Tag Archives: Oscar Levant

Romance on the High Seas (1948)

ROMANCE ON THE HIGH SEASDo you mind if I gush for a moment? Thank you very much.

I am a huge Doris Day fan. I love her warmth and enthusiasm, her can-do attitude and resilience in the face of obstacles (onscreen and off-screen). She could literally do it all: sing (oh, how she could sing), dance, handle comedy and drama. And yet it’s so easy to overlook her outsized talent because she always seems to downplay it.

I’m done gushing. Thank you for your patience.

Romance on the High Seas was Doris Day’s Hollywood debut. She was 23, a successful band singer and at a low point in her personal life. She was so depressed that she didn’t even go out of her way to impress director Michael Curtiz during her audition, bursting into tears at one point (her husband was leaving her because he could tell she was going to be a star and didn’t want to be “Mr. Doris Day”). But according to lyricist Sammy Cahn, ” On the day they screened the tests, first came Marion Hutton (Betty Hutton’s sister); she was not earth shaking. Then came Janis Paige–by comparison, excellent. Then came Doris Day–and the projection room, when they ran the film, exploded.” Doris Day was cast and rapidly became Warner Bros’ top star, though they continued to give her inferior vehicles to star in.

Romance on the High Seas is something of a musical/screwball comedy. Because this was Doris Day’s first film, she is only third-billed and shares screen time with Jack Carson, Janis Paige and Don DeFore, not to mention a host of scene-stealing character actors including Oscar Levant, S.Z. Sakall, Eric Blore and Franklin Pangborn.

Society lady Elvira Kent (Janis Paige) is happily married to wealthy Michael Kent (Don DeFore), or she would be if she wasn’t convinced that he is chronically cheating on her. But her suspicions are unfounded; he’s mad about Elvira, though equally convinced that she’s cheating on him. When Michael is unable to accompany Elvira on a cruise because of a business merger, she immediately suspects him and decides to stay in New York to keep an eye on him, while hiring someone else to go on the cruise in her place to allay her husband’s suspicions.

Doris Day, Jack Carson

Doris Day, Jack Carson

The woman she hires is struggling singer Georgia Garrett (Doris Day), who works in a dinky little cafe with pianist and would-be lover Oscar Farrar (Oscar Levant, playing himself), who proposes marriage to her by the hour. Georgia is thrilled at the prospect of taking a cruise and promptly quits her job. But Michael Kent is suspicions that his wife is happily be taking a cruise without him and he hires private investigator Peter Virgil (Jack Carson) to keep an eye on her during the cruise. But when Peter meets Georgia – believing her to be Mrs. Elvira Kent – he has to struggle awfully hard not to make love to her.

It gets more complicated when Oscar joins them on the cruise, but things really get out of hand when Elvira and Michael also join them at the end of the cruise in Rio, along with their Uncle Lazlo (S.Z. Sakall), who is trying to sort everything out.

Admittedly, it’s not The Awful Truth or Singin’ In the Rain, but there is a lot to enjoy. In Doris Day’s debut, she is not quite the Doris Day we know from later films. She is super perky (perhaps a bit too perky; she obviously learned to tone it down) and plays what would have been termed a hepcat, tossing slang around even when she supposed to be acting like the dignified Elvira Kent. Doris Day always hated the costumes, makeup and hair of her Warner Bros. days. She felt it was phony and she has a point there. The hats are pretty extraordinary in the film, too. Janis Paige as Elvira Kent has one that looks like a flying saucer landed on her head.

I watched this film with my friend Andrea and she thought the film could be understood as being about perceptions and how people see things (often incorrectly). Because Elvira and Michael believe the other is a flirt, they interpret everything in a way that supports their belief, even when it’s not true. Likewise, Peter Virgil believes that Georgia is Mrs. Elvira Kent, even though there are quite a few things Georgia says and does that should have tipped him off. Likewise, the scene where Peter and Oscar manage to get drunk on nothing has to do with perceptions. They think they are drinking shot after shot, not realizing that a man is stealing their drinks before they have a chance to down the glass. They are too busy telling the other about their girl (not knowing they are both talking about Georgia). Even the song “The Tourist Trade,” which is sung by a man from Havana about how everything they do is for the tourists, makes a similar point about expectations. They don’t actually live this way; they just put on the show that the tourists are expecting.

One thing I enjoy about Romance on the High Seas is that it gives Jack Carson an opportunity to play a romantic lead. He even sings a song – in a fake Trinidad accent – and he’s actually rather endearing. He still has his usual sense of humor, but it’s fun to see him get the girl for a change. Oscar Levant, on the other hand, is his usual misanthropic self, which is either good or bad, depending on how much you enjoy his particular brand of wit, which I do.

Janis Paige and Don DeFore are adequate, but the S.Z. Sakall is his usual adorable self and Eric Blore and Franklin Pangborn both make delightful appearances. Fortunio Bonanova (who pops up in all sorts of unexpected films: Double IndemnityFor Whom the Bells TollThe Black SwanCitizen Kane, Kiss Me Deadly) plays the manager of the hotel in Rio who would like to hire Georgia to sing, believing her to be a society lady with name recognition.

The songs were written by Sammy Cahn (lyricist) and Jule Styne (music). “It’s Magic” was the hit of the film, nominated for Best Song (it lost to “Buttons and Bows”) and become forever associated with Doris Day. That is where Doris Day shines most of all in Romance on the High Seas. No one sings a ballad quite like she does. Like Judy Garland, she can bring emotion through a song that is often greater than the film even requires.

