Review: My Gal Sal – 1942
Victor Mature and Rita Hayworth argue and pitch woo in this comedy-biography of gay nineties songwriter Paul Dresser. Punctuated with songs and musical numbers that grow more elaborate as Dresser's success is chronicled through his accumulating hit list, we also watch the chronology of his on-and-off romance with Rita (as songstress Sally Elliott). By the end he still hasn't "closed the deal" with her, though he comes close, and most of the ups and downs in the romance are portrayed as humorous episodes in the life of the two characters, never quite getting married but almost getting there, arguing in a comical way and going through long periods of estrangement without much editorial comment from director Irving Cummings.
In the beginning of the film, Dresser (played by Victor) journeys from a backwoods home along a river (there is comment in My Gal Sal how much Americans like songs pertaining to rivers), joining a travelling carnival show playing tunes while Walter Catlett (as Colonel Truckee) sells phony medicines and junk jewelry in small towns, and after Dresser is tarred-and-feathered after one such interlude where the "rubes" figure out the con, Dresser ventures onto New York City, then the capitol of the American musical world, and begins his climb to fame and fortune.
Carole Landis appears briefly near the beginning as one of the three main ladies this biography focuses on, the other being "The Countess" played by Mona Mars, and of course Rita Hayworth, who is presented as almost as important as Dresser himself considering how much screen time she receives and how much the camera gives her attention. She sings and dances, and this being a color film, is shown to advantage as she is given many stage numbers to perform in, usually to boisterous applause from the on screen audience.
James Gleason plays the combative and long-suffering musical publisher for Dresser's songs, and there are a number of cameo appearances of well-known people (from the early twentieth century, such as boxer John L. Sullivan) to give My Gal Sal a bit of a clever historical tone by showing us the fashions, songs and popular songs of an earlier era that was still well within memory in 1942 when this movie came out.
For a twenty-first century audience, My Gal Sal has an archaic element which is probably best exemplified by the suit fashions that are such a source of humor in the story. When Dresser appears in a very "loud" outfit, why this is funny and an indicator of Dresser's "hick" background isn't something we can immediately understand: his outfit looks just as foreign to us as do most of the other outfits of the era. How his outfit can convey so much information about his background and lack of sophistication to all the other characters on the screen is something we can't participate in (unless we have a trained knowledge of clothing styles from well over a century before). Context and the reactions of others gives us an understanding, but we've already been watching Dresser in the outfit in previous scenes without knowing what must have been apparent immediately to the original movie audience. A similar issue dampens our ability to appreciate the popularity of many of the songs we're hearing which were well known a hundred years ago, but are now generally antique, however cleverly melodic and well done they are.
My Gal Sal is a deliberately light musical, and equally biography-lite tale which shows us the passage of time on the screen, and unintentionally shows us how pop culture loses meaning and slides into vagueness or even incomprehensibility as fashion becomes no longer even dim-memory, but an unknown world.
Victor Mature works his way through the story, portraying Dresser as a man willing to fight (both literally and figuratively) within the competitive world of song-writing. Rita Hayworth is shown in new outfits, one after another, with her red hair pinned, styled, or unfurled in a large wavy mass. Her dancing is athletic and carefully done, and the production of My Gal Sal on the whole shows a lot of finesse, however thinly the story is biographical and mostly used to connect one song (and stage scene) to another, and in that way, is very well done.
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From former screen legends who have faded into obscurity to new revelations about the biggest movie stars, Valderrama unearths the most fascinating little-known tales from the birth of Hollywood through its Golden Age.
Winner of the 2020 Peter C. Rollins Book Award
Longlisted for the 2020 Moving Image Book Award by the Kraszna-Krausz Foundation
Named a 2019 Richard Wall Memorial Award Finalist by the Theatre Library Association
Original Page June 2014 | Updated Dec 2017