Friday, August 31, 2012

Gold Diggers in Paris (Warner Bros., 1938)

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

The film was Gold Diggers in Paris, a 1938 Warner Bros. release (actually as Warner Bros., not First National!) that closed out the Gold Diggers series and turned out to be unexpectedly good — the most entertaining series entry since Gold Diggers of 1933. The early signs weren’t good; Dick Powell was replaced in the male lead by Rudy Vallée, an odd choice because by 1938 his vocal style was considered incredibly dated (though within two years he’d make a comeback appearing in Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story and in 1943 he’d have the biggest hit record in the country with “As Time Goes By,” a 1931 song by Herman Hupfeld that had been used as the recurring theme in the film Casablanca — with the Musicians’ Union striking the record companies, no new records could be made of “As Time Goes By” so Vallée’s old one from 1931 was reissued by RCA Victor and was an enormous hit) and he’d been such an obnoxious presence both on- and off-screen in his previous films that when he appeared in the 1929 film Glorifying the American Girl and presented his fellow cast and crew members with autographed pictures of himself, some of them were so put off by his egomania they posted the pictures in the studio urinals and literally pissed on them. As things turned out, Vallée’s voice turned out to be a good deal mellower than Powell’s — not entirely a good thing since some of the songs in this movie actually could have used the higher but more “butch” sound of Powell’s voice — and he’s an acceptable if not exactly scintillating presence on screen in a pretty ordinary musical juvenile lead. The presence of no fewer than seven credited screenwriters — Jerry Horwin and James Seymour, “idea”; Jerry Wald, Richard Macaulay and Maurice Leo, “story”; Earl Baldwin and Warren Duff, “script” — wasn’t a good sign (regular readers of this blog will be aware that one of my general-field theories of cinema is that the quality of a film is inversely proportional to its number of writers), but somehow the writing committee and director Ray Enright (also not exactly a name to conjure with in movie history) managed to come up with a genuinely entertaining and even zany comedy to keep us occupied during the long stretch between Busby Berkeley’s two big numbers, one at the beginning (“I Wanna Go Back to Bali”) and one at the end (“Stranger in Paree” with a reprise of “I Wanna Go Back to Bali” at the end). Indeed, Gold Diggers in Paris at times seems like the beta version of a Preston Sturges movie, not only because Vallée is in it but because it features a marvelous gag — gangster Mike Coogan (Ed Brophy) is using his ill-gotten gains to subsidize the Academy Ballet company of maniacal dancer Padrinsky (Curt Bois) because he’s developed a love of high culture — Sturges later used in the original version of Unfaithfully Yours. The main plot of Gold Diggers in Paris centers around an international exposition being held in Paris and a committee assigned to recruit the world’s finest ballet companies for a competition.

Maurice Giraud (Hugh Herbert) — who’s so ditzy one expects he was the great-granduncle of Inspector Clouseau (a pretty standard woo-woo role for Herbert without the balls he seemed to acquire in Million Dollar Legs, where he was teamed with W. C. Fields as the principal rivals for the Klopstokian Presidency) — is assigned to go to New York and sign the Academy Ballet for the dance contest, only through a mix-up with a taxi driver he ends up at the Club Bally (spelled “Bali” in the American Film Institute Catalog but “Bally” on screen), whose owners Terry Moore (Rudy Vallée) and Duke Dennis (Allen Jenkins) are about to go out of business because, like some of the Internet startups in the late 1990’s (remember Kazaa?), they’re spending more money per customer than they’re getting back in the form of income. (There’s a funny bit in which their doorman, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, overhears their accountant tell them this — whereupon Eddie decides to help out by actively discouraging people from entering the club, telling them the food is terrible, the drinks are watered and everything is overpriced and they’d have a much better time at some of the other nightclubs down the street.) Terry and Duke seize on Giraud’s invitation as a way out not only from their club’s bankruptcy but from Terry’s ex-wife Mona (Gloria Dickson) who’s hounding him for back alimony and threatening to have him arrested if he doesn’t pay up. In order to turn their gold-digging chorus line into a reasonable simulacrum of a ballet company, Terry and Duke hire ballet teacher Luis Leoni (Fritz Feld, another example of one-accent-is-as-good-as-another casting), who in turn brings along his only remaining student, Kay Morrow (Rosemary Lane), with whom Terry does a meet-cute (he encounters her trapped in a trapeze that was supposed to allow her to dance upside-down on the ceiling but has only got her stuck, and she demands that he get her down — which he does, the hard way) that establishes the hate-at-first-sight that tells any hardened moviegoer that they belong together. Glitches occur on the way over as Mona wangles a way into the show and into Kay’s stateroom as her roommate, and even more glitches occur once they make it to Paris and LeBrec (Melville Cooper), the organizer of the contest, demands to see the Academy Ballet’s rehearsal. Also in the dramatis personae is the Schnickelfritz Band, who are part of Terry’s troupe and are half a fairly good Dixieland band and half the beta version of Spike Jones and His City Slickers, complete with noisemakers and an overall approach to their music that’s not as funny as they clearly thought it was but is still amusing. (Given how good the musicians are — especially the trumpet player — when they’re playing “straight” I suspect that some of the Schnickelfritzes had musician doubles on the soundstage playing the more difficult parts for them.)

The real Padrinsky and his backer, Mike Coogan — who in a pretty incredible turn of events ends up befriending Duke Dennis and agreeing to club LeBrec for him to keep him away from the rehearsals, only by a mistake he clubs Leoni instead — show up and demand that the French government deport the impostors, but thanks to a stratagem from Mona (who inexplicably turns into a good sport by the end) Padrinsky and his company get deported instead, the Bally dancers go on at the festival and win the grand prize (well, with Busby Berkeley choreographing for them and seemingly moving the finals to Le Bourget airport, why not?) and Terry and Kay end up together. While hardly as zany as it could have been with Preston Sturges directing (we can dream, can’t we?), Gold Diggers in Paris is a quite entertaining movie, a rambunctious farce that builds itself from some pretty clichéd situations but blessedly doesn’t take them too seriously — which is just as well because the musical portions aren’t that great: like a lot of the Berkeley numbers towards the end of his Warners career (when Jack Warner was severely limiting his budgets), his two big productions here seem to stop just when they’re getting interesting, and the songs themselves are surprisingly undistinguished given that Harry Warren wrote them with collaborators both old (Al Dubin) and new (Johnny Mercer), but it’s still a fun movie and a worthy capstone to the Gold Diggers series. Incidentally I read in the American Film Institute Catalog that a company called Equitable Pictures actually started a film called Gold Diggers of Paris in 1933, starring Madge Bellamy (from White Zombie), Gilbert Roland and the marvelous villainess Natalie Moorhead, but changed the title at the last minute to Gigolettes of Paris after Warner Bros. complained that the original title could have been confused with Gold Diggers of 1933.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Million Dollar Legs (Paramount, 1932)

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

I cracked open the latest boxed set I’d ordered from Turner Classic Movies called, howlingly inaccurately, Universal Rarities: Films of the 1930’s — inaccurately because while the four films in it are titles Universal owns, they were all originally produced by Paramount, acquired by MCA-TV in the 1950’s and later assigned to Universal when it was purchased by MCA in the 1960’s : the 1932 comedy Million Dollar Legs with Jack Oakie and W. C. Fields (billed in that order), Mae West’s 1934 film Belle of the Nineties (shot during the “pre-Code” glasnost but released post-Code and blatantly butchered; there’s a jarring cut in the middle of one of Mae West’s songs that all too obviously removed a particularly racy chorus at the censors’ behest), the 1937 film Artists and Models (a Raoul Walsh-directed musical starring Richard Arlen and Jack Benny — Robert Osborne, in an introduction included with the DVD set, said it was Jack Benny’s first starring feature, but arguably that honor belongs to Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round three years earlier: Gene Raymond and Nancy Carroll were the stars of that marvelously quirky combination of musical and crime thriller but Benny was billed third and his part ran through the entire movie) and — a weird fit with the other three movies — the 1937 maritime melodrama Souls at Sea, directed by Henry Hathaway and starring Gary Cooper. (About the only connection that film had with comedy was that in 1940 Laurel and Hardy parodied its title for their last film at Hal Roach Studios, Saps at Sea, though the plot was not a parody of Souls at Sea and the films otherwise have nothing to do with each other.) TCM also advertised all four films in the box as new to DVD, which is not true; Belle of the Nineties had a previous DVD issue in the mid-2000’s (I know because I bought it then and Charles and I watched it).

