Saturday, November 15, 2014

All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing! All WTF! Part 6 by Paul F. Etcheverry

"Bring along your girl. Go home with someone else's. What about your girl? She's gonna do all right." Frances Williams, Hollywood Party, 1934

"The way I like it is the way it is. You got yours - HAH! - don't worry 'bout his." James Brown, Sex Machine, 1969

Back to the wonderful world of movie musicals, not quite chronologically, we continue the story across the world in Gay Parree. In said mecca for visual artistes and jazz musicians, Josephine Baker got her two cents in about just how to headline a movie musical with panache AND star in spectacular Busby Berkeley style production numbers.

Unlike her American counterparts, from Alice White to Babs Stanwyck to Mae West to Dorothy McKaill to Ruth Chatterton to the Marx Brothers, Wheeler & Woolsey and Betty Boop, the St. Louis born entertainer, now the toast of the town in Paris, did not have to deal with the severe constraints of vigorous Production Code enforcement in the U.S.A. And to that, at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog, we, like the intrepid protagonists in the Tex Avery MGM cartoon Flea Circus, say Viva La France!

We are lucky Ms. Baker made these two films, preserving her beautiful singing voice and charisma as a young performer for future generations.

Nothing says surrealism quite like a musical number straight from the subconscious of Busby Berkeley. While André Breton and Salvador Dali, no doubt, seldom agreed on anything, both would have been okay with accepting the signature Busby Berkeley camera track through the spread legs of jaunty showgirls as a dadaist/surrealist manifesto, on the strict proviso that the chorines hailed from Paris.

After dreaming up amazing numbers for Sam Goldwyn's series of Eddie Cantor comedies, Berkeley hit "paydirt" at Warner Brothers with from the iconic 42nd Street and Gold Diggers Of 1933.

Footlight Parade starred, with musical mainstays Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler, as well as the still beloved Joan Blondell, none less than the alpha male of the Warner Brothers lot, Jimmy Cagney - a tough guy who could dance.

By the time the Hays Office, yes, that merry band spoken of today as Joseph A. Breen & The Bluenoses, were on their way to police the movies with extreme prejudice, Mr. Berkeley had to answer the question "what do you do for an encore?" as well as "how do you top the randy Warner Brothers comedy hit Convention City (not a musical per se, but jam-packed with the usual suspects)?"

Here's the Busby response: a wild "50,000 showgirls and counting" production number and "screw the Code - and you too, Mr. Breen" manifesto, just one production number from Dames, which hit the movie palaces on September 1, 1934. Beats the living daylights out of 76 Trombones.

Also from Dames, the I Only Have Eyes For You number manages to be imaginative, bizarre, a tad creepy, beautiful and oddly sweet and poignant in the same fell swoop. Besides, it's difficult for any card-carrying classic movie buff NOT to love Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell (here in his pre-Philip Marlowe and Johnny O'Clock crooner phase).

There were many more films featuring Mr. Berkeley's unique handiwork, including Fashions Of 1934, the dark, disturbing, brilliant and weirdly militaristic Lullaby Of Broadway number from Gold Diggers Of 1935, and such both over-the-top and over-the-edge (but fascinating) misfires as the Al Jolson vehicle Wonder Bar (from the Leonard Maltin review, "very strange, often tasteless musical drama set in Paris").

Seeing some of the stranger moments from Wonder Bar (we shall spare you the Goin' To Heaven On A Mule segment, arguably the most grotesque musical interlude in motion picture history, featuring racial stereotypes utterly dumbfounding even by 1934 standards), one realizes it isn't an accident that the YouTube channel devoted to the choreographer/director/mad scientist is titled Unhinged! A Busby Berkeley Collection.

While Paramount Pictures made numerous contributions to the musicals of 1929-1934, the most "paramount" ones were the continental and sophisticated Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette McDonald features, several directed by none other than Ernst Lubitsch.

Monsieur Blogmeister must grudgingly admit to having a profound soft spot in his heart for the team's third Paramount vehicle, Love Me Tonight, directed brilliantly by Rouben Mamoulian.

