Tuesday, November 04, 2014

All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing! All WTF! Part 5 by Paul F. Etcheverry

First and foremost, this series continues with a nod to the grand poobah of All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing! All WTF! - director, choreographer and mad scientist Busby Berkeley.

After Whoopee was a huge hit, Goldwyn's musical comedy series pairing comic Eddie Cantor with Berkeley's production numbers continued with Palmy Days. This spectacular also features Charlotte Greenwood, one of the great original presences in motion pictures.

Charlotte would lift the bandstand at Fox in the 1940's with her formidable comedic and terpsichorean skills.

Here's a quick intro to Ms. Greenwood, star of the Broadway show So Long Letty in 1920: a rubber-legged signature dance that gives Joe E. Brown and Leon Errol a run for their money in the Vitaphone musical short The Yacht Party, which would have been included in Part 4 of this series had it been available in its entirety.

Now the idea of a collaboration between Joe E. Brown, who co-starred with comedienne Winnie Lightner (Gold Diggers Of Broadway) in the lost early Technicolor musical Hold Everything with the wonderful Charlotte Greenwood sounds like a can't miss. Didn't happen. Neither did an MGM picture co-starring Charlotte as part of a physical comedy trifecta with Marie Dressler and Buster Keaton. . . sigh.

One could imagine Joe and Charlotte co-starring in a loose-limbed "I'll do anything that you do" production number, perhaps with Ms. Lightner also joining in to up the wackiness quotient.

Alas, such a musical comedy throw down at Warner Brothers in 1929 never happened. At least Ms. Greenwood ultimately received a good measure of enduring fame for her plum character part in Fred Zinnemann's epic 1955 adaptation of Oklahoma!

In 1930, after starring in the Warner Brothers adaptation of her stage success, So Long Letty, Ms. Greenwood signed with MGM. There, she co-starred in the farce Parlor, Bedroom & Bath, which often doesn't quite work, but includes incredibly funny scenes featuring Charlotte and Buster Keaton, as well as Bert Lahr's feature film debut, Flying High.

Added to sprightly tunes by the songwriting team of Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown and Ray Henderson (Big Boy, Good News) from the original 1930 Broadway production of Flying High: hallucinogenic production numbers choreographed by Busby Berkeley.

Getting back to Sam Goldwyn's musicals starring Eddie Cantor, it seems that all spotlight Busby Berkeley's twisted genius as much or more than the bordering-upon-naughty comedy of "Banjo Eyes".

The choreographer-director was responsible for way-out production numbers throughout Palmy Days, which are a prelude to his later wild and inspired breakthroughs at Warner Brothers. The following mixture of peppy calisthenics and pulchritude features none other than the inimitable Charlotte Greenwood herself as taskmaster/gym teacher, leading the customary gazillion gorgeous Goldwyn Girls.

Berkeley's deliriously imaginative ideas soon brought about the next spate of movie musicals at Warner Bros. (42nd Street, Gold Diggers Of 1933, Footlight Parade, Dames and many more).

At Goldwyn, that wild man Busby Berkeley would be all over The Kid From Spain, which co-stars Cantor with the hilarious Polish-American musical comedy gal and Broadway star Lyda Roberti.

In the "bizarreness and babes" department, Mr. Berkeley raised the ante with some rather amazing numbers, between inspired comedy scenes between Roberti and Cantor, in The Kid From Spain.

And then, there was Paramount Pictures. . . and Marlene Dietrich.

Hollywood had seen a flurry of German imports after World War I and through the 1920's. Most famous: arguably the top director at any studio - well, at least since Buster Keaton was no longer directing feature films as of 1930 - Ernst Lubitsch. By far the most internationally famous, celebrated, enduringly iconic and most beautifully parodied by the great comedienne Madeline Kahn? No contest - Marlene Dietrich.

Dietrich had appeared in silents and was slated to accept the role of Lulu in Pandora's Box (by some accounts, Marlene was literally sitting in director Georg Wilhelm Pabst's office and to be signed) until Louise Brooks walked out on her Paramount contract and snagged THAT part! No matter, like Brooksie, Marlene more than earned femme fatale status on and offscreen. As Lola Lola in The Blue Angel gleefully demolished all saps in her way. Having reduced stern, humorless and sexually repressed educator Emil Jannings (hoo-boy, nobody does humiliation quite like Emil) to a pathetic blubbering wreck in The Blue Angel, what, oh what could Marlene and gifted, inventive director Josef von Sternberg do for an encore?