The movie we watched last night was Million Dollar Legs, a really wild comedy (the posters in 1932 announced, “It’s Insane! — It’s Joyous!,” and both adjectives were quite correct) that managed to pull off within the limits of early-1930’s Hollywood the same kind of relentless assault on the funnybone Monty Python did on the BBC in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. It’s set largely in a fictitious country called “Klopstokia,” made up of all the mittel-Europan standing sets on the Paramount backlot and introduced in a title as “Chief Exports — Goats and Nuts,” “Chief Imports — Goats and Nuts,” “Chief Inhabitants — Goats and Nuts.” Migg Tweeny (Jack Oakie) is a super-salesman who works for the Baldwin Brush Company, whose CEO, Mr. Baldwin (George Barbier), is in Klopstokia with Tweeny on a sales trip. Only Tweeny takes a wrong turn with his sample case and bumps into Angela (Susan Fleming, a quite personable and appealing actress who quit the business in 1936 to marry Harpo Marx), and the two instantly fall in love at first sight. Anxious to take the steamer out of Klopstokia with his boss, Migg commandeers an ornate carriage he thinks is a cab, but is in fact the official vehicle of Klopstokia’s President (W. C. Fields) — who just happens to be Angela’s father. In fact, according to the wild script by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (who got the job because his brother Herman was the associate producer of the film — which has led to some sources claiming that Herman actually wrote it, which he didn’t), Henry Myers and Nick Barrows, all Klopstokian women are named Angela and all Klopstokian men are named George (though there’s one exception in the latter department: Angela’s pre-pubescent brother Willie, played by child actor Dickie Moore).

What’s more, every Klopstokian is a super-athlete — we’re supposed to believe, I think, that that’s due to their subsisting largely on a diet of goat’s milk — and instead of elections, the Klopstokians select their president by arm-wrestling matches. The Secretary of the Treasury (Hugh Herbert, in a much stronger role than he usually got to play at Warners — apparently having a part in a film with people like W. C. Fields inspired him a good deal more than the rather dreary “woo-woo” roles he played in the Warners musicals) is working out, determined to beat the President at arm wrestling so he can take over, and the rest of the Klopstokian cabinet is in league with him: they have a secret meeting place (there’s an elevator button reading “Down” next to a tree which lowers the tree and creates the entrance to their Batcave) where they plot their schemes, which basically involve taking advantage of Klopstokia’s $8 million debt to dethrone W. C. Fields and take over. Migg discovers this when he takes Angela for a walk through the woods and she accidentally sits down on the button — this comes after Migg has been appointed Fields’ privy councilor when, sentenced to be tortured and killed by a firing squad as punishment for Fields’ daughter’s suitors, he instead talks them out of killing him and into buying his company’s brushes — and Migg, whom Fields calls “Sweetheart” (making for some pretty outrageously gender-bending gags even by the relatively loose standards of the “pre-Code” era!) because that’s what his daughter calls him, hits on the idea of entering a Klopstokian team in the 1932 Olympics, which were being held in the Los Angeles Coliseum (and Paramount released the film a few weeks before the start of the actual Olympics to use them as promotion); once Klopstokia’s super-athletes sweep the Olympics, Migg reasons, his boss Mr. Baldwin will shower sponsorship money on them and Klopstokia will be able to pay off its national debt.

Only the corrupt cabinet members (a veritable who’s-who of slapstick comedy sidekicks: Billy Gilbert, Vernon Dent, Teddy Hart, John Sinclair, and Sam Adams) hit on a counter-strategy: they’ll call on the internationally famous femme fatale, “Mata Machree, The Woman No Man Can Resist” (Lyda Roberti, the heavily accented blonde singer who introduced George and Ira Gershwin’s “My Cousin from Milwaukee” in the 1933 flop musical Pardon My English and who died tragically young at age 29), to seduce all the Klopstokian male athletes one by one so that when they find out she’s betrayed them all, their morale will be crushed and they’ll do wretchedly. When the cabinet members go to visit her, there’s a nameplate outside her door reading, “Mata Machree: The Woman No Man Can Resist. Not Responsible for Men Left After 30 Days,” and when she actually deigns to see them she makes a grand entrance down a long staircase to the tune of the “Land of Hope and Glory” strain of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 2. She’s quite obviously being played as a parody of Greta Garbo — she’s even given one of Garbo’s most famous off-screen lines, “I t’ank I go home now” (during an argument with Louis B. Mayer over a contract dispute in 1928, Garbo told him, “I t’ank I go home now,” and left his office; everyone at MGM thought she simply meant she was returning to the bungalow she was staying in in Hollywood … until the next time they heard from her, when they found out she was in Sweden) — though she also gets to do one of the almost incomprehensible hot-jazz vocals she was famous for, “When I Get Hot It’s Terrific,” written by Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger. Mata’s machinations work — they also temporarily derail the relationship between Migg and Angela — but Angela drags Mata into the Klopstokian locker room, she confesses to the athletes that she never loved any of them, and this restores their morale and they go on to win the overall medal count — thanks to a weight-lifting performance by W. C. Fields at the end: competing against Hugh Herbert as a free-lance entrant he seems like he’s going to be unable to lift the 1,000-pound weight until, at Angela’s urging, Migg goads him into getting angry, whereupon he not only lifts it but hurls it far enough he wins the shot-put medal as well.

And as if all this isn’t zany enough, there’s also a former Klopstokian national anthem, “Woof Bloogle Jig,” which is actually the melody Richard Whiting (Margaret Whiting’s father) wrote for the title song of the Ernst Lubitsch-George Cukor One Hour with You, starring Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier, released by Paramount earlier in 1932, but with gibberish lyrics supplied by Harry Myers; Angela explains these represent “the old Klopstokian language, which we spoke before we all learned English.” (At last someone in Hollywood parodied the insistence in American movies that everyone in the world spoke English, no matter what country they were from or where the story took place.) Million Dollar Legs is so arbitrarily put together it makes the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup seem like a model of plot coherence by comparison, and though W. C. Fields is screamingly funny in it it does suffer from his lack of involvement with the script (and though Fields at this point was large but without the alcoholic bloat he acquired later, believing him as a weight-lifter so powerful he makes Arnold Schwarzenegger look like Twiggy is a bit of a stretch even in this anything-for-a-laugh context), even though it has some of his classic gags, including the “hearty handclasp” and the bit in which he would put his cane over his shoulder, then try to put his hat on, and his hat would end up on the tip of his cane instead of his head.

 Million Dollar Legs may not be the funniest movie ever made (as claimed by one over-the-top contributor) but it’s appealing in its own zaniness (and it’s interesting that two of the actors in it, Jack Oakie and Billy Gilbert, later turned up in Charlie Chaplin’s Hitler spoof The Great Dictator) and especially for the droll Keaton-esque performance by Andy Clyde, who seems to be the possessor of the “million dollar legs” alluded to in the title (the working titles were “On Your Mark” — the name Joseph L. Mankiewicz gave his original story — and “Million Dollar Feet”) since (thanks to fast-motion photography) he’s so fast a runner he can give the other contestants in a mile race a 200-yard head start and still win. (The fact that the Olympics are running a mile race itself dates this movie: in today’s Olympics all the track events are at distances measured in metric units — actually, according to, the Olympics were already running races at metric distances in 1932.) Paramount reused the title Million Dollar Legs for a Betty Grable musical in 1932 (Grable moved from RKO to Fox to Paramount and back again to Fox, where she finally broke through as a star when she was a last-minute replacement for Alice Faye in Down Argentine Way) but the two films have nothing to do with each other plot-wise. The film is directed by Eddie Cline, who would return to Fields at Universal in 1940 and make his last three starring movies (My Little Chickadee, The Bank Dick and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break), who before he became a director was a Keystone Kop (as was Hank Mann, who supposedly has an uncredited bit part as a customs inspector), so he knew a thing or two, three or several about slapstick!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Gold Diggers of 1937 (Warner Bros., 1937)

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

For our film last night I continued our trip through the Warner Bros. Gold Diggers series of musicals — which began with Gold Diggers of Broadway in 1929, its remake Gold Diggers of 1933, unrelated stories Gold Diggers of 1935, Gold Diggers of 1937 and ending with Gold Diggers in Paris (in which the titular chorines are mistaken for a ballet troupe and awarded a government-sponsored cultural exchange tour to the French capital). The episode we saw last night was Gold Diggers of 1937, which Charles and I had watched over a decade ago and I had thought then was a stronger movie plot-wise than Gold Diggers of 1935 even though the numbers were weaker. This time around the plot seemed interminable and there’s only one big Busby Berkeley production, “Love Is Just Like War” (sometimes the song is referred to as “All’s Fair in Love and War”), and it happens at the very end of the film. The movie begins with a pre-credits sequence — rare in a 1930’s film — though it’s just Dick Powell in a marching-band uniform, wearing a thin “roo” moustache, singing the Harry Warren-Al Dubin song “With Plenty of Money and You” directly at the camera. For this one Warners decided to try some other songwriters; they had Harold Arlen and E. Y. “Yip” Harburg (whom they’d hired for Al Jolson’s last Warners film, The Singing Kid) write three songs for this movie but Berkeley, who always felt more comfortable with Harry Warren than any other composer, insisted that the big final number be a Warren-Dubin piece. Lloyd Bacon, the (hack) director of 42nd Street and Footlight Parade, helmed this one from a script by Warren Duff — the American Film Institute Catalog credits Tom Reed with “contribution to scenario construction” and there are a few lines in which I thought I detected Harburg’s decidedly Left-wing slant (Harburg, Arlen’s long-term collaborator and best remembered for their work together on The Wizard of Oz, was blacklisted through much of the 1950’s, which is why Ira Gershwin was the lyricist for Arlen on A Star Is Born), one in which Glenda Farrell refers to “the capitalistic system” in a way that suggests she does not approve of what it’s making her do, and also the bizarre lyrics to the opening song, a hymn to life insurance sung by Rosmer Peck (Dick Powell) — and yes, that’s the name Warren Duff stuck him with — at the apex of an insurance salesmen’s convention to which he’s been brought by his boss Andy Callahan (William Davidson), who’s coined phrases like “Life insurance is immortal” and “The Good Life [the name of his company] goes rolling along,” which itself sounds like a cue for a lyric sung to the tune of “The Caisson Song.”

