Friday, October 24, 2014
Today's post begins with a question: what happened in 1929? Well, for starters, The Jazz Age a.k.a. Roaring Twenties ended with a thud, of more accurately, a series of dull thuds caused by Wall Street speculators and ordinary folks who lost everything jumping out of tall buildings, thus, giving new meaning to the phrase "pounding the pavement".
People up and down the society, in all walks of life, had the blues. The balm in hard times? Such virtuosos of the blues as Bessie Smith, who made her first and last silver screen appearance in a 1929 short.
Composer-bandleader-pianist Duke Ellington was also featured in a 1929 musical short subject, Black And Tan Fantasy, co-starring dancer Fredi Washington.
In April 1930, Universal Pictures released its musical "revue" flick The King Of Jazz, starring The Paul Whiteman Orchestra, but it would be six months later, on October 25 when the real "shot around the world" of jazz on the silver screen transpired: the first appearance by an African-American band in a feature film, Check And Double Check.
While an enormous box-office hit for RKO Radio Pictures, this vehicle for radio stars Freeman Gosden & Charles Correll (a.k.a. "Sam & Henry", then "Amos N' Andy") and pert silent movie headliner Sue Carol has not aged well.
Re: Gosden and Correll, blackface in general frequently leaves even seasoned, seen-everything, grizzled and dyed-in-the-wool historians scratching our heads in utter bewilderment and asking repeatedly why the audiences of 1930 found THIS funny. Watching Check And Double Check on DVD, one inevitably ends up fast-forwarding to The Duke Ellington Orchestra's cutting-edge musical segments - or giving up on the film altogether and just listening to more of Duke's Cotton Club Orchestra.
Now, musical short subjects were nothing new by the time The Singing Kid and The Broadway Melody were runaway hits. The DeForest Phono Films and Vitaphone Varieties had already played theaters well the first wave of all talking, all singing, all dancing feature films hit the neighborhood houses and metropolitan movie palaces like a showgirl-filled tidal wave in 1929.
Always interested in the latest technological advances, producer-mogul William Fox, eager to market the Movietone sound-on-film technology as the alternative to Vitaphone's sound-on-disc system, produced newsreels and comedies as early as 1927-1928.
Fox commenced a series headlined by the comedy team that starred on Broadway in The Ramblers, lecherous wiseguys Bobby Clark and Paul McCullough.
The Belle Of Samoa, one of the two existing Fox short subjects of Clark & McCullough, is a musical comedy, somewhat in the school of the "revue" films. Co-starring stage and silent movie actress Lois Moran (known for her key role in Stella Dallas) and a troupe of Hawaiian dancers with the wacky comedy team, it was intended to be included in Fox Movietone Follies Of 1929, but released as a short subject instead.
The Belle Of Samoa most curiously co-stars silent movie actress Lois Moran (known for her key role in Stella Dallas) and Hawaiian dancers with the wacky comedy team. Seen today, The Belle Of Samoa presents a time capsule capturing vaudeville, Broadway and burlesque.
As the Clark & McCullough series continued, it would appear that directors Harry Sweet and Norman Taurog did not employ the musical and "revue" format again. The series of featurettes and shorts also co-starred such ubiquitous comedy supporting players as Marjorie Beebe, Florence Lake and Otto Fries.
After shooting the last of the 15 comedies for Fox, Clark & McCullough returned to Broadway to appear in George Gershwin's Strike Up The Band.
After Vitaphone, the next studio to plunge full force into musical short subjects would be would be Paramount Pictures. Adolph Zukor's organization hit the ground running and starred such iconic performers as Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker and George White Scandals star Frances Williams in numerous 1-reelers.
Alas, in Paramount early talkie shorts as A Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic, starring Eddie Cantor, and After Seben, the second of five 1929 2-reelers featuring vaudeville dancer/singer/actor/dialect comic James Barton, the order of the day is . . . minstrelsy. So strap on those industrial strength 1929 goggles on big time - here's historic footage of future swing bandleader-drummer-avatar-powerhouse Chick Webb, as well as stellar dancing by Barton (who demonstrates the origins of the "moonwalk") and the amazing "Shorty George" Snowden.
