We watch classic musicals sometimes. I never thought a 1930’s backstage drama starring James Cagney as an obsessed showman, costarring with the entire Gold Diggers of 1933 cast, would turn out to be the elusive Perfect Film, but there ya go.
Tag: Dick Powell
After all his latest musical theater projects have fallen apart due to shaky financing during the Great Depression, fast-talkin’ producer Ned Sparks (in Imitation of Life the following year) has an idea for a sure-fire hit, a musical about “the forgotten man,” the unemployable Depression masses, a dour march through the grim realities of today. When we finally see the play, bankrolled by the secret millionaire/composer down the hall, it looks suspiciously unlike what we were imagining, full of naughty love songs and massive Busby Berkeley numbers in glittering costumes. This isn’t a plot twist or ironic commentary on artistic intentions vs. end results once money gets involved – it’s just an inconsistent movie.
The movie opens with Ginger Rogers, but she turns out to be just a friend of the main characters Polly, Carol and Trixie. Polly is Ruby Keeler (Mrs. Al Jolson, just off 42nd Street), a round-faced innocent cutie. Carol is Joan Blondell (later Mrs. Dick Powell, a successful actress through the seventies), the scheming beauty. And Trixie is Aline MacMahon (mostly a stage actress), the smartass. Polly falls for Dick Powell (star of Christmas In July and Susan Slept Here), the millionaire/composer, and the show is cast and everything is gonna be fine.
Conflict! Powell’s millionaire family finds out about his distasteful dabblings in showbusiness and brother Warren William (Caesar to Colbert’s Cleopatra) comes to town with lawyer Guy Kibbee (noble newspaperman in Power of the Press) to stop all this nonsense and threaten to cut off his fortune. But due to a fake gold-digger plot by Polly’s roommates, William and Kibbee end up falling in love with them, triple-wedding is planned and the show goes on, with a last-minute “forgotten man” musical number to remind us of an earlier point.
LeRoy directed the year after I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, and musical scene director Busby Berkeley was on a roll after 42nd Street, and would helm the 1935 sequel himself. Also appearing: Sterling Holloway (Remember the Night) as a messenger boy, Eric Blore (The Lady Eve) as a stuffy rich guy, and Billy Barty (a little guy known for playing babies and hobbits and creatures) as a leering, naughty kid during a big dance scene. Songs include “We’re in the Money” (not exactly in keeping with the Depression theme), the catchy “Pettin’ in the Park,” and a waltz featuring a dance of neon violins, and of course the musical numbers and fun performances are the entire point of the movie, not any of the crap I’ve written above.
Wonderful adaptation, filled with Cocteau-like movie-magic. Introduced at Emory by Rushdie, who calls it “The Dream” for short, and isn’t a huge fan of James Cagney’s performance.
Katy and I already watched the McNutty version from 60-some years later, so I’m familiar with the story. Dark-haired Olivia de Havilland (her film debut, later in Gone With The Wind) is coveted by both Dick Powell (star of Christmas in July and The Tall Target) and Ross Alexander (short career: suicide), while blonde Jean Muir (star of The White Cockatoo) covets Ross. The lovers (particularly Olivia) give it their all, making their segments more welcome than Cagney’s. I noted that Kevin Kline brought “a touch of sadness to his mostly ridiculous comic-relief role,” but Cagney instead brings an entire can of ham. When he’s not wearing a donkey mask, Cagney works with slate-faced Joe Brown (the guy in love with Jack Lemmon at the end of Some Like It Hot) on their play to be performed for The Duke (Ian Hunter of Hitchcock’s The Ring) and his Amazon conquest/bride (Verree Teasdale of The Milky Way).
Interference comes from fairy queen Anita Louise (of Judge Priest, bringing less personality than Michelle Pfeiffer did) and sparkly-costumed elf king Victor Jory (Power of the Press) with his loyal minion, a cackling pre-Andy Hardy Mickey Rooney. The Queen has mini-minions Moth and Pease-Blossom (both sadly unaccounted-for), Cobweb (appeared in a pile of 1950’s westerns, costarring with Gregory Peck in The Gunfighter) and Mustard Seed (Billy Barty, had already been in fifty movies as Mickey Rooney’s brother, would live to appear in such acclaimed 1980’s dwarf-filled fantasy films as Legend, Willow, Masters of the Universe and UHF).
Lost best picture to Mutiny on the Bounty, but cinematographer Hal Mohr was history’s only write-in oscar winner. He later shot Underworld USA, Rancho Notorious and a Tashlin feature. Banned in Germany for being based on the Jew-music of Mendelssohn. Reinhardt had staged the play ten or more times, left nazi germany and staged Midsummer in Hollywood, then hired to make the film alongside cinema vet Dieterle (The Devil & Daniel Webster).
I don’t know much about Anthony Mann, but this and The Furies both kicked some ass. Thought it’d be a Western, since I never look up even the most basic information about movies I’m about to watch, but it’s a high-quality period piece set on a train (I love movies set on trains) about a frustrated New York cop (technically ex-cop; he turns in his badge at the start of the film) trying to uncover an assassination plot on Abraham Lincoln on his way through Baltimore to inauguration on the eve of civil war.
Dick Powell (star of Susan Slept Here, Christmas In July) is “John Kennedy” (unwittingly aiding future nerds with their Lincoln/JFK parallel theories), the ex-cop, whose intended contact on the train is murdered off-screen. So Powell hooks up with sideburned Colonel Jeffers (Adolphe Menjou, noted commie-hater who named names in 1947) to solve the mystery of his dead friend and his hunch about an assassination attempt. I lost track of the colonel for a while though, soon found out that it’s unwise to track actors in this movie by their sideburns, kinda like trying to remember someone in a 1930’s movie as the guy with the hat.
Kennedy isn’t the best cop, allows an interloper (Leif Erickson) to make off with his coat and gun. This guy also has Kennedy’s ticket, and grinningly claims to be Kennedy when the ticket-taker comes around. At the next stop, Kennedy fights the man for his identity, and the colonel, seeing a struggle, shoots at them, happening to kill the faker. This was really my only problem with the movie, dude just firing wildly in the darkness when he didn’t seem to have a clear shot or any understanding of the situation, irresponsible – until it’s revealed that the colonel is the main anti-Lincoln conspirator and that this was a clue to his identity. Because the colonel wouldn’t mind shooting Erickson, who could identify him, or Kennedy, who aims to stop him.
Kennedy’s main suspect is outspoken pro-slavery Georgian and sniper-rifle bearer Lance (Fiend Without a Face lead Marshall Thompson), travelling with his loyal sister Jenny (Paula Raymond of Crisis) and their slave maid Rachel (Ruby Dee! of Do The Right Thing!). But Kennedy suspects the colonel enough to leave his pistol loaded with powder but no bullet, so when the colonel shoots Kennedy while he naps, he is unharmed – the second harmless pistol head-shot I’ve seen in a movie this month. But at a stop in Philly Kennedy finds himself on the run instead of boldly turning in his evidence, an arrest warrant out for his “impersonating an officer.”
Back on board, Ruby Dee tells him that Lance has been lying about his intentions. Jenny the sister helps, then interferes, then helps. The colonel gets off in Baltimore but sends word to Lance that the future president is on the train. Kennedy awakes, fight ensues, Lance is knocked off the train, and Kennedy gets covertly thanked by the president’s people, as Lincoln looks out at the under-construction Capitol building. A fine-looking and tightly-plotted movie.