Of course, Rosmer hates being a life-insurance salesman — so much so that he’s got a piano set up in his office, where he writes songs for his hoped-for break in a Broadway production. The insurance convention takes place in Atlantic City, where there’s a show playing that closes “out of town,” and on the train back to New York the chorines in this production, led by Norma Perry (Joan Blondell — Dick Powell’s vis-à-vis in this one now that they had tied the knot in real life as well) and Genevieve Larkin (Glenda Farrell, blessedly playing a basically good girl playing at being a gold digger instead of the avaricious creep she played in Gold Diggers of 1935), decide the only future they have is latching on to rich men and being gold-diggers. Unfortunately, they’re all too aware that a train full of insurance salesmen is hardly the most fruitful hunting ground for wealthy men with lots of money to spend on trophy girlfriends. Norma is determined to get a real job and does so at the Good Life Insurance Company, where she spends most of her time cruising Rosmer (who’s blessedly called “Ross” through most of the movie) and hanging out with him and his comic sidekick Boop Oglethorpe (Lee Dixon, who despite his stupid character name is actually the hottest-looking guy in the film, especially when we get to see him in shorts!). Meanwhile, theatrical producer J. J. Hobart (Victor Moore, oppressively whiny as ever but fortunately with considerably less screen time than he got in the Astaire-Rogers Swing Time, where one just wanted to strangle him so Edward Everett Horton could have taken over his part!) is putting on a show — only his business managers, Morty Wethered (Osgood Perkins, Anthony Perkins’ father) and Tom Hugo (Charles D. Brown), have swindled him out of all his money and lost it in bad investments, so they hit on the idea of buying a $1 million life-insurance policy on him from Ross and running him ragged so he croaks and they can recoup their losses from the payout. Of course, this means Ross and Norma have a vested interest in keeping Hobart alive and healthy — they’re counting on Ross’s commission payment for the money to get married on — so the rest of the movie turns into a tug-of-war between the factions which heats up when Morty and Hugo hire Genevieve to romance Hobart — only she falls genuinely in love with him and decides to level with him. The news that he’s broke propels him into a heart attack and it looks like the show will have to be cancelled, only Ross persuades Callahan to put $10,000 into it on the ground that if the show is called off Hobart will die from the shame so it’s cheaper for the company to put $10,000 into the show than have to pay off a $1 million policy.

The rest of the chorines in the show raise the money from the rich men they’ve been gold-digging — they don’t raise 25,000 percent of the cost, though for a while I thought that’s where this might be going (the idea of socking the backers for several times the real cost of a show, deliberately staging a flop and making off with the money was an urban legend on Broadway decades before Mel Brooks filmed it as The Producers — indeed, Groucho Marx had wanted to use it as the plot of A Night at the Opera!) — the show goes on, it’s a hit, Hobart is revived and marries Genevieve, and Ross and Norma get hitched as well. The one big number Berkeley got to do is a stunner — a spoof of war in which the men are lined up in “No Woman’s Land,” the women are lined up in “No Man’s Land” and the battle ends decisively with the distaff side victorious after they abandoned their pristine white rifles for a gas attack with perfume bottles, the men fall for it, they kiss across the trenches and then there’s a great all-female victory parade — though there are other, lesser known Berkeley films that might have better merited inclusion in the Busby Berkeley Collection, Volume 2 set we were watching (like The Singing Marine, with Dick Powell as a Marine who becomes a radio crooner and lets success go to his head — the song he sang in that one is “Night Over Shanghai” and Berkeley gave it an intensely dramatic staging along the lines of “Lullaby of Broadway” in Gold Diggers of 1935) — and Berkeley was getting more and more disenchanted with having Jack Warner as his employer. In the 1970’s (he died in 1976) his movies were revived and he gave interviews expressing his bitterness that his grandiose productions were reduced from three or four per movie to just one — and sometimes none (his idea for a chorus of dancing trees in the film Stars Over Broadway was nixed by the Warners’ bean counters) — when none of his movies had actually lost money. He moved to MGM in 1939, accepting a cut in his own salary in return for the promise of bigger budgets for his numbers, but he had a new set of problems: MGM had hired him mainly to do the Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland films but they resented the way Berkeley’s dazzling spectacles, with platoons of chorus girls and sound effects often drowning out Mickey’s and Judy’s vocals, took audience attention away from the stars. It’s not surprising that there’d be only one more Gold Diggers movie after this one — the formula was getting threadbare and Jack Warner and Hal Wallis were savvy enough to know it (they ran out Ruby Keeler’s contract with the 1937 film Ready, Willing and Able and let Dick Powell go two years later), though there’s really nothing wrong with Gold Diggers of 1937 that a couple more Busby Berkeley extravaganzae wouldn’t have fixed!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Philip Marlowe: Murder Is a Grave Affair (Goodson-Todman Productions, TV, 1960)

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

Last night Charles and I watched a rather intriguing download: an episode in a short-lived (1959-1960) half-hour TV series based on Raymond Chandler’s detective character Philip Marlowe. It was produced by Mark Goodson and Bill Todman — odd names to see on a dramatic series since they usually only made quiz shows — and though Raymond Chandler died in 1959 he was involved in the pre-production of the program and reviewed at least one of the scripts before it aired. This episode was called “Murder Is a Grave Affair” — the title refers to the fact that during the story a corpse is exhumed, then re-buried after the police discover it’s missing from its grave when they receive permission to exhume it themselves — and it opens with a young aspiring actress named Lydia Mitchell (Connie Hines) arriving at the home of major director Larry Gilbert (Gene Nelson) and announcing to Gilbert’s wife Marian (Betsy Jones-Moreland) that she wants Marian to divorce her husband so he can marry Lydia. Marian is just fine with this, mainly because she is herself in love with someone else — her attorney, Hank Lawford (Dean Harens) — but Larry Gilbert has utterly no intention of leaving his wife for Lydia, who to him was just a quick pickup on an out-of-town shoot in Arizona. He is in love with his secretary, Janet (Maxine Cooper), though he’s not all that serious about pursuing that relationship either.

Marlowe and his friend from the LAPD, Lt. Manny Harris (William Schallert) — with whom he seems to have a Holmes-and-Lestrade relationship going, a far cry from the desperate antagonism between Marlowe and the official police in Chandler’s books (in this script by Gene Wang Marlowe is described as a former L.A. police officer; in Chandler’s stories he was a former investigator for the L.A. County District Attorney, and the implication is that both Marlowe and his former boss at the D.A.’s office, Bernie Ohls, don’t think too much of either the professionalism or the integrity of the LAPD) — enter the story when Lydia Mitchell is found dead in her apartment with the gas jet from her heater still running. The person who discovers the body is a nebbishy aspiring actor named Artie Wells (an almost unrecognizable Jack Weston), and though the official verdict is an accidental death both Wells and Marlowe, who’s hired to find Lydia’s killer by her parents, think it’s murder. While they’re investigating Larry Gilbert is found shot dead in his home — his wife was there at the time but claimed not to have heard the shot (a cop from a situation in Chandler’s next-to-last novel, The Long Goodbye) — the police think it’s suicide induced by guilt over his having killed Lydia Mitchell, but in the end Marlowe proves it was murder because whoever faked Gilbert’s suicide put the gun in his right hand, and Gilbert was left-handed (which Marlowe knew from having seen him slap his wife). The finger of suspicion points to poor, nerdy Artie Wells (who blamed Lydia’s death on Gilbert even though it really does turn out to have been an accident), but in the end Marlowe realizes that Wells was being set up as a fall guy and the real killer is Mrs. Gilbert. (I had thought it would turn out to be Lawford on the least-important-person principle.)