Ultimately, the Paramount musical shorts start finding consistency and charm as a direct result of the rise to prominence by sprightly and original vocal groups. One of the best and brightest was The Boswell Sisters, who appeared in 1-reel musicals and Big Broadcast features for Paramount and also enthusiastically contributed their lilting yet swinging 3-part vocal harmonies to the Fleischer Studio's "Screen Song" cartoons (a.k.a. Follow The Bouncing Ball). Hearing the Bozzies (Connee, Martha and Vet), the line that extends to Ella Fitzgerald, The Andrews Sisters, The Platters, The Four Freshmen, The Hi-Los, The Four Seasons and The Beach Boys is obvious - and a beautiful thing.
At Vitaphone, director Roy Mack must have helmed 500 musical comedies and big band shorts, before finishing his career with some of the earliest Soundies in 1941. Since film producers who ignored the growing popularity and staying power of jazz did so at their own peril, among the dozens of musicals and band shorts Mack cranked out were historic films featuring legendary African-American performers. First up, the fabulous Cora Lee Redd, featured vocalist with The Noble Sissle Orchestra (who had previously starred in a DeForest Phono Film), in this clip from That's The Spirit.
Smash Your Baggage showcases a host of incredible dancers and vocalists.
Next, a Vitaphone 1-reeler co-starring the groundbreaking singer and actress Ethel Waters with a child star who would grow up to be arguably the greatest pure entertainer of his generation, actor-dancer-singer-impressionist Sammy Davis, Jr.
Clearly desiring to corner the market on tap dancers, Vitaphone also signed teenage hoofers Hal LeRoy and Mitzi Mayfair. Ms. Mayfair, having demonstrated considerable dancing skills in her Paramount On Parade appearance at the age of 15, captured the attention of Vitaphone short subject producer Sam Sax and soon was teamed with tappin' Hal for a series of musical shorts, starting in 1931.
The plots are the same, there's absolutely zero pre-Code risque/weird WTF factor, Hal's essential dialogue is "aw shucks - let's dance", but who cares - the young duo danced with a joy that carries the day.
Any hokeyness and clubfooted acting is invariably mitigated by the sheer earnestness, enthusiasm and likability of the tap dancing stars.
One inexplicable realization is that the most peculiar of all the early 1930's mini-musicals were made by big-budget MGM, the "Tiffany" of movie studios. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer produced such Oscar-winning prestige pictures as Grand Hotel, but also were responsible for Jules White's Dogville comedies.
Actually, it shouldn't be THAT much of a shocker that the same studio that produced Cecil B. DeMille's pre-Code feature (and Exhibit A in the That's WTF department), Madam Satan, starring Kay Johnson in a goofy devil costume and, at one point in the epic's (ouch) climax, showgirls jumping out of dirigibles, also made the weirdest musicals that were not Fleischer Studio cartoons.
Producer Jack Cummings, later a key figure at MGM, directed several of the wildest 1-reel and 2-reel musicals, including this short subject, Crazy House and a bunch of hodgepodges that alternated 1929 musical numbers with wraparound segments starring Ted Healy & His Stooges. The following remains most notable for this bit of fancy dancing, completely unrelated to the rest of the film, byEarl "Snake Hips" Tucker, who lives up to his moniker and then some.
The remaining cast of Crazy House (no relation to the 1943 Universal feature starring the Helzapoppin' comedy team of Ole Olsen & Chic Johnson) also includes a motley crew of performers and comics - Cliff "Ukelele Ike" Edwards, wisecracking Benny Rubin, slapstick queen Polly Moran and that favorite nemesis from Three Stooges and Harry Langdon comedies, Vernon Dent. Here's Crazy House, in its entirety.
