Movies Till Dawn: All Singing, All Dancing

Dancing Lady” (1932, Warner Archives Collection) If you’ve been watching FX’s wonderful and addictive “Feud: Bette and Joan,” you’ve heard Jessica Lange’s Joan Crawford gripe about clawing her way back to the top after being declared box office poison in 1938. “Dancing Lady” is the sort of picture she made prior to that career-crushing decree. Robert Z. Leonard’s film hits all the stage door musical plot points as chorus girl Joan hoofs her way to stardom in producer Clark Gable’s latest Broadway production. Franchot Tone (who married Joan three years later) is the swell that puts a wrinkle in her plan by supporting her shot at fame and then dashing it by trying to marry her. Nothing you haven’t seen in dozens of other showbiz pictures, though Leonard’s direction is appropriately breezy, and well abetted by photography by Oliver T. Marsh, who shot a dozen or so of Miss Crawford’s pictures during the period. The real reason to watch is the supporting cast, which manages to shoehorn in everyone from Fred Astaire (as himself) who proves a remarkable good sport by dancing with Joan in a number which involves a flying carpet ride to Bavaria (with visual effects by Slavko Vorkapich), to Nelson Eddy (singing Rodgers and Hart’s “That’s the Rhythm of the Day”), May Robson (Joan’s nana), Robert Benchley (who contributed to the script), Sterling Holloway and grumpy Ted Healey with Stooges Moe, Larry and Curly (credited as Jerry). Eve Arden also turns up for a few seconds to fail a dance audition. The WAC disc includes the 1933 Healy/Stooges short “Plane Nuts,” which intersperses filmed versions of their stage act with musical numbers from the 1931 musical “Flying High,” and “Roast Beef and Movies” (1934), a two-color Technicolor short from MGM, which attempted to build a Stooges-style comedy trio out of Curly, who handles the straight man/Larry role, with George Givot (ersatz Moe) and vaudeville comic Bobby Callahan (faux Curly). It doesn’t work, but as a rare glimpse of Curly outside of his Stooge persona, it merits a viewing.

Sing, You Sinners” (1938, Universal Vault Series) Eccentric vehicle for Bing Crosby positions the crooner as a chronic gambler and terminal layout whose lack of moral fiber is a source of consternation for his nice guy brothers (Fred MacMurray and 12-year-old Donald O’Connor) and long-suffering mom (Elizabeth Patterson). The family’s ability to enable Bing’s behavior is put to the test by a scheme involves the trade of a swap shop for a race horse, which nearly bankrupts the family and forces Fred to postpone his wedding to best gal Ellen Drew. Mom saves the day by reviving the boys’ singing act, but Bing manages to screw that up, too, which results in O’Connor getting thumped by gangsters. What sounds like an extremely dark, possibly Slavic melodrama is actually a lighthearted musical comedy from director Wesley Ruggles, whose deft touch on films like “I’m No Angel” (1931) and his previous effort with Crosby, “College Humor” (1933), does much to make Crosby’s behavior palatable. There’s a happy ending orchestrated by Mom, and a solid supporting cast – in addition to MacMurray (who gets to play clarinet, just as he did during his pre-fame, big band days) and O’Connor, there’s Ellen Drew, who, despite being engaged to Fred, has to weather Bing making a pass at her – as well as a brace of solid tunes, including the chart-topping “I’ve Got a Pocketful of Dreams” and “Small Fry,” a Hoagy Carmichael-Frank Loesser-penned duet for Bing and O’Connor that’s long in the adorable department. The “LA Plays Itself”-minded will also appreciate Depression Era-glimpses of the Santa Anita racetrack and Pomona Fairgrounds, where Bing’s real horses can be seen running the course.