Marlowe was rather oddly cast with Philip Carey, a tall actor (so was Dick Powell, but he didn’t look it on screen) with a scar on his cheek (real or a makeup department fake to make him look more weatherbeaten?) with an imperious manner but better in the role than any of the big-screen Marlowes after Powell and Bogart (Mitchum’s was a nice try but he was a quarter-century too old for the part by the time he finally got it), and while much of the show was pretty straightforwardly directed (by former actor Paul Stewart — ironically, his film debut was an uncredited bit part in the 1937 film Ever Since Eve, the last movie William Randolph Hearst personally produced; and his second film, and the one that launched his career, was playing the slimy butler at Xanadu in Citizen Kane), photographed (by William Margulies) and edited (by Henry Batista — I guess he had to do something after he was thrown out of Cuba — joke), and the modern-day (late 1950’s) cars make it look more like an episode of Perry Mason than a film noir, the cheery amorality of the script and the noir compositions that start to come in later in the story, especially during scenes that take place at night, put this firmly within the Chandler mythos. So does the thinly veiled contempt for the movie industry Chandler came away with after spending several years as a screenwriter at Paramount and then attempting to land free-lance gigs in the film biz. It’s an interesting program and whets my appetite for more episodes in the Marlowe series.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Gold Diggers of 1935 (Warner Bros., 1935)

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

I went to meet Charles and show him the tape of Busby Berkeley’s film Gold Diggers of 1935. It seemed an opportune time to run him this one, not only because the night before he was playing the Harry Warren compilation audiotape on which I’d dubbed the soundtrack recording of “Lullaby of Broadway” (I wanted to give him an opportunity to see the great number he’d so far only had the chance to hear) but also because the female lead is played by Gloria Stuart, who 62 years later got to film the comeback role of her life in the current #1 movie Titanic (she plays the modern incarnation of the character played by Kate Winslet in the bulk of the film — Winslet plays her in 1912 and Stuart in 1997 — and I remember being pleasantly surprised that she was in the film when last spring, in response to a long article in the L. A. Times detailing all the film’s production problems, she wrote a letter to the editor saying that James Cameron was one of the three best directors she’d ever worked with, along with James Whale and John Ford!). Though one misses the presence of a dancing star in this film — Ruby Keeler may not have been a great dancer at the level of Ginger Rogers (post-Astaire) or Eleanor Powell, but at least she was good and provided a focal point for Berkeley’s big numbers in the films they made together — Stuart, even in a fundamentally silly script (she’s the overprotected daughter of miserly rich bitch Alice Brady, who falls in love with hotel desk clerk and aspiring doctor Dick Powell), actually showed signs of major acting talent.

This time around, not having seen this film in a while, I actually found myself rather charmed by the script — though its continuing entertainment value actually comes in the numbers: the long, wordless opening sequence (in which a crew of janitors, clerks, washerwomen, maids, polishers and whatnot get a summer resort hotel ready for the season in unison and in strict tempo while an instrumental version of the song “I’m Going Shopping with You” plays on the soundtrack); and the big productions at the end, “The Words Are In My Heart” and “The Lullaby of Broadway.” “The Words Are In My Heart” is the one in which Berkeley gets 56 baby-grand pianos to dance, and is notable for its stunning size displacements as well as the mobile pianos: Dick Powell starts out in a garden setting, singing the song to Gloria Stuart, and the camera pulls back to indicate that the garden setting, Powell and Stuart are just parts of a floral arrangement on top of a giant spinet piano at which three women are sitting, one of them playing it and all three doing a trio version of the song — Berkeley actually cribbed this gimmick from Sammy Lee’s staging of the song “It Was Sweet of You” in Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round the year before (though Lee had relentlessly copied the water ballet in “It Was Sweet of You” from Berkeley’s “By a Waterfall” number in his previous film Footlight Parade), but it’s still amusing to note that the spinet the three ladies are sitting at is adorned with a candelabrum, 13 years before the film A Song to Remember (in which Chopin is going blind as he plays, and servants bring in a candelabrum to help him see the keys) supposedly gave Liberace the idea to make that his trademark. Then Berkeley pulls back and dissolves to his piano ballet, and while for the most part the illusion that the pianos are self-propelled is absolutely convincing, in the opening boom shot (while the pianos are still mounted on a staircase, before he dissolves to a more typical Berkeley overhead shot of them doing their stuff on a black Bakelite background) one can readily see the black-clad stagehands under the pianos, pushing them around in order to make them move. (They were, of course, hollow dummy props to keep the weight of them within reason.)

The “Lullaby of Broadway” number remains one of the most audacious production numbers ever put on film — only the ballet at the end of Gene Kelly’s An American in Paris can compare with it for its fertility of imagination, and unlike the festive Impressionism of the Kelly sequence, this is dark, sinister, almost noir, a far cry from the relatively unimaginative though professionally competent direction of the rest of the film (Gold Diggers of 1935 was the first film Berkeley was allowed to direct entirely by himself — interestingly, he got two directorial credits, one as dance director and one as director). The famous opening scene, in which a white pinprick on an otherwise black screen swells until it fills the screen and is revealed to be the disembodied head of Wini Shaw as she sings the opening chorus of the song, then she throws her head back and it disappears from the screen, to reveal the New York skyline while the rest of the screen, all but the part where her head was, remains stark black, was copied for the 1951 film Lullaby of Broadway but the rest of that number was a typically unimaginative, stage-bound setting quite far from Berkeley’s imagination. The number dramatizes Al Dubin’s lyric — “When a Broadway baby says goodnight/It’s early in the morning/Manhattan babies don’t sleep tight/Until the dawn” — and casts Shaw as a “Broadway baby” who, after a night of nightclub-hopping with her rich beau (Dick Powell), comes home in the morning just as everyone else is getting up, sleeps all day in her cheap apartment, wakes up again at 7 and gets ready for another night on the town. This turns out to be another date with Powell, who takes her to the “Club Casino” — where whole platoons of dancers of both genders entertain them even though there seem to be no other audience members in the club. “Come and dance!” cry the floor-show participants to Shaw, perched on a balcony overlooking the floor. “My sweetie may not let me … Why don’t you come and get me?” she sings back — and they do, pushing her farther and farther back towards a set of French windows until they push her onto an outdoor balcony, and then out of the club altogether and down to her death in the street, many stories below (this nightclub must have been patterned on the Rainbow Room, “sixty-five stories nearer the stars”), as the chorus sings the chorus of “Lullaby of Broadway” as a requiem — and Shaw returns, magically restored, to sing the final chorus of the song and become a pinprick on the screen again as the number fades out. It’s a surprisingly sinister number for Berkeley (well, maybe not so surprisingly — he did at least two other big numbers, the title tune of 42nd Street and “Night Over Shanghai” from The Singing Marine, which had sinister atmospheres and ended with the deaths of their heroines), one of the closest approaches anyone has come to musical noir. — 1/30/98


The film I picked out was the next in the Warner Bros. “Gold Diggers” series, Gold Diggers of 1935, a bit of a comedown after Gold Diggers of 1933 — by this time the Zeitgeist had shifted again and while the economy was still depressed, Franklin Roosevelt had been president for over two years and the country’s mood was considerably more optimistic. This was the first film in the series that jettisoned Avery Hopwood’s rather shopworn (by then) Gold Diggers of Broadway plot — though Robert Lord, who’d written the 1929 Gold Diggers of Broadway movie, was one of the screenwriters here, along with Manuel Seff and Peter Milne — and though Dick Powell played the male lead, Ruby Keeler sat this one out and Gloria Stuart played the female lead. The movie was also noteworthy for Busby Berkeley’s career in that he got to direct the entire film, not just the production numbers (and he gets two credits, one for direction and one for dance direction, in the opening roll) and for a marvelous opening in which he builds a production number out of the preparations being made to open the swanky Wentworth Plaza resort hotel for the summer season, in which floors are being polished, shoes shined, curtains cleaned and waiters dressed for duty in a long silent sequence in strict time to the rhythm of the intro music. Indeed, the sequence begins with a shot of a magazine about horse breeding — which it turns out is being read by a homeless man in a park! — and Berkeley’s camera dollies down the magazine’s page to an ad for the Wentworth Plaza, and the picture of its entrance in the ad dissolves to the real thing. While the whole idea of the resort as a plaything for the rich is one the Soviet censors would have considered unconscionably decadent and thereby horrendously politically incorrect, the number ironically mirrors the practice of Soviet musical directors that, since the government regarded depicting popular dancing as an example of bourgeois social decadence, they would build their production numbers out of the musical depiction of work itself.