The opening of this film presents the sounds of everyday life, circa 1932, as a musical number featuring no singing and dancing. . . a gorgeous piece of filmmaking, as well a living snapshot of a bygone era.

Then there's the Isn't It Romantic number, which also employs these cinematic techniques.

No doubt when diva McDonald moved on to MGM to co-star with Nelson Eddy, as enjoyable as those movies (Rose Marie especially) are, they meant the end of the misbehavin' pre-Code era.

MGM's Dancing Lady starred someone who wanted to be as epic a star as Josephine Baker. Well, she did not hit the international stages as Baker did but was a movie star for the better part of five decades - headliner of numerous MGM and Warner Bros. vehicles - and, above all, survivor - Joan Crawford.

The following clips were from Dancing Lady, MGM's effort to have a movie musical hit as boffo as 42nd Street. While Diva Crawford isn't Eleanor Powell, Vera-Ellen or Ginger Rogers, she gives it her all and, by golly, her partner is Fred Astaire, always fun to watch and there to give the moviegoing audience maximum entertainment value.

RKO Radio Pictures continued its series of musicals starring the hard-working comedy team of Bert Wheeler & Robert Woolsey, often supported by the spunky and charming Dorothy Lee. While The Marx Brothers may have been the funniest and most anarchic of the comedy teams in 1928-1934, otherwise, Bert Wheeler & Woolsey practically had the wacky musical comedy genre all to themselves.

The following number is one of the saner musical moments from their 1933 "no gag too wild, no bit too tasteless, no opportunity for nose-thumbing left behind" opus Diplomaniacs.

On loan to Columbia in 1932, the team made their most pre-code of all pre-codes, So This Is Africa, a film considered so scandalous that the original cut of the risque romp was edited severely to make it acceptable for theatrical release.

A significantly pruned-down version of the film would eventually be released on April 22, 1933.

A complete print of the original cut of So This Is Africa, unfortunately, does not exist.

In the comedy team's very funny 1934 film, Hips Hips Hooray, co-starring Thelma Todd and Dorothy Lee, a famous choreographer assisted, uncredited, with the wonderfully goofy dance numbers: Hermes Pan, between gigs - he would stage and design the dance numbers for ALL NINE of RKO's Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals.

Another W&W romp, Cockeyed Cavaliers, was released theatrically on June 29, 1934, TWO DAYS before enforcement of the Production Code took effect. Hence, the lines about "dallying" and the usual Bert n' Bob risque repartee. Thelma Todd is so funny in Hips Hips Hooray and Cockeyed Cavaliers, taking advantage of a chance to demonstrate her comedienne mojo in a feature film - it's a shame her tragic and most untimely death in 1935 put an end to this felicitous onscreen relationship. Thelma is at her very best in films with W&W and Hal Roach Studios director-writer-comedian Charley Chase.

Back to Hermes Pan and a choreography throw down to Mr. Berkeley, RKO Radio Pictures followed the successful musical comedies starring Wheeler & Woolsey with an epic Busby style all talking, all singing, all dancing, all WTF extravaganza, Flying Down To Rio, no doubt given the go-ahead by producer Pandro S. Berman as the studio's direct competition to the smash hit 42nd Street.

The ersatz stars were Dolores Del Rio and Gene Raymond, but Flying Down To Rio was stolen, with the skill of a Willie Sutton robbery, from the headliners by - well, the rest is history - the elegant, facile, yet fancy high stepping by a new terpsichorean team, Broadway's Fred Astaire and the perky musical comedy gal who sang We're In The Money in pig Latin in Gold Diggers Of 1933, chorus girl turned dancer and versatile movie actress Ginger Rogers.

Mr. Blogmeister's favorite part of the film, besides the very creative filmmaking techniques of director Mark Sandrich throughout - without question, would be the showgirls standing on the wing of the flying airplane, then gyrating, doing dance moves before losing their skimpy outfits. This worthy bit of cinema history starts at 2:00.

