Saturday, May 12, 2012

Swing Parade of 1946 (Monogram, 1946)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Swing Parade of 1946 — that’s the title in Leonard Maltin’s filmography of the Three Stooges, who play important supporting roles in it, though the print we were watching was simply titled Swing Parade (apparently Monogram Pictures, or whoever handled the reissue, simply dropped the year number, as did the reissuers of Sensations of 1945) — which turned out to be a surprisingly good musical featuring the girl whom “B” Movies author Don Miller called “Monogram’s own little twinkling star,” Gale Storm. She plays Carol Lawrence (ironically, there was a real Carol Lawrence who achieved Broadway stardom about a decade after this film was made as the original Maria in the stage cast of West Side Story), who as the film opens — stop me if you’ve heard this before — is about to be thrown out of the boardinghouse where she lives by a hatchet-faced landlady for owing four weeks’ worth of back rent. In order to get a job, pronto, she stops by the Embassy Club, a yet-to-be-opened nightclub owned by singer Danny Warren (Phil Regan) whose security person, Moose (Edward Brophy), throws out everyone who comes to the club whom he doesn’t know personally. We soon learn that the reason he’s doing this is that Danny’s father, utilities magnate Daniel Warren, Sr. (Russell Hicks), and his attorney Bascomb (John Eldredge, seedy as usual — describes the character as the elder Warren’s “lieutenant” but the actual film’s dialogue makes it clear he’s his lawyer) have secretly bought the building in which the Embassy Club is housed and are going to evict Danny to prevent the club from opening so Danny will come back to his dad’s utilities company with his tail between his legs and assume the destiny of utilities magnate, junior his father intended for him presumably since he was born. (There doesn’t seem to be a Mrs. Warren anywhere, which given the usual iconography of 1946 Hollywood makes it likely we’re supposed to think that she’s dead.)

Thrown out of the club without being given even a hello from its mysterious proprietor, much less a chance to audition, Carol returns to the boardinghouse and finds that she’s not only been served an eviction notice but her clothes have been locked up so she has nothing to wear but what’s on her back just then. Desperate for a job, she ends up by authorial fiat (the screenwriter is Edmund Kelso, adapting an “original” story by Tim Ryan, with Nicholas Ray, of all people, credited with “additional dialogue” — that’s one of those he-had-to-start-somewhere credits) at the offices of Warren, Sr., and he and Bascomb hit on the idea that an attractive woman would probably have a better shot at getting close to Danny and serving him the dispossession notice than a frumpy-looking middle-aged professional process server. She gets in and serves Danny — but by mistake she gives him her own eviction notice instead of the document she was supposed to serve him, and Danny, realizing she’s about to become homeless, takes pity on her and gives her an audition. She sings “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and she’s good (and swinging) enough that she gets hired as a singer at the club if and when it opens. Danny also offers to take her to dinner, but she balks at the potential threat to her virtue when it turns out that means they’re going to have dinner together in a private room at the club — she weasels her way out of a potential seduction by inviting Moose to join them — and as she rehearses for the Embassy Club’s opening, proximity works its magic and she and Danny fall in love. There’s an obligatory misunderstanding between them in the next-to-last reel when he discovers she really was hired by his dad to serve him, but things are all patched up by the end. As for the Three Stooges, they play the nightclub’s cooks, though with the club short of waiters at the big opening (am I really letting out any secrets by telling you the club opens as scheduled?) they have to work as such, and there’s a great scene in which Moe Howard tries to tell an officious customer to order roast beef instead of roast turkey. There are also some nice slapstick scenes, in a few of which Ed Brophy (who after all had worked with Buster Keaton on The Cameraman and Doughboys and therefore knew something about slapstick!) participates and becomes a virtual Fourth Stooge. Maybe I’m having a second childhood, because after years of having avoided the Three Stooges and regarded them as something I outgrew once my age got past single digits, now I’m finding them quite funny again!

