Sunday, July 22, 2012

They Learned About Women (MGM, 1930)

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

Two nights ago Charles and I watched a movie that by any normal standard is pretty dreadful but is fascinating as a slice of cultural history: They Learned About Women, a 1930 MGM musical directed by Jack Conway and Sam Wood (though I have no idea what the actual split in their labors was) from a script by Sarah Y. Mason (she and her husband Victor Heerman worked both jointly and severally; while she was working on this script he was in New York directing the Marx Brothers’ second film, Animal Crackers) based on a story by A. P. Younger with dialogue by Arthur “Bugs” Baer. They Learned About Women was a vehicle for the vaudeville team of [Gus] Van and [Joe] Schenck, who had been popular for at least 15 years when this film was made and were obviously still big enough stars that MGM was expecting a major box-office windfall from them. The film runs 95 minutes (nine minutes longer than Untamed, the Joan Crawford film from a year earlier TCM ran immediately before this one) and co-stars Academy Award nominee Bessie Love — though it casts her in a too-good-to-be-true ingénue role that does far less for her than her lovesick sister in The Broadway Melody, the film for which she got her Academy nomination.

The basic plot of They Learned About Women is that Jack Glennon (Joe Schenck) and Jerry Burke (Gus Van) are the star pitcher and catcher, respectively, for the (decidedly fictitious) major-league baseball team the Blue Sox, and during the off-season they tour with a vaudeville act and are major stars. (The 1949 film Take Me Out to the Ball Game has sometimes been called a remake of They Learned About Women, but about the only thing the two films have in common is this conceit of two stars who are ballplayers during the baseball season and vaudeville performers at other times.) Contrary to the title, Jerry and Jack already seem to know quite a bit about women: Jerry keeps trying to get Jack to take his training seriously and get to bed at a decent hour, and Jack keeps staying up all night entertaining his lady friends (he always seems to have an entourage of them) with songs he sings and plays piano on — not especially distinguished songs at that; though Van and Schenck had got some good material in the past (notably introducing a George Gershwin standard, “Somebody Loves Me,” as well as another Gershwin song, “Yankee Doodle Blues,” that was so little known the plot of the 1951 musical I’ll Get By tried to pass it off as a newly discovered and previously unheard Gershwin song), none of the songs they sing in this film are anywhere near that interesting.

It’s obvious that their act had already got pretty stale by the time this movie was made, and now of course it’s hopelessly dated — though I did give the filmmakers points for not putting in the infamous “secret orchestra” of later musicals: the only time Van and Schenck are heard with an orchestra is when they’re performing in a vaudeville theatre. Elsewhere we only hear them with Schenck’s piano accompaniment — and though MGM had introduced pre-recording musical numbers in The Broadway Melody it seems likely that in the scenes where they’re supposed to be performing informally that they were working “live.” By far the best scene in the film is the musical number that occurs right after Van and Schenck do their vaudeville turn in a theatre: their last song is a number called “Harlem Madness” (recorded by Ray Miller and his orchestra for Brunswick Records on December 21, 1929 — one of their records, along with “Cradle of Love” from the previous January, on which it’s been rumored that Bix Beiderbecke was making an uncredited appearance, though the story around Bix being on either record has been pretty well debunked by now), and just as they finish it there’s a cut to a troupe of African-American performers (including a lead female dancer that seems like the beta version of Josephine Baker) doing the same song and, not surprisingly, doing a considerably hotter and more exciting version. Indeed, this number was so spectacular (and so unrelated to anything in the rest of the movie) that I wondered if it had been shot in two-strip Technicolor but only the black-and-white version survived, as was frequently the case with early musicals.

The plot of They Learned About Women is nothing much: Jack abandons both Jerry and his good girlfriend Mary (Bessie Love) — given that the people who wrote and enforced the Production Code in the early days were Jesuits, just about every time a screenwriter wanted to indicate that a female character was the acme of innocence, he or she called her “Mary”! — for the dubious charms of vampy vaudevillian Daisy Gebhardt (Mary Doran); he leaves both Mary and the team for Daisy and starts an act with her, only in the middle of their first tour she leaves him for someone else on the bill, and eventually he comes back to his senses, rejoins the team in its World Series against the Bears (another fictitious team, though the baseball scenes are certainly padded out with scads of stock footage of real games!) and gets the Blue Sox out of a six-run deficit: told to “use your head” by the Blue Sox’ irascible manager Brennan (Eddie Gribbon) when it’s his turn to bat, Jack does so by getting beaned, whereupon the next Blue Sox up drives in the winning runs with an inside-the-park home run just so directors Conway and/or Wood can maintain the suspense of whether or not Jack will be thrown out at home. (Charles said the fact that it was an inside-the-park home run was the only even remotely novel thing about how this film ended.)

Van and Schenck can’t act, and they’re clearly middle-aged and unathletic so they’re not believable as ballplayers either (unlike the people who played these roles in Take Me Out to the Ball Game, the superbly athletic Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, who though small and skinny was also wiry and therefore believable in a sport like baseball in which agility can count for as much as sheer strength), and their songs are too far removed from either today’s entertainment or the best singers and songwriters of their day to carry the film today the way they no doubt did for its 1930 audience (one reviewer said that Van and Schenck were one — or maybe two — of the reasons vaudeville died, and during the film Charles had expressed a similar sentiment), but it’s still an interesting curio in that the two were obviously major stars of the day and MGM had high hopes that their live popularity would carry this film; they didn’t, but it was still an interesting glimpse of what at one point had been considered state-of-the-art entertainment.