by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
Eventually we watched the movie Lady Be Good, a 1941 MGM musical produced by Arthur Freed at a time when Freed’s productions were still pretty much standardized items from the musical cliché mill. Lady Be Good began on Broadway in the 1920’s as a musical by George and Ira Gershwin, but Freed and his writers — Jack McGowan, “original” story; McGowan, Kay Van Riper and John McClain, script; and Ralph Spence, Arnold Auerbach, Herman Wouk (! — so now we know what he wrote before World War II!), Robert McGunigle and Vincente Minnelli, uncredited script doctors — threw out all but two of the Gershwin songs, “Oh, Lady Be Good” and “Fascinating Rhythm.” They also threw out the original story and substituted an excessively lame, boring one about husband-and-wife songwriters Eddie Crane (Robert Young) and Dixie Donegan (Ann Sothern) who divorce, get back together and then split up again, only the judge who heard their first divorce case (Lionel Barrymore, playing his whole role seated behind the bench to conceal that he could no longer walk and needed a wheelchair) refuses to divorce them again and so they more or less reconcile at the finish.
The show was laden down with mediocre new songs by Roger Edens, “You’ll Never Know” (definitely not the Harry Warren song for the film of that title at 20th Century-Fox that won the Academy Award two years later) and “Your Words and My Music” (the latter with lyrics by, you guessed it, Arthur Freed himself), and a quite beautiful song by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” performed by Ann Sothern in a nightclub in which she and Young are being fêted as songwriters of the year for “Oh, Lady Be Good.” Hammerstein wrote the lyrics to express his traumatic reaction when Paris fell to the Nazis, and though at the time he was working on a show with Sigmund Romberg he knew that Kern and only Kern would be the right composer for his special song (one of the few times Hammerstein and Kern ever wrote a song that was conceived on its own instead of as part of a show); the song won the Academy Award for 1941 —though Kern, a good sport as usual, said he thought Harold Arlen’s “Blues in the Night” (introduced far less effectively in its film) should have won — largely due to its moving presentation here, in which the second chorus is accompanied on screen by stock footage of pre-war Paris: a rare moment of raw emotion in a movie otherwise content to stay on well-blazed trails of clichés.
One of the most frustrating things about Lady Be Good is that we’re constantly being cut away from the more interesting characters in the movie — Eleanor Powell (bizarrely billed first even though she’s really playing a second lead) as Marilyn Marsh, ace tap dancer (though it’s not until 74 minutes into this 111-minute movie that we finally get to see her dance), star of the show the feuding songwriters eventually stay together long enough to write, and roommate of Dixie’s when she and her now-and-again husband are apart; and Red Skelton (billed seventh and deserving better both in cast order and in being given something to do), playing the Cranes’ song-plugger and taking some marvelous pratfalls that make us a) laugh and b) wish he had a much bigger part in the film — to focus on the boring parts played by Young and Sothern. Given how many great comedies Hollywood was making just then about divorced couples who couldn’t let each other go and ultimately reconciled at the fade-out — obscure ones like The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, directed by Stephen Roberts and starring William Powell and Jean Arthur, as well as famous ones like The Awful Truth, His Girl Friday and The Philadelphia Story — it seems really disappointing that Arthur Freed, director Norman Z. McLeod (whose best credits are films with zany comedians as his stars — Monkey Business and Horse Feathers with the Marx Brothers and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty with Danny Kaye) and the writing committee didn’t bring some more imagination and flair to this story.
There are some nice one-liners in the film — notably the one in which Eleanor Powell says to Red Skelton, whose antics are getting on her nerves, “Why don’t you go back into the clock and close the little door behind you?” — and a couple of hot dance numbers by the Berry Brothers, a Black group of tap dancers who are rather like the Nicholas Brothers except that there are three of them and they’re equally spectacular in their combination of tap and acrobatics. There’s also a nice performance by Tom Conway as Dixie’s divorce lawyer and a forgettable minor role for Dan Dailey — and, on the “down” side, there’s the execrable John Carroll as Eddie’s rival for Dixie’s hand. Carroll is ostensibly the radio singer who introduces the Cranes’ songs and makes hits of them, but his voice is so drearily stentorian one gets the impression the songs are becoming popular in spite of him.
Among the other good stuff in this movie are the montage sequence that shows the song “Oh, Lady Be Good” becoming a hit, with piles of sheet music and records (the record we see is on the Victor label — a rare use of a real record label in a film of the period — but the label is white with black lettering, not the black with gold lettering Victor actually used for their pop records at the time) mounting to vertiginous heights as the song inches its way up the charts — and the spectacular dance number to “Fascinating Rhythm” that climaxes the film, with the Berry Brothers joining Eleanor Powell when they’re not seated at three pianos that are themselves dancing — and at the end Powell is shown dancing out of a giant chiffon curtain that is billowing out behind and above her. According to Hugh Fordin, Arthur Freed’s biographer — who made it clear throughout his book that he couldn’t stand Busby Berkeley — this was an arduous number to film, largely because of the sheer amount of time Berkeley took on it. “Freed gave Berkeley an ultimatum: ‘You’ve got three days to rehearse and one day to shoot,’” Fordin wrote. “He started shooting at nine o’clock in the morning; at ten in the evening George Folsey, the cameraman, had to be replaced; and at two-thirty in the morning the crew walked off the set. Berkeley’s total lack of discipline killed off any professionalism Eleanor Powell ever had.” (The scenes in Berkeley’s Footlight Parade of James Cagney as the maniacal dance director locking his cast and crew inside a rehearsal hall for three days straight, moving in cots so they could cat-nap between rehearsals and having sandwiches delivered so they could eat, are a pretty good illustration of Berkeley’s actual working methods.)
The resulting number isn’t quite as demented as the extravaganzae Berkeley had previously created at Goldwyn and Warners, but it’s still easily the best thing (along with “The Last Time I Saw Paris”) in the movie. (Powell’s only other dance sequence takes place in her apartment — which, Charles noted, is the exact same set that was used for the Cranes’ apartment, only re-dressed, a bit of cheapness one expected more from Monogram than MGM — in which she does quite a clever routine with a dancing dog named Buttons; I have no idea how he was trained or by whom — they didn’t give credits for “dog wranglers” then — but he’s quite good.) Lady Be Good is an example of one of those frustratingly mediocre films that could have been good: with more of the Gershwin score kept intact (besides “Oh, Lady Be Good” and “Fascinating Rhythm” we hear a snatch of “So Am I” played by Robert Young to impress the society friends he loves and Ann Sothern can’t stand, and an even smaller bit of “Hang On to Me” in the background score), a more stylish director, snappier writing and, above all, a starrier cast — like Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, who’d played together brilliantly in The Awful Truth and would have been a damned sight better in this movie than Robert Young and Ann Sothern (not only were they far more charismatic personalities and funnier comedians but Dunne had a much better singing voice than Sothern’s) — this could have been a real gem instead of a mediocre film made while the Freed Unit was still groping towards the genuinely stylish masterpieces of its maturity: Meet Me in St. Louis, An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain, et al.