• My Gal Sal (Twilight Time Releasing) Blu-ray Review

    Released by: Twilight Time
    Release date: June 19, 2018
    Directed by: Irving Cummings
    Cast: Rita Hayworth, Victor Mature, John Sutton, Carole Landis, James Gleason, Phil Silvers, Walter Catlett, Mona Maris, Frank Orth
    Year: 1942
    Purchase From Screen Archives

    My Gal Sal - Movie Review:

    Johann Paul Dreiser, Jr. was born on April 22, 1857 in the small community of Terre Haute, Indiana. His father worked in woolen mills throughout Indiana and Ohio, though the family remained poor and struggled to survive. After Johann’s older brothers died, he became the eldest of the six remaining children. At a young age, he was sent to a Catholic seminary, but he didn’t care for the restrictions and left, soon returning home to help out his family. He continued his education while there and also continued to play the instruments he’d taken up before leaving. According to his younger brother Theodore, who went on to become a famous novelist, Johann and his father did not get along; their father was a religious zealot who was strict with his children. At age 16, Johann took a job as a teacher and musician at a small-town church, but when it proved inadequate in sating his thirst for something more, he joined a minstrel show as a piano player. He held a number of such jobs before going to New York City to try and find fame there. He also began going by the name of Paul Dresser. But it wasn’t until a gig in Chicago that he found success, which allowed him to book acts all over the Midwest and Upper East.

    After purchasing a home in Evansville, Indiana, he moved his mother and several of his siblings into it, while he went back to NYC. There he found a music publisher in what would later become known as Tin Pan Alley. His success soon went national and then international. His song “On the Banks of the Wabash” became the biggest-selling sheet music of the entire 19th century, and he followed it up with one hit after another. Unfortunately, his later years were not kind to him: His success as a songwriter dried up, replaced by the popularity of ragtime and patriotic songs. He entered into a couple of business ventures that never panned out, and he was eventually forced to move into his sister’s home in New York City, where he died in January 1906 from a brain hemorrhage at the age of 48. His remains were held in state until his funeral arrangements could be paid for, after which they were transferred to and buried in St. Boniface Cemetery in Illinois. He didn’t get a gravestone until 1922, when the Indiana Society of Chicago marked the grave with a boulder from the banks of the Wabash River in Indiana.

    If you think that Dresser’s story has all the makings of a dramatic work of cinematic art, you’d be right. But you won’t find such a work in the fanciful My Gal Sal. Nominally based on a biographical essay by Theodore Dreiser, it’s a ridiculously romantic musical with a happy ending. The film begins with Father Dreiser arriving at his home in rural Indiana (a rural Indiana of scenic mountains, no less), where he’s to deliver the suit his son has ordered for seminary school. Unfortunately, papa is a cheapskate in addition to being strict, and he’s merely had one of his old suits sewn up, which he bestows upon his son. This doesn’t sit well with Paul, who runs off to play musician to a snake oil salesman. When that doesn’t pan out, Paul gets tarred and feathered and is discovered by Mae Collins (Carole Landis), who induces him to join a minstrel show. One evening, however, a group from New York City attend the show and laugh at Paul’s piano-playing act (and his new suit). Right then and there, he determines to turn the tables on his tormenters, one of whom is the gorgeous and talented singer Sally Elliott (Rita Hayworth). Paul dumps the doting Mae and runs off to NYC, where he learns that Sally has stolen one of his songs and written her own lyrics to it. Procuring an agent, Paul reclaims what’s rightfully his while becoming Sally’s primary songwriter. The two experience the expected sexual tension, which means that they argue a lot and throw temper tantrums (one of which suggests that these are not well-adjusted folk), but in the end they recognize their love as triumphant over any adversity no matter how self-made it is.

    Producer Darryl F. Zanuck went through a number of female leads—all of whom either dropped out, refused the part, or tested poorly—before convincing Columbia to loan out Rita Hayworth for the role of Sally Elliott. It was a fairly straightforward part, one anyone could play, so there was little challenge for Hayworth, who, despite top billing, played second fiddle to Victor Mature anyway. But while Hayworth at least charmed in her role, the same can’t be said of Mature, who, from the outset, is simply not right for the part of Paul Dresser. (Don Ameche had originally been considered for the role.) The film hints at Dresser’s alcoholism, though it ignores his obesity, and it crafts a romance where one didn’t exist in real life. It also doesn’t help that, while Dresser’s life was difficult and often depressing, the film is sprightly and upbeat. At least Mature appears to do much of his own piano-playing, if not his own singing (both he and Hayworth were dubbed).

    That audiences wanted fluff in the early 1940s is understandable; the United States was at war with both Europe and Japan, after all. And what more could they have asked for than big-budget, Technicolor fluff about a small-town boy who does good. It’s just that Dresser’s life wasn’t the proper fit for such nostalgic yearnings, and nothing about the resultant affair suggests that it should have been. In the end, My Gal Sal is forgettable despite its crew, songs (a mix of Dresser originals and works written specifically for the film), and gorgeous use of color.

    My Gal Sal - Blu-ray Review:

    Twilight Time has released 20th Century Fox’s My Gal Sal on Blu-ray with an MPEG-4 AVC encode in 1080p high definition, in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 closely mirroring its original theatrical release ratio. Placed on a BD50 with few extras, the film features a high bitrate but with only a middling amount of detail. In general, the color looks quite good, offering a luscious view of the film’s many artificial sets. Unfortunately, the film rarely looks properly hi-def; on a few occasions, suit jackets or ornate dresses bear the clarity one associates with the format. Otherwise, the image looks only slightly better than your average DVD. This certainly isn’t in keeping with the overwhelming majority of Twilight Time releases, so one can conclude that all Fox had on file was an older transfer. The film was only ever released on DVD as part of Fox’s made-on-demand Cinema Archives collection, which means that TT’s Blu-ray is, at least, a pressed disc, not a burned one. Grain structure seems virtually nonexistence, though not because of excessive use of DNR; it’s probably simply a product of the initial transfer.

    For the film’s main soundtrack, Twilight Time has utilized English DTS-HD Master Audio Mono. The sound is solid, and the loud music never conflicts with the dialogue or the vocals during the singing. The sound, score, and musical effects are clear and free of any kind of distortion, wobble, hiss, or damage. For enthusiasts, there’s an isolated music track… Optional English subtitles for the deaf or hearing impaired have been included.

    Though the release may be bereft of extras, it does feature an 8-page booklet containing excellent liner notes from film historian Julie Kirgo. These notes understand not only the film itself, but also the climate in which it was made. Before settling into a discussion about Dresser or the film’s stars, Kirgo covers the social context in which the film was made and society’s need for nostalgic looks at the past, in this case the Gay ‘90s. The booklet also features stills from the film as well as a reproduction of its original theatrical one-sheet.

    My Gal Sal is region free and limited to 3,000 units.

    My Gal Sal - The Final Word:

    My Gal Sal is not a biographical account of Paul Dresser’s life; it’s a work of fiction about the romance between kindred but argumentative spirits, played by Victor Mature and Rita Hayworth. Twilight Time’s Blu-ray release has flashes of hi-def beauty but overall looks like a slightly improved standard DVD. Colors are nice, but detail is rarely as sharp as it should be. On the other hand, there are no issues with the sound, and Julie Kirgo’s liner notes are definitely worth reading.

    Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Horror Films of the Silent Era and Horror Films of the 1930s are currently available, with Horror Films of the 1940s due out in 2019.

    Click on the images below for full sized My Gal Sal Blu-ray screen caps!