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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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Aside

I realized after writing my post that I had  not expressed my thought completely. Perhaps instead of calling it “rules of the genre” I should have called it “rules of expression.” Different art forms have different rules about how one’s thoughts and feelings are expressed. For example, in poetry there are rules about rhyme and meter. In ballet, there are rules about movement and music without words. In silent films, the rules of expression involve images, mime, and music. I think musicals simply create a different world, with different rules. Just like a fantasy creates a different world with its own rules: magic and dragons and special abilities. I guess I feel that if one can accept magic, why not song?

Though I totally understand if one is not into dance or song. If you don’t like ballet, then The Red Shoes is probably not for you. If you don’t like lots of action/fight sequences, then probably not Avengers. Do you not like gangster violence? Probably not Scarface. But that puts it down to preferences, not something inherently wrong with musicals.

Further Thoughts on Reality and Rules of Genre

 
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Posted by on March 28, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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Reality in Movies and Rules of the Genre

When La La Land came out, I must have read a half-dozen reviews that began with something akin to “I don’t usually like musicals, but…”. I confess, this actually scared me away from the film (perhaps unjustly), because I usually do like musicals (I love them!). But there was so much talk about the resistance people normally feel towards musicals that it started me thinking.

What is the usual charge against a musical? That it is not realistic. That people cannot buy the transition between normal talking to that moment when a character suddenly bursts into song. Some say they simply cannot take that level of artifice.

Which really struck me, because I had honestly never thought of musicals as being especially artificial. I thought that is what movies were all about: artifice. There is no such thing as true realism. It reminds me of a story I heard, about a man talking to Picasso on a train and complaining about how unrealistic his paintings were. Picasso asked the man what he considered to be realistic and the man showed him a picture of his wife. To which Picasso responded by asking if the man’s wife was really three inches tall and two-dimensional (I’ve paraphrased, because I do not remember the exact details of the story).

I think the point is that there are many ways of portraying reality. Reality has many layers. There is physical reality, emotional reality. And there are many ways to tell a story, convey emotion, reveal truth, and explore concepts. If all one did was watch real people go by, you would miss a lot. You would see what they look like, what they do, hear what they say, but you would not necessarily know what is inside of them. They would have to reveal that to you (and often mere words are not adequate). You would not necessarily grasp overarching ideas, feelings, philosophies and beliefs. That comes with expression…through mediums that are not always “real.”

Another thing that puzzled me about the reaction to musicals is that it seems to ignore the fact that every movie genre has its own set of rules and musicals are not unique in this way. I recently saw Pacific Rim. What’s the point of Pacific Rim? To watch machines punch giant sea monsters. If you don’t like that sort of thing, you probably won’t like Pacific Rim. It’s the same with a melodrama. A Bette Davis melodrama has specific rules. A horror film? Screwball comedy? A superhero movie? Fantasy? Every genre has certain rules, boundaries, expectations. A monster movie is criticized, not for its lack of plot, but for its lack of monsters.

Original Godzilla

So I guess my question is, why is the musical singled out? People don’t usually complain about ballet. Or silent films (well, there can be complaint about that). Opera? Stage plays? Poetry? Is Singin’ In The Rain really less realistic than X-MenShades of GreyMetropolisDark Victory, Hunger GamesLord of the RingsTerminator, or King Kong?

Though often a film can transcend its genre and rules, like Godzilla (or Gojira). I like the example of Godzilla, because on the surface it may just be a monster movie, a guy walking around in a rubber suit, but it is also so much more. An exploration of the horror of nuclear holocaust, trauma, and science.

Perhaps people feel that the musical is inherently inferior because musicals tend to be (though certainly are not always) upbeat and happy. But I think joy (which is perhaps best expressed through dance and song) is just as worthy of exploration as nuclear holocaust.

This topic has been a pet peeve of mine, so I apologize for the ranting tone of the post. 🙂 But I would like to know what you think? Do you find musicals unrealistic? Are there certain genres whose roles you have more trouble accepting? Do you love it all?

 
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Posted by on March 28, 2017 in Movies

 

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