Merry Metro Musicals

For a quarter of a century the original screen musical (as distinct from Broadway adaptations) was one of the major genres of popular film entertainment, an era that began in 1928 with The Jazz Singer and climaxing with Singing in the Rain, The Band Wagon and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Many early musical revues were little more than shots of the theatre procenium from fixed camera positions and lacked the physical presence of live theatre. It was innovating directors like Mamoulian, Berkeley and Minnelli and imaginative producers like Arthur Freed who developed the techniques that created the distinct film musical genre that reached its creative peak in the 1950s.

In March 1955 a 45 rpm disc ‘Rock Around the Clock’, a breezy rhythm and blues number with an insistent back beat that had been around for almost a year but had not as yet caught on, was used in the soundtrack of Blackboard Jungle. It became an almost instant catalyst for a major revolution in popular music. Within a year opportunistic producers were turning out simple but highly profitable black and white rock’n’roll musicals with formula plots featuring singers and small groups miming their hit of the previous month, made cheap and fast as only Columbia knew how. The old style movie musical was doomed. Today’s program features two enjoyable features from that classic quarter century of the musical film.

 

Good News

Good News was the second screen version of the phenomenally successful (557 performances) 1927-1929 Broadway production. The cast of the first film version made by MGM in 1930 included Bessie Love, Lola Lane, Penny Singleton and Delmer Daves. It was scheduled to be remade in 1939 with Micky and Judy but L.B.Mayor wanted to keep his favourite co-stars in the popular swing era and not push them back into the 1920s so the project remained on the shelf for a few more years.

As the remake turned out there is not too much 1920s nostalgia in costumes or orchestrations although the plot is vintage college musical with most of the genre’s traditional clichés. Football hero Tommy (Lawford) will not be allowed to play in Tait University’s big Saturday game unless his French grades improve. To save the disastrous situation, librarian Connie (Allyson) who’s working her way through college is asked to coach him. She is attracted to him but he is in thrall to fortune hunter Pat (Marshall), who thinks he’s a millionaire. Their French lesson is in the form of cute song whipped up by writers Comden and Green with the Freed unit’s man of all jobs Roger Edens (one of the few occasions in a college musical when actual tuition takes place, albeit at first form level). The comic irony of the scene is that Allyson couldn’t speak French while Lawford was fluent in four languages so the real coaching took place off set.

good news 2Meanwhile the second female lead, the ebullient Babe (McCracken) has her heart set on weak-kneed Bobby (Ray McDonald) who is trying to avoid both her and her other boy friend, the heavily threatening footballer Beef (Tindall). This was the talented McCracken first film role although had danced major roles in successful Broadway shows (Oklahoma, Me and Juliet) and acted in straight plays (The Big Knife, The Infernal Machine). Near the end of her eight year marriage to dancer/choreographer/director Bob Fosse she was diagnosed with a heart murmur and died in 1961 after a long illness.

The 22 year old singing sensation of the day, Mel (the Velvet Fog) Tormé, is an added attraction in this lighthearted entertainment, the first directorial job for former dance director Charles Walters which might explain the intensity of the ensemble dance sequences, particularly the rousing ‘Varsity Drag’ finale.

— Introduction to the film at the session ‘Merry Metro Musicals’, WEA Film Study Group, Sydney, Australia, 12 December 2012

 

USA | 1947 | 93 minutes | Technicolor
Directed by Charles Walters

MGM. Producer, Arthur Freed; associate producer, Roger Edens; screenplay, Betty Comden and Adolph Green based on the ‘book’ of the 1927 stage musical ‘Good News’ by B. G. DeSylva and Lawrence Schwab; cinematography, Charles Schoenbaum; film editing, Albert Akst; Robert Alton, dance director; music, Ray Henderson; lyrics, B. G. DeSylva, Lew Brown; music director, Lennie Hayton; vocal arranger, Kay Thompson; original music, Conrad Salinger; additional music, Roger Edens.

