The great thing about Wonderland is that you never know what you're going to find.
While my ongoing discovery of classic musicals is now more intentional, even academic at times, casually stumbling upon a new rabbit hole that can lead you down a winding path of further exploration is a gratifying feeling unlike any other. One film that fits this criteria came to my attention after I heard its theme song during a listening of the That's Entertainment! anthology, a robust presentation of soundtracks from the greatest musicals ever made at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios (MGM).
Enticingly packaged for avid memorabilia collectors like myself, the multi-disk compilation served as a companion to the highly successful trilogy of film documentaries, all three of which sparked interest in and revived the Golden Age of Hollywood genre – both for the new and the nostalgic moviegoer – between 1974 and 1994.
Based on Clare Boothe's "The Women," the all-female play that has seen numerous stage revivals since its initial theater debut, tells the socially satirical story of gossiping, competitive and meddlesome Manhattan socialites and the power struggles that ensue as a result of their troubling relationships. First adapted for the cinema in 1939, the original film and its cream of the crop casting of Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell and Norma Shearer –all under the astute direction of the brilliant George Cukor – both impressed and left an impression on audiences throughout cinematic history. With director David Miller at the helm, the tongue-in-cheek tale received a musical makeover under the title of The Opposite Sex in 1956, once again drawing upon the talents of well-known artists (including a first-time roster of male actors) for the story's depiction, before being remade and renamed back in a more modern retelling of 2008.
Although it's easy to become skeptical when watching a remake of any sort, it's also hard to turn away from a musical sequence as enticing as the one presented in The Opposite Sex. Quickly setting its own precedent in the first few minutes of the opening credits with a theme song masterfully sung by Dolores Gray, who also stars in the film as Sylvia Fowler, the movie opens with a montage that gives its viewers a sneak peek into a world of mystery and intrigue lurking beneath the surface of over-the-top extravagance.
Following a narrated introduction to the daily goings-on of the rich and famous, one of the most interesting personalities encountered in the film is Olga, a manicurist who benefits just as much from the conversations she overhears as the beauty salon-bound clientele she services at Sydney's. Played by comedic actress Alice Pearce, who's best remembered for her iconic portrayal of Gladys Kravitz in the "Bewitched" television series, Olga unknowingly becomes the bearer of bad news, disclosing information that serves as a crucial turning point in the lives of its central characters. But Olga's story is not really hers to tell, however, for at the heart of the 1956 musical is a star who needs no introduction but deserves plenty of admiration.
While I admit that I had not heard of June Allyson prior to venturing into Wonderland, I have since watched several of her performances and have yet to be disappointed. From her guest appearances in Till the Clouds Roll By and Words and Music to lead character portrayals in Good News, The Glenn Miller Story and the non-musical Little Women, her work is consistently marked by an emotional range of warmth, honesty and sensitivity. And The Opposite Sex is no exception, setting June up with the perfect opportunity to convey the complex emotions of heartache, resilience and self-redemption through the experience of leading lady Kay Hilliard – a role secured over contenders Eleanor Parker, Grace Kelly and Esther Williams – that also ended up being her last under contract to MGM.
A nightclub singer of days long gone by, Kay has since traded in her vibrant stage career for a life of a devoted wife and local entertainment committee chairman. Unlike her group of closest friends – Amanda (Ann Sheridan), Sylvia and Edith, whose spirited conversations suggest lives devoid of domestic bliss – Kay is happily married and seemingly in love with her husband, producer Steven Hilliard. While meeting for lunch at the historic 21 restaurant, an ideal setting for the film's glamorous depiction of a bygone era, Kay is pulled away from her friends and fictional gossip columnist Dolly de Haven (whose depiction is based on bigger-than-life Hollywood personality Hedda Hopper) to discuss an upcoming benefit show, completely oblivious to the trouble afoot.
