KING OF THE RODEO. Universal, 1929. Hoot Gibson, Kathryn Crawford, Slim Summerfield, Monte Montague. Director: Henry MacRae. Shown at Cinefest 19, Syracuse NY, March 1999.
One of the high points of the weekend. Hoot is thrown out by his rancher father because he wants to ride in a rodeo in Chicago rather than go to college. Hoot’s films are notable for their superb action and good humor and his search for his rodeo shirts (ill-advisedly stolen by the film’s villain during the commission of a more serious crime) provided both laughs and thrills in a motorcycle/car chase that kept this eternal adolescent on the edge of his seat.
SPRING PARADE. Universal, 1940. Deanna Durbin, Robert Cummings, Mischa Auer, Henry Stephenson, S. Z. Sakall. Director: Henry Koster.
Saturday night featured a “lost” Deanna Durbin musical Spring Parade, with the unbeatable Deanna playing a girl from the country who befriends the Emperor Franz Joseph II in pre-war Vienna, benefiting her boyfriend, the insufferable Robert Cummings and her employer, S. Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, being his usual … uh … cuddly self. DD is in fine voice and there’s a scene at a beer garden where she sang and danced her way into my heart. I love this kind of schmaltz.
SWING HOSTESS. PRC, 1944. Martha Tilton, Iris Adrian, Charles Collins, Cliff Nazarro, Harry Holman, Betty Brodel, Philip Van Zandt, Earle Bruce. Music and lyrics by Jay Livingston, Ray Evans and Lewis Bellin. Director: Sam Newfield.
There are maybe three reasons to watch this low-budget wartime musical, and the first, by a wide margin, is Martha Tilton, perhaps best known as a longtime singer for the Benny Goodman band. In Swing Hostess she plays an aspiring singer named Judy Alvin who can’t seem to catch a break in show business, what with a series of never-ending mixups between who sang what song on which recording disk, missed phone calls and messages, and a competitor (Betty Brodel, sister of Joan Leslie) who can’t sing but whom fortune seems to smile upon a lot more often.
Miss Tilton made only a handful of movies, and was one of the stars in even fewer, but she has a pleasant and relaxed onscreen presence that should have opened the door for making many more. She sings six songs in Swing Hostess, all charmingly and in good cheer. Back in the 1940s you’d have gotten your money’s worth from this film from the music alone. (If you’re of a certain age, today as well, for that matter.)
Another interesting aspect of Swing Hostess is that a sizable portion of it takes place at Judy Alvin’s day job, as she waits for bandleader Benny Jackson (Charles Collins) to notice her. Instead of self-contained juke boxes, back in 1944 they apparently consisted of units with phone lines to a central location where the operators would locate the 78 on a rack and play it back to the person on the other end whose nickel or dime it was. I’ve not been able to find anything online about this kind of operation, if it really existed, so if anyone knows more, tell me about it.
The plot is really rather dopey and not worth saying anything more about, but some of the supporting cast is worth a mention. I’ve probably heard comedian Cliff Nazarro’s double talk ability before, but if so, I’d forgotten about it. All I can say is amazing. Earle Bruce, whose nice guy character seemed to be on a direct path to Judy’s heart, is dumped in the middle of the movie and sent off to the army instead. This gives bandleader Benny Jackson a clear shot, which he takes full advantage of, but since this was the only movie that Bruce ever made, even at this late date I’m going to cry foul.
WALLACE SMITH – The Captain Hates the Sea. Covici-Friede, hardcover, 1933. Film: Columbia, 1934. Victor McLaglen, Wynne Gibson, Alison Skipworth, John Gilbert, Helen Vinson, Fred Keating, Leon Errol, Walter Connolly, Walter Catlett, Donald Meek, The Three Stooges. Screenplay: Wallace Smith, based on his book of the same title. Director: Lewis Milestone.
I can’t find out much about Wallace Smith except that he might have been a newsman in Chicago back in the 1920s — that heady Front Page era — before he graduated to novels and thence to Hollywood where he did about a dozen screenplays, including an adaptation of his own 1933 novel The Captain Hates the Sea, and it was seeing this film that prompted me to seek out the book.
Well, the novel is a pretty fine job. Smith, obviously day-dreaming in the third-person, spins a tale of an alcoholic Hollywood writer who breaks off a doomed relationship with a movie actress to take passage on a ship bound from California to New York, telling himself he’s going to sober up and write that novel he’s been putting off.
Also on board are a thief and his moll on the lam with stolen security bonds, a dumb (or is he?) cop who falls for the moll, a reformed floozie and her jealous husband, plus assorted side characters, some colorful and some merely backdrops, but all well thought out. And oh yes, they’re joined halfway through the trip by a hooker who got run out of Panama and seems to be channeling Miss Sadie Thompson.
