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Happiness Ahead (1934)

Dick Powell must have accomplished one of the more remarkable mid-career transformations of any actor from the Golden Age of Hollywood. I still experience a sense of cognitive dissonance whenever I try to think of the boyish, endearing, and dulcet tenor as the wry cynic of hard-boiled noir. He’s convincing in both manifestations, but it’s hard to think of him as the same person.

Happiness Ahead is squarely in the boyish tenor mode of his early years at Warner Bros. The film was released in 1934, around the time the Production Code was more strongly enforced, so there is little to set this film apart as a pre-code film, but it is simple, unpretentious fun.

Joan Bradford (Josephine Hutchinson) is the rich daughter of a wall street tycoon who is bored with her stuffy life and the financial pragmatism of her mother. Her father (John Halliday), however, is sympathetic to her feelings, especially since he worked his way up from newsboy. Her mother wants her to marry an equally rich man, but Joan rebels and goes out on the town to mingle with the masses.

At a Chinese nightclub, she meets Bob Lane (Dick Powell), office manager at a window washing firm and they are instantly attracted to each other. Bob and his party of friends think she’s poor and out of work (the women of the group even offer to help her find a job), so Joan decides to set up an apartment and pretend to be a working class girl like them, fearing knowledge of her wealth would change how they interact with her.

In a way, she’s trying to have the best of both worlds. The camaraderie and unaffected  pleasures of the working classes (roller skating rather than opera and polo) with the wealth to be able to afford to do and live however she chooses (she even rents a piano in her apartment so she can have her new friends over for a party). However, she doesn’t know exactly how to live as a working class girl. She forgets to turn off the lights in her apartment when she leaves (something no person counting their pennies would do) and is nonchalant when one friend breaks the window in her apartment kitchen. In various ways, the film contrasts the way the rich and the poor live, though it seems to want to have it both ways, too. The film ends up like a reverse Cinderella tale for Dick Powell’s Bob.

He works in the office, as well as a window washer (trying to inspire the men, who are being threatened by a rival window washing company – a side-plot that hovers on the periphery of the film). He has a scheme to go into business for himself and he has his sales pitch down pat. And once the misunderstandings that naturally arise when Joan’s deception is discovered are cleared up, you know that his association with her father will bring him unexpected wealth.

The film is a musical, with all the songs sung by Dick Powell (with one duet with Frank McHugh). None of the songs are especially memorable or became standards, but they are pleasant and were composed by Allie Wrubel (who is best remembered for composing the music for “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”).

The film also has Warner Brothers’ usual array of character actors: Frank McHugh, Ruth Donnelly, Allen Jenkins, Jane Darwell. I was a little surprised to see Jane Darwell’s name at the bottom of the cast list, but I don’t think she really achieved wide recognition until she played Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. I’ve seen her play a motherly sort so often, it was interesting to see her play the sour and irascible landlady in Happiness Ahead.

 
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Posted by on April 19, 2017 in Movies

 

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Broadway Melody (1929) and 42nd Street (1933) – Early Musicals

220px-Forty-second-street-1933download The Jazz Singer (1927), Broadway Melody (of 1929) and 42nd Street (1933) are the three most important early musicals of the talkie era. The Jazz Singer opened the floodgates of sound and song. Broadway Melody  seems to have set the template for later backstage musicals, won the award for Best Picture for MGM in 1929 and is considered one of the best movies from the movie musical bonanza that occurred in 1929. After audiences tired of musicals (they were static and stage-bound), 42nd Street came along to revive the movie musical and inject a strong dose of energy and relevance. It was particularly interesting to watch Broadway Melody and 42nd Street back to back.

I have to confess that Broadway Melody was hard to watch. Because it was one of MGM’s first all-talking picture and because producer Irving Thalberg considered it an experiment, it was made cheaply, quickly and with actors who are clearly not musical stars. Bessie Love and Anita Page (who both began in the silent era – Bessie Love in particular was a genuine silent star) play a sister act trying to break into Broadway, but both fall in love with the same man (Charles King).