Meanwhile, as the Depression wore on. . . and on. . . and on, MGM's downright bizarre 1-reel and 2-reel musical short subjects got weirder and wilder.
Some of the pre-Code bacchanals must be seen to be believed. In this clip from Wild People, the spunky and inimitable Eleanor Thatcher sings her heart out while Joyzelle Joyner prowls around the set as The Panther Lady. The less-then-subtle Joyzelle and her supporting dancers all wear wigs that would have been totally appropriate had they been able to time-travel and audition for backup singer gigs in Sly & The Family Stone 34 years later.
Over The Counter presents an unbeatable mix of veteran character actors, undulating showgirls, questionable taste, pointless grotesquery and the most ridiculously unsubtle phallic imagery ever seen in a motion picture. Ms. Thatcher sings "Check Your Husband" with chutzpah.
Eleanor Thatcher, the pride of of Binghamton, New York, subsequently got fired by MGM and, very likely - as Buster Keaton no doubt was - kicked in the butt with a gentle "you have no talent and don't let the door hit you on the way out" insult as she left.
To some degree, due to the 21st century presence of YouTube, Eleanor got the last laugh. When Ms. Thatcher busts a move using that great wiggling riff of hers, as she does here in her third (and last) silver screen appearance in the independent "juveniles gone wild" film The Road To Ruin, it's pretty darn entertaining. Take that, MGM corporate!
To some degree, all of the aforementioned material represents merely the tip of the iceberg regarding musical short subjects of the late 1920's and early 1930's. Part 5 of this series shall pay tribute to our dear celluloid pals, Busby and Marlene.
Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Friday, October 17, 2014
The early talkie musicals featured entertainers who, having headlined feature films over an extended period of time, received some measure of enduring fame, others whose stardom was short-lived, as well as performers who, because they appeared in few movies, remain lesser-known.
Dear readers, do you start rolling around on the floor, laughing to the point of utter hysterics on the mere mention of the name "Osgood Fielding"?
Bought Blu-rays and DVDS of his movies or, even better, had the pleasure of seeing him get big laughs onstage in a touring company of Show Boat? Then you know what an outstanding performer and comedian Joe E. Brown was.
In the following toe-tapping number from Top Speed, Joe's dancing partner, Laura Lee, was also terrific, holding her own with the goofy, triple-jointed, rubber-legged comic - and showing plenty of spunk in the process. Take it, Joe and Laura!
Your correspondent is an absolute sucker for the epic late silent films (directed with cinematic genius by F.W. Murnau and Frank Borzage, respectively) Sunrise and Seventh Heaven. Both starred another actress in the category of "the camera loves her", Janet Gaynor.
Here's Janet, with extra Alice White style pep, demonstrating charm, the effects of excessive coffee drinking and early talkie musical mojo in a Fox feature that made its New York premiere squarely between the September 1929 implosion of the London Stock Exchange and the Wall Street crash in October, Sunnyside Up.
Actress and vocalist Sharon Lynn is remembered fondly as the uber-villainess co-star of the Laurel & Hardy feature Way Out West, but also achieved silver screen immortality in the wonderful "Turn On The Heat" production number - also in Sunnyside Up.
Ms. Lynn, also among the stars of the lost Fox Movietone Follies Of 1929, delivers the vocal prelude to skillful and snazzy dancing by nimble Ziegfeld Follies hoofer Ann Pennington in the following production number from Happy Days.
Sam Goldwyn signed vaudeville icon Eddie Cantor to a contract. His appearances in silents (Kid Boots) were quite successful, so, to make a splash in talkies, Goldwyn produced Whoopee as just the first of a slew of musical comedy vehicles starring the legendary "Banjo Eyes".
Whoopee not only starred the great Eddie Cantor, but also a bevy of adorable showgirls (including Betty Grable) and, most importantly, the way-out visions of the one, the only Busby Berkeley.
