Fred Astaire is a familiar presence to most movie lovers, even those who’ve never watched one of his features in its entirety. His most famous number with frequent co-star Ginger Rogers—“Cheek to Cheek” from 1935’s Top Hat—has become shorthand for cinema’s ineffable escapist magic; it’s invoked in films as disparate as The Purple Rose of Cairo and The Green Mile. Picture it now: Astaire—lithe and elegant in tuxedo tails—whirling Rogers across the floor, emblematic of gentlemanly charm.
All of which is to say that there’s something rather jarring about Astaire’s presence in Vincente Minnelli’s little-seen 1945 film, Yolanda and the Thief. In it, Astaire plays Johnny Riggs, an American con man who goes on the lam in the fictional country of Patria with his partner-in-crime Victor Trout (played by Frank Morgan, who ran one of the greatest cons of all as the Man Behind the Curtain in The Wizard of Oz). Upon reaching Patria, Johnny and Victor learn that a young woman named Yolanda Aquaviva (Lucille Bremer) has recently left the convent school where she was enrolled, and is now taking charge of her family’s fortune. Johnny decides to pose as Yolanda’s naïve, devout guardian angel in order to dupe her out of her riches.
Now: wagers, low-level deceptions, and mistaken identities often play a role in the old Astaire-Rogers musicals, and Astaire’s character in 1942’s Holiday Inn is fairly conniving. But Yolanda’s Johnny is still shockingly mercenary, preying on the religious faith of an innocent. As author Stephen Harvey writes in his book on the films of Astaire, “Yolanda’s crooked pursuer is quite the most unsavory part Astaire had ever tackled. In a persuasive imitation of underworld nastiness, Astaire subdues his usual ebullience, lowers his voice to a raffish monotone, and cynically rations his charm to the moments when he’s trying to put one over on the gullible [Yolanda].”
For most of the film’s running time we’re given little reason to like Johnny (other than the fact that many of us already like Astaire). One could argue that Johnny luring Yolanda into meeting him without a chaperone and demanding her “absolute unquestioning obedience” seems particularly ominous in our present age, when the news is filled with stories about men—including supposedly holy men—abusing their power, but I can’t imagine this scene went down easily in any era, no matter how beautifully Minnelli composes his shot of Astaire perched on an ornate throne, doing his most imperious angel impression. Yet, though Yolanda’s rather off-putting use of its leading man is peculiar, the truth is that nearly everything about the film is peculiar. Yolanda was Minnelli’s first full-length musical feature following the quaint and lovely Meet Me in St. Louis, and it counters that film’s comfy domesticity with disorderly fantasy. To wit: while the look of Meet Me in St. Louis was inspired by Currier and Ives prints, Yolanda’s visuals take explicit inspiration from the surrealist landscapes of Salvador Dalí. Though it isn’t the most successful of Minnelli’s celebrated musicals (and I mean that in both the financial and artistic senses of the word), it is perhaps the most experimental, and, for me, that makes it an object of fascination.
Minnelli’s films are visually arresting, and most of his MGM musicals feature an extraordinary use of color. Meet Me in St. Louis and An American in Paris enchant us in part because they look like live-action storybooks, and Yolanda has that same quality, amplified, perhaps, by its outlandish nature. In Yolanda, Minnelli uses elements of the characters’ costumes, as well as the presence of llamas and a peppering of Spanish dialogue, to suggest that Patria is somewhere in South America, a strategy that offensively co-opts real culture and equates it with make-believe. But Yolanda’s Aunt Amarilla calls Patria “an out of the world place,” and that’s really what Minnelli was going for here, albeit in an insensitive way. He seeks to evoke a feeling that Johnny and Victor have left behind what they know and entered a world of mysticism and dreams.
Indeed, one of the film’s most memorable sequences is its dream ballet, which finds Johnny simultaneously haunted by his attraction to Yolanda’s wealth and his attraction to Yolanda herself. The dream ballet is curious in part because of its length (about 15 minutes) and its placement in the narrative. Despite the fact that we’re nearly 40 minutes into the film when the ballet begins, Johnny has only just met Yolanda before he goes to bed and dreams of her. While the celebrated dream ballets in both An American in Paris and Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes are climactic events that serve to underscore the conflicts dramatized throughout those films, the ballet in Yolanda and Thief arrives when we’re still struggling to get our bearings, unmoored as we are by Johnny’s callous willingness to exploit the too-credulous Yolanda. An American in Paris ends moments after the conclusion of its dream ballet. Yolanda, on the other hand, continues along almost as if nothing has happened: Johnny wakes up and goes about his skeevy business.
Yet while the dramatic function of the dream ballet is questionable, its adventurous spirit and execution should not be ignored. Bear in mind that Agnes de Mille’s dream ballet for the original stage production of Oklahoma! first appeared on Broadway in 1943, just two years before Yolanda and the Thief hit movie screens. Yolanda and the Thief also predates The Red Shoes by three years and An American in Paris by six. Minnelli was staking out new territory here, trying out a storytelling technique that he and other filmmakers would employ with greater success in the future.
