Tuesday, September 30, 2014

All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing! All WTF! Part 1

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 Chasing Rainbows, the aforementioned Lord Byron Of Broadway and 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.

The Dodge Sisters, like the Duncan Sisters never lacking in can-do enthusiasm, are also among the cast of thousands in the following "A Girl And A Fan And A Fellow" number from The March Of Time.

More truly odd "all talking - all singing - all dancing" bits from The March Of Time ended up recycled as the "Colortone" series (more showgirls! skimpier outfits! more indescribably bizarre production numbers!) of MGM short subjects

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.

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