And THAT bit of WTF wonderment leads, sad but true, to the end of this post and series: a respectful tip of Mr. Astaire's top hat to the star of George White's Scandals, ultra-wry chanteuse Frances Williams.

No, we're not talking the actress and activist by the same name, but the Broadway headliner from the 1920's through the 1940's, in possession of electric stage presence and a wit so dry as to compel Cole Porter to quaff three more shots of extra dry gin. Among other stage and vaudeville triumphs, Frances was the featured vocalist - delivering her trademark risqué songs between the wacky onstage antics of the Marx Brothers - in the Broadway run of The Cocoanuts.

None other than Frances Williams introduced the standard As Time Goes By - YES, THAT STANDARD, the one performed so beautifully by Dooley Wilson at Rick's Cafe American in Casablanca.

Frances' specialty: songs ("Let's Don't And Say We Did") that featured more double-entendres than Groucho Marx AND Bob Woolsey combined. Yep, this was one grande dame, like Lyda Roberti's "Hatta Mari" in MILLION DOLLAR LEGS, who only could have strutted her stuff in pre-Code movies.

Ms. Williams didn't appear in many films, but her few appearances, like those of Broadway star Zelma O' Neal, prove striking and memorable. These include a 1927 Vitaphone Varieties series, a film that at this writing does not exist, Broadway's Queen Of Jazz, as well as a few Paramount short subjects (including Deep "C' Melodies, On The High C's, both also featuring The Yacht Club Boys, and Let's Stay Single), shot in 1929 and 1930. A quote from her bio on All adds "none of which capture her reportedly startling stage presence".

She also made a series of recordings in 1931-1937 and would be, along with Lyda Roberti and Gertrude Lawrence, among those to perform and record music by George and Ira Gershwin.

Here's Frances, introduced and followed with extra relish by Roaring 20's legend and raconteur Texas Guinan, in the 20th Century Fox film Broadway Through A Keyhole, directed by Lowell Sherman (that guy who helmed the first Mae West starring feature, among other exploits).

This last clip is from MGM's Hollywood Party, released on June 1, 1934. It's the title number from what is a return to, and, along with the very odd, head-scratching yet entertaining Stand Up And Cheer (a.k.a. Fox Follies, mostly known as Shirley Temple's debut in feature films), the revue musical format and delivered, as always with elegance and personality, by Frances Williams.

After this, Ms. Williams made one more appearance in the rare Mentone Brevity short subject Shoes With Rhythm, returned to her métier, Broadway (Three After Three, Du Barry Was A Lady, Bright Lights Of 1944) and made a few television appearances in the early 1950's.

Alas, pretty much everything seen here, except for the Astaire-Rogers dance numbers, would be stopped with Monty Python's Flying Circus 16 TON WEIGHT on July 1, 1934, when the Production Code would be enforced, with teeth. Seeing what subsequently happened begs the question, were people in the U.S.A. outside the major metropolitan areas so dumb that they did not find the concept of Nick and Nora Charles (as Rob and Laura Petrie would on TV 30 years later) sleeping in separate beds wrong, TERRIBLY wrong? They COULDN'T HAVE BEEN. . . The mind boggles.

With that, we finish up this series, as that inimitable 1928-1934 style WTF factor, outside of such wonderful individual scenes as the inventive title number from Top Hat (bravo Mr. Sandrich and Mr. Astaire) and Busby Berkeley's return to signature way-out form, The Girl With The Tutti Frutti Hat starring Carmen Miranda, pretty much vanished from movies by 1935. The many talents of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland notwithstanding, somehow the thought of a wholesome musical directed by Busby Berkeley is something we at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog can never quite wrap our brains around.

There will be a followup piece about jazz films, in which, thanks to the musical genius of Duke Ellington and the filmmaking acumen of Fred Waller (A.K.A. the fellow who later developed Cinerama), undimmed imagination stayed intact and red-hot music made it into films. . . even well after Betty Boop's dress was lengthened to assuage the bluenoses.

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