Alas, the movie becomes considerably less creative once the plot gets underway — an all too typical pattern for Berkeley but one his best movies, Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade, avoided (Gold Diggers of 1933 through a compelling Depression-era story and Mervyn LeRoy’s nervy direction, and Footlight Parade largely through the galvanic energy James Cagney brought to the otherwise pretty standard plot) and we meet the key characters: wealthy widow Mrs. Mathilda Prentiss (Alice Brady, carrying over from the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie The Gay Divorcée in which she’d played a similar but more charming and much less oppressive character) and her daughter Ann (Gloria Stuart) and son Humboldt (Frank McHugh, getting a little more to do this time around and playing befuddled rather than whiny). Mathilda is a New Englander who’s outrageously cheap (one wonders if the writers were patterning her on the real-life New England widow Hetty Green); Humboldt has married and divorced four showgirls, forcing mom to cough up $100,000 each time; and Ann is about to be plunged into an arranged (by Mathilda) marriage with T. Mosley Thorpe (Hugh Herbert at his most Hugh Herbertiest), who’s got $15 million to the Prentisses’ $10 million but is an asexual doofus whose only passion in life is collecting snuff boxes (he’s got his collection in two exhibit cases which he won’t let the hotel porters handle). Naturally Ann is revolted by him and the whole idea of having to marry him, and in order to meet her demand that she be allowed one summer to do what she likes and have fun, mom hires desk clerk Dick Curtis (Dick Powell, top-billed) for $500 to take her daughter on dates. Dick’s initially reluctant to take the job because it makes him seem too much like a gigolo, but his level-headed fiancée Arlene Davis (Dorothy Dare) talks him into it because Dick’s studying to go to medical school and $500 will pay his first year’s tuition, books and expenses. (My, how times have changed.) There follows yet another Berkeley not-quite-production number to the Harry Warren-Al Dubin song “I’m Going Shopping with You,” as Dick squires Ann through all the shops inside the Wentworth Plaza and ends up buying her — on her mom’s dime, of course! — modish dresses and hats, a beauty makeover (not that Gloria Stuart really needs one!) and, as the capstone, a $12,000 diamond bracelet, all while Dick Powell is crooning and Gloria Stuart is occasionally supplying a line of almost-singing.

The next plot issue is an attempt by non-paying guest Nicolai Nicoleff (Adolphe Menjou — a Frenchman cast as a comic Russian, once again proving that in this era, as far as Hollywood was concerned, one foreign accent was as good as another), a former theatrical producer/director, to earn enough money to pay his hotel bill by conning Mrs. Prentiss out of a large sum of money to stage her annual benefit for the Milk Fund at the hotel. Joining the con are his set designer, Schultz (Joseph Cawthorn) — a Jewish-dialect role (some of the most delicious moments of the movie are the gags about Nicoleff and Schultz being unable to understand each other’s English) — and Betty Hawes (Glenda Farrell), who got into Mosley Thorpe’s life when he requested a stenographer to help him write his definitive monograph on snuff boxes but who decided it would be more lucrative to trick him into signing a love letter to her (he thinks it’s just the lyric of a song) and then sue him for breach of promise. Indeed, one of the most annoying things of Gold Diggers of 1935 is the sheer amount of greed on which its plot is built: the hotel workers aren’t getting paid salaries on the ground that they’ll earn their keep in tips, but the head of each department is getting a kickback and the manager of the whole hotel, Louis Lamson (Grant Mitchell), is getting a share of everybody else’s share. Nicoleff and Schultz hatch a Producers-like plot to get Mrs. Prentiss and Mosley Thorpe each to put up two-thirds of the cost of doing the milk fund show — and Betty threatens to report them unless they give her one-third of the extra third. One gets the impression that Dick Powell’s and Gloria Stuart’s characters are meant for each other if only because they’re the only people in the movie who aren’t either greedy or creepy! Eventually, of course, Dick and Ann do end up together, Dick’s former fiancée Arlene ends up with Humboldt Prentiss, Mosley is disgraced and becomes tabloid fodder, and Mrs. Prentiss is ultimately reconciled to her daughter marrying Dick because “think of all the money I’ll save on medical bills” with a doctor in the family.

Of course, the main attraction of a Busby Berkeley movie is the big production numbers, though after Gold Diggers of 1933 did a good job of spacing them throughout the film, this one gives us two sort-of production numbers in the early going but then holds off on the full-dress ones until the end. One is “The Words Are In My Heart,” which begins with Dick Powell and Gloria Stuart in a waterfront park on a moonlit night (tying in to an earlier performance of the song, a “straight” rendition in which Dick is singing it to her in a speedboat which he’s parked on the shore of the lake where the Wentworth Plaza is located), then dollies back to three women sitting in front of an ornate antique piano — the scene with Dick and Ann is supposedly a corsage atop the piano, and also atop it is a candelabrum with three lit candles (13 years before the film A Song to Remember, which inspired Liberace to make the candelabrum-on-top-of-the-piano his trademark!) — and then to the famous sequence in which Berkeley had over 40 pianos animated and put them through a production number. Each piano had a chorus girl supposedly playing it (the “pianos” were actually dummy shells so they could be pushed around the soundstage in the pattern Berkeley wanted, and the black velvet-clad stagehands under them pushing them around can clearly be seen in some shots) and they form into a typical undulating Berkeley chorus line, then into the shape of a huge piano, and finally a rectangular dance floor on which a single girl does a solo dance. (The number is indicative of the way the Berkeley musicals and the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films were cross-influencing each other; the first Astaire-Rogers film, Flying Down to Rio, had featured them dancing to “The Carioca” on a dance floor made up of six rotating pianos, and it had also featured long wordless sequences of a hotel being made ready for its tourist season.) It’s a wonderful number but also an indication of how desperate Berkeley was becoming for new, fresh ideas — for the film Stars Over Broadway he wanted to do a chorus line of dancing trees, but Jack Warner decided that would have been too expensive and refused to green-light the sequence, which inspired Berkeley to give MGM a call and see if they might want him when his Warners’ contract expired — but the next number, “Lullaby of Broadway,” is enough in itself to make the whole film worth watching.

It’s the entire fantasy of “Broadway babies,” gold-diggers and the men who date (and finance) them wrapped up into one number, beginning with a shot that would become a Berkeley trademark: a white speck of light in an otherwise pitch-black screen, gradually swelling in size until it’s revealed to be the head of featured singer Winifred Shaw (called “Winny” in the cast list, identified as “Miss Shaw” in the dialogue and later billed as “Wini” in other films) crooning the song in a haunting contralto about midway between Helen Morgan’s and Ivie Anderson’s. As Berkeley’s camera dollies towards her (remember that Berkeley made it a professional fetish never to use more than one camera to shoot his elaborate productions), Shaw’s face gradually fills the screen, then turns as she lights a cigarette, then her face disappears and becomes a cut-out through which we see an overhead vision of New York City. Then follows a montage of ordinary New Yorkers (most of them young and female, of course!) getting dressed and going to work at ordinary jobs, only while the rest of the city is waking up Wini Shaw is being driven home in a taxi by her beau (Dick Powell) and let off in front of her apartment, because according to Al Dubin’s lyrics “Manhattan babies don’t sleep tight until the dawn.” The day progresses for everyone else, and then shortly after 7 p.m. Wini’s alarm clock goes off and she readies herself for a night on the town. This time Dick takes her to the “Club Casino,” a surrealistic establishment that’s all Deco, looks like it’s the size of two airplane hangars and has a floor show featuring tango dancer Ramon (his usual partner Rosita sued Warners because she was billed in the film but the girl he danced with in it was someone else) and then enough chorus people of both genders to mount an invasion of a small Caribbean country. (Critics wondered how it stayed in business and met its gigantic payroll when Dick Powell and Wini Shaw appeared to be its only paying customers.) What’s more, the choruses in this film are actually doing some hard-core dancing instead of just being marched through one of Berkeley’s quasi-military formations — and the thunder of their tap shoes hitting art director Anton Grot’s Deco floors itself becomes surprisingly intimidating. The choristers call on Wini to “come and dance!” “My sweetie may not let me … why don’t you come and get me?” she cries out, and they do, driving her to the club’s balcony, charging her and ultimately pushing her to her death when the doors give way and she takes a tumble off the balcony to the ground many floors below — only to revive magically when it’s time for Berkeley to take the number out again and reverse the opening shot, a close-up of Shaw crooning the last line of the song (“Listen to the lullaby of old Broadway”) as her face dwindles in size to become a pinprick on the screen again.

“Lullaby of Broadway” was Berkeley’s favorite of his numbers, and though (as Charles pointed out) it doesn’t have the emotional impact of “Remember My Forgotten Man” it’s a dazzling piece of imaginative filmmaking — and when, in a miscarriage of justice that probably helped sink the Academy’s short-lived award for dance direction, it lost in that category, the man who won, Dave Gould (for the spectacular but hardly as audacious “straw hat” number Maurice Chevalier performed in Folies Bergère), gave Berkeley the award because even he thought Berkeley should have won. (Ironically, “Lullaby of Broadway” itself won the Best Song Oscar for Harry Warren and Al Dubin, Berkeley’s favorite songwriters.) It’s also amazing that it didn’t launch Wini Shaw on a superstar career; it’s the sort of introductory showcase newcomers dream of (though she’d actually made nine films before it, including Gift of Gab, the elusive 1934 Universal musical that starred Edmund Lowe, Gloria Stuart and Ruth Etting, and featured Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in a guest scene as themselves) but Warners kept her mostly in undistinguished “B”’s (including a villainess role in the first Torchy Blane movie, Smart Blonde) and she retired in 1939 even though she lived into the 1980’s. Gold Diggers of 1935 is a bit of a comedown from its predecessors but the “Lullaby of Broadway” number is a work of cinematic genius and stands apart from the rest of the movie much the way “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” soars above the rest of the Astaire-Rogers musical Follow the Fleet — and though you might not guess it from this film, Berkeley was actually a surprisingly accomplished non-musical director (he’d made his debut as full director in a quite good pre-Code melodrama called She Had to Say Yes, starring Loretta Young, in 1932, and shortly before he left Warners for MGM in 1939 he did They Made Me a Criminal, an exciting and suspenseful thriller with John Garfield) who could make great movies even without platoons of chorus girls and dances with (normally) inanimate objects. — 8/27/12