June Allyson (Connie), Peter Lawford (Tommy), Patricia Marshall (Pat), Joan McCracken (Babe), Ray McDonald (Bobby), Mel Tormé (Danny), Robert E Strickland (Peter Van Dyne III), Donald MacBride (Coach Johnson), Tom Dugan (Pooch, the trainer), Clinton Sundberg (Professor Kennyon), Loren Tindall (Beef), Connie Gilchrist (Cora, the cook) and (uncredited) King Baggot (man at coat check counter), Matt Mattox (dancer).

 

Three Little Words

The enhanced reality of singers and actors breaking into ensemble song and dance, everyone knowing the words and steps, has been around since before grand opera but has had little appeal to the percentage of an audience literally minded and unmusical audiences that wanted a ‘good story’. One solution was the music biopic where no excuses were needed to drop in one of the composer’s works every ten minutes or so into a largely fanciful story of a struggle for musical fame. Selected incidents in the lives of Rodgers and Hart, Gershwin, Kern, Porter, Romberg and others were given flattering kid glove treatment. After the more familiar names had been done, producers started considering the less familiar tunesmiths like De Sylva/Brown/Henderson and Kalmar and Ruby.

3wordsposter2According to Three Little Words, Fred Kalmar and Harry Ruby lived interesting but pretty uneventful lives. Kalmar was a dancing vaudevillian, an occasional songwriter and would-be stage musician, whose dancing career was cut short by a knee accident. He teamed up with an easy-going song-plugger and composer Harry Ruby, a baseball tragic, who needed a lyricist. They both married attractive uncomplicated wives, they quarrelled but they reconciled before the final curtain. That’s about it. But a lot of pleasant songs are expertly presented in different styles along their merry way between 1920 and 1935.

Sometimes chronology loses out to creative dramatic licence. Example: Helen Kane was not discovered as a teenager when spontaneously adding ‘Boop-boop-a-doop’ to a Kalmar and Ruby song on a street corner. She first improvised the immortal phrase in 1928 on stage as a seasoned review performer during another composer’s song and not until the following year that she coyly dropped it into the Kalmar/Ruby ‘I Wanna be Loved by You’ . Animator Max Fleischer combined Helen Kane and Clara Bow into his saucy Betty Boop character whose cartoons became a favourite with audiences in the pre Production Code 1930s. The song became a hit again for Marylin Munroe in Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot.

A major omission from Three Little Words is the importance of Kalmar and Ruby’s work in the Marx Brothers’ Paramount films. They wrote the songs for both the stage and film version of Animal Crackers (1930), co-wrote Horse Feathers (1932) and wrote both songs and screenplay for the Marx’s satirical political masterpiece Duck Soup (1933) but apart from a few bars of ‘Captain Spaulding’ and a brief foyer scene at the Animal Crackers premiere with what looks like MGM artwork on the wall, the Marx connection seems to be expendable. Copyright problems or inter-studio jealousy?

The old traditional tuneful film musical and its enthusiastic audiences are no more. The advertising for the recent Sweeny Todd avoided any mention that it was a major musical.

— Introduction to the film at the session ‘Merry Metro Musicals’, WEA Film Study Group, Sydney, Australia, 12 December 2012

 

USA | 1950 | 102 minutes
Directed by Richard Thorpe

MGM. Producer, Jack Cummings; screenplay George Wells; cinematography, Harry Jackson; film editing, Ben Lewis; choreography, Fred Astaire, Hermes Pan; music, Bert Kalmar; lyrics, Harry Ruby; music director and original music, André Previn.

Fred Astaire (Burt Kalmar), Red Skelton (Harry Ruby), Vera-Ellen (Jessie Brown/Ruby, Arlene Dahl (Eileen Percy/ Ruby), Keenan Wynne (Charlie Kope), Gale Robbins (Terry Lordel), Gloria DeHaven (Mrs Carter DeHaven), Phil Regan (himself), Harry Shannon (Clanahan), Debbie Reynolds (Helen Kane), Paul Harvey (Al Masters), Carleton Carpenter (Dan Healy) and (uncredited) Harry Barris (pianist at party), Harry Ruby (baseball player who catches ball thrown by Red Skelton), Helen Kane (singing voice of Debbie Reynolds), Anita Ellis (singing voice of Vera-Ellen).

 

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