There are some other guest stars whose appearances are even more welcome, including the superb jazz singer Connee Boswell (she does two songs, one of which is the Harold Arlen-Ted Koehler “Stormy Weather” — she seems to be imitating Ethel Waters, who introduced the song at the Cotton Club in 1932, and there are better versions by Waters, Ivie Anderson with Duke Ellington, and Lena Horne, but offhand this is the best “Stormy Weather” I can think of by a white singer even though Will Osborne’s band is hardly in the same league as a swing group as Ellington’s!) and the even more welcome Louis Jordan, who’s shown in the very first Embassy Club sequence rehearsing a song that was one of his biggest hits, “Don’t Worry ’Bout That Mule.” Director Phil Karlson (a better filmmaker than usually got Monogram assignments like this) cuts away from Jordan way too much and takes the edge off his act by filming too much of it in long-shot, but Jordan’s two numbers are still by far the best moments in the film. Monogram seems to have spent more money than usual on this one — there are some fairly elaborate Berkeley-esque production numbers as well as a dance between Regan and Storm that looks like a low-rent version of an Astaire-and-Rogers number — and dance director Jack Boyle rips off at least two of Busby Berkeley’s most famous ideas, a chorus line of girls waving ostrich feathers and a sequence in which musical instruments are lined with neon so they glow in the dark. Boyle uses the latter gimmick to introduce Louis Jordan’s performance of his biggest hit, “Caldonia,” and while the song came off better in the short film named after it which Jordan had made the year before (mainly because Jordan didn’t have to deal with interjections from Will Osborne’s string section the way he has to here), it’s still a fabulous piece of material and a delight not only to hear but also to watch, with Jordan kicking up his legs like a spoiled baby as he sings, “What makes yo’ big head so hard?” Jordan is probably the most important musician on the cusp between jazz and rock — his infectious vocals and the insistent beat of his music (particularly the back-beat shuffles he had his drummers play) mark him in many ways as the first rock ’n’ roller, and it’s a measure of how timeless his act is that he managed a virtual comeback in the mid-1990’s, 20 years after his death, through his records, his films (he made quite a few movie appearances, both in leading roles in “race” films and as a guest artist in productions like this one) and a Broadway show called Five Guys Named Moe that revived his songs.

Once we see Louis Jordan in the first five minutes there’s an understandable sense that the rest is going to be a letdown (it reminded Charles of the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 presentation of the film Catalina Caper, in which Little Richard appeared, did one number and then left, and the MST3K crew joked, “There goes Little Richard, the only talent in this movie”), but fortunately there’s enough good stuff left to come — from Gale Storm, who as I’ve noted in these pages before would have probably had the kind of career Doris Day did if she’d signed with a major studio instead of Monogram (she was a quite similar talent, with a perky personality, a pleasant and distinctive voice, and a gift for portraying wholesome innocence); from Phil Regan, who seems oddly short (though Gale Storm is wearing heels, on screen they’re about the same height) and doesn’t have a great voice but has a pleasantly serviceable one; from the Stooges, who do a good job providing the comic relief they were hired for; from Mary Treen, a homely Charlotte Greenwood-esque performer who plays a rich woman who’s offered to bankroll the Embassy Club at a new location if Daniel Warren, Sr. does succeed in closing it down (in the finale Regan is paired with Storm and Treen is paired with, of all people, real-life bandleader Will Osborne, who plays himself in the film!), and from another Jordan song (the Jordan song, actually — Louis Jordan wrote “Caldonia” himself but he let his manager talk him into giving his then-wife, Fleecie Moore, the credit on the ground that that would ease his tax burden; then they broke up and he had to endure seeing her get the royalties from the many cover versions, thereby making her first name all too appropriate!), as well as a substantial (by Monogram standards, anyway) production: for once Gale Storm has a cinematographer (Harry Neumann) who knows how to light her without making it look like she has a moustache, and this is one Monogram movie in which one doesn’t have to worry about the sets crashing down on the hapless actors at any moment. Though almost none of the music in it has much to do with swing (Louis Jordan’s numbers would have been considered “jump blues” rather than swing in the 1940’s; later they would have been called rhythm and blues), Swing Parade of 1946 is still a quite nice movie, no world-beater but a pleasant, charming film and a worthy showcase for Gale Storm.