Minnelli’s decision to draw on Dalí’s surrealist art for the look of the ballet also strikes me as a radical move. MGM musicals were lavish, Hays Code-adherent entertainments: the big budget blockbusters of their day. Meanwhile, Dali’s best-known film credit probably remains his collaboration with Luis Buñuel on Un Chien Andalou. Though the unexpected abounds in MGM musicals—obscure specialty acts interrupt the action, well-loved stars appear in ridiculous costumes, and every now and then someone dances with a cartoon character—Yolanda’s dream ballet is a singularly bizarre interlude, a dip into midnight movie madness that surely astonished a few musical comedy fans back in 1945.
Minnelli segues into the realm of dreams subtly at first, with a scene of a restless Johnny pacing in his hotel. It only becomes obvious that we’ve entered the world of Johnny’s subconscious when he wanders into the town square and a man we’ve seen earlier asks him for “an American cigarette.” Johnny obliges and lights the cigarette, but the man quickly produces another cigarette—and a third arm. After that the man keeps sprouting arms, six in all, each one holding a cigarette that needs lighting. Once in a while an imperfect movie hits upon a perfect moment, something so unforgettable that you could love it just for that. Johnny encountering the man with the six arms is that type of moment for me, a playful bit of surreal business that I’ve tried to use to explain to friends why Yolanda is weird, or why it’s so endearing, or why I’m stuck with it, somehow, as part of my life as a movie lover.Still, that’s just the beginning of the dream ballet. The sequence is about Johnny’s desire to take Yolanda’s money and run, but also about his fear of falling in love with her. Therefore, it makes sense that Yolanda’s entrance into the dream is grandly spooky. Against the backdrop of a Daliesque desert landscape, Yolanda rises from a pool of water wrapped head-to-toe in pale scarves that float all around her. Her face is obscured, a look reminiscent of René Magritte’s 1928 painting The Lovers, and more suggestive of alienation than romance. According to the Turner Classic Movies website, the effect was created by shooting in reverse; Yolanda and her scarves move with the odd, jerky movements familiar to fans of Twin Peaks. Needless to say, this makes for an unsettling sight.
Once Johnny unwraps Yolanda from her scarves, the spookiness of the sequence dissipates a little, but the mood has been set, and when the unwrapped Yolanda puts her arms around Johnny and sings, “Will You Marry Me?,” the effect is mildly sinister. The sequence concludes as Yolanda dons a set of outrageously long bridal veils and Johnny gets one of them wrapped around his neck like a noose when he attempts to flee. While I’ve used the term dream ballet, this is more specifically a nightmare ballet, one that takes marriage—the typical happy ending of many an MGM musical (including—spoiler alert—this one!)—and transforms it into a thing of anxiety and horror. The inversion is striking, even though the film’s narrative doesn’t do much to follow it up.
But at this point I suspect that a few Fred Astaire fans are getting irritated, because while I’ve thrown around the word “ballet” several times, I haven’t written much about the dancing. That’s one indication that Yolanda and the Thief holds special frustrations for anyone given to checking their watch between the big numbers when taking in a musical. Yolanda doesn’t have that many musical numbers, and while Bremer, a red-haired former Rockette and accomplished dancer, makes a fine partner for Astaire, only two of those numbers are really notable. One, of course, is the dream ballet, which, for all its foreboding, still allows Astaire and Bremer the opportunity for a lyrical pas de deux. The other is “Coffee Time,” which was well-regarded enough to be excerpted in That’s Entertainment! III. “Coffee Time” is certainly worthy of the MGM highlight reel, but in a way it’s better to see it as a part of the original film, where the already-odd atmosphere makes viewers more sensitive to the number’s unusual charms.
Most of the songs in Yolanda are forgettable; composer Harry Warren and lyricist Arthur Freed both had much better moments. But “Coffee Time,” a repurposed Warren composition, is catchy and pleasingly rhythmical. The lyrics, including a chorus of, “Coffee time/My dreamy friend/It’s coffee time/Let’s sing a silly little rhyme/And have a cup of coffee,” are nearly a non-sequitur in the context of the film, but for the idiosyncratic Yolanda, that’s kind of perfect. The choreography is something of an experiment as well: Astaire and choreographer Eugene Loring conceived the dance in 5/4 time, though at times the orchestra plays in 4/4. The results are eerily beautiful.
I recently asked composer and Stonehill College music professor James Bohn to help me understand how the differing time signatures of the music and the dance contribute to what I could only describe as a “dreamy” effect. “In a typical dance number, the music and the dance reinforce each other,” Bohn told me. “This piece lacks that. You have music and dance in the same tempo, so they line up, but don’t reinforce each other. The choreography is generally smooth, which makes the fact that they are in different meters less noticeable. This smooth quality makes it seem like the dancing is floating on the music, which in turn is fair to characterize as dreamy.” Ah-ha! Yes. Astaire and Bremer seem to float across the floor, as if time or gravity are somehow working differently.
