Thursday, August 26, 2010

Dixie Jamboree (PRC, 1944)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I eventually watched Dixie Jamboree, the companion feature to Career Girl on the Frances Langford DVD from Critics’ Choice and a peculiar film because Lawrence Taylor’s “original” story — converted into a screenplay by Sam Neuman, who also wrote the lyrics to Michael Breen’s songs — is an almost dead-on ripoff of Show Boat with only a modern-day gangster plot overlaid on the proceedings. Indeed, the film — directed by Christy Cabanne, the least illustrious of the four assistants to D. W. Griffith who became directors in their own right (the others were Erich von Stroheim, Tod Browning and Raoul Walsh!) — seems to be heading for noir territory in its opening sequence, as gangsters Tony Sardell (Lyle Talbot, midway down his career descent from co-starring with Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis and Ginger Rogers in the 1930’s to providing shards of professionalism in Ed Wood’s films in the 1950’s) and Jack “Curly” Burger (Frank Jenks, who doesn’t look particularly curly).

They’re stranded in a Missouri riverboat town and want a way they can sneak out of the state and high-tail it to New Orleans to avoid capture by the cops who are hot on their tails, and just then into the cheap bar they’re drinking in and planning strategy come Captain Jackson (Guy Kibbee, who gets above-the-title billing along with Langford and appears to have lost some weight since his days of character-actor glory at Warners), master of the Mississippi’s last show boat, the Eulabelle, and his sidekick, “Professor” (Charles Butterworth, whose dry wit really enlivens the proceedings; in one sequence, when some of the show boat performers get into an argument, Captain Jackson says, “Come on, people! Let’s not throw things at each other!” — and the Professor says, “No, let’s let the audience do that”). Upon hearing that the Eulabelle is headed to New Orleans, Tony and Curly offer the captain $100 to board as passengers — and he, of course, accepts.

They park their show boat at the next town and offer a free sample performance — just like the troupe of Captain Andy Hawks, his bitchy wife Parthenia (the bitchy wife of the captain in Dixie Jamboree is named Eulabelle and played by sour-faced Almira Sessions; the show boat is named after her) and their daughter Magnolia in the real Show Boat — only the star of this show boat is not the captain’s daughter but his niece, Susan Jackson (Frances Langford). Her big song is interrupted by a street trumpet player, Jeff Calhoun (Eddie Quillan, briefly a star in the early 1930’s in films like the first Girl Crazy and Broadway to Hollywood and here trying vainly for a comeback), who says he can only play when he gets a “tingle” from something or someone who inspires him — and of course it’s Susan who’s his current inspiration.

Captain Jackson immediately hires him for the show and then has to deal with the uncertainty of his inspiration — while the Professor, realizing that Jeff can’t remember anything he’s played a moment after he’s played it, follows him around and writes down his improvisations (a gag that was already pretty lame in the 1938 RKO musical Radio City Revels and didn’t get any better when RKO reclaimed it for the 1946 musical Ding Dong Williams — and which shows the patronizing attitude towards jazz and its practitioners that ruled Hollywood even when jazz was so popular they felt they had to fit it into movies somewhere).

Dixie Jamboree had the potential to be a not-bad movie but instead it wastes 70 minutes in a series of unspeakably boring clichés; the borrowings from Show Boat (including a stentorian number for a Black bass-baritone deckhand, “You Ain’t Right with the Lord,” which isn’t a bad song but is hardly “Old Man River” either) sit uneasily with the gangster-movie elements and there’s the predictable soap-opera complications as well, as fellow show-boat performer Yvette (Fifi D’Orsay, who has a certain charm but if you’ve seen one of her performances you really have seen them all; she’s playing the same character here as she did in Going Hollywood and Something to Sing About) tries to vamp Jeff and succeeds only in killing his inspiration and getting Susan jealous; meanwhile Tony the gangster has the hots for Susan, and he’s managed to convince her that he’s a gentleman while Jeff is just a tramp trumpeter — only everything turns out right in the end, of course: Jeff gets both Susan and the $10,000 reward the cops were offering for Tony’s capture, dead or alive.

Dixie Jamboree has some good moments; Langford’s singing is quite good (as is that of the anonymous Black soloist on “You Ain’t Right with the Lord”) and whoever they got to be Eddie Quillan’s trumpet double is also excellent, with a real grasp of jazz. (My guess is it’s Andy Secrest, who replaced Bix Beiderbecke in the Paul Whiteman band and later settled in L.A. doing studio work — he was a particular favorite of Bing Crosby, who wanted Bix’s sound on his records and so, with the original dead, naturally reached out to the guy who’d replaced him in the first place; Secrest also played on Connee Boswell’s records and the trumpeter here has the kind of lyricism Secrest was famous for.) There’s also a slightly amusing subplot consisting of Captain Jackson’s inability to find the formula for the patent medicine the show boat used to sell — they’re still selling it, but now it’s just a bit of peppermint flavoring in water — and the gangsters hiding their bootleg liquor in the boat’s water tank, which suddenly gives the remedy the “kick” the Professor remembered as the taste of the original.

But all of this is in the context of a movie that seems to last a lot longer than 70 minutes — thanks largely to Cabanne’s almost soporific direction, which makes us all too aware of the great gulf of talent between Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein and Michael Breen/Sam Neuman. Charles also noticed there seems to be some uncertainty as to when this film takes place; the references to bootlegging would tend to indicate the Prohibition years (1920-1933) and the males are dressed in the clothes of 1944, but there are no cars, telephones or other definitive indications of modernity. It’s an O.K. movie but it’s not surprising that Frances Langford’s major fame was as a radio singer rather than a film star; she’s basically attractive physically but, as in Career Girl, she’s wearing a ridiculous upward-combed hairdo and her face is wretchedly made up in a way that only emphasizes its angularity. She’d later get better photography and sound recording, though (alas!) not necessarily better plots, when RKO signed her and put her into things like The Bamboo Blonde, another derivative “B” musical but one with a certain topicality and a major-studio finish Dixie Jamboree certainly could have used.