Saturday, December 15, 2012

Dance, Charlie, Dance (Warner Bros., 1937)

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

The movie was a 1937 Warner Bros. “B” called Dance, Charlie, Dance (though the title is spelled and punctuated several different ways in the movie: it’s also the title of a show-within-a-show and in the film’s opening credits there are no commas between the words, in a poster for the show-within-the-show it’s Dance, Charlie Dance — just one comma — and at one point we see a version that reads Dance, Charley Dance) which was just one of many movies Warners based on the 1925 play The Butter and Egg Man by George S. Kaufman. It first got filmed in 1928 with Jack Mulhall under Kaufman’s title; then was remade as The Tenderfoot in 1932 with Joe E. Brown; then the plot got recycled for a British “quota quickie” at Warners’ Teddington studio in 1935, Hello, Sweetheart; then this version, Dance, Charlie, Dance; then in 1940 it became Angel from Texas with Eddie Albert, Rosemary Lane and Ronald Reagan (!); and finally it became Three Sailors and a Girl with Gordon MacRae and Jane Powell (maybe Doris Day was busy making something better, like Calamity Jane, that week) in 1953. This version suffers from the budgetary constraints of trying to do a backstage musical without a budget for big production numbers — only one song, a title song by M. K. Jerome and Jack Scholl, is done anything close to justice by the cheap-jack production — but the movie is rather amusing even though Stuart Erwin, whiny as ever, plays the key role of Andy Tucker, the “hick from the sticks” who comes to New York from Athens, Illinois but the twang in his voice (he was actually born in Squaw Valley, California but he always sounded vaguely Southern) would have made Athens, Georgia more credible. The show opens with unscrupulous producers Alf Morgan (Allen Jenkins) and MacArthur (Charles Foy, one of the seven little you-know-whats; his brother Bryan Foy was associate producer and pretty much ran Warners’ “B” unit at the time) — if he has a first name, we never learn what it is — head “Morgomac Productions” (one of those synthetic corporate names that are a lot more common now than then) and are in the middle of rehearsals for Dance, Charlie, Dance, an atrocious attempt to combine a musical with a drama, afflicted with Jane Arden (Olive Olson), a star way too old for the part of a 17-year-old dancing among the cherry trees in the opening of the play; an inept chorus girl (she turns one way in a rehearsal while the rest of the chorus correctly goes the other way, an intriguing switch of one of the common gags from military comedies into a civilian context) and her sugar daddy, Richard Milton (Harvey Clark), who’s their backer — until arrogant dance director Ted Parks (Frank Faylen) chews the bimbo out and Milton responds by pulling his financing.

Needing a backer, pronto, Morgan first tries to hit up his ex-wife Fanny (Glenda Farrell) — who managed to raise a nest egg and retire from vaudeville in relative comfort just before it collapsed — and when she refuses (she’s well aware that the show is terrible and she’d just be throwing her money away), his next pigeon is Andy Tucker, who eagerly puts his $20,000 nest egg into the show. He has an offer to buy the hotel where he works for $50,000 and is hoping to make that amount with his theatrical investment. Dance, Charlie, Dance, the show-within-the-show, premieres to a quarter-filled theatre in an out-of-town tryout and bombs, but when it actually opens on Broadway it’s a spectacular hit, mainly because it’s so hilariously inept that, like Springtime for Hitler, audiences laugh at it because they think it was meant to be funny. Then attorney Gordon Fox (Addison Richards) shows up and says his client wrote a short story in 1927 with 146 points of similarity to the plot of Dance, Charlie, Dance and threatens to sue for plagiarism unless he and his client get two-thirds of the show — so, with Fanny’s guidance, Andy and his girlfriend, Morgomac secretary Mary Mathews (Jean Muir, who seems much less comfortable playing a nice girl than she did in her other films as a vamp) sell the show back to Morgan and MacArthur for $100,000, enough to pay off their second investor Alvin Gussett (Chester Clute) and still have enough money to buy that hotel back in Athens. It’s the sort of move where even if we haven’t seen it (or any of the other versions) before we know where the plot is going, but it’s still funny enough to see it get there, and though Erwin is infuriating as usual the rest of the cast is reliably good (even if one could wish Glenda Farrell would have had more of a part — since she was playing an ex-vaudevillian I was half-expecting a plot twist in which Andy would fire Jane Arden, Fanny would take over the star part and she would turn it from a bad musical drama into a great musical comedy).