Friday, October 17, 2014

All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing! All WTF! Part 3 by Paul F. Etcheverry

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 the following 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.

Here, Mr. Woolsey does a bit of terpsichorean tripping the lights fantastic - invariably with good humor.

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.

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