 Bremer plays “Yolanda Aquaviva,” a wealthy, naïve girl just graduating from the convent. Yolanda’s so virginal that Fred comes on to her, not as a suitor but as her guardian angel, a line that she buys without hesitation.
Unfortunately for Fred, her real guardian angel shows up and the forces of good triumph. Fred is converted from sin, surreptitiously returning all the money he’s stolen and (of course) marrying Yolanda.”Coffee Time” is quite a nice number, with a relaxed, pulsing energy that the rest of the film sorely lacks.4 If Yolanda and the Thief had three or four such pieces, one could ignore the saccharine plot. But as it stands, Yolanda and the Thief is for completists only.
Freed failed to make a star out of Bremer, and she left the movies in 1948, last appearing in The Human Gorilla (presumably, as bad as it sounds). Yolanda and the Thief lost money at the box office, as did Minnelli’s next musical, The Pirate, starring Judy and Gene Kelly. But Minnelli bounced back with Father of the Bride and went on to direct such florid favorites as An American in Paris and The Bad and the Beautiful, which have made him one of the great names in postwar Hollywood. For reviews of all his films, check out the website maintained by the singularly industrious Michael E. Grost. There is an interview with Minnelli here.
- Minnelli also did a lot of the directing for Ziegfeld Follies (a total of eight directors were involved). Somehow, this didn’t make the suits nervous. [↩]
- Or is it fey but dangerous? Born in Austria, Bemelmans worked as a waiter as a teenager in his uncle’s restaurant, departing for the U.S. after he shot the headwaiter. A determinedly free spirit, Bemelmans never considered the possibility of hard times, refusing even to open a savings account. Why think about trouble before it comes? Fortunately, the great success of his Madeline books freed him from financial worry. [↩]
- “Patria” is Latin for “country.” I guess someone thought this was funny. [↩]
- As for the dream ballet, well, it’s a dream ballet. What more do you need to know? [↩]