Paramount Pictures got into the musicals game early, with Rouben Mamoulian's Applause, starring legendary "torch singer" Helen Morgan, as well as The Love Parade, the first of several wildly successful vehicles co-starring Maurice Chevalier, everyone's favorite randy Parisian, with diva Jeanette McDonald.
Ernst Lubitsch's sophisticated musical didn't just spotlight the stars but also featured magnificent numbers featuring the supporting players, in this case England's finest acrobatic comedian, Lupino Lane, and actress-songstress-comedienne Lillian Roth.
Some of the lesser-known stars and supporting players from the movie musicals of 1929-1930 were incredible performers. One was Broadway legend Zelma O'Neal, hugely popular on stage and in her excellent recordings.
Zelma was a larger-than-life personality, and, unfortunately, the movie that provided the perfect showcase for her formidable talents never materialized. Why MGM never signed her to be singing-dancing "comic relief" in their big budget musical extravaganzas starring Eleanor Powell and other headliners, we'll never know.
Still, Ms. O' Neal was responsible for absolutely blazing moments in her relatively few silver screen appearances.
Although the popular team of silent film headliner Buddy Rogers (from Wild Bill Wellman's WINGS) and winsome musical star Nancy Carroll were the headliners of Paramount Pictures' Follow Thru, the question remains, who stole the picture?
Answer? Zelma O'Neal and her equally funny co-star, the fabulous Jack Haley!
Singing the number she originated onstage, Zelma demonstrates her buoyant good humor, comedy chops and winning personality. No doubt, those who got to see Zelma tear it up onstage enjoyed a rare treat!
Readers of this blog may recognize Zelma from Peach O' Reno, a splendid and fast-paced 1931 film starring the comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey. In this clip, Bert and sprightly Dorothy Lee, as Joe E. Brown did so well, show us a thing or two about keeping the fun quotient in entertainment.
Wheeler & Woolsey also began their movie career in musicals shot in glorious two-strip Technicolor. The first two RKO films starring the team, Rio Rita (1929) and Dixiana (1930), employ the semi-operatic format which was popular on stage, but never quite right for movies. The team, however, would go on to star in a series of very good comedies through the 1930's, daunted only when strict enforcement of the Production Code commenced in July 1934 and "sanitized" their trademark double entendre-filled humor.
Even in these rather stage bound films, Bert, Bob and Dorothy are nothing if not troupers! Dorothy and Bert sing the following song with a genuine sweetness that's a welcome alternative to the empty snark of 2014 entertainment.
Another team that was not served well by the "filmed stage play" method was the Marx Brothers. Their first feature films were the stagey adaptations of their Broadway smashes The Coconuts (which featured the music of Irving Berlin and a book by George S. Kaufman, with additional material by Morrie Ryskind) and Animal Crackers. Then as now, Groucho got the last laugh.
Here's Groucho, merging Algonquin Round Table with Gilbert & Sullivan in a ditty he deftly pulverized Broadway audiences with and would sing with caustic glee the rest of his performing life.
Part 4 of this series will cover the WTF wonders that were musical short subjects, from MGM, Paramount, Vitaphone, Columbia and more.
We sign off with a respectful Jack Buchanan top hat tip to The Talkie King, who has done film historians a valuable service by posting dozens of numbers from movie musicals on his YouTube channel.
Saturday, October 11, 2014
The "revue" musical, a clever way for a movie studio to showcase their stars en masse and exploit their singing and dancing acumen - whether they had any or not - was quite the rage in 1929.
By far, Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog's favorite number from all the revues is comedienne Winnie Lightner's boffo performance of the indescribable "Singing Of The Bathtub" number from The Show Of Shows. It epitomizes The All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing! All WTF! heading of this series.
The sensation that was "talkies", of course, led to a spate of "revue" pictures. MGM got the ball rolling with The Hollywood Revue Of 1929.
