Sunday, March 10, 2013

Shine On, Harvest Moon (Warner Bros., 1944)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Shine On, Harvest Moon (actually the title doesn’t have a comma, but the name of the song the film was named after does), a Warner Bros. musical from 1944 that purported to be a biopic of Jack Norworth and Nora Bayes. In case you haven’t heard of them, they’re the husband-and-wife vaudeville team who introduced the song “Shine On, Harvest Moon” and quite a few other standards from the first decade of the 20th century. From other sources I’ve learned that Norworth and Bayes were the Sonny and Cher of their day; when they met he was an established star and she was a nobody, he coached her and built their act into a major attraction, then they broke up and she ended up a bigger star than he was. It got worse when Norworth thought, “If I did it once, I can do it again,” and picked up (though he did not get romantically involved with) another young female singer-dancer of potentially great talent, worked with her, shaped her, helped her project her gifts, then saw her leave him and become an even bigger star on her own. Her name was Ginger Rogers! Instead Shine On, Harvest Moon, directed by David Butler from a committee-written script (story by Richard Weil, screenplay by him with Sam Hellman, Francis Swan and James V. Kern), was an engagingly dark-ish musical in which Norworth (Dennis Morgan) is a vaudevillian who’s playing support to singer Blanche Mallory (Irene Manning). Also on the bill is magician The Great Georgetti (Jack Carson — this is early in the attempt of Warner Bros. to convert Morgan and Carson into a singing/comedy team on the order of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope at Paramount), a friend of Norworth’s and another client of manager “Poppa Carl” (S. Z. “Cuddles” Sakall at his most avuncular). Mallory asks Norworth to team up with her but he declines, saying that he works solo and doesn’t want to be part of a partnership. Mallory has lost her job at Milwaukee’s Crystal Theatre because the big new trend is sister acts.

Georgetti tells Norworth that there’s a particularly good singer at the local sleazy nightclub doing an especially good version of one of Norworth’s songs (both Norworth and Bayes wrote quite a lot of their own material, jointly and severally), and they go to scout her. Of course she’s Nora Bayes (Ann Sheridan, though lists Lynn Martin as her voice double), and when Norworth and Georgetti arrive the club’s owner, Dan Costello (Robert Shayne), is literally pimping her out to his principal backer, Tim Donovan (William B. Davidson), in a scene written surprisingly brazenly for a film from the era of strict Production Code enforcement. When Norworth asks her to come with him instead, Costello grabs her arm, Norworth tries to wrest her from his grip, and the scene ends up in a free-for-all fight that ends up with Norworth, Bayes and Georgetti all arrested (though Georgetti, an experienced magician, works free from his handcuffs). The three are freed in a wild production number that takes place in night court, with the police officers and even the judge joining in — throwing us a curveball in what we thought was originally going to be a “normal” backstage musical, with the characters singing and dancing only when they were doing so professionally in performance or rehearsal. Norworth tries Mallory and Bayes as a faux-“sister” act after Bayes’ audition as a solo fails (courtesy of a claque Costello has hired to disrupt it) but Mallory bails on it after Bayes’ solo number, “How Can They Tell That I’m Irish?,” goes over with an audience composed mostly of members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. In desperation Norworth goes on stage with Bayes and the two are instant stars, and while they’re on a carriage ride on the night of a full moon the two work out That Song and he proposes marriage to her, at least partly because if they’re going to be traveling together it’ll be easier to need only one room and bed instead of two. As husband and wife they go to New York, expecting to make it into the vaudeville big-time — only Dan Costello has blacklisted them and purchased all the vaudeville chains to make sure their career can’t go anywhere. Their privations as they can’t find work and he can’t even place “Shine On, Harvest Moon” with a publisher unless he can get Blanche Mallory to sing it — which she won’t unless he divorces Nora and marries her — reach depths unplumbed in a major musical since the early days and films like Applause, Burlesque and Lord Byron of Broadway. Even when Georgetti finds a vaudeville theatre so small Costello hasn’t bought it yet, Costello strikes again by telling anyone who plays on a bill with them that he’ll never hire them in any of his theatres.

They finally get their break when a burlesque house books Norworth as a single and he’s bombing — until Nora shows up in the audience — and then suddenly he regains his voice and sings his heart out, a scout for Ziegfeld is in the audience, and in a final color sequence (the rest of the film is in black-and-white) they’re shown in a Ziegfeld extravaganza not only of “Shine On, Harvest Moon” but of Jack Norworth’s entire song catalogue (or at least as much of it as Warner Bros. could get in one reel). The transition is done more neatly than it usually was in black-and-white films containing one color sequence — a close-up of a stage light before it’s turned on cuts to a close-up of another stage light, this one with colored gel filters in front of it. Shine On, Harvest Moon is a surprisingly dark musical — when I saw cinematographer Arthur Edeson’s name on the credits I though it was an odd choice given that his best-known films were All Quiet on the Western Front, the 1931 Frankenstein, the 1941 Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, but in fact his rich, chiaroscuro style was just right for a film that keeps its central characters in penury for so long (and runs them through a dilemma that would become all too real for many Hollywood people after the House Committee on Un-American Activities struck in 1947) — and it’s engaging, sometimes annoying (all the repetitive jokes about the dumbness of Marie Wilson, playing Georgetti’s girlfriend, really get old after a while, especially when Jack Carson sings a whole song about how dumb she is!), sometimes surprisingly moving and not at all the mindless “fun” musical one might expect from the title, the subject (as predictably bowdlerized by the writing committee) and the stars!