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Sophistication, Vulgarity, and the Sarong Girl

11:00 PM, Nov 17, 1996 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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A perfect fact to remember us by, we "post-moderns" or whatever we are: When we say that entertainment is "adult," we mean it is infantile. The pictorial spelling-out of exactly what happens when a couple goes to bed is in the "Billy learns how to tie his shoes" spirit of edifying books for toddlers. Vulgar words and obscene pictures are the quintessence of teenage- boyness. Compared with the typical modern flick, Dorothy Lamour's best pictures have a paradoxical superiority: They are better for children, and vastly more adult.

She died September 23 at 81. It is a painful era for lovers of American culture -- we are losing the remaining heroes and heroines of the golden age of the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. A few months back, Gene Kelly, a wonderful song- and-dance man when he reined in his pompous, arty urges. Ginger Rogers last year; when you add up the crunchy wisecrack comedy (Fifth Avenue Girl, The Major and the Minor), the solid acting (Stage Door, Kitty Foyle), and the sublime art of her dances with Astaire, she was the greatest lady of American cinema -- a fact the obituaries forgot to mention. As for Miss Lamour, she was no Ginger Rogers. But she had great charm, a certain grace, and the marvelous art of keeping things in perspective. A heroine she was, of the wonderful age when the movies were grown-up solid citizens instead of (as the mood dictates) sullen prima donnas, foul-mouthed children, or raving nut cases.

People remember her seven "Road" films with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope (from The Road to Singapore of 1940 through The Road to Hong Kong of 1962) as corny. And they are -- corny and funny. Funny movies are still produced nowadays, but hers were more sophisticated than today's average comedy insofar as it is harder to be funny when you limit yourself to inoffensive words and inoffensive situations. Vulgarity has always been the shortest route to a cheap laugh. I don't claim there is no such thing as a modern-yet- sophisticated movie, or that Miss Lamour's pictures were sophisticated in absolute terms. No one called them sophisticated at the time. But the trend lines are interesting, and the sophistication trend is sharply down.

There is a wonderful, pure-essence-of-Lamour moment in the second worst Road movie, The Road to Bali of 1952. (Hong Kong is dead last.) She's a South Pacific princess, and Bing and Bob are adventurers who get lured to her island by a sneering bad guy who needs stooges to help him with his dirty work. She throws them a party. They sit cross-legged on the floor in kilts (never mind how the kilts got in there) on either side of her, and there follows a triple-decker, three-voiced fugue of a scene. The plot calls for the princess to demonstrate South Pacific sorcery, and so she makes a rope hang in air, a girl wriggle out of a vase. On top of that, the usual irrelevant Hope-and-Crosby clowning: "It's mass hypnosis!" "Where'd you learn a word like that?" "Don't listen to him, Princess, he got kicked out of kindergarten for cheating at finger painting." And superimposed on the whole thing is Miss Lamour's serene, priceless smile. In character she thinks these two adventurers are silly but sort of sweet. As an actress she thinks all three of them on that crazy set -- Bing, Bob, and Dorothy -- are silly but sort of sweet.

Her smile has the facts down perfectly. Bing is as unprepossessing a romantic lead as the movies ever produced. He always gets the girl (is the one-and-only actor ever to star with Astaire and get Fred's girl), but the basis of his romantic appeal is cornball ballads and nice guyness. He mocks his own singing style and big ears. Hope is the only comedian ever to succeed in being funny on the basis of really, really trying. And Miss Lamour, supposed focus of double-barrel Hope-and-Crosby romantic passion, is herself no spring chicken circa 1952; she has (eh-hem) put on a few pounds, and happens to be got up in a headdress that looks like the large transformers you see outside power plants, except diamond-spangled. The whole scene is just micro-inches shy of ridiculous, but she rescues it with the sheer knowing sweetness of her smile; because of that smile it is not ridiculous at all but funny and even a little bit touching.