STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Up in Central Park

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Up in Central Park For months, I'd avoided it. There it was, in fine video stores everywhere: Deanna: Up in Central Park.

For months, I'd avoided it. There it was, in fine video stores everywhere: Deanna: Up in Central Park.

Deanna refers to Deanna Durbin, who, according to Ephraim Katz in The Film Encyclopedia, was "a starry-eyed romantic beauty who was Hollywood's highest-paid woman star when she suddenly retired from films in 1948." The actress, nee Edna Mae Durbin, made 22 movies starting in 1936, of which Up in Central Park was the penultimate.

Perhaps the main reason why I avoided all 22 Deanna Durbin movies is because she was my ex-mother-in-law's favorite movie star. 'Nuff said?

But attention must be paid to a 1945 Broadway musical with a Sigmund Romberg-Dorothy Fields score. Even though Denny Martin Flinn, in Musical! A Grand Tour, dismisses the picture by saying, "Since the show featured some of Sigmund Romberg's best songs, Hollywood naturally dropped them."

Kurt Ganzl, in The Encyclopedia of Musical Theatre, takes issue with that. "'Close as the Pages of a Book' won particular popularity alongside a pretty 'April Snow,' but in spite of the show's fine run of 504 performances, none of the numbers joined the old Romberg favorites in his list of standards." In the '40s, 504 was a considerable number of performances. Only 17 musicals had ever run longer. In David Sheward's It's a Hit! -- in which he tells of productions that amassed over 500 -- we learn one reason why. The musical was produced by Mike Todd.

This generation of stagestruck solely know Todd as the focal point of that dim-witted musical, Ain't Broadway Grand. Old-timers know him as the man who said the now-immortal words during Oklahoma!'s tryout: "No gags, no gals, no chance." But he also produced a bunch of hits: As the Girls Go, Mexican Hayride, Star and Garter and Something for the Boys. Shows that, shall we say, wore their attractions on the surface.

Sniffs Ganzl, Todd produced "nothing of enduring quality."

All right, but Mike Todd was a producer in the old-world sense. Sheward notes that after Up in Central Park's Jan. 27, 1945 opening, he "threw one of his customary bashes." The producer hired horse-drawn carriages to take the audience -- even the critics -- to the party at Tavern on the Green. After the affair, Todd paid for everyone's taxi ride home.

Said esteemed critic George Jean Nathan, "Just why Mr. Todd, whose show was a sufficiently good and surefire one, should have deemed it necessary to ingratiate himself with the reviews I cannot understand."

It's one thing for a producer to throw big parties. But it's another to have a creative sense. Todd did, for the idea of Up in Central Park originated with him, after he'd read -- yes, read -- a book called Boss Tweed and His Gang, about the grip Tammy Hall had on post-bellum New York City politics.

One of the reasons we don't know much about Up in Central Park is that, despite its success, it never recorded a cast album. Some months after it opened, Decca got Wilbur Evans, who appeared in the show, to join Eileen Farrell and Celeste Holm, who weren't, to record seven songs on one side on an LP. The other included selections from the then-popular revival of The Red Mill.

Not only that, Deep in My Heart, the film biography of Romberg's life, doesn't even mention Up in Central Park. Maybe that's because, as Sheward says of the film, it's "a disappointing screen adaptation."

Deanna or no Deanna, I'd have to find out for myself. So I bought the video, slipped it in, and was immediately disappointed at the don't-copy-this-tape warning. It was in black-and-white. Who expected that from a musical made the same year as the very colorful Easter Parade and The Red Shoes?

Then came the movie's original trailer. "Broadway's Grandest Musical Hit Hits the Screen," it trumpeted, before adding, "Did America really go for Up in Central Park?" -- a line that suggests that the prospect seemed highly unlikely.

"Over a thousand performances!" And before you can say. "They must be taking the liberty of including the national tour," it added, "Cheered by 1,600,000 playgoers coast-to-coast."