Doris Day sings “Put ‘Em in a Box” to express her disgruntlement with Jack Carson’s Peter Virgil, who is too principled to make love to married woman.


Posted by on May 6, 2016 in Movies


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Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936) – Murder, Mystery, Opera and even Racism

charlie_chan_at_the_opera_importThere is something very satisfying about a movie that is 90 minutes or less. The dialogue, the action, everything is economical and has a purpose. It is particularly satisfying when you want something for after dinner or during a work week and time is precious. It has a story to tell, it tells it, and comes to its conclusion.

Charlie Chan at the Opera is slightly more extreme in its brevity. It is only 66 minutes long, but manages to tell a complete story that takes place during one night at the opera.

In the opening credits it reads: “Warner Oland vs. Boris Karloff,” so you have a pretty good idea what the highlight of the film is going to be.

It is a dark and stormy night….literally, while inside an asylum, a man (Boris Karloff) cannot remember who he is and nobody seems to know. But he spends his evenings at the piano, singing some very Wagnerian sounding opera. But when a newspaper is brought in with the picture of Lilli Rochelle, who is returning to opera after having been away for seven years, he remembers who he is and busts out of the asylum.

A manhunt is underway. Meanwhile, Lilli Rochelle (Margaret Irving) receives a death threat and goes to the police, who bring in Charlie Chan (Warner Oland). Sergeant Kelly (William Demarest) is not impressed with Chan, but soon discovers that behind Chan’s genial smile and polite manners is a mind as sharp as Sherlock Holmes.

It is thought that the murderer will try to kill her during the opening of the opera and that the mysterious man who escaped from the asylum might be the man who sent the death threat. There are plenty of other suspects, however. Lillie Rochelle has been carrying on a long standing affair with the baritone of the opera, Enrico Borelli (Gregory Gaye). He has a jealous wife, second soprano Anita Borelli (Nedda Harrigan), Lilli has a jealous husband, Mr. Whitely (Frank Conroy) and there is a young couple that wants to see Lilli before she starts her opera.


Boris Karloff and Warner Oland

Charlie Chan is assisted in his detection by his Americanized son, Lee Chan (Keye Luke), who sneaks into the opera house dressed as a supernumerary (the guys who hang out in the background of an opera to create a crowd). He is also more dubiously assisted by Sergeant Kelly (William Demarest), who seems easily distracted from the clues that really matter.

Charlie Chan at the Opera is generally considered the best of all the Charlie Chan movies. It is highly informative of attitudes during the 1930s to consider the Charlie Chan movies. Very popular in his day, in the 1980s, many people felt that Charlie Chan was hopelessly stereotypical and called him a “Yellow Uncle Tom” and felt that the character should be laid to rest forever.

There definitely are stereotypes and slurs. In the movie, Inspector Kelly makes several offensive comments, always getting Chan’s name wrong and calling him everything from “Chop Suey” to “Egg Foo Yung.” However, Inspector Kelly is rather a buffoon, so it is not obvious that we are to take him seriously. Oddly, he is playing his racism for laughs.

Regarding the idea that he is an Asian “Uncle Tom” because he is subservient and genial, I see what they are getting at, though it is also a part of his method. He’s pulling one of Hercule Poirot’s favorite tricks, in that by acting “foreign,” people underestimate him; he uses their racism against them.

Warner Oland and Keye Luke

Warner Oland and Keye Luke

Also emblematic of the times is that the Charlie Chan character was almost always played by a Caucasian actor. Warner Oland actually made a career out of it. I’m not sure that he ever played a non-Asian role (except during the silent era), even when he wasn’t playing Charlie Chan. Oland was Swedish and somehow Hollywood felt that made him more qualified to play the part. Hollywood has a curious history of casting Swedes as Asians. In Frank Capra’s The Bitter Tea of General Yen, he cast the Swedish actor Nils Asther, and Myrna Loy, who had Swedish ancestors, frequently played Asians in her early career.

Interestingly, according to Yunte Huang – who has written a book about the character of Charlie Chan and the real man that the author, Earl Derr Biggers, based his character on – Charlie Chan used to be extremely popular among Asians and Asian-Americans. In China, they made many movies with the character and modeled their portrayal of him after Warner Oland’s. Chan was considered at the time to be a refreshing alternative to all the movies involving Asians as evil criminals, like Fu Manchu. Keye Luke later defended the films by arguing that they should be remembered because they still are great mysteries.

Boris Karloff is pretending to sing and  wielding his knife in the fake opera

Boris Karloff is pretending to sing and wielding his knife in the fake opera “Carnival”

One fun part of the movie is, of course, opera. I am an opera fan (though more of an Italian opera fan) and there is something about an opera house that just begs to be used as a setting for mystery and murder (think The Phantom of the Opera). For the opera that Lilli is making her return, Oscar Levant was hired to write a pseudo-opera. Levant is probably best remembered for being in films like An American in Paris and The Bandwagon, where he always plays the piano and indulged in his own unique brand of trenchant wry humor. He was a pianist, composer, actor, writer, wit, hypochondriac and good friend of George Gershwin. The opera he wrote snippets of is called “Carnival” and sounds and looks very Teutonic. Boris Karloff is clearly lip-singing in the film as he plays the role of Mephisto in the opera. He also gets to wear one of the most outlandish headdresses I have ever seen.

All in all, it makes for a fascinating watch. William Demarest does his comedy, Boris Karloff plays insane and Warner Oland solves the murders.

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Posted by on November 26, 2014 in Detective Movies, Mystery


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