I could never decide whether or not the audience is supposed to realize that their act is corny or if we are just supposed to overlook the fact that they really can’t sing or dance. Whatever the case, Anita Page’s character becomes a success (mostly because of how she looks), while Bessie Love ends up having to sacrifice everything so her sister can be happy with the man they both love. Fortunately, self-sacrifice is always the way to go as an actor and Love was nominated for Best Actress.

The songs were written by composer Nacio Herb Brown and lyricist Arthur Freed, who later was responsible for the famed “Freed Unit,” which produced Meet Me in St. LouisSingin’ In the Rain and many other great musicals. Even several of the songs from Broadway Melody make it into Singin’ In the Rain: “Broadway Melody,” “You Were Meant for Me.” The songs are good, but the dancing is less so. Everyone looks either game or flaccid. Arms are flung out carelessly, people do lazy cartwheels, leg kicks look kind of random. I’m not kidding. I’ve seen better from high school students.

Perhaps I’m being unnecessarily harsh. I’m usually better at trying to put myself in the shoes of the audiences of the time and trying to see what they saw. However, I frankly found The Jazz Singer more entertaining and expert. The dialogue is pretty stilted in Broadway Melody and for whatever reason, everyone sounds a bit trebly. The staging is pretty static and the dances look lethargic. It must have seemed like an extraordinary thing at the time, but there is a reason that movie musicals were regarded as somewhat defunct by 1933. A little goes a long way.

42nd Street, on the other hand, feels like a huge leap forward. The music, the stars, the editing, the dances, the wisecracks, the innuendos. It has so much more propulsion and zip, not to mention choreography by Busby Berkeley. And the music by Harry Warren and Al Dubin feels modern and exciting (and absolutely impossible to get out of one’s head). Both stories are backstage musicals, but 42nd Street is far less sentimental, with everyone pretty clear-eyed and pragmatic about work and love. It is also set firmly in the depression and has that freewheeling pre-code feel about it.

42nd-street-chorus-line-rehearsal

Ginger Rogers, Ruby Keeler and Una Merkel

The film benefits from a good cast. The film launched Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell as musical stars. Bebe Daniels (another silent star) can sing reasonably well and George Brent (a future Warner Bros. leading man) is suitably suitable. Warner Baxter is the larger-than-life director of the show and Una Merkel is on hand to exchange knowing wisecracks with Ginger Rogers in a pre-Fred Astaire role.

Watching 42nd Street after having been steeped in all the musicals that came later makes it feel a bit dated or cliched. However, watching it after seeing The Jazz Singer and Broadway Melody, suddenly it looks fast, modern and vital. Movie musicals are finally starting to look like movie musicals as we know them.

42nd Street was followed by a veritable musical craze that never seemed to let up until the 1950s. Warner Bros. continued to make musicals in the mode of 42nd Street during the 1930s (such as Gold Diggers of 1933), though they never seemed to quite capture the magic in later decades. RKO would introduce an entirely different kind of musical in the 1930s with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: grace, elegance, sophistication. It makes a nice contrast with the scrappier, more ensemble focused Warner Bros. musicals. Universal Studios had Deanna Durbin in the 1930s – who often sang classical songs – while MGM had by far the most polished and expensive musicals with Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Nelson Eddy, Jeanette MacDonald and Eleanor Powell. 20th Century Fox had Shirley Temple (and later Don Ameche and Alice Faye) while Paramount had Bing Crosby and Mae West. A little something for everyone in those depression years.

 
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Posted by on June 13, 2016 in Movies

 

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It Happened Tomorrow (1944)

downloadStories involving special knowledge about the future nearly always appeal to me, so I was looking forward to seeing It Happened Tomorrow, a whimsical fantasy set in the 1890s, starring Dick Powell and Linda Darnell. Unfortunately, it was not all that I had hoped for. It’s more of a curiosity, though not without its charms.