The Boy Friend” (1971, Warner Archives Collection) With so much praise heaped upon the meta-musical moments in “La La Land,” it seems like an excellent time to revisit a picture that Got There First: “The Boy Friend,” a rarely seen tribute-spoof-meditation on movie musicals from Ken Russell (“The Devils,” “Tommy”). The source material – Sandy Wilson’s 1953 musical, which marked Julie Andrews’ American stage debut – is essentially the launching point for the film version, which kicks off with a theatrical troupe laboring to perform the show for a half-empty British seaside musical hall while personal dramas rage unchecked backstage. Hope springs anew when a Hollywood producer (Vladek Sheybal) arrives to see the show, but there’s another twist: the star (Glenda Jackson in an extended cameo) breaks her leg, which prompts assistant stage manager Polly (’60s UK super model Twiggy) to take her place. This classic trope spins the production, and the picture itself, into multiple realities: the production itself, struggling to rise above its dreary situation, the frothy romance of the show, and the elaborate individual fantasies of the troupe members, who escape their own personal issues by imagining themselves as the characters in a string of astonishing daydream set pieces: a gramophone which blooms into a colossal spinning dance floor, a phalanx of wing walkers on a biplane in mid-flight, and a host of Busby Berkeley-style numbers in a dizzying array of geometrical formations. Many of these take their cues from classic Hollywood musicals, but you don’t have to be a scholar to appreciate them, and they certainly hold the attention and eye when the planes of reality shift one time too many. It’s indulgent, to be sure, but as audacious as any of Russell’s more notorious features and never dull; the cast, led by a remarkably game Twiggy (who won a Golden Globe for her turn) and featuring dancer/choreographer Tommy Tune (who gets a frenetic Charleston number) and the legendary Irish stage actor Max Adrian (who appeared in several of Russell’s features and TV productions). WAC’s Blu-ray retains the original 138-minute running time, including an intermission and entr’acte and presents the film in a sparkling 2K transfer that improves over an earlier DVD release; a promotional short featuring Russell and Twiggy behind the scenes is also included.

Thank God It’s Friday” (1978, Sony Pictures) Call it “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night: The Hanna-Barbera Edition” – this disco-themed comedy, produced in part by Casablanca Records chief Neil Bogart to promote his label roster, follows a broadly drawn cross-section of Los Angeles night people as they storm a dance club called The Zoo in hopes of seeing and being seen by the right people. Most of the intertwining storylines wouldn’t pass muster on “Love American Style” – blind date match-up Gus and Shirley, goofball husband Dave, who falls into the clutches of blitzed dental hygienist Jeannie – but Debra Winger and Terri Nunn (later in Berlin) have the right mix of teenage savvy and stupid as the savvy halves of two separate girl duos, and Chick Vennera deserves some kind of on-screen bravery award for his commitment to berserk leatherman Marv. Jeff Goldblum is in there, and if you’re of a certain age, you’ll recognize the late Ray Vitte as DJ Bobby Speed and DeWayne Jessie (the once and future Otis Day) and the Commodores (with Lionel Richie) and remember that Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” (written by Paul Jabara, who plays schlubby Carl), won an Oscar for Best Original Song. You might even know that The Zoo is actually Osko’s on La Cienega (owner Osko Karaghossian can be glimpsed as a bouncer). None of that is necessary for your enjoyment of the film, which retains a degree of silly fizz that other disco pics from the period either missed or have lost.

And while we’re at it: Warner Archives Collection has issued the third volume of its “Vitaphone Varieties” series, which compiles musical and comedy shorts made with the sound-on-disc Vitaphone system by Warner Bros. and First National between 1928 and 1929. Among the high points is a 1929 short featuring Horace Heidt and His Californians (with uncredited assistance from Lobo the Police Dog), who rip through a quartet of hot jazz tunes while also indulging in synchronized dance moves; Horace, who later lent his name to a sprawling, Hawaiian-themed apartment community in Sherman Oaks, is a beefy but nimble presence, gamely hoofing with his band members and participating in a trick performance featuring four players back to back in a circle while playing on two pianos. There’s also the Croonaders harmonizing on “From Monday On,” a track co-written by Bing Crosby, and a few highbrow touches from Kjerulf’s Mayfair Quinette (five women playing three harps and a violin with vocal accompaniment) and opera singer Carolina Segera, “The Cuban Nightingale.” It’s more likely, however, that the shorts that will make the biggest impression (and in one case, quite literally so) are oddities like The Big Paraders, a sextet of oversized players pounding through “Doin’ the Raccoon” or the musical comedy duo Edison and Gregory, “The Two College Nuts,” who duet at various time on bassoon, saw, car tire and umbrella. 

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and The Fix, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for Amazon.com from 1998 to 2014. He has interviewed countless entertainment figures from both the A and Z lists, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury and George Newall, who created both Schoolhouse Rock and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson, and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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