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Gold Diggers of 1933 (Warner Bros., 1933)

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

I ran him the tape of Gold Diggers of 1933 that I’d recorded from Turner Classic Movies two days ago (they were showing it along with five other films — 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, Dames, Flirtation Walk and Go Into Your Dance — as a birthday tribute to Ruby Keeler) — a movie that delighted both of us. I’ve always thought Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade are Busby Berkeley’s best films at Warners (though Gold Diggers of 1935 contains the very best number he ever did, “Lullaby of Broadway”) because they’re the ones which are the most entertaining as movies — the plot portions are amusing and interesting in their own right instead of just “filler” in between the big Berkeley production numbers. It was odd in retrospect to see Warren William top-billed (he plays Dick Powell’s Boston-blueblood brother and doesn’t even appear until the film is 45 minutes old!), and even odder to see the lack of respect with which Ginger Rogers was treated as both actress and character (she’d have her revenge when she left Warners for RKO later that year and started her series with Fred Astaire, which would push her ahead of Keeler as the movies’ biggest female musical star) — but the camaraderie between the three leading ladies (Keeler, the marvelous Joan Blondell and Aline MacMahon) as the showgirls sharing a flat and leading such poverty-stricken lives that, in one of the film’s most marvelous scenes, MacMahon carefully uses a pair of ice tongs to steal a quart of milk from a neighbor so they’ll have something to eat before breakfast is wonderful — and so are the catch lines in the second half of the movie (Charles is already starting to incorporate them into our life, whispering “Cheap and vulgar” when he wants me to kiss him the way Joan Blondell does to Warren William in the film).

And the numbers are among Berkeley’s best — ranging from the spectacular “Shadow Waltz” (with its famous neon violins) to the sexy “Petting in the Park” (the Berkeley movies were definitely Hollywood-glasnost productions!) and the intensely dramatic “Remember My Forgotten Man” (which overall director Mervyn LeRoy put at the very end of the film, after all the romantic knots are properly tied — nothing could follow this intense dramatization setting the Depression to music!). About the only things we need to apologize for are the musical talents of the principals, which are rather limited; Ruby Keeler is an acceptable dancer but her singing voice makes Marion Davies sound like Maria Callas by comparison, and Dick Powell does have a strong voice but his rendition of the haunting ballad “I’ve Got to Sing a Torch Song” was aptly described by Michael Brooks as follows: “This number was thrown away in the movie[1], if ‘thrown away’ can be applied to Dick Powell’s tenor that pinned you to your seat like a dentist’s drill.” Certainly the Brunswick record Bing Crosby made of the song at the time (including its haunting verse, omitted in the film) is far more musical, with Crosby showing a genius for phrasing far beyond the square, on-the-beat singing we get from Powell (especially on the last reprise of the final eight bars, where Bing does a haunting register drop and suddenly makes the song sound more intimate and therefore more moving) — but Powell is an appealing enough personality as an actor (with just a hint of the wise-guy toughness that would make him the screen’s best Philip Marlowe 11 years later!) and Blondell (whom he married in 1936) is a first-rate actress in these tough-girl-with-a-heart-of-gold roles. — 8/27/98


Charles and I ended up watching a movie. After having experienced (I can’t really say we “watched” it because only 15 minutes of the film footage exists and we were trying to make out the rest just by listening to its soundtrack) Gold Diggers of Broadway the night before, I thought it would be interesting to watch the far more famous remake, Gold Diggers of 1933 (and apparently there’s even a fourth version: in 1951 Warners put Doris Day through the paces of this plot and named it after one of the Gold Diggers of Broadway songs, “Painting the Clouds with Sunshine”). I hadn’t seen this film in a long time, and I’d quite forgotten how good it is: indeed, I’d call it one of the very best musicals of the “pre-Code” period (along with the much more escapist Love Me Tonight and The Gay Divorcée — an Astaire-Rogers vehicle I’ve always liked better than its more famous follow-up, Top Hat). What makes Gold Diggers of 1933 special is that it’s not just another Busby Berkeley musical — instead of just marking time between the spectacular production numbers, Gold Diggers of 1933 is consistently interesting start to finish. It also avoids the mistake Warners frequently made of back-loading all the big numbers at the end: it starts with a full-dress Berkeley production on the song “We’re In the Money” (sung by Ginger Rogers and danced, maneuvered, platooned or whatever you want to call it by the full Berkeley chorus), while the next number (“Pettin’ in the Park”) occurs roughly two-fifths of the way through and only two numbers, “Shadow Waltz” and “Remember My Forgotten Man,” are held back until the end. Gold Diggers of 1933 also benefited from a much better (plot) director than the Berkeley films usually got, Mervyn LeRoy, who brought to this story some of the cynicism and bitterness of his previous films dealing with the Depression, notably I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (LeRoy had actually been set to direct the first Berkeley film at Warner Bros., 42nd Street, but because retakes and post-production on I Am a Fugitive ran behind schedule he had to give up the 42nd Street assignment to hack Lloyd Bacon); reunited with Sol Polito, his cinematographer on Fugitive, LeRoy brings some quite advanced compositions to the surprisingly bleak tale of three chorus girls — Polly Parker (Ruby Keeler), Carol King (Joan Blondell) and Trixie Lorraine (Aline MacMahon in a surprisingly assertive, non-victim role even though Winnie Lightner, who played her part in Gold Diggers of Broadway, was even better) — living together and so desperately starving that Trixie has to take a pair of ice tongs and steal a bottle of milk from a neighbor (in a nicely done suspense sequence during which we worry that Trixie will drop it and neither of those two needy households will get it).

Gold Diggers of 1933 is also an argument against my general field theory of cinema that the quality of a movie is inversely proportional to its number of writers: the script was a committee product (Erwin Gelsey and James Seymour, screenplay; David Boehm and Ben Markson, dialogue) but it’s also quite marvelous, well done and brittle in its cynicism, starting with an audacious opening in which the “We’re In the Money” number, representing the dress rehearsal of a new show being produced by Barney Hopkins (Ned Sparks, usually a whiny-voiced comic-relief third banana but surprisingly good here as an authority figure), is abruptly shut down in mid-performance by a gang of sheriff’s deputies, attaching the costumes and sets to pay off the debts Hopkins has run up to get the show to the point of a dress rehearsal. “They close before they open,” Carol grimly points out. Later, over their morning meal of stale bread and stolen milk, the girls hear from Fay Fortune (Ginger Rogers) that Hopkins is putting on a new show — only they find he doesn’t have the backing for it: the “angel” he was counting on just reconciled with his estranged wife and she talked him out of it. Brad Roberts (Dick Powell), a songwriter who lives in the building across the street from the girls and who’s been carrying on a mutual flirtation with Polly, says he can come up with the $15,000 Hopkins needs, and of course the girls assume he’s kidding — especially when he starts to write Hopkins a check and then thinks better of it and says he’ll have to pay the money in cash. He says he’ll be at Hopkins’ office at 10:30 the next morning and Hopkins, the secretary he’s hired for the day, and the girls are all waiting, impatiently drumming on their bodies and every flat surface in the audience (a scene Charles said Busby Berkeley could well have choreographed!), and Brad finally shows up two hours late but with the cash in hand. Rehearsals start and Hopkins tries to talk Brad into appearing in the show as well as financing it and writing the songs — “Give your songs a break!” he says, noting that Brad sings them much better than the professional juvenile (Clarence Nordstrom) who’s been given the male lead opposite Polly — but for mysterious reasons Brad won’t risk a public appearance.

The girls see a newspaper story about a man who robbed a bank for $20,000 and is known to hang around theatres, and assume that’s where Brad got the money — but after the show opens with Brad as a last-minute replacement for Nordstrom, the truth emerges: “Brad Roberts” is actually Robert Bradford, younger brother of Boston banker J. Lawrence Bradford (Warren William, who’s top-billed but doesn’t appear until 45 minutes into this 96-minute movie), and the elder Bradford is against his younger brother being involved in show business and even more against him getting romantically entangled with a showgirl. It’s here that the plot of Gold Diggers of 1933 begins to track that of Gold Diggers of Broadway, as J. Lawrence Bradford goes to the chorus girls’ apartment (a newer, swankier Art Deco one they’ve presumably rented with the money they’re making from the hit show they’re in) intending to buy off Polly — only Polly is out and he mistakes Carol for Polly. (Ironically, in the plot Dick Powell is mistaken for Joan Blondell’s boyfriend when he’s really Ruby Keeler’s; in real life Powell and Blondell were an item and eventually got married.) Polly and Trixie decide to take J. Lawrence and his attorney, Faneuil “Fanny” Peabody (Guy Kibbee) — who recalls his own youthful dalliance with a showgirl and concludes from it that they’re all parasites and gold-diggers — on the ride of their lives, getting the men to buy them everything for orchids to lapdogs to $75 hats (“Do all hats cost $75?” Peabody whines when it turns out that’s the asking price for the one he’s buying Trixie as well as the one Lawrence bought Carol) that are rather helmet-like but surprisingly tasteful (one wouldn’t look at these and associate them with Danny Kaye as Anatole of Paris, giggling that he designed atrocious hats because “I … hate … weemen!”) and ultimately winning their hearts, though just because he’s fallen in love with Carol doesn’t make Lawrence one whit less determined to break up Brad’s relationship with Polly, to the point where when Brad announces that he and Polly already are married, Lawrence snarls, “Then I’ll have it annulled!”