Lawrence “Larry” Stevens (Dick Powell) is an ambitious reporter who has just been promoted from writing obituaries. At a party, he jokes with his co-workers that he would give ten years of his life to be able to read tomorrow’s newspaper, but the old timer Pop (John Philliber) cautions him that he doesn’t even know if he has ten years to give. However, that night Pop hands Larry a newspaper that is indeed tomorrow’s newspaper. It says there will be a hold-up at the opera house and Larry makes sure he’s there, even copying down the article from the newspaper so he can reproduce it.

But things do not work out exactly as Larry expects. For one, the police suspect him of collusion and even suspect the woman he has fallen in love with, Sylvia Smith (Linda Darnell) – a professional clairvoyant who does her act with her hustling Uncle Oscar (Jack Oakie). Essentially, Larry becomes a prisoner to the future, always trying to either fulfill it, ignore it or avoid it. But no matter what he does, he always manages to act in a way that makes the headlines a self-fulling prophecy. The eventual result is comic despair and fatalism.

It Happened Tomorrow feels like a transitional (or filler) film for nearly everyone involved. Dick Powell was about to essay his career changing role as Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet, Linda Darnell was transitioning away from sweet ingenues to femme fatales or woman from the wrong side of the tracks and director Rene Clair was partly killing time while stranded in America during the Nazis occupation of France.

download (1)Rene Clair often gravitated towards fantasy and whimsy. His most famous movies include some early French musicals (A nous la liberte) and I Married a Witch and And Then There Were NoneIt Happened Tomorrow is definitely a lesser film, though it’s not a bad film. The pacing seems a little off, and the timing, and the acting and humor is a little broad. Would it have made a difference if Clair had gotten his first choice for Larry, Cary Grant?

Dick Powell, as I said was transitioning away from musicals and about to establish his wry noir persona. He seems much more understated in those films. For It Happened Tomorrow, he’s funny, but seems to be playing it too broadly, which is interesting because in later comedies, like Susan Slept Here, he seems spot on. Perhaps he was simply too old, or simply no longer looked like the eager young reporter he was playing and was trying to compensate?

Or perhaps it was because he was playing opposite Jack Oakie, who is the very definition of broad comedy. Oakie has a way of stealing scenes, even at one point wearing one of the loudest suits I’ve ever seen, and he tends to run away with things a little too much at times.

The ending is pretty hilarious, though. Larry has read that he is going to die at a certain hotel the following day and is trying his best to stay away, eventually settling into despair that no matter what he does he will end up at that hotel. He even decides to provide for his widow – Sylvia – by betting at the racetrack, knowing which horses will win and there is genuine suspense as one wonders both how he will end up at the hotel and how he will manage to stay alive.

download (2)Linda Darnell as Sylvia is still mostly in her ingenue phase, though she would play her first femme fatale that same year in Summer Storm with George Sanders. At this point, however, she still doesn’t quite know how to deliver a line or modulate her voice.

Linda Darnell’s career as an actress is a curious one. She began so young (and was initially cast mostly on the strength of her astonishing beauty) that one can literally track how her acting improved through the years. She made her first movie at fifteen (playing a society woman who was supposed to be married to Tyrone Power for three years!) and initially played beautiful ingenues in films like The Mark of Zorro and Blood and Sand.

It is in the late ’40s that she really comes into her own with films like A Letter to Three Wives (a personal favorite), No Way Out, and Unfaithfully Yours. By that point, she also seems to have learned how to use her voice as an asset and not just as a means of delivering lines. She’s especially good at conveying world-weariness with her voice (and uses her voice in A Letter to Three Wives to conceal her vulnerability). Sadly, her career began to peter out at just the age (late twenties) that most great actresses come into their own (like Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck).

 
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Posted by on June 1, 2016 in Movies

 

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