We can't let them get away with one claim, though. "All the spectacle and song!" Of the 14 songs written for the stage show, only three were retained as originally heard. Two were used instrumentally, and there was one new one.

Maybe this is why Sheward deems the movie "disappointing." But I say Up in Central Park is the best movie I've seen this year. And yes, I've been to Titanic, As Good As It Gets, and L.A. Confidential.

In a medium where the book is usually the problem, here's one that's rock-solid. In that it deals with the immigrant experience, it's everything that Rags should have been.

The plot: Tammany Hall Boss Tweed (Vincent Price) endorses Mayor Oakley for re-election, though he won't ever let the guy make a speech. Tweed will do that instead -- telling citizens they'll get free beer when they vote. Afterwards with his cronies, as he gives Oakley the butt of his cigar to dispose of, he crows about all the money they've all pocketed.

John Matthews (Dick Haymes) of the New York Times suspects as much. He confronts Tweed, who elegantly parries with him. Matthews vows to get some real proof, but Tweed pooh-poohs him. The Boss is more concerned with keeping Oakley in power. He decides he'd better have his staff recruit immigrants to vote, using the names of the recently deceased.

Meanwhile, on a boat near the Statue of Liberty, here's Rose (Durbin) and Jack Moore (Albert Sharpe, who originated the title role of Finian's Rainbow) emigrating from Ireland. Moore says he'll be missing the green fields of home. "Don't you want to be a millionaire?" Rose guilelessly asks.

And though Moore tautly tells her, "I don't think they'll be giving money away in America," Rose believes otherwise. In the film's one new song, she sings, "Oh, say can you see what I see? If this is America, this is for me. Opportunity knocks till it breaks down the door."

In fact, it soon does. Once off the boat, Moore is offered $2 by one of Tweed's men -- for each time he votes. Soon he's cast 23 ballots, is given $50, and is told to keep the change, compliments of Tweed. Moore and Rose think that Mr. Tweed must be as swell as -- well, America.

Rose goes to his office to thank Tweed, doesn't find him there, and falls asleep on his sofa. When Tweed and his stooges return after Oakley's victory, the Boss begins talking about plans to renovate Central Park, overcharging the city in the process. Rose awakens, emerges, and all are afraid of what she's heard. Tweed not only charms her with considerable sweet talk, but also offers her father a job as park commissioner (once he discovers the man is illiterate, and assumes he'll make a nice patsy). Moore now agrees with his daughter's way of thinking that America is indeed the land of opportunity. Look how far they've come in a matter of hours!

When Matthews hears of the park plans, he goes there to interview Moore. En route, he runs into Rose, unaware that she's his daughter. It's love at first sight as they sing "A Carousel in the Park."

The Matthews goes and gets Moore to incriminate himself and Tweed. Once the expose is published, the Boss cans Moore, which devastates both father and daughter. Rose rushes to change Tweed's mind, which he does -- because he finds her attractive. Rose likes him, too. Why wouldn't she, once she learns that the newspaper reporter and her carousel beau are one and the same.

There you have it. How can Rose become convinced that Matthews is good and Tweed is bad, when all her pleasure and money come from the Boss, and all their troubles come from the reporter?

Things begin to unravel when Moore learns to read. Oakley, too, will play a part in Tweed's undoing, proving that if a boss isn't good to his employees, he'll eventually pay the price.

How does it end? Oh, no, I'm not telling. You must get this movie. And don't bother checking your musical theater encyclopedias to find out. For -- and I hate to admit it -- Dorothy and Herbert Fields' original book was markedly inferior to the screenplay fashioned by Karl Tunberg, who produced the picture, too. Rose marries someone else to spite Matthews, and, in awfully clunky plot device, sees him murdered.

And how is Deanna Durbin? Alas, here's one more thing on which my ex-mother-in-law and I will have to agree to disagree.

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theater critic for the Star-Ledger
You can e-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com