The number from MGM's hit revue - spoofed mercilessly with by "Singing In The Bathtub" - was the original "Singin' In The Rain", performed enthusiastically by Cliff "Ukelele Ike" Edwards and a cast of thousands. And it was a box-office smash.
For this writer, the highlight of the film, even given the fun comic turns provided by Laurel & Hardy and Buster Keaton, is the larger-than-life Marie Dressler singing For I'm The Queen. Sound was no problem for Marie, a stage star 30 years before The Hollywood Revue Of 1929 was made.
One can imagine moviegoers all over the United States and the world traipsing in droves to their movie palaces to see this and saying, "look, Hortense, it's Joan Crawford - and she's in one of them thar talking pictures!"
The MGM hit was also a confluence of new talent on the way up and silent film stars on the way down. Case in point: this scene co-starring Billy Haines (star of Brown Of Harvard and Show People) and Jack Benny. Haines was actually near the end of his stretch as a movie headliner, although he would enjoy great success in his post-showbiz career as an interior decorator to the stars, while Jack, believe it or not under the age of 39 here, was a few years away from radio stardom.
Seem every studio followed Hollywood Revue Of 1929 with their own star-studded extravaganzas. That would include Universal's The King Of Jazz, Warner Brothers' aforementioned The Show Of Shows, Fox Movietone Follies Of 1929, Paramount's Ziegfeld Follies style revue Glorifying The American Girl and the epic Paramount On Parade.
The King Of Jazz has much to recommend it. There's the historic first screen appearance of Bing Crosby, bandleader Paul Whiteman performing an abbreviated version of George Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue, and a jaunty, inventive cartoon segment in the early 1930's "rubber hose" style courtesy of the Walter Lantz Studio.
Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog's pick: "Happy Feet", arguably the greatest "toe tapping tune" ever in a movie musical, not only features Bing & The Rhythm Boys (Harry Barris and Al Rinker), but an absolutely astounding performance, beginning at 2:18, by quadruple-jointed dancer Al "Rubber Legs" Norman.
The Show Of Shows might be the oddest of the group, with the acerbic vaudeville emcee/conqueror Frank Fay as the master of ceremonies, and peculiar talent combinations throughout.
The following number about the famous Floradora girls features a darn near unrecognizable Alice White and a VERY young Myrna Loy (a few years away from glory in The Thin Man series), and, as The Floradora Boys, stalwart silent movie comedians Ben Turpin, Charles Lynn (a.k.a. "Heine" Conklin), Lupino Lane, Lee Moran, Bert Roach and Lloyd Hamilton.
Even odder is the fascinating "recitation" number, featuring stage icon Beatrice Lillie, along with Fay and two favorite avatars who exemplify classic silent film humor, the aforementioned Hamilton and one of the hardest working comediennes in show business, slapstick queen and former Mack Sennett Studio headliner Louise Fazenda. Even here, Ms. Lillie shows why she still ranks high on the short list of all-time legendary performers.
As fate would have it, a reel of nitrate footage from The Show Of Shows, lost for over 80 years (and including the "Sisters" number in its entirety) has been recently discovered and shall be restored by The George Eastman House, so a fresh reassessment may soon be in order.
Fox Movietone Follies Of 1929 didn't have the star power of the others, possibly because the studio was already directing its prodigious creative energy both into its Movietone sound technology and many other places - brilliant feature films crafted lovingly by director Frank Borzage, popular vehicles for homespun Will Rogers and a series of films, including non-revue musicals starring Janet Gaynor.
However, as a hail Mary response to the competition, William Fox produced a feature which was shot in 70mm and, of course, included color sequences. Unlike the other revue films, Movietone Follies Of 1929 also attempted to weave a backstage plot (already an old warhorse in 1929) between the peppy production numbers. There were even hit records from songs in the movie.
