Saturday, October 11, 2014

All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing! All WTF! Part 2

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 films, Movietone Follies Of 1929 also attempted to break from the revue format and 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 Only the section featuring the comedy team of Clark & McCullough that was shot for the movie but released instead as a short subject exists. 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", another wacky Winnie Lightner number from The Show Of Shows.

No comments: