Dreamboat (1952)

Throughout the 1950s, television audiences grew at the expense of movie box office receipts. Eventually the studios learned to adjust by using improvements such as wide screen, and by producing television shows themselves. But their initial response was to ridicule the new medium as an idiot box.

The most clever studio assaults on television are probably Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) and Network (1976). But Dreamboat has to earn an honorable mention.

It depicts television as an insipid advertising vehicle, and has several entertaining send-ups of commercials. When the smiling, animated hair tonic drops drill into a hair root and jump inside, you'll have to laugh. Nearly fifty years later, the ad could still be current if it wasn't in black and white.

But of course, there's a story beyond all the satire, which also lampoons at length the exaggerated acting and action of silent movies.

Clifton Webb stars as Thornton Sayre, a stuffed shirt who is a professor of literature at a small college. Decades ago, he was silent film star Bruce Blair, a bravura combination of Rudy Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks. He is embarrassed about his distant career, which becomes widely known due to television showings of his films.

These programs are hosted by Gloria Marlowe (Ginger Rogers), a cunning, glamorous woman who is capitalizing on Blair's career revival. With his attractive but bookish daughter Carol (Anne Francis) in tow, Thornton travels to New York to seek an injunction against the network showing the films.

Carol soon develops a romance with a very young Jeffrey Hunter (The Searchers). Meanwhile, Thornton must fend off passes from Gloria as well as his lovestruck college dean, Dr. Coffey (Elsa Lanchester), whose odd voice reminds me of Billie Burke.

Rogers is largely wasted, with her role surprisingly small for her second billing. A gifted comic actress, here she is relegated to fitting a Zsa Zsa Gabor-styled stereotype. But Webb has a terrific role, perfectly suited to his indignant, lecturing, highbrow screen persona. While Laura (1944) was a better film, there he was only part of an ensemble cast. Webb has most of the scenes in Dreamboat, and he can inspire laughs just by pausing or raising an eyebrow.

The character of Carol, on the other hand, seems to have been inserted to create romantic and teen interest. Her discovery that she is a woman, and not a professorial clone of her father, is obvious and belabored. But this is Clifton Webb's movie, and it is his performance that makes the film.

Dreamboat provided a rare assignment as director for Claude Binyon, a veteran Hollywood screenwriter best known for Holiday Inn (1942) and North to Alaska (1960). Perhaps it is our loss more than his, that he was not given a chance to direct more often. (72/100)


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