A celebrated author whose signature works Sister Carrie (1900) and An American Tragedy (1925) concerned doomed romances blighted by misfortunes of personal ambition might not be seen as a go-to literary source for an essentially frothy period musical. But Terre Haute, Indiana, native Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) also wrote short stories, and one such collection, Twelve Men (1919), contained My Brother Paul, which was a biographical reminiscence centered on his older sibling, celebrated songwriter Paul Dresser (1857-1906), who composed and published more than 150 songs in his compressed lifetime. Twentieth Century Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck, a Nebraskan who could appreciate the rags-to-riches story of a song plugger who rose out of Midwestern backwater obscurity to become a national treasure whose tunes plugged into the national zeitgeist and brought their creator fame and fortune, could work that material quite nicely into his production slate and bought the film rights to Dreiser’s story and Dresser’s song catalog. And for all the forces at work that could have made the final result just another average item in a particular studio’s annual menu, fate would step in to raise this particular project, named for one of the final songs Dresser wrote, several notches higher in audience-pleasing potential.
According to biographer/film historian and Rita Hayworth: The Time, The Place and the Woman author John Kobal: “My Gal Sal (1942) was a typical Fox musical; that is to say it was biographical, set in an earlier period, shot in color and revolved around one man and two women or two men and one woman – they all looked the same. In drama, Zanuck had brought the studio into the Depression, but in musicals they were still in the Gay ’90s which allowed their blonde stars to look ravishing in the gaslight and champagne costumes of that era. As far as the biographical data in any of them was concerned, few of the facts would stand checking; their heroes and heroines were only motivated by the exigencies of the next big musical number, which stretched credulity to coincide with events. My Gal Sal was no exception. The difference that made the difference was that he leading role was played by neither of the studio’s resident musical queens, Betty Grable and Alice Faye, or even Carole Landis (in a humiliating supporting role), but by Rita Hayworth. Gwen Wakeling’s romantic period dresses in the style of The Strawberry Blonde (1941) exploited every inch of Rita’s figure; her hair was swept up in the mode of the time without diminishing her allure. Her performance, given that this was a role that could have been wrecked by an emotion heavier than a frown, was faultless. The unsure, uncertain, questioning Margarita Cansino was light years away from the assured celebrity.” Since we’re talking Golden-Age, mass-appeal Hollywood here, the luminous song-and-dance entertainer “Sally Elliott” Hayworth played was cleaned up from the real-life “Sal” upon whom the high-living, womanizing Dresser based his 1905 standard. Historian John Jeremiah Sullivan noted in a piece last year in The Sewanee Review: “Paul Dresser’s My Gal Sal was written as a fond reflection on one of the great loves in that songwriter’s life, his multiple-year affair with an Evansville madam called Sal Davis, real name, as research has recently shown: Annie Swanner. We know about her mainly through scattered writings left by Dresser’s now-more-famous younger brother, Theodore Dreiser. She helped keep the Dreiser family alive at one point in the 1870s, when they were at their poorest. Dresser is said to have broken her heart by running off with one of her ‘girls,’ but a quarter-century later, he hadn’t forgotten her, and because of him the whole world knows her name. Or at least her nickname. My Gal Sal was a legitimate hit pop song in America for about 60 years: that is, between the appearance of the sheet music and the Burl Ives version from the 1960s, the last time the song impinged on the charts. That’s unheard of. The Star Spangled Banner, maybe? It has to be counted, by any definition, one of our greatest pop songs, period.”
The combination of Hayworth, plus handsome up-and-comer Victor Mature as Dresser and solid comedy support from Phil Silvers, James Gleason and Walter Catlett, eye-popping Technicolor, top-flight production values marshaled under the solid direction of Fox veteran Irving Cummings and newly written songs in Dresser’s Americana style won the day. “Dresser songs included in the film in addition to the title tune,” TCM.com blogger Roger Fristoe reports, “include another of his big hits, On the Banks of the Wabash, as well as I’se Your Honey If You Wants Me, Liza Jane, Come Tell Me What’s Your Answer and Mr. Volunteer. Studio songwriters Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger contribute Me and My Fella, Oh, the Pity of It All, Here You Are, Me and My Fella and a Big Umbrella and On the Gay White Way. An extended dance sequence in the latter number marked the only time that celebrated choreographer Hermes Pan (who staged the film's dances) partnered Hayworth onscreen.” 1942 was no slouch of a musicals year (led by Yankee Doodle Dandy, Holiday Inn and For Me and My Gal, and also including other respective ventures for Hayworth and Mature, namely her You Were Never Lovelier and his trifecta of Song of the Islands, Footlight Serenade and Seven Days’ Leave), yet My Gal Sal is a particular highlight for its Oscar®-nominated Best Scoring of a Musical Picture by the formidable Alfred Newman and its Academy Award®-winning Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration (Color) by the team of Richard Day, Joseph C. Wright and Thomas Little. The latter trio doubled their victory sweep that year, also honored in the comparable Black-and-White design category for Fox’s This Above All. The film’s title card reads Theodore Dreiser’s My Gal Sal, but it might justifiably read Darryl F. Zanuck’s or Rita Hayworth’s as well, given their contributions to its nostalgic reinvention and ultimately magical execution. Make My Gal Sal (complete with a lovingly curated Isolated Music Track) yours on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray June 19. Preorders open tomorrow, Wednesday June 6. Learn more about the real Gal Sal behind the song in another piece of scholarly research published last year here: https://www.indystar.com/story/entertainment/music/2017/08/03/112-year-old-mystery-solved-indiana-madam-may-have-inspired-famous-song/497691001/.