As engaging as catty Sylvia and straight-shooting Amanda may be – their distinct personalities drawn together to showcase contrasting moral values and divided loyalties – it is the more reserved Edith, an expectant mother of seven children, who's a joy to behold in the hands of legendary performer Joan Blondell. Both a talented comedienne and a seasoned vaudevillian, the wisecracking blonde bombshell was one of Hollywood's earliest stars, gracing the silver screen alongside old-time favorites Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler and James Cagney, to name a few, and bringing to life 1930's masterpieces such as Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade and Dames.
While Dick had (ironically) been married to both Joan and June in real life, Joan put aside any feelings of resentment when she asked daughter Ellen to reach out to her ex-husband's current wife and discuss the role of Kay in the new remake of The Women. Seeing Joan in The Opposite Sex after her five-year hiatus from the movies and in Grease, yet another exciting appearance she made decades later, is no less than a privilege afforded to musical lovers everywhere.
Even as Kay and Steven's wedding anniversary draws near, the countdown to the big 10 begins slowing down, threatening to stop time – and the Hilliards' marriage – dead in its tracks. At the root of the problem is Crystal Allen, a cold and calculating showgirl who's got her sights set on Steven after a mutual indiscretion. Crystal consistently seeks the help of her confidante and roommate, Pat, played by Carolyn Jones (who later had her own chilling tale to tell as Morticia Adams in "The Addams Family" series), and is willing to go to any length to tear Steven away from his wife. With a character who's so strikingly beautiful and equally menacing as to stir up a sense of unease and discomfort, Crystal's depiction is made all the more haunting thanks to 23-year-old Joan Collins, the future Alexis Carrington Colby of television's "Dynasty."
For someone like Kay, whose trust in her husband is soon shattered, blurring the fine lines of reality is no longer an option. Even as she is coming to terms with a devastating realization, Kay must remember who she used to be before choosing the person she'll have to become. With or without Steven Hilliard.
In addition to the "Young Man with a Horn" sequence, in which she is accompanied by legendary trumpet-player Harry James, June Allyson gives a very moving rendition of "A Perfect Love," which is not what it appears to be upon first listen. Despite my recognition of June's overall showmanship and general likability, I do not consider her to be much of singer. And yet, in the days when many leading stars' vocals were dubbed even after they recorded their own tracks in the studio, June was promoted as a triple-threat talent. In most of her films, including The Opposite Sex, June's voice is indeed her own, the exception being "A Perfect Love," which contradicts the norm with the ghost-dubbing of Jo Ann Greer.
Not all is lost when Kay returns from her vacation in Bermuda and realizes how much she's missed Steven and their daughter, Debbie (played by child actress Sandy Descher), for the bond that holds her family together is stronger than any machinations Crystal can devise. Or so it seems. By the time the Hilliards and their friends gather for a home benefit performance at the Helen Hayes Theatre, yet another noteworthy New York landmark, Kay's world is turned completely upside down; coming face to face with Crystal, she becomes an unwilling pawn in a cleverly devised game of skill, strategy...and only one winner.
Although 1950's media tended to take a conservative stance on topics of sex and marriage, going as far as to promote the concept of separate beds in films and replacing the word "pregnant" with alternatives like "expecting" on television, The Opposite Sex does not shy away from a storyline centered around extramarital affairs, divorce and infidelity. Kay herself has chosen to part ways with Steven and flee to a countryside resort in Reno, Nevada, where her moral stance and emotional fortitude are put to the test.
Unlike the society of which she is somewhat of an unwilling accomplice, the soon-to-be-single Kay manages to resist the advances of charmingly handsome Buck Winston (Jeff Richards), unlike her recently arrived friend Sylvia, while struggling to trade Steven in for another man like so many other socialites who don't mind "shedding their husbands like last year's dresses" on a regular basis. Before long, Kay finds herself confiding in and bonding with a new set of friends – the Countess de Briant, portrayed by "Bewitched" alumni Agnes Moorehead, and Gloria Dall, played by the extraordinary Ann Miller.
