Under his 20-year watch at the nascent Fox Film Corporation and the studio’s inaugural decade of flowering into a major powerhouse as the spectacularly reformed Twentieth Century Fox, director Irving Cummings (1888-1959), born 130 years ago today, steered the course of a noteworthy silent era epic (1926’s The Johnstown Flood), a couple of Best Picture Academy Award® nominees (1929’s In Old Arizona, which nabbed a Best Actor Oscar® for Warner Baxter as the Cisco Kid and a directing nomination for himself, and 1934’s The White Parade, a virtually lost drama about nurses in training and in love starring Loretta Young) and a memorable if fanciful The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939) that burnished Don Ameche’s stalwart leading-man image and co-starred Young and Henry Fonda.
More importantly, the one-time silent-era actor who gained first fame on the stage appearing with Lillian Russell, did Hollywood a solid by helping mold in a succession of projects the talent and allure of some of the most beloved Fox stars of all time: Shirley Temple (three films starting with 1935’s Curly Top), Alice Faye (who would play the legendary Russell in one of her four Cummings projects), Betty Grable (four films starting with 1940’s Down Argentine Way), Carmen Miranda (three films including 1941’s That Night in Rio), and Gene Tierney (1941’s Belle Starr). Utilizing music and dance plus top-drawer writing and technical talents, he fashioned these reliably entertaining yarns into swiftly paced, audience-pleasing vehicles that helped moviegoers escape their post-Depression struggles and the international turmoil that would lead into World War II. He was, like several others at studios all across Los Angeles, a “house director” whose dexterity in working in all genres – and with speed, precision and economy – was a treasured asset. So he would logically be a go-to guy for studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck’s passion project, loosely based on an essay by literary lion Theodore Dreiser about his songwriter brother Paul Dresser (to whose songbook Zanuck acquired the rights), for another gay-nineties tunefest to team regularly paired co-stars Alice Faye and Don Ameche. But My Gal Sal (1942) would prove several notches above assembly line, because the lead roles of Dresser and the stage star siren who inspires and ultimately outdistances him in fame and success went in a different direction: instead of Ameche, Dresser would be incarnated by new-to-Fox up-and-comer Victor Mature; and in place of, reportedly in succession, Faye (then pregnant with daughter Alice), Grable, Irene Dunne, Mae West and a not-quite-right Carole Landis, the title role went to the luminous Rita Hayworth, borrowed from her home studio Columbia, and who’d already shown that Technicolor (in the previous year’s Blood and Sand) and song and dance (in the previous year’s You’ll Never Get Rich, a Twilight Time title) suited her superbly.
Cummings’ practiced application of the Fox glamour-girl treatment to Hayworth ensured the film’s popularity as one of Fox’s top box-office performers of its year and even got a rise out of The New York Times’ often grumpy Bosley Crowther, who observed: “Twentieth Century Fox’s affection for Tin Pan Alley and the good old songs may becoming slightly routine, but its devotions are still loyal and unreserved. Its ardor and lavish attentions are quite as enthusiastic as they were in such previous tributes to its darlings as Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Lillian Russell and Rose of Washington Square. And now, in My Gal Sal,…it is again manifesting its devotion more extravagantly than ever before. Miss Hayworth dances gracefully and brightly, sings in a pleasantly husky voice [unbeknownst to Crowther, supplied by Nan Wynn], and coquettes with considerable archness in a variety of period costumes.” By way of confirming birthday honoree Cummings’ gift for capturing the glamour and strengths of the leading ladies during his prime, give My Gal Sal, an Academy Award® winner for its lavishly appointed Color Art Direction/Interior Decoration, a spin on TT hi-def Blu-ray to see a knockout Hayworth glow in full splendor.