Unfortunately, Movietone Follies is a lost film, just one among countless Fox productions that burned up in an infamous 1937 vault fire. The sequel to Movietone Follies, however, an all-singing, all-dancing revue extravaganza creatively titled New Movietone Follies Of 1930 also includes Multicolor sequences and exists in the UCLA Film and Television Archive.
Paramount On Parade could be considered the most interesting, imaginative and entertaining entry in the revue musical sweepstakes. There is a cinematic approach that distinguishes it from the other revue films.
The king of the lot, song and dance man Maurice Chevalier, headlined Paramount On Parade with his customary panache, savoir faire and happy lechery.
Paramount On Parade also features an appearance by the legendary silent film star known as "The It Girl", Clara Bow. Unlike the rather stiff and labored Romeo & Juliet segment from Hollywood Revue Of 1929 featuring superstars John "Jack" Gilbert and Norma Shearer, this at least reveals why Clara was a movie star of the first rank.
In silents and talkies, the camera loves Clara Bow. Although the powers that were at Paramount tried to get her to lose the Brooklyn accent, it's clearly part and parcel of her onscreen oeuvre.
When viewing the folllowing "True To The Navy" number from Paramount Of Parade, her great charm and megawatt personality are most evident.
The suits at Paramount - then as now - entirely missed the point. At least her final two films, produced by Fox, Call Her Savage and especially Hoop-la, successfully bring Clara's tremendous charisma and warmth to the fore.
At that point, Clara had, with good reason, simply had it with the pressure, paparazzi, tabloid headlines, studio politics and general b.s. of Hollywood, married Rex Bell and retired from showbiz. Over just a few years as a star, she was responsible for amazing silver screen performances.
"The It Girl" was just one of many stars of screen and stage to be featured in musicals of the early talkie era, and we'll get to the others in Part 3 of this series. But first, we'll give a Clara Bow top hat tip to Steve Zalusky for that splendid newspaper ad, and then sign off with "Ping Pongo", wacky Winnie Lightner's second number from The Show Of Shows.
Sunday, October 05, 2014
Turner Classic Movies will devote an entire evening to classic cartoons in their Monday night presentation, Back To The Drawing Board.
Animator-documentary filmmaker-historian John Canemaker, author of Winsor McCay: His Life And Art, introduces The Cartoons Of Winsor McCay, featuring Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), Little Nemo (1911), How a Mosquito Operates (1912), The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918), Bug Vaudeville (1921), The Pet (1921), The Flying House (1921), The Centaurs (1921), Gertie on Tour (1921) and Flip's Circus (1921).
Silent era animation expert Tommy José Stathes of The Bray Animation Project introduces a program on the 100th Anniversary Of Bray Studios. Cartoon rarities include: The Artist's Dream (1913), How Animated Cartoons are Made (1919), Farmer Alfafa Sees New York (1916), The Circus (1920), The Mad Locomotive (1922), A Fitting Gift (1920), The Best Mouse Loses (1920), Colonel Heeza Liar, Detective (1923), Bobby Bump's Pup Gets the Flea-Enza (1919) and Dinky Doodle in Lost and Found (1926).
We at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog adore the cartoons of the Van Beuren Studio and are thrilled to see that the guy who has been personally responsible for restoring so many of them, who literally tracked down 35mm nitrate prints of Aesop's Fables, Don & Waffles/Tom & Jerry, Cubby Bear and Little King cartoons for DVD transfers, Steve Stanchfield of Thunderbean Animation, will be interviewed on TCM by Robert Osborne.
The Animation From Van Beuren Studios lineup includes the Aesop's Fables The Fly's Bride (1929), A Swiss Trick (1931), Silvery Moon (1933) and Rough On Rats (1933), the Burt Gillett Toddle Tales cartoon A Little Bird Told Me (1934), and three classics - The Wizard Of Oz (1933), The Sunshine Makers (1935) and Pastry Town Wedding (1934) - by 1934-1935 Van Beuren Studio director and independent cartoon producer Ted Eshbaugh.
Some of the aforementioned films are on a favorite Thunderbean compilation of Monsieur Blogmeister, the Technicolor Dreams and Black and White Nightmares DVD/Blu-ray combo.
Lotte Reiniger's take on the Arabian Nights, The Adventures Of Prince Achmed and the first feature by the Fleischer Studio, Gulliver's Travels (1939), will wrap up the evening.
If this TCM presentation leaves the animation-crazed heart yearning for more, Steve has a YouTube channel that is a veritable cornucopia of classic cartoon coolness.
Saturday, October 04, 2014
We at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog have been busily preparing hard boiled eggs and nuts in anticipation of Movie Movie Blog Blog's blogathon in tribute to Laurel & Hardy.
Tuesday, September 30, 2014
The author of Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog is a sucker for movie musicals - good, bad or jaw-droppingly bad. While the elegant and cinematic dance-athons featuring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly, Vera-Ellen and Cyd Charisse more than earned their iconic status, many of Monsieur Blogmeister's all-time favorites in the genre were a lot less sophisticated - and produced at the "crash and burn" end of The Jazz Age with fervor and delirium. Invariably, the best ones, hitting the moviegoing public at "Crash Of '29" time, appear to have been made by folks with delirium tremens from bathtub booze!
The fun started when the mini-musicals known as Vitaphone Varieties, most notably Al Jolson's screen debut in A Plantation Act, became a sensation in 1926-1927. Audiences were thrilled by the "talkie" short subjects which showcased the company's sound-on-disc system and often featured stage performers not seen before or since.
It was just a bit later when the movie musical genre got going in a big way with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's all talking, all singing, all dancing The Broadway Melody, starring silent movie mainstays Bessie Love and Anita Page with vaudeville "song and dance man" Charles King.
While state of the art at the time of its release (June 1929), compared to the elegant RKO musicals of a few years later, it's downright crude, padded with lots of unwelcome "plot" to stretch to its 100 minute running time - but fun to watch nonetheless. King in particular, although giving it his all admirably in showbiz trouper fashion, does not remind anyone of the suave Maurice Chevalier or debonair Fred Astaire.
That said, any snooty 21st century snide viewpoint, frankly, just doesn't matter. The Broadway Melody was an enormous box-office hit and won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1929.
The same MGM that could NOT figure out what to do with Buster Keaton (easily one of the greatest filmmakers ever to step behind a movie camera) sure knew how to make a buck; crank out that next musical - and make it snappy! Essential ingredients include scantily clad showgirls, insouciant flappers, warbling crooners, cheesy outfits, cheesier sets, stories involving backstage hijinx and, most of all, glorious 2-strip Technicolor!
Nobody could sell a song quite like the stars of It's A Great Life (1929), The Duncan Sisters.
So many MGM musicals were cranked out in 1929-1930 - including the first version of Good News, featuring The Varsity Drag - the studio didn't even release all of them. One, "The March Of Time", was deemed unreleasable and stayed on the shelf, but its costly production numbers got spun off into a bunch of short subjects. One doozy of a musical number is The Lockstep, a.k.a. Fun With Incarceration, starring the perky Dodge Sisters.
More really odd all singing all dancing bits from The March Of Time ended up as the "Colortone" series (more showgirls! skimpier outfits! more indescribably bizarre production numbers!)
A surprising amount of the 2-strip Tech footage from The March Of Time survived, but other segments, including this clip of 80 year old tap dancer Barney Fagan, star of 19th century vaudeville, only exist in black and white.
Curiously and even more incongruously (and truly in the WTF tradition), the remaining March Of Time production numbers got incorporated into an MGM 2-reeler series starring slapstick comedians Ted Healy & His Stooges and eccentric dancer Bonny Bonnell.
Just how production numbers featuring showgirls dressed as giant airplanes work with Moe, Larry, Curly and wiseguy Ted Healy. . . that we still don't know (note: Warner Archive is releasing all of the MGM Healy-Stooges 2-reelers, including Nertsery Rhymes, Beer and Pretzels, The Big Idea and Hello Pop, a lost film until 2013, on DVD).