When asked to identify the best dancers among a selection of notable leading actresses, any classic Hollywood movie lover will most likely name at least one of the following: Cyd Charisse, Rita Hayworth, Ginger Rogers, Eleanor Powell and Vera-Ellen. While I certainly agree with all of the above, my personal vote goes to Ann. Famous for her sense of style, choice of fashion and speed in delivering an extraordinary amount of taps per minute, Ann always made for an electrifying presence on any stage she graced with her feet. With standout routines delivered in On the Town, Kiss Me Kate and Easter Parade, during which Ann sang in addition to dancing, it's a wonder that another one of her showstopping performances does not appear anywhere in The Opposite Sex.
As Ann's character takes on a more secondary, background role, all of the focus is on June Allyson and the new and improved Kay Ashley, who reconnects with her first love – singing – to film a televised performance of "Now Baby Now." The result is a well-orchestrated, lavishly staged and impeccable production that stands out among the more subdued numbers in the film, the missed absence of Ann Miller notwithstanding.
As Kay finds a voice she's held back for far too long, the act of constantly having to speak up for herself becomes her main attraction for the remainder of the movie. By giving up on her husband, Kay inadvertently paves the way for Crystal to become the new Mrs. Hilliard, a title marked by plenty of material possessions but containing little emotional substance. No longer living within the crowded confines of a city apartment, Crystal is now a member of upper-class society and has access to anything or anyone she desires. Her new husband is suddenly old news, and she is more than willing to commit adultery with two-timing Buck under Sylvia's unsuspecting nose.
While it's not difficult to pinpoint one specific wrongdoer in The Opposite Sex, it's rather hard to identify the true offender in the Hilliard marriage fiasco. At times, it's easy to sympathize with Steven who, despite seeming helpless in withstanding Crystal's final act of manipulation, tries to resist her earlier pursuits in consideration of Kay. On the other hand, as painful as it may be to witness Kay's realization about Crystal, it is ultimately her hasty decision to divorce Steven, depriving him of a chance to defend himself, that changes the trajectory of the couple's relationship.
Because of her life-changing experience, the character of Kay undergoes a transformative period marked by personal growth, during which she finds the strength needed to change the rules of Crystal's game, with all the players involved, once and for all. As a woman on a mission, Kay sets out to the Skylight Room to win Steven back, expose Buck as a money-hungry opportunist and reign in Crystal once and for all.
Toward the end of the film, and certainly by the time the final credits started rolling, I had made yet another startling discovery about The Opposite Sex. Failing to connect the dots throughout the entire picture, I realized that Steven Hilliard was played by none other than actor Leslie Nielsen, the very same one I grew up watching and loving as a child in comedy classics Airplane!, The Naked Gun, Dracula: Dead and Loving It and Spy Hard. After developing a newfound appreciation for June Allyson and delighting equally in the appearances of both Joans, Ann Miller and the two "Bewitched" co-stars, Leslie simply sealed the deal. I had decided that I absolutely loved The Opposite Sex, and I didn't need The Women to validate it in any way.
In light of the sentiments I've expressed, I find it hard to believe that The Opposite Sex, which was nominated for a 1957vGolden Globe Award® in the Best Musical or Comedy Picture category, has a fairly low rating on a site like IMDb and in the opinion of an unappreciative Joan Crawford, the original Crystal Allen. While I can't quite figure out the reason for some of the user reviews – other than the fact that certain audiences may simply prefer to watch and appreciate the musical's predecessor – I can't deny that there's a special quality about the remake that makes it uniquely its own and memorable enough to write about.
When weighed against a multitude of other MGM titles, The Opposite Sex is by no means the greatest musical ever made. But though the source material on which the 1956 movie version is based certainly speaks for itself, the remake is perhaps as effective and visually artistic as its predecessor thanks to a cavalcade of familiar stars who give performances one may not have anticipated, or previously experienced, in quite the same capacity.