In 1904 Hungarian immigrant Latsie Dolly (S.Z. Sakall) arrives in New York city along with his two charming and talented little nieces Yansci and Roszika. Fresh off the boat, the compulsive gambler heads straight for the poker table at the nearest bar while the girls wow the crowd, dancing up a storm onstage. Eight years on, grownup gorgeous, the newly rechristened Jenny (Betty Grable) and Rosie (June Haver) are still dancing in dives across the country to pay off Uncle Latsie’s gambling debts. Whilst riding the train disguised as pigtailed schoolgirls, so they can travel half-price, the girls meet struggling singer-songwriter Harry Fox (John Payne) whom they dazzle with their performance at a vaudeville theatre where they are third-billed under Elmer the Educated Seal (who plays himself).
Romantic sparks fly between Jenny and Harry, but despite Rosie’s initial skepticism, the songwriter comes through securing them a successful audition for the legendary impressario, Hammerstein. Soon the Dolly Sisters are the toast of Broadway before becoming international stars as they tour the great cities of Europe, but then the First World War breaks out. Harry enlists in the army and over time, separation coupled with the pressures of fame and fortune take their toll on his marriage to Jenny.
This musical biopic was a comeback effort from Miss Million Dollar Legs: Betty Grable, and proved one of her biggest hits. Adapted from the scrapbook memoirs of the real Rosie Dolly, the film took considerable liberties with the subjects’ true life story, perhaps inevitably given it aims for splashy Technicolor spectacle rather than heavyweight drama. For one thing, the real Dolly Sisters were small dark brunettes and not lithe, leggy blondes. Also Jenny Dolly came to a far sadder end than her screen counterpart, having been scarred in a car crash (which does feature here, only with a more positive outcome) she succumbed to drug addiction and committed suicide just three years before this film was released.
Whilst the script soft-pedals the more sensational aspects of the Dolly Sisters’ lives, it still proves successful at spinning an emotional thread consistently through the eye-catching song and dance numbers. Surprisingly, given that title, the plot is less focused on the sisters’ relationship than on Jenny’s emotionally fraught romance with husband Harry Fox. It comes down to Jenny being faced with two choices: love or showbusiness. Unlike many modern musical stars, she can’t have both. To modern eyes, Harry’s demands seem somewhat unreasonable. After all, he never once thinks about compromising his career for the sake of their marriage but demands the same of Jenny. As the years roll by, Jenny continually sacrifices all for her man but the one moment she falters, Harry heads off to the divorce court. It says a lot about John Payne’s easygoing charisma that Harry remains a largely sympathetic character. The Dolly Sisters marked comeback for Payne too, being his first film after serving in the military for two years.
Of course the real joy comes from watching Grable and June Haver light up the screen, a pitch-perfect combination of Broadway chic and all-American cheesecake. They share terrific chemistry which is all the more remarkable considering Haver was the one female co-star with whom the normally easygoing Grable did not share a friendly relationship. In this instance, there may have been a hint of jealousy on Grable’s part, given Twentieth Century Fox were grooming Haver as the next Betty Grable and indeed the radiant blonde star headlined several hit musicals for the studio over the ensuing years. When it comes to the song and dance numbers, Haver matches Grable step for step, which is saying something, but Rosie’s own romantic subplot is so feather-light you wonder why they even bothered. She falls for arrogant department store owner Irving Netcher (Frank Latimore, in a role intended for Randolph Scott) whose first act upon meeting the Broadway star is to accuse of being venal, dumb and a lousy dancer. Naturally, Rosie melts in his arms. Take note fellas, if you want to woo a star, rob her of her self-esteem then she’ll be putty in your hands...
It is Grable who shoulders the weightier dramatic arc, demonstrating her oft-overlooked skill as a “straight” actress though it is arguable the marvellous Mother Wore Tights (1947) was a finer showcase for her talents. Amidst fabulous Technicolor photography by Ernest Palmer and some wildly surreal stage costumes, veteran musical hand Irving Cummings stages some arresting set-pieces, notably an amusing comic number wherein the girls ham up their Hungarian accents to impress the impressario (“Vhen ve vas in Vienna!”) and a bizarre routine paying tribute to ladies’ makeup (?) with dancers dressed up as lipstick, powder and paint. Only the Parisian number, wherein dancers don blackface minstrel makeup, is likely to grate modern sensibilities though mercifully, Betty and June do not follow suit. Strangely, while Uncle Latsie’s gambling problems initially seem like they will be a major plot point, it does not pan out that way though likely influenced a significant subplot in the Shaw Brothers musical drama Hong Kong Nocturne (1966).