Lovely to Look At (1952)

Among many classic Hollywood musical remakes, there is Lovely to Look At (1952), which is based upon the Broadway musical Roberta from 1933. Lovely to Look At (1952) stars Kathryn Grayson, Red Skelton, Howard Keel, Marge Champion, Gower Champion, and Ann Miller. In between the premiere of the stage musical and the 1952 film was Roberta (1935), a musical film produced by RKO, starring Irene Dunne, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and Randolph Scott.

The stories for the stage and film iterations of Roberta stem from a novel called Gowns by Roberta, written by Alice Duer Miller. The novel details the story of a college football hero who is abandoned by his fiancee in Paris for being classless and uncultured. Not having any close connections there, he looks up his aunt–a clothing designer who helps him and changes his life. There are no subplots in this story.

The Broadway musical version inspired by the novel altered the plot to tell the story of John Kent, a football player at Haverhill College, who inherits a Paris dress shop from is Aunt Minnie. Minnie works under the name Roberta. There, John becomes romantically involved with Stephanie, Roberta’s assistant. The two fall in love and plan to run the shop as partners. Problems arise when John’s former girlfriend appears. A secondary romantic plot is added to this story.

The original cast performed at the New Amsterdam Theatre for 295 performances, featuring:

  • Bob Hope as Huckleberry Haines
  • Tamara Drasin as Princess Stephanie
  • Ray Middleton as John Kent
  • Fay Templeton as Aunt Minnie / Roberta
  • George Murphy as Billy Boyden
  • Lyda Roberti as Madame Nunez / Clementina Scharwenka
  • Sydney Greenstreet as Lord Henry Delves
  • Fred MacMurray as California Collegian
  • Allan Jones as California Collegian
  • Helen Gray as Sophie Teale
  • Jane Evans as Mrs. Teale
  • Bobette Christine as Angele
  • William Hain as Ladislaw
  • Nayan Pearce as Luella Laverne
  • Mavis Walsh as Marie
  • Ed Jerome as Monsieur Leroux
  • Berenice Alaire as Sidonie
  • Gretchen Sherman as The Buyer
  • Virginia Whitmore as The Flower Girl

The musical numbers were as follows:

  • “Prologue”
  • “You’re Devastating”
  • “Yesterdays”
  • “Something’s Got to Happen”
  • “Prose Recital”
  • “The Touch of Your Hand”
  • “Scene and Pas de Seul”
  • “The Showing at Roberta’s”
  • “I’ll Be Hard to Handle”
  • “Hot Spot”
  • “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”
  • “Let’s Begin”
  • “Dance Finaletto”
  • “Don’t Ask Me Not to Sing”
  • “The Touch of Your Hand (reprise)”

The RKO film portrayed an American dancer/jazz musician and his friend, who work to woo a fake countess in Paris. In this film, John Kent is a former Harvard football player who travels with his friend, Huck, and his dance band–the Wabash Indianians. Trouble ensues when there is a mistake with their booking in Paris, leading John to turn to his Aunt Minnie for help. Minnie owns the Roberta gown shop, where he meets Stephanie, her head designer. The two fall in love. Huck also has his own subplot with eccentric customer Scharwenka, who is actually his former girlfriend, Lizzie. She helps him secure a gig, so long as he keeps her identity secret. John and Stephanie’s romantic plot becomes murky when Ladislaw, a handsome Russian prince, appears to be interested in Stephanie. Irene Dunne and Randolph Scott serve as the primary couple, while Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are secondary to the story. The film was a success at the box office.

The 1935 film’s cast is as follows:

  • Irene Dunne as Stephanie
  • Fred Astaire as Huck
  • Ginger Rogers as Scharwenka
  • Randolph Scott as John
  • Helen Westley as Roberta
  • Claire Dodd as Sophie
  • Victor Varconi as Ladislaw
  • Luis Alberni as Voyda
  • Ferdinand Munier as Lord Delves
  • Torben Meyer as Albert
  • Lucille Ball, with platinum blond hair, appears (uncredited) in her first RKO film as a model wearing an elaborate feather cape, after the vocal by Dunne, in the fashion show.

The musical numbers in this film include:

  • “The Pipe Organ Number”
  • “Let’s Begin”
  • “Yesterdays”
  • “I’ll Be Hard to Handle”
  • “I Won’t Dance”
  • “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”
  • “Russian Lullaby”
  • “Fashion Pageant”
  • “Lovely to Look At”
  • “Finale Dance”

In 1952, MGM studios revisited the Roberta story. The studio purchased Roberta in 1945 with the intent to remake the film as a Technicolor musical, keeping it out of public circulation through the 1970s.

When Lovely to Look At (1952) was in pre-production, the film was slated to be a vehicle for Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, co-starring Judy Garland and Betty Garrett. Though the film kept the musical score and the plotline of the dress ship being inherited, it is extremely different from Roberta (1935). The film tells the story of Broadway producers Al Marsh, Tony Naylor, and Jerry Ralby, who are seeking investors for their show. While the search is grim, Al receives a letter from Paris, informing him that his Aunt Robert has died. As part of his inheritance, he receives half of her dress Salon. The three men and their friend Bubbles travel to Paris, aiming to sell Al’s share in the shop. Al is disappointed to see that the shop is bankrupt. At the shop, they meet Stephanie and Clarisse, setting up the film’s romantic plots and Al’s aim to make the shop profitable again.

In the end, the intended leads for this film where not secured. Instead, the cast for this film was:

  • Kathryn Grayson as Stephanie
  • Red Skelton as Al Marsh
  • Howard Keel as Tony Naylor
  • Marge Champion as Clarisse
  • Gower Champion as Jerry Ralby
  • Ann Miller as Bubbles Cassidy
  • Zsa Zsa Gabor as Zsa Zsa (in her film debut)
  • Kurt Kasznar as Max Fogelsby
  • Marcel Dalio as Pierre
  • Diane Cassidy as Diane

The musical numbers in this iteration of the story include:

  • “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”
  • “Lovely to Look At”
  • “I Won’t Dance”
  • “Yesterdays”
  • “You’re Devastating”
  • “I’ll Be Hard to Handle”
  • “Lafayette”

The film failed to produce a profit for MGM.

While both film versions of the Roberta story possess their own memorable moments, they vary in ways that make each film distinct.

Moreover, individuals who are curious about the Broadway production can experience the plot and songs of the stage production in the 2014 New World Records rendition of the show

This article is part of the “Take Two!” Blogathon. View additional entries here.

About Annette Bochenek

Dr. Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is an avid scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies and is the president of TCM Backlot’s Chicago chapter. In addition to writing for TCM Backlot, she also writes for Classic Movie Hub, Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine.
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3 Responses to Lovely to Look At (1952)

  1. Vienna says:

    Many thanks for the history of Roberta. I’d love to hear the Broadway songs which neither film used. The Irene Dunne version is the one I love. Surprised to hear the remake didn’t make a profit.
    Such beautiful Jerome Kern melodies.

  2. Love this comprehensive comparison of the musicals!

  3. I confess to being partial to “Roberta,” if only for the delightful Hard to Handle number (although Randolph Scott is most annoying throughout. Can’t figure out why Irene Dunne fell for him). But, both versions, as you say, have their own special brand of delight. Now if I could only see that original stage production with the original cast…
    Many thanks for hosting this blogathon. I’m looking forward to checking out the other posts.

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