A series of provocative and vividly memorable films - some featuring absolutely wonderful musical numbers - for Paramount Pictures, that's what!

And, to oddly link Ms. Dietrich to an endorsement by Mr. Lahr, whether it was passionate lovers or Lay's Potato Chips, in life or in art, "betcha can't have just one" became the credo. Without question, our favorite Marlene Dietrich vehicle at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog is the WTF classic Blonde Venus.

For this correspondent, a very close second to Blonde Venus would be the The Scarlet Empress.

Mae West would have killed to star in this historical epic from Marlene and von Sternberg, a.k.a. "running a country can be so much FUN."

Her favorite of the Paramount series, and a celluloid gem beloved here as well, was the last, The Devil Is A Woman one of the most unconventional, lyrical and beautifully photographed films ever made by a major Hollywood studio.

Ms. Dietrich, who began her career in silent movies, would have a six decade career as an entertainer, be tops among the most dedicated and tireless USO performers throughout World War II and afterwards make occasional appearances in movies. She chose well: Billy Wilder's classics A Foreign Affair and Witness For The Prosecution and Orson Welles' fever-dream noir A Touch Of Evil.

Returning to the early 1930's at Paramount Pictures, well move over, Marlene, there's a new gunslinging glamour gal in town . . . Mae West!

Paramount's first two starring Mae West vehicles, She Done Him Wrong and I'm No Angel, may well have brought on iron-fisted enforcement of the Production Code and the emergence of uber-bluenose Joseph Breen in 1934 by making SO much money. The films were considered to have singlehandedly brought Paramount Pictures out of bankruptcy.

It was probably just as well that Ms. West very likely didn't knew about the insanely sexy performance of her aforementioned and ultimate show-stopping signature number, "Come Up And See Me Sometime", by Lillian Roth in Paramount's film adaptation of the Broadway smash (song lyrics by B. G. De Sylva, music by Nacio Herb Brown and Richard A. Whiting) that starred Ethel Merman, Take A Chance.

In the following "as pre-Code as it gets" number, the implication is that the carnival medicine show "hoochie-coochie" dancer played by Lillian Roth practically gets buck naked for the dumbstruck yokels - of course, not before ringmaster/racket operator James Dunn personally goes out into the audience and picks their bulging pockets.

A tad more demure than the previous scorching number, but equally memorable, was Ms. Roth's rendition of Eadie Was A Lady, the song originated on Broadway by belter supreme La Merman.

Also delivering a wonderful vocal in this production number (beginning at 5:45) is Vivian Vance, in her screen debut. While remembered as comedienne and sidekick of (former Goldwyn Girl) Lucille Ball, Ms. Vance was also a terrific musician.

Seeing Vivian sing and play piano beautifully in various TV appearances makes one wish there had, just once, been an episode of The Lucy Show that bucked all early 1960's trends (other than Ernie Kovacs) and presented a musical comedy, start to finish.

Not among the more successful of the many adaptations from Broadway shows in 1930-1933, Take A Chance also featured delightful Dorothy Lee from RKO's Wheeler & Woolsey comedies and Buddy Rogers, who had previously co-starred with Nancy Carroll in several Paramount musicals. In a production number that was ultimately cut from the feature and used as a short subject, actor, vocalist and jazz trombonist Buddy Rogers delivers the following topical period piece and sermon, "New Deal Rhythm". Gotta love it when the tap dancing showgirls spell out N R A!

The third grande dame of Paramount Pictures, of course, was the reigning and future queen of the animated screen -"made of pen and ink, she will win you with a wink. Ain't she cute, boop-oop-a-doop - Sweet Betty!"

The animation of Fleischer Studios at that time was profoundly tapped into the 1931 zeitgeist, the atmosphere of New York City and an unfettered imagination.

Such ace animators as Grim Natwick, Shamus Culhane and Berny Wolf had not yet accepted offers from Disney and, along with resident facile Fleischer Studio pen-meisters Willard Bowsky, Roland "Doc" Crandall, Dave Tendlar, Seymour Kneitel and others, populated these cartoons with wonderfully weird sight gags, stunningly WTF moments and unexpectedly beautiful imagery - all much counter to The Disney Way.

With a tip of a top hat worn by both Marlene Deitrich and Charlotte Greenwood (of course, with impeccable style) to everyone mentioned in this post, this series on the inimitable all talking all singing all dancing extravaganzas of 1928-1934 tap dances onward to Part 6: the last gasps of the pre-Code movie musical.

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