Yolanda and the Thief (1945): Minnelli’s Musical, Starring Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer

Yolanda and the Thief was conceived as a musical for Vincente Minnelli to direct and for Fred Astaire to star in as a follow-up to his stunning debut musical, Cabin the Sky.

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A Latin-baroque reverie, it was based on Ludwig Bemelmans and Jacques Thery’s short story, which was published in the July 1943 issue of Town and Country magazine.

Freed composed the music himself and he asked his collaborator, Harry Warren, to write the lyrics.

With a budget of $2.4 million, “Yolanda and the Thief” began shooting on January 15, 1945, and was completed four months later. Realizing that the story was slim, Freed encouraged Minnelli to unleash his imagination. Indeed, Minnelli responded with a mishmash of subtropical romance, pageanized Catholicism, and nocturnal hallucinations about guilty desire. No MGM musical had ever looked so strange in its mixture of bizarre, unfitting elements.

 

Bremelmans and Thery’s outline was handled with fidelity in the screenplay. “Yolanda and the Thief” takes place in a Hispanic-American utopia; Latino in the story, Patria in the film.  Bremelmans had a whimsical bent, but, when writing for adults, his tone curdled into faux-naivete. Yolanda had a cute premise, but no solid plot or real characters.

The story concerns the descendant of the Aquaviva clan, an orphan named Yolanda (Lucille Bremer). Having reached legal age, Yolanda must leave the protection of the convent to take charge of family legacy. Though otherwise vastly different, Yolanda shared a similar premise with Cabin in the Sky. Both films celebrate heroines whose religious convictions inspire the reformation of the errant men in their lives. Nonetheless, whereas Cabins Petunia is blessed with a genuine selfless devotion, the faith of Yolanda’s heroine is not

convincing.

For a purported musical, the movie is undernourished in songs-and-dances. The script was polished by Arthur Freed’s regulars: George Wells, Joseph Schrank (“Cabin in the Sky”) and Robert Nathan (who worked on “The Clock”). However, the final credit was given to Irving Brecher, who co-wrote “Meet Me in St. Louis.”

The combined efforts of four writers resulted in an incoherent, uninvolving text, to say the least. The stylized characters inhabit a never-never land to tell a whimsical story. The thin plot, marred by an arch and cloying flavor, concerns an American con man that tries to bilk a convent-bred Latin heiress of her millions by posing as her guardian angel.

The role of the thief’s cohort in crime was tailor-made for Frank Morgan of “The Wizard of Oz” fame. He’s described as “the only bank embezzler in history who successfully juggled the books and then forgot to take the money.” Yolanda’s dithery Aunt Amarilla (Mildred Natwick) was too wacky. Her command, “Do my fingernails immediately and bring them to my room at once,” recalled Serena Blandish, the heroine of the musical that Minnelli longed to mount a few years before. What’s missing is an emotional center for the giddiness.

It didnt help that Freed’s score was the weakest of any Minnelli’s musical, except I Dood It. The film opens with a boy soprano chorus singing the insipid lyrics of the “Patria” anthem: “This is a day for love, this is a day for song. And all together we will merrily walk along.”

The Angel number in Yolanda recalled the far superior Kurt Weill’s song, Speak Low, from his show, One Touch of Venus. The hero Johnny counters with Yolanda in the same vein, while his nightmare in dance is underlined by “Will You Marry Me” sung by Bremer. The pictures one good number comes toward the end, with a refurbishment of an old Freed tune, “Java Junction,” now called “Coffee Time.”

Though out of synch with the movie’s Latin setting, this big-band jitterbug is Yolanda’s only spirited sequence, heightened by Minnelli’s vivacious staging. Yolanda proved that Minnelli could create magic in a vacuum, but that his fantasy could reach higher if he were given worthier text to work on.

Yet for all the novelty in intent, “Yolanda and the Thief” misfires in execution. The biggest error was casting the title part of a good fairy with Lucille Bremer, who was simply too frosty and too old to bring it off.

Astaire’s extortionist is an unpleasant character who patronizingly harangues the ingenue by preying on her innocence and religious devotion. Yolanda’s crooked pursuer is the most unsavory part that Astaire had ever tackled. To project underworld nastiness, Astaire subdues his usual ebullience, lowers his voice to a monotone and cynically rations his charm in his scenes with Bremer.

Yolanda’s thief provided the rough outlines for a persona that Astaire would embody in the future, including Minnellis own “The Band Wagon,” the dour skeptic resigned to his solitary world until a spirited heroine lures him out of his introverted world.

Astaire’s most ambitious number is a surrealistic dream ballet, symbolizing the conflict between Lucille and lucre. It begins promisingly as Astaire wanders from the heightened unreality of the village square into the stark, Daliesque landscape of his perturbed psyche, but the number collapses under the weight of pretentious imagery and mannered choreography.

Astaire’s “Coffee Time” duet with Bremer is more appealing, perhaps because of its joyous movement. As a Latin-accented jitterbug, the number recaptures the spontaneous elan Fred had flaunted with Ginger Rogers in their RKO musicals. Minnelli heightens the number with a dazzling white, yellow, and brown color scheme.

Of the dozen musicals that Minnelli had directed, Yolanda and the Thief, is arguably the weakest one artistically and the least successful commercially.

Cast:

Johnny Parkson Riggs (Fred Astaire)
Yolanda Aquaviva (Lucille Bremer)
Victor Budlow Trout (Frank Morgan)
Aunt Amarilla (Mildred Natwick)
Duenna (Mary Nash)
Candle (Leon Ames)
Schoolteacher (Ludwig Stossel)
Mother Superior (Jane Green)
Puppeteer (Remo Bufano)
Padre (Francis Pierlot)
Taxi driver (Leon Belasco)
Police lieutenant (Charles la Torre)

Credits

Produced by Arthur Freed.
Screenplay: Irving Brecher, based on a story by Jacques Thery and Ludwig Bemelmans
Cinematography: Charles Rosher
Art Direction: Cedric Gibson, Jack Martin Smith
Set Decoration: Edwin B. Willis; associate Richard Pefferle
Musical direction: Lennie Hayton
Orchestrations: Conrad Salinger
Songs by Arthur Freed and Harry Warren
Editing: George White
Special Effects: A. Arnold Gillespie and Warren Newcombe
Costumes: Irene Sharaff
Costumes for Lucille Bremer: Irene
Technicolor Direction: Natalie Kalmus; ssocite Henri Jaffa
Choreography: Eugene Loring
Recording Direction: Douglas Shearer
Hair: Syney Guilaroff
Makeup: Jack Dawn

Running Time: 108 Minutes