The number’s ethereal qualities are further heightened by the extraordinary production design. The dancers are set against a floor with undulating white and black lines, a striking touch conceived by famed costumer Irene Sharaff. (Like the jerky reversed movements in the dream ballet, the design of the floor seems to anticipate the memorable visuals of Twin Peaks.) Bremer’s vibrant yellow skirt and red hair provide a pop of color against the black and white floor, and bold lighting choices—including the unconventional use of a Vertigo-like green—heighten the otherworldly mood. “Coffee Time” is less elaborate but even more transporting than the dream ballet; it’s the moment when Yolanda and the Thief truly soars.
Watching Bremer and Astaire perform “Coffee Time” has led many viewers to wonder what ever became of Bremer, who was never again featured in a leading role in a musical and quit acting altogether in 1948. Yolanda was the film that was meant to make Bremer a star, and by many accounts, it was her career that took the hit when the film failed to find a wide audience. She seems to have led an interesting life anyway: according to her L.A. Times obituary, she married the son of a former Mexican president and “actively promoted the development of Baja” with him during their marriage, and several sources indicate that she later opened a successful children’s clothing store.Yet it still seems unfair that Yolanda so decisively scuttled her chance at stardom. Aside from the dancing scenes, her role gives her little to work with. While many films of the era infantilize and objectify their leading ladies, Yolanda takes both to a rather absurd level: an early scene at the convent school gives us Bremer in pigtails, with actual toddlers as her schoolmates, and there are two entirely gratuitous scenes of Yolanda bathing. This is a film with countless extras but few real characters, and the two most prominent women, Yolanda and her Aunt Amarilla, are both pretty ditzy. Mildred Natwick at least gets to be vivid and funny as Aunt Amarilla; Bremer, tasked with channeling wide-eyed innocence in nearly every scene, has no such luck.
Minnelli’s next full-length musical feature, 1948’s The Pirate, deals more effectively with Yolanda’s themes of fantasy, reality, and desire while offering its leading lady considerably more agency and development. In The Pirate, Judy Garland plays Manuela, a young woman who daydreams that a daring pirate will whisk her away from her boring life and impending arranged marriage. After she realizes that she’s been tricked by Gene Kelly’s Serafin, a strolling player who temporarily convinces her that he is just such a pirate, she cathartically pelts him with every object she can lay her hands on.
Despite some surface resemblances, Yolanda’s story is quite different. She dreams chastely of a guardian angel to take care of all of her adult responsibilities for her. “Dear guardian angel, please come to my aid. Tell me what to do. Help me!” she begs in the prayer that Johnny overhears. And when she finds out that Johnny has been lying to her—and this only because he writes her a letter admitting it—she takes to her bed in despair.
In The Pirate, Manuela details her hotblooded pirate fantasies in the rollicking musical number “Mack the Black,” but Yolanda’s frankest confession of desire is when she blurts, “I get a feeling about you that you’re not supposed to get about an angel!” One is left wishing that thesubversive spirit displayed in much of Yolanda and the Thief extended to the characterization of its female lead. As it is, the film’s final scene, the wedding reception of Yolanda and Johnny, brings the action to an uncomfortable conclusion. Yolanda hasn’t had a chance to grow up, and Johnny has been rewarded for the most basic kind of decency: the decision not to take advantage of a guileless, childlike woman. Yolanda’s actual guardian angel (played by Leon Ames, who was also Bremer’s onscreen dad in Meet Me in St. Louis) suggests that Yolanda couldn’t have found a better husband than Johnny, and it’s completely unclear why he would think so.When Astaire played a leading role for Minnelli again in 1953’s The Band Wagon, his character was far more sympathetic. As Tony Fletcher, a musical star struggling to maintain his career after decades in show business, Astaire makes himself vulnerable in a way that Yolanda’s Johnny never is. Tony’s insecurities and disappointments are human and understandable—miles away from Johnny’s predatory behavior. The Band Wagon also gives Minnelli a chance to poke fun at his own excesses. Fletcher finds himself cast in a stage production that collapses under its own pretensions after the zealous director, a Minnelli stand-in played by Jack Buchanan, adds too many avant-garde touches. At the rehearsal of one overwrought number, Astaire and Cyd Charisse are conspicuously encircled by the same sunburst spotlight that Astaire shared with Bremer in Yolanda’s dream ballet. “It seems to be a little too much, doesn’t it?” Buchannan asks after the rehearsal goes south. I’m sure many have asked themselves that same question after viewing Yolanda and the Thief.
Yolanda and the Thief is at once too much and not enough. It’s long on imagination and ambition but short on characterization and story, and so misses its mark. But it remains notable for its influence on Minnelli’s future work as well as for its eccentricity: it’s about as weird as classic Hollywood gets. In a contemporary review, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther called the film’s romance “slow and considerably labored” and its humor “obvious and dull,” but Crowther adds that “the visual felicities and the wackiness of the main idea hold the show together and make it something most profitable to see.” Minnelli’s “out of the world place” is, for all its faults, worth visiting. To quote Agent Cooper from Twin Peaks, at its best, Minnelli’s almost-forgotten film takes us to a place “both wonderful and strange.”