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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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Hello, Frisco, Hello (1943)

220px-Hellofriscohello1943Hello, Frisco, Hello was exactly the movie I needed on a rainy, dreary day. Splendid color, catchy tunes, one heartbreaking torch song, a little romance, a little comedy, a little plot to make things interesting, Alice Faye; I’m a big fan of Alice Faye.  And as is true with any musical featuring songs by Harry Warren, I had tunes cycling through my brain for the next week, mostly Warren’s Academy Award winning song “You’ll Never Know.”

The Barbary Coast in San Francisco in 1915 was the red-light district with all the night clubs, saloons and brothels (though there are no brothels featured in Hello, Frisco, Hello). A vaudevillian quartet – comprising Alice Faye, John Payne, Jack Oakie and June Havoc, work in a saloon. Their job is to provide light entertainment while the customers drink at the bar. But quartet leader Johnny Cornell (John Payne) has grander ambitions and gets the quartet fired by Ward Bond when they perform a song that takes his customers away from the bar to watch the performers.

But Johnny is nothing if not a hustler and soon he gets the quartet off the streets and starts his own club, The Grizzly Bear. Not long after, he branches out and has various clubs, dance halls, and a rollerskating rink proliferating up and down the Barbary Coast. He practically has the district in his pocket.

But that’s not quite enough for him. He still has grand ambitions. He wants to be accepted on Nob Hill, the neighborhood were the posh people live. Bernice Croft (Lynn Bari) represents that life. She is a spendthrift heiress who likes to go slumming at the Grizzly Bear and captivates Johnny, causing much suffering for Trudy Evans (Alice Faye), now Johnny’s star performer.

Alice Faye, Jack Oakie and June Havoc show how to dance the Grizzly Bear

Alice Faye, Jack Oakie and June Havoc show how to dance the Grizzly Bear

I just realized that I’ve been talking only about John Payne’s character, even though Alice Faye gets top billing. The reason is that although she is definitely the star of the film, the one who brings the star wattage and gorgeous singing, her character does very little to advance the plot. She mostly pines…and then sings a knockout song. Pining never looked or sounded so good. Judy Garland has this trouble in her films, too. The two actresses always seem to be yearning for a man who takes them for granted, while at the same time having a sensational career that eventually and inevitably eclipses that of the man they love.

Hello, Frisco, Hello is a remake of The King of Burlesque, which was made in 1936, when Alice Faye was not yet a star. But Warren Baxter, in the John Payne role, was a star, which perhaps explains why Alice Faye has such an underdeveloped part. Though there is quite a bit of pathos she squeezes out of it.

The film has some fun with class distinctions. Barbary Coast performers are fun-loving people who like to wear, shall we say flamboyant clothing? But for all that they are essentially hard working people without pretensions. The crowd on Nob Hill, however…they don’t seem to work, they sponsor opera, even though it brings in no money (which is, I think, supposed to be a sign of their wastefulness) and dance to the waltz. After thirty minutes of nearly nonstop contemporary nineteen-teens music, suddenly hearing a waltz did have, for once in my life, the affect of making me think of stuffy people. At a party Johnny is invited to, he brings Trudy, who arrives in a bright yellow dress while Bernice Croft made me think of the Baroness from The Sound of Music. It was that kind of a contrast between the ladies and Lynn Bari didn’t even have to look askance at Alice Faye’s dress for us to get the picture.

2Poor Alice Faye has to put up with a lot. From the beginning, when Johnny lands the quartet on the street, Trudy believes in him and convinces the others to stick with him. Later on, Johnny seems to think he made Trudy a star, which is not really the case, though the film never directly contradicts him, nor does Trudy. But from the beginning, we know she has an extraordinary voice. Dan Dailey (Jack Okaie) comments that she could easily get another job singing; she didn’t need to hang around with Johnny. In fact, a large part of his success does seem to be her star power. When one of his clubs isn’t doing so well, he brings Trudy over to have her sing and attract patrons. In truth, she probably never really needed him at all, though he never figures it out. She just hung out with him because she loved him.

