YOLANDA AND THE THIEF (1945) C 109m dir: Vincente Minnelli
w/Fred Astaire, Lucille Bremer, Frank Morgan, Mildred Natwick, Leon Ames, Mary Nash
From Rick Altman's groundbreaking book The American Film Musical: "Perhaps the most striking aspect of Hollywood's forties Latin romance is the absence of MGM from the fiesta until mid-decade. By the time Yolanda and the Thief appeared in 1945 no fewer than six other studios had beaten MGM to the punch an uncharacteristic fourteen times. The wait turned out to be worth it, for Yolanda is one of the true lost gems of the musical world. Vincente Minnelli's first chance to let his surrealistic color sense run wild, Yolanda inaugurates the only distinguished series of fairy tale musicals by a single director in the post-war era (Yolanda, The Pirate, An American in Paris, Brigadoon, Kismet, Gigi, Bells are Ringing, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever). In many ways Yolanda is a fitting heir to the sex-as-adventure operetta tradition. As in The Merry Widow, a parallel is established between the future of the kingdom of Patria and the marital plans of Yolanda Acquaviva, its richest and most important citizen. Even the National Anthem draws its lyrics from the parallel realm of romance ('This is a day for love, this is a day for song'). The celebration of Yolanda's twenty-first birthday celebration prefigures a characteristic fairy tale musical sliding from monetary amorous concerns; at first the question of majority is linked to control over the Acquaviva fortune, but soon we realize that Yolanda is far more enthralled with the freedom which her sentimental majority brings. The plot seems to grow straight out of the Zorro-Sheik-Desert Song line. Falling in love with the criminal Johnny Riggs (Astaire), whom she believes to be an angel, Yolanda eventually recognizes that it is not the angelic in him that she desires, but the masculine traits of mastery and adventure. Eventually she frees herself from the constraints imposed by her convent upbringing, while he resigns himself to the bonds of marriage, thus rejecting his wandering, lawless past.
"The plot and characters may be familiar, but Yolanda and the Thief is hardly just another remake of Rio Rita. Minnelli's film is perhaps the first simultaneously to place a heavy emphasis on the visual delights of a foreign land and to distance itself from that emphasis. Much of this distancing grows out of Minnelli's developing passion for saturated, garish colors which seem to draw attention to themselves and say 'Feast your eyes on me (here and now, because you'll never see anything like me in real life).' In addition, a series of staged scenes, recognized as such, contributes to the film's self-conscious stand. The opening scenes at the convent reveal a short passage from a religious play. Says Yolanda, 'I was so frightened.' Responds her interlocutor: 'I wasn't worried for a minute. I saw the rehearsal.' So might we say as well, after seeing so many similar films. Shortly afterward Yolanda rides to meet her angel at his hotel (in my humble opinion this scene, played in the confinement of a carriage to an orchestral rendition of 'Angel, I've an Angel,' represents an intensity of repressed sexuality which will never be equaled on film). As the naive, indeed gullible, mark of Astaire's scam (he is posing as an angel to bilk Yolanda out of her fortune), Yolanda is treated by Astaire and his henchman Frank Morgan as an audience of one. In preparation for her arrival they create in the hotel lobby a stage set, arranging props, even aiming spotlights. To 'set up' a mark, this sequence implies, is to treat her as a spectator, to draw her into the illusion of a performance. It is thus hardly surprising that Astaire's reversal, his falling in love, is also treated as an involuntary surrender to a world of illusion.
"Choreographed by Eugene Loring, the esteemed dancer-choreographer of the new American school (Yankee Clipper, Billy the Kid, City-Portrait, The Great American Goof, Prairie, The Invisible Wife), Yolanda's dream ballet simultaneously suggests the internal conflicts of the main character and moves toward their resolution --- a practice derived from the recent stage successes of Lady in the Dark and Oklahoma!, both of which make extensive use of the device. In Yolanda, however, the surrealistic sets and Minnelli colors combine with dream-like continuity (the movement from sequence to sequence clearly reflects the connections perceived by Astaire's unconscious as he reviews the daily residue in his sleep) to produce a piece of such originality that it has rarely if ever been equaled. The plot of the dream sequence is hardly original, however: will the male lead follow the evil designs which come naturally to him, or will he let himself be tamed by a woman? By any yardstick a striking movie, Yolanda and the Thief is one of a very few movies that actually tried to do something with the South-of-the-Border craze. In spite of the zaniness of the plot (it turns out in the end that Leon Ames, assumed all along to be no more than another fortune-seeker, is in fact a real guardian angel!), Yolanda merits more attention than it has received."
From Georges Sadoul's Dictionary of Films: "An extravaganza with ornate sets and costumes in which much of the story is danced. It was a commercial failure on its release but its visual grace now seems no less appealing than the nostalgic glow of Minnelli's earlier Meet Me in St. Louis .... A. Johnson describes it as 'the first film of the decade to reintroduce modern ballet into musical comedy. The colors seem to have come out of a child's paint box, and Minnelli defines the film as a kind of "Southern American baroque." The most appealing sequences are the dazzling "Coffee Time" and the dream ballet whose first images are not fanciful until Fred Astaire asks for a light from a man who has a disturbing number of arms.'"