The plot strands get resolved quickly and perfunctorily during a performance of the show-within-a-show, in which Lawrence threatens to have Brad arrested, Brad tells Hopkins he can’t go on for the last number because “my brother’s trying to have me arrested for getting married,” and Hopkins recognizes the “policeman” who’s about to make the arrest as “an old ham actor” who played cops in so many plays he got the delusion that he was one. The show and the relationships go on, and with the plot portions done the movie goes into one of the most audacious sequences ever put on film, “Remember My Forgotten Man?,” the big number that expresses the Hopkins’ character stated desire to do a musical about the Depression. (“We won’t have to rehearse that,” Carol says bitterly — and when Trixie asks if there’ll be a comic-relief part, Hopkins said, “Sure, I’ll have the audience laughing at you starving yourself to death.”) As I noted in my comments on Gold Diggers of Broadway, the two films may be related plot-wise but the Zeitgeist behind them couldn’t have been more different — one made just before the stock market crash, when most people (including so-called economic “experts”) believed the market bubble would never end, and the mood of the country (at least the part of it that went to movies) was all about tip-toeing through the tulips and painting the clouds with sunshine; and one made at the depths of the Depression, when even people who could afford a movie ticket (especially to one of the proletarian neighborhood theatres Warners had acquired en masse when they bought the First National theatre chain in 1928 with the profits from The Jazz Singer and The Singing Fool) keenly felt the economic desperation of the time and flocked to a movie that ended not with a big, optimistic production number but a bitter song about forgotten men who’d served in World War I and were now dependent on breadlines. The name “Busby Berkeley” is usually associated today with the big, splashy, almost abstract production numbers like “Shadow Waltz” in this film — but sometimes (the title number of 42nd Street, “Remember My Forgotten Man” here, “Shanghai Lil” in Footlight Parade, “Lullaby of Broadway” in Gold Diggers of 1935 — the number Berkeley regarded as his very best, and most people since have agreed — and “Night Over Shanghai” in The Singing Marine) he did surprisingly dark, dramatic numbers telling miniature stories almost totally separate from the film.

“Remember My Forgotten Man” (a song that rivals “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” as a musical depiction of the Depression with a surprisingly radical, class-based lyric — more of a surprise from Al Dubin, who wrote the lyrics for this as he had for Gold Diggers of Broadway but with a different composer, Harry Warren instead of Joseph Burke, than it was from E. Y. Harburg, the Left-wing activist who wrote “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” with a fellow Leftist, Jay Gorney, as composer) begins with Joan Blondell essentially rapping the lyrics as she passes a cigarette to a man under a lamppost (a setting Berkeley probably borrowed from the way Florenz Ziegfeld staged Fanny Brice singing “My Man”), and it moves to some haunting close-ups of Depression victims coming home from the war, ending up on the streets, desperately waiting on breadlines and, in one haunting image, a closeup of a man (former Chaplin impersonator Billy West) showing his service medal. The number moves into a booming version of the song by Black contralto Etta Moten (who later appeared in Flying Down to Rio singing “The Carioca”) and ends with an elaborate arc-shaped bridge over which lines of men are marching while another bridge looms in the background and Blondell returns to take out the song, this time singing in full voice instead of talk-singing (she almost certainly had a voice double and James Robert Parish, in his book Hollywood’s Great Love Teams, says it was Marian Anderson), the Vitaphone credit comes up and the film ends. Kudos to Mervyn LeRoy for realizing that nothing could follow “Remember My Forgotten Man” and allowing the film to end with those final, haunting images! Gold Diggers of 1933 has its flaws — the movie begins to sag a bit at the midpoint when the original Avery Hopwood Gold Diggers plot horns in on the Depression realities, and as good as Dick Powell is his voice had a rather enervating quality (Michael Brooks compared it to a dentist’s drill) and Bing Crosby, in the Brunswick records he made of “Shadow Waltz” and “I’ve Got to Sing a Torch Song” (a haunting ballad that Powell sings at his piano and which does not get the full Berkeley treatment — what would he have done with it, one wonders: a Frankenstein-style treatment with Powell leading a search party through a haunted wood trying to find his missing girlfriend?), totally outsings Powell — but on its own it’s a masterpiece and probably the best movie Busby Berkeley ever worked on, not despite but because of all the stuff in it between his awesome production numbers. — 8/26/12

[1] — Meaning it wasn’t staged by Busby Berkeley as a big production number — one can only imagine how he might have done it, perhaps with Powell as an anguished Dr. Frankenstein chasing a girlfriend instead of a monster, with torch-carrying villagers arranging themselves into kaleidoscope patterns on the hillsides!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Gold Diggers of Broadway (Warner Bros., 1929)

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

I ran two of the Charley Chase shorts I’d taped from TCM last Tuesday — Mum’s the Word and Dog Shy — as well as the odd “From the Vaults” feature TCM showed between them, the surviving fragments from the early two-strip Technicolor musicals Gold Diggers on Broadway and The Rogue Song. The Gold Diggers on Broadway clip features Nick Lucas in 1929 doing “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” in a style surprisingly close to Tiny Tim’s infamous cover version from 40 years later, in what passed for a production number in 1929 — a stationary camera shooting a scene that blacked out (there were actually insert shots of the stagehand pulling the light switch off and on) from a scene with Lucas and the girl he was singing to to a stage set of giant tulips that opened, each revealing a chorus girl inside. There were a few bits before and aft, including a funny shot of Winnie Lightner (who played the part Aline MacMahon played in the well-known remake of this story, Gold Diggers of 1933) practicing for a number that cast her as the Statue of Liberty, but the “Tiptoe” number was by far the most interesting part of this clip. (Apparently the entire soundtrack of Gold Diggers on Broadway survives on Vitaphone discs but the film, with the exception of these few minutes, is lost.) — 4/11/05


The “feature” Charles and I watched — or, in large measure, just listened to — last night was Gold Diggers of Broadway, a big-budget Warner Bros. musical from 1929, just two years after The Jazz Singer and an illustration of the vagaries of film preservation or the lack thereof. Warners was still using the Vitaphone process, in which the movie’s sound was recorded on phonograph records (20 inches in diameter and playing at the 33 1/3 rpm speed which became standard in the 1950’s for the 12-inch LP) that were played along with the film — an elaborate mechanism synchronized the motor that ran the turntable with the one that ran the projector for the visual portion, but not surprisingly accidents frequently happened and if the film got broken and spliced, the record got scratched and jumped, or some other happenstance occurred, the picture and sound could get out of synch. Thus there are movies in Vitaphone for which the soundtrack survives and the picture does not, movies for which the picture survives and the soundtrack does not (like Broadway’s Like That, a 1930 short filmed in New York with Ruth Etting, Humphrey Bogart and Joan Blondell: David Wolper discovered the picture and used a short clip from it, of Bogart taking Etting to dinner at a Chinese restaurant, in his early-1960’s series of TV biographies, but the soundtrack remains lost), and movies like Gold Diggers of Broadway for which the complete soundtrack survives — including a trailer that is nearly 10 minutes long as well as a seven-minute overture obviously used originally as entrance music rather than for a prologue — but only about 15 minutes of actual film footage is known to exist.

This is a real pity, for what we have indicates that this was one of the best early musicals, stiffly photographed and with production numbers shown as they’d be seen from a good seat in a theatre instead of made truly cinematic, but with a good story, a good score, a good cast and the always energetic direction of Roy Del Ruth — whose wife-to-be, Winnie Lightner, has a key role. The story began life as a play by Avery Hopwood called The Gold Diggers of Broadway, which was premiered in New York in 1919. Warners bought the movie rights and made a silent version in 1923 (shortening the title to The Gold Diggers), then with the musical craze in full swing in the early years of the talkies, Warners dredged up the story for an original film musical and shot the works budget-wise, shooting the whole thing in two-strip Technicolor (though the word “Technicolor” wasn’t used in the trailer — instead it was called “natural color,” which two-strip really wasn’t since it couldn’t reproduce blue). They didn’t stretch the budget for a big-name cast — unlike their next shot at the same plot line, Gold Diggers of 1933, which featured Warners’ biggest musical stars of the time (Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, Joan Blondell, Ginger Rogers) and some of their top players in the non-musical roles as well (Warren William, Aline MacMahon and Guy Kibbee) — and the casting is a bit awkward because neither of the romantic leads, William Bakewell and Helen Foster, could sing or dance, so other characters had to be created to give this musical film genuinely talented musical performers: singer-guitarist Nick Lucas and dancer Ann Pennington.