Meanwhile, The Broadway Melody made so many Brinks trucks overflowing with dough-re-me (2.8 million bucks) for MGM that, in the immortal words of Jimmy Durante "everyone got into the act". Soon, EVERYBODY was producing 2-strip Technicolor all talking, all singing, all dancing musical extravaganzas. And if B-studios couldn't afford color, they made musicals in black and white!
Warner Brothers, hot off Jolson's box office smashes, signed Broadway sensation and Ziegfeld Follies star Marilyn Miller to star in Sally and Sunny - and also produced On With The Show, Gold Diggers Of Broadway and Show Girl In Hollywood.
Show Girl In Hollywood featured the irrepressible Alice White.
Known as The Princess Of Pep, who starred in the lost 1928 SILENT version of Gentleman Prefer Blondes, she epitomized these early talkies.
While never a virtuoso singer, show-stopping dancer or Jeanne Eagels style dramatic actress, Ms. White oozed more "IT" factor, fun and joie de vivre than any movie star other than Clara Bow - and was perfect for musicals.
So, instead of the legendary Marilyn Miller, it would be Alice White who became the queen of early talkie musicals at Warner Brothers.
Not unlike lovable Dorothy Lee from RKO's Bert Wheeler & Robert Woolsey features, Alice had personality to spare.
Alas, a series of unfortunate offscreen incidents put the kibbosh on Ms. White's stardom pretty darn quickly, well before rigorous Production Code enforcement commenced as of July 1, 1934.
The Alice White story is a bit reminiscent of the song by a cappella group The Bobs with the lyrics "first I was a hippie, then I was a stockbroker, now I am a hippie again." She was a secretary who became a movie star, then returned to being a secretary, only briefly un-retiring to work in television.
From her co-starring role with Joe E. Brown in the Damon Runyon adaptation A Very Honorable Guy to her last appearances in Flamingo Road (with Joan Crawford) and The Ann Sothern Show, 1929's Princess Of Pep made the most of whatever opportunities she got, invariably demonstrating chutzpah, genuine likability and charm - whether a headliner, featured player or merely making a cameo.
Now don't get the blogmeister wrong here - by all means, quite a few positively dreadful attempts at this kind of movie were produced in 1928-1930. Some are amazingly bad. The movie musical that practically sunk the genre for Warner Brothers, at least until 42nd Street brought it back in a big way in 1932, was one of the all-time stinkers, Golden Dawn.
Golden Dawn was adapted from a popular 1927 stage hit, but still provides the answer to the question, "what if Edward D. Wood, Jr. had a budget for an A-picture, made a pro-colonialist musical set in Africa AND starred Noah Beery in blackface?
Could the great stage and screen comedian/acrobat Lupino Lane, straight from his winning supporting parts in The Love Parade and Bride Of The Regiment, save the reeking celluloid disaster? No.
Could spirited "comic relief" sequences delivered with gusto by Lane and his fellow silent movie comics Marion "Peanuts" Byron and Lee Moran save this 60 pound "Butterball" of a golden turkey? Nope - not even with the moviegoing audiences of 1930.
Concurrent with all of the above in 1929-1930 were a spate of "revue" pictures, which trotted pretty much everyone under contract to a given studio to sing, dance, crack jokes, recite Shakespeare or participate in skits. Every studio made 'em, with varying results - and they will be the topic of Part 2 in this series.
Acknowledgements: YouTube poster who goes by the name of Miss Vitaphone, who has been diligently posting numerous way-out numbers from the musicals of 1928-1930 on her YouTube channel. THANK YOU, MISS VITAPHONE, whoever you are!
And thanks to Ron Hutchinson and the superb historians of The Vitaphone Project for their hard work in making the historic Vitaphone Varieties available for viewing after 80+ years.