The rest of the cast is fun: Jack Oakie and June Havoc (sister of Gypsy Rose Lee) provide the comic relief, as well as doing double duty dancing and singing. John Payne is not the most dynamic actor I’ve ever seen, but he makes the character still seem like a pretty nice guy, which is quite an accomplishment. He is also able to sing quite adequately, so none of the four actors needed to have their voice dubbed, which I think is fairly impressive. Laird Cregar also has a small role as a burly and bearded would-be prospector always tapping Johnny for a grubstake.

Songs

All the music in the film, except “You’ll Never Know,” were contemporary to the film’s setting. “Hello, Frisco, Hello” was written in 1915 for the Panama Pacific Exposition where Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the first transcontinental phone call. The song was performed very much as it is in the film, with people on either side of the stage, trying to talk to each by phone as if from opposite sides of the country.

Harry Warren wrote the music and Mack Gordon the lyrics for “You’ll Never Know,” a song of unrequited love that became Alice Faye’s signature song, which she sang many times during her later and successful career on the radio. That song alone, and Alice Faye’s rendition of it, accounts for more than three-quarters of the genuine feeling in the film. “If there is some other way to prove that I love you/ I swear I don’t know how. You’ll never know if you don’t know now.” Poignantly, Johnny Cornell never does seem to fully grasp that.

Untitled

This clip is from the film. If John Payne sounds cranky, it’s is because he was just tricked into singing with Alice Faye. But through the singing of this song, he finally starts to get an idea of her feelings.

This clip was also evidently taken from the movie. She is auditioning and the noise gradually dies down as the people working in the club put down what they are doing to listen.

 
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Posted by on January 27, 2016 in Movies, Music

 

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“September in the Rain” – by Harry Warren and Al Dubin

Well, it’s September and it’s raining, so I’ve had this song running through my head all week, which actually hasn’t been annoying because I really do love songs about rain. Weather, especially wet weather, is practically a genre of its own: “I’m Singing in the Rain,” “Till the Clouds Roll By,” “Stormy Weather,” “Isn’t it a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain), “Fella With an Umbrella.”

“September in the Rain” is a reminiscence of someone standing with their loved one in the rain on a September day, near the end of the day, and how their loved one was whispering to them about their love, accompanied by the sound of the rain. The singer is singing in spring time, but in their memory it’s still “September in the rain.”

The song was composed by Harry Warren, who is one of the most ubiquitous song writers that no one knows. One of his biggest problems is that he almost exclusively composed his songs for movies instead of for Broadway musicals. Broadway composers were often talked about, but movie composers tended to be lost amidst the glamour and the stars. Only Irving Berlin managed to be a huge selling point as a composer for movies, but that was only because he was already known for his hit tunes and stage musicals.

Probably Warren’s best remembered movies he wrote for are The Harvey Girls with Judy Garland and 42nd Street, which has been revived several times, including in 2001.

The lyrics were written by Al Dubin, who often collaborated with Harry Warren. Together they wrote the songs for 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, Gold Diggers of 1933 and some of their most enduring songs are “You’re Getting to Be a Habit With Me,” “I Only Have Eyes for You,” and “Lullaby of Broadway.”

Harry Warren was actually nominated eleven times in his career for the Academy Award for Best Original Song and he won three times, one of which was the song he did with Al Dubin, “Lullaby of Broadway.”

The song “September in the Rain” was also written for a movie, Melody for Two in 1937, which seems all but forgotten. From what I can tell, it is about two feuding bandleaders, with tons of songs packed into one hour of movie time. It has not been released on DVD or even, as far as I can discover, on VHS. It’s an example of what is actually a very common occurrence during that era of how a song has a vibrant life quite apart from its original context. Instead of Irving Berlin’s “The song has ended, but the melody lingers on,” we have “the movie’s over, but the song will live on.”

It’s been recorded by many different artists: Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore and even The Beatles in 1962. I haven’t, however, been brave enough to listen to their version yet. This is my favorite version, by Doris Day, and recorded in 1952. I hope you have a wonderful September!

 
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Posted by on September 19, 2014 in Great American Songbook

 

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