Charles and I experienced Gold Diggers of Broadway by listening to the recent CD release of the complete soundtrack and playing the two surviving video clips — Nick Lucas singing “Tip-Toe Through the Tulips” (a song actually written for this film by Joseph Burke and Al Dubin — and performed by Lucas with his own accompaniment in a high falsetto tenor quite like the voice of Tiny Tim, who had a hit with this song as a novelty number in 1969) segueing into a big production number in which chorines emerge from giant tulip bulbs (a gimmick done even more effectively five years later in Murder at the Vanities) and most of the film’s big dance finale, representing the show the musical performers in the cast are rehearsing when they’re not involved in offstage romantic intrigues. The plot of Gold Diggers of Broadway will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Gold Diggers of 1933 (which was billed as a sequel but was actually a remake), though the Zeitgeist of the films couldn’t be more different: Gold Diggers of Broadway was released August 30, 1929, nearly two months before the stock market crash, and its mood is that of the 1920’s: big, brassy, optimistic, without the grim Depression gags the writers of Gold Diggers of 1933 added to their version. The film centers around three chorus girls in a hit Broadway show (in this version the show is already running, not in preliminary rehearsals like the one in Gold Diggers of 1933): Jerry Lamar (Nancy Welford, top-billed) and her roommates Violet (Helen Foster) and Mabel (Winnie Lightner). Violet is in nice, sweet, innocent love with Wally (William Bakewell), a rich but sympathetic kid who’s part of a Boston banking family, but his uncle Stephen Lee (Conway Tearle, who was not only billed second but narrated the trailer as himself) fears both that Wally will disgrace the family if he marries a chorus girl and that the family will be taken to the cleaners financially by her gold-digging demands.

So Stephen comes to New York with the family attorney, Blake (Albert Gran), in tow — only when he visits the apartment where the three chorus girls live and Jerry answers the door, he mistakes Jerry for Violet. Jerry decides to continue the impersonation and decides to make herself seem so creepy that Stephen will let his nephew marry anyone else — and there Violet will be. Only Stephen ends up falling for Jerry himself, and Blake similarly goes for Mabel, so the curtain falls with three happy if rather mismatched couples and a big musical finale representing the big climax of the show the chorus girls have been working in all movie. Obviously it’s difficult to judge a movie that exists only in such fragmentary form — rumors persist that it will be reconstructed much the way the silent London After Midnight was from the surviving production stills, with the extant footage spliced in at the appropriate points — and Charles and I didn’t make it easier because, responding to a bit of mistaken information on our source for the visual clips (the bonus features section on the Warner Home Video release of Gold Diggers of 1937), I played the clip of Nick Lucas singing “Tip-Toe Through the Tulips” at the point where Lucas sings the song for the first time (at a nightclub where the principals are partying) instead of the second time (when he performs it as part of the show); the DVD had identified this clip as from reel six of the film when it’s actually considerably later. At the same time Charles and I both had a sense of relief, after sitting in the dark for over an hour listening to disembodied voices, from actually having something to watch!

What there is of Gold Diggers of Broadway is actually quite good: the script by Robert Lord (who’d have his name on a lot of important Warners’ films in the 1930’s) is full of snappy dialogue (some of it quite daring even for the so-called “pre-Code” era), good in-jokes and a nice running gag for Lightner, who’s obliged to come on in a Statue of Liberty costume, carrying a torch and declaiming, “I am the Spirit of Liberty and the Progress of Civilization!” — only she keeps blowing the line. The two film clips that exist show how splendiferous this production’s budget really was — the finale takes place on a set that’s supposed to represent Paris (the Arc de Triomphe and the front of Nôtre-Dame Cathedral are clearly recognizable) but whose buildings are at such extreme (and unrealistic) angles to each other both Charles and I thought, “Ah, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari — the musical!” — and also how Del Ruth was able to avoid the static feeling of a lot of early talkies even though within a year directors like John Murray Anderson in The King of Jazz and Busby Berkeley in Whoopee would develop ways to do production numbers on screen that broke the stage frame once and for all and took advantage of what film could do — not only soar over chorus lines and show them in the overhead kaleidoscope formation Berkeley became famous for but expand the landscape over which a number could take place far beyond what was practical, or even possible, on stage.

Gold Diggers of 1933, though in black-and-white (Berkeley’s first film, Whoopee, had been in two-strip but he wouldn’t get a chance to work in color again for another 13 years, until The Gang’s All Here), is a better film — the script is more mordant, the cast is stronger (and it helps that the principal musical talents, Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler, also play the juvenile leads) and the numbers have Berkeley’s staggering imagination going for them — in Gold Diggers of Broadway the numbers were staged by Larry Ceballos (incidentally Conway Tearle pronounced the “l”’s in his name when introducing him in that extended trailer — I’d always assumed the “l”’s were silent, Spanish-style), who according to the American Film Institute Catalog was originally assigned to direct the numbers in the 1933 musical Footlight Parade and sued Warner Bros. for breach of contract when Berkeley replaced him, and the two surviving production numbers (as well as an incredible still showing Nick Lucas singing the song “Painting the Clouds with Sunshine” in front of a set of a giant palette, with chorus girls poking their heads through holes in it, while Ann Pennington dances in front of him) show him as perfectly competent and imaginative but still awfully stage-bound. Still, Gold Diggers of Broadway seems like a quite good movie, better than the common run of musicals of the period, and though it’s great that it hasn’t been entirely lost, it’s still frustrating that we have to watch/listen to it in this piecemeal fashion and try to reconstruct in our own imaginations what the original 1929 audiences got to see and hear!

Liberace: Great Personalities (Guild Films/TV, 1954)

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

After Gold Diggers of Broadway I ran Charles a 1954 episode of Liberace’s TV show called “Great Personalities” which tied in with the film because, a quarter-century after making Gold Diggers of Broadway, Nick Lucas appeared in it and once again sang “Tip-Toe Through the Tulips.” This was something of a cheap-jack production because it purported to pay tribute to great performers of the past — only quite a few of them were not quite as “past” as the show made out: Liberace kicked things off with a medley of “When My Baby Smiles at Me,” “Some of These Days,” “Love in Bloom” and “If You Knew Suzie” that paid tribute, through elaborate posters (and a squawking clarinet sound on “When My Baby Smiles at Me”), to the four people most identified with those songs: Ted Lewis, Sophie Tucker, Jack Benny and Eddie Cantor, respectively, all of whom were still alive when this show was done but none of whom was going to appear on it for what pittances Liberace’s producers, Guild Films, could afford to pay (and Benny was a major TV star on the CBS network, which would have looked unkindly on his appearing on a non-network syndicated show like Liberace’s). Lucas, who in 1954 as well as 1929 was a surprisingly good guitarist, sang “Tip-Toe Through the Tulips” in the same high falsetto tenor he used in the movie — whatever you think of his style, his voice and guitar chops had both held up quite well — and the other guest star on the program was also someone who’d reached her peak in the 1920’s: Gilda Gray, a white blues singer and dancer who was apparently the first white person to dance the shimmy on stage.

She sang “St. Louis Blues” on the program and Liberace identified her as the first white person to record it (which she wasn’t: Al Bernard sang it with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1921, just seven years after W. C. Handy wrote it), and I suspect Liberace’s interest in her was largely because, like he, she was of Polish descent: her birth name was Marianna Michalska and her parents emigrated from Warsaw when she was eight and raised her in Milwaukee, Wisconsin — also Liberace’s birthplace. Liberace also paid tribute to a couple of other famous Poles on the show: he played Paderewski’s “Menuet Antique” (he pronounced “Menuet” as “minuet” and did one of his most annoying things: instead of playing the piece as the piano solo Paderewski wrote, he dragged in four violinists led by his straight brother George and they added totally unnecessary parts; I started cringing every time they began to move their bows towards their strings, dreading what was about to happen) and he also played a Chopin nocturne, delivering it come scritto as a solo piano piece and playing it with the right delicacy and phrasing. I’ve heard occasional recordings of Liberace playing classical piano pieces as written (including a beautiful rendition of “Claire de Lune” by Debussy) and he was clearly at his best when he played that way: though no one was going to mistake him for Rubinstein, Horowitz, Gieseking or Arrau in that repertoire, it’s clear that playing “straight” classical brought forth a simple eloquence and phrasing from him that eluded him when he was playing pops (especially when he sang in that annoying voice that was once described as “a dormouse with adenoids”) and is about the one genuinely moving aspect of a performer whose persona was generally so obnoxious it’s not surprising director Tony Richardson took full advantage of it by casting him as an unctuous undertaker in the 1966 film The Loved One.