by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
Our first movie last night was Road to Happiness, an item I’d downloaded from archive.org (http://www.archive.org/details/road_to_happiness) and burned to a DVD, which was billed on their site as a 1934 musical starring John Boles as an aspiring singer who makes it as a radio star. Curiously, I found out from imdb.com that the movie was actually made in 1942 — which explains why Boles looked a decade older than he had in his early-1930’s films (he was a decade older!) — though one could readily see where the mistake came from because this movie, a production of second-iteration (post-1937) Monogram, actually seemed much closer philosophically and thematically to the early 1930’s than the early 1940’s. (The release date for Road to Happiness given on imdb.com was January 9, 1942, which means it was almost certainly finished before the U.S. entered World War II and probably seemed dated to audiences once it finally hit theatres.)
The plot has aspiring opera singer Jeff Carter (John Boles) scraping up the money to return from Lisbon, where he ended up after spending several years in Europe studying the baritone repertoire and gaining experience in small opera companies, to the U.S., where he hopes to parlay his European experience into major opera stardom. He’s saddled with obnoxious manager Charley Grady (Roscoe Karns),who seems better at alienating his potential employers than wooing them; and the man on whose approval his career depends is temperamental conductor Pietro Pacelli (Paul Porcasi, who seems to be enacting the popular image of Arturo Toscanini as a crazed maniac who insulted his musicians and treated everyone else like shit), but those are the least of his problems. His biggest problem is that he’s totally broke — so much so that he has to ask his former landlady Mrs. Price (Lillian Elliott) for his old room back — and his wife Millie (Mona Barrie) has divorced him (though she continued to write to him in Europe, giving him the false impression that once he returned to the U.S. they’d get back together) and remarried. Her new husband is a wealthy stockbroker, Sam Rankin (Selmer Jackson), and the two of them have sent Jeff’s son Danny (Billy Lee in a refreshingly un-sentimental performance for a child actor just after the Age of Temple) to military school, where he’s doing well and he’s well-liked. Daddy goes to the school to fetch him, and Danny is glad to see him and eagerly agrees to leave the school and move in with dad even though all dad has to offer him is a room in a boardinghouse (which he can’t even pay for — Mrs. Price is giving him credit, as she had done when he and his wife lived there years earlier) and whatever presents and treats he can get by pawning his belongings.
In bare outline, the plot of Road to Happiness sounds like rancidly sentimental treacle, but as actually played the film is surprisingly tough-minded and emotionally moving; writers Matt Taylor (story) and Robert Hardy Andrews (script) play against many of the usual clichés and avoid the easy movie devices many writers would have plugged into this story. What’s more, they give the tale a deep sense of class consciousness fairly common in the movies of the early 1930’s (at the height of the Great Depression) but surprising as late as 1942 (no wonder the folks at archive.org thought this movie was eight years older than it was!) and they make Millie a surprisingly bitchy character, totally heedless of the welfare and needs of her son and interested only in being a socialite and hanging out with worthless drinking buddies. The first weekend Jeff sends Danny back to see his mom, she turns him away with a note — given to him by her butler — that she’s too busy to see him.
The second weekend she lets him in — and her new husband plies him with presents and evinces far more caring and interest in his welfare than his mom does — but at 5:15 p.m., when he wants to listen to the “Laughing Cowboy” radio show because his dad is playing the star’s faithful Indian companion (unable to find a job as a singer he’s taken the first thing he was offered, and he’s nobly renounced his operatic ambitions to make sure he’s making some money to take care of his son), mom trundles in her cocktail-party companions and they drown out the radio. Danny is so humiliated he insists on walking all the way back to his dad’s boardinghouse — even turning down his stepfather’s offer of a ride — out of a believable mixture of trauma and hurt pride that’s one of the many elements that makes this movie ring true emotionally instead of seeming manipulated for the tear ducts. (Charles pointed out that she’s probably the nastiest mother figure in classic Hollywood who wasn’t an out-and-out crook like the even more irresponsible mother in the 1931 film Night Nurse.)
Director Phil Rosen, who at this time was making mostly Monogram’s usual garbage, handles this story with the delicacy and the dedication it needs and shows that the two great movies he made in the early 1930’s (The Phantom Broadcast for first-iteration Monogram in 1933 and Dangerous Corner for RKO a year later) weren’t flukes. Only towards the end of the movie, when the writers have to let things start breaking Jeff’s way at long last so he can achieve success and raise his son as a single parent without having to worry about that bitch mother of his hurting him anymore, do they fall back into cliché; the great (and egomaniacal) singer Almonti (Antonio Filauri) shows up for his weekly program at the same station where Jeff is rehearsing his latest “Laughing Cowboy” script, only he’s too drunk to perform, so Jeff goes on in his place, sings “Vision fugitive” from Massenet’s Hérodiade (an odd feature for a baritone — even in an era in which more people listened to and followed opera than do now, one might have expected him to sing a bit of Rigoletto, the Toreador Song from Carmen, or another more famous baritone aria), is an instant star and gets the offer from tempermental conductor Pacelli (ya remember Pacelli?) he’s been waiting for all along.
Until then, though, Road to Happiness has been quite an engaging film that’s well worth watching (even though the print on archive.org, along with being misdated, is about 10 minutes shorter than the original release, and some of the cuts — including one of Boles’ three songs, “America” — are all too obvious) and surprisingly moving emotionally even though it’s not really a musical — there’s no production number and all Boles gets to sing in this print is the Massenet aria at the end and “Danny Boy” (it seems almost certain that the writers named his son after this song, as an excuse to get it into the movie!) early on over the dinner table at the boardinghouse.