by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I watched an engaging little movie on TCM: Beautiful but Broke, a 1944 Columbia “B” musical featuring comedienne Joan Davis, who plays Dottie Duncan, secretary to broke theatrical agent Waldo Main (John Eldredge), who decides to unload his agency on her and join the Marines (and perhaps the writers, Arthur Housman — yes, the famous actor who specialized in comic drunks, and if I wanted to be uncharitable I could speculate on his state of inebriation when he wrote this movie — Manuel Seff and Monte Brice, intended as ironic humor the idea of such an ineffectual upper-class twit type as Eldredge joining the most iconically macho of the services).
Her one chance of earning a commission and keeping herself and the agency in business is to supply a Cleveland cabaret owner with a band — an all-woman band, since all too many of the male bands (in this film as well as in real life) were being broken up by the war: either their leaders enlisted (like Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw and Jay McShann) or their top musicians were drafted or they were working in defense plants and making more money (like Red Nichols) — and the movie is about her struggles to get her musicians (she originally tries to book a hot all-woman band from 1929, then finds that they’re all middle-aged; then she has the Some Like It Hot-anticipating idea of booking a male band and having them wear drag; finally the writing committee rips off Babes in Arms and has her form a band from the daughters of the band she originally submitted) to Cleveland when she can’t get an advance, which includes selling the agency to the tacky Maxwell McKay (Byron Foulger) for the money for her train tickets — only her band members are “bumped” from the train by 12 military pilots who have priority, so she ends up stranded in San Rafael, Nevada, where at first she and her bandswomen are put up and treated to a first-rate meal at the railroad’s expense, only to be thrown out of the hotel and forced to wash its dishes (and of course there’s a big slapstick scene in which they break them all!) when Dottie realizes she left her handbag, including the tickets and all her money, inside the train.
The girls have to hike through the woods (wearing high heels!) until they find a seemingly abandoned house — what they don’t realize is that it’s a structure set up to serve as a test target for a new explosive-firing cannon — and the women end up stranded in San Rafael, where they get drafted to play a benefit for a day-care center for the women employees of the local defense plants and ultimately the women, attracted to all the hunky men in town — the male defense-plant workers and the servicemembers stationed nearby — decide they don’t want to go to Cleveland after all and Dottie ends up with a fraction of the income she was counting on but a sense that she’s doing something for the war effort. This isn’t much of a story, and one can sense the writers reaching for the nearest of the available clichés at every turning point of their plot, but it’s an entertaining movie, partly because there’s lots of great swing music (at least as great as the Columbia studio musicians could play), including songs that were hits for other people like “Mama, I Want to Make Rhythm” (actually a 1938 hit for Cab Calloway!), “Shoo Shoo Baby” and “Pistol Packin’ Papa” alongside new pieces like “Mr. Jive Has Gone to War” (which Frazee and Clark sing “live” into a telephone while playing a record for the man in Cleveland who’s supposed to hire them — supposedly the band is playing at a ship’s launching but actually the band doesn’t yet exist at all — only the record sticks, in an uncanny premonition of the live performance glitch that undid Milli Vanilli (when the record they were synching to got stuck similarly and they tried to improvise their way out of it), “Take the Door to the Left” (a propaganda song attacking anyone who criticized the war or any of the people fighting it), and “Just Another Blues” (in which an old song is essentially drafted for the war effort).
There’s also a bizarre Laurel and Hardy-esque slapstick scene at the end, with Joan Davis (whose big physical comedy gag was a pratfall that landed her prone and on her ass) and a team called Willie West and McGinty in what looked like a one-reel silent short spliced on this movie just to pad out its running time. It’s not much of a movie but it is good fun, and when she’s not taking tumbles onto her ass or dealing with a bratty kid (Danny Mummert as “Rollo”) at the day-care center, Joan Davis is a surprisingly authoritative screen presence, reminding me of Rosalind Russell in her comic roles — one could readily have imagined her playing Mama Rose in Gypsy if she hadn’t died a year before the film was made (at 53, rather young), and early in the 1950’s she had a TV sitcom called I Married Joan that was considered a rival to I Love Lucy as a woman-centered laugh-fest. TCM was showing this as part of a two-film tribute to her on her birthday (just before they showed three films with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy as a tribute to his birthday, which is also today!), and I watched about 15 minutes of the next one, Kansas City Kitty, as well — it should be fun!