With characters like this you wouldn’t need much of a plot, but Smith provides a witty, fast-moving thing, with the stolen bonds turning up yon and hither, a couple of affairs, deceit and treachery, fire in the hold, storm at sea and a suicide. All told with a pleasantly sardonic air that somehow keeps from sounding too snide or too pat. In fact, it’s just right, and I’m going to seek out more by this elusive author.
The film Columbia made of this in 1934 was directed by none other than Lewis Milestone, legendary director of Of Mice and Men, All Quiet on the Western Front and Ocean’s Eleven, who handled it with the hip wit and snappy pacing typical of 1930s films.
Adapting his book, Smith did a good job of paring the tale down to its essentials and softening it up just enough to keep the censors mollified without losing the sadder-but-wiser touch he did so well.
This being a Columbia picture, Director Milestone had to settle for second-string actors — the ship’s band is portrayed by the Three Stooges — but he picked his cast well, with Victor McLaglen outstanding as the dumb cop, Helen Vinson and Fred Keating very smart and sexy and as the thieves, Leon Errol as a comic steward, and especially John Gilbert, that tragic one-time star now on the skids, perfectly cast as the boozy writer.
Looking at him here, suave and virile, one wonders how Gilbert might have fared had Louis B. Mayer not elected to destroy his career, but we’ll never know; this was his last film. I should also throw a kudo to Walter Connolly as the eponymous Captain, radiating quiet (and quite funny) desperation, dealing out lines like “I feel sorry for the sheep-headed woman or child that tries to get into the very first lifeboat ahead of me!” and generally imparting an air of comic authority to the whole thing. Definitely one to catch.
Editorial Comments: The video clip shows the first ten minutes of the film, but for some reason we don’t get to see the full screen. A big chunk of the left side is missing. And even though the clip says it’s part 1 of 7, those leaving comments say that part 8 has never been posted.
The book is not included in Hubin, and the film is categorized on IMDB as a comedy, which is how I’ve tagged it, but there appears to be enough criminous content for Al to include it. (There are two other books by Wallace Smith included in Crime Fiction IV, one marginally.)
SWEET AND LOW-DOWN. 20th Century-Fox, 1944. Benny Goodman and His Band, Linda Darnell, Jack Oakie, Lynn Bari, James Cardwell, Allyn Joslyn; with Terry Moore, Gloria Talbott, and The Pied Pipers (all uncredited). Director: Archie Mayo.
Despite what a couple of viewers who’ve left comments on IMDB might tell you, Benny Goodman is not all that bad an actor. After all, it’s the perfect part: himself. But OK. If you were to pin me down, I’d have to tell you the truth. The only reason anyone would want to see this movie is to see both Goodman and his band in action. On the bandstand. At least half the movie is filled with musical numbers, one song after another, and you can take it from me, they’re all great.
In between the songs? Well, that’s a whole other matter. Let’s assume that the truth serum you dosed me with is still working. The story is not so hot. It’s not terrible, but it sure isn’t good. James Cardwell plays a young trombone player whom Benny takes a liking to, puts him in his band, young man makes good, meets a couple of girls, starts his own band, and …
Lynn Bari plays the singer in Benny’s band, and according to IMDB, she may have done all her singing herself. I rather doubt it, but she was still a beautiful lady. The other girl in the new band member’s life is Linda Darnell, a young social heiress whose league he doesn’t belong to, but…
It’s a pleasant enough way to spend 72 minutes, if you’re a fan of the big bands. If not, you won’t last more than ten. The movie did earn one Oscar nomination. You can look it up. If you were think about it for a few seconds, though, I’m sure you can easily guess the category.
THE BIG BROADCAST (Paramount, 1932) should have been revived in the 60s for the benefit of the Drug Culture. Its spacey, cartoonish moments impart the look and feel of a Max Fleischer cartoon to this live-action flick, including such delights as a cat, edited to move in rhythm to a swinging pendulum, who oozes under a door; a clock that grows a literal face; a radio speaker that turns into a crooning skull; Cab Calloway (who did music for a couple of Betty Boops) doing a drug-song complete with pantomime coke-snorting; and a covey of frenzied female fans who, upon spotting their idol (Bing Crosby) form a football line and rush him! As I say, pretty spacey. There’s also Burns and Allen (briefly) and some very enterprising sight gags.
THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1936 (Paramount — need I add the year?) features much less interesting material, but a likeably zany plot, with Jack Oakie, the year before Super Sleuth, improbably moustached, playing Lochinvar, the Great Lover of the Airwaves, abducted to the island kingdom of a Russian (I think) Countess, along with an invention called “The Radio Eye” which picks up events (primarily musical and comedy spots by a variety of performers) around the world. Inventors Burns & Allen(!) are hot on the trail of their creation, and Oakie has to contend with the lethal rivalry of C. Henry Gordon and Akim Tamiroff for the Countess’s affections. Very enjoyable.
Oakie, incidentally, was a mildly prominent star in the early 30s, who for some reason went out of style, though his persona was adopted by Bob Hope and (later) Jack Carson. Hope, Carson and Oakie always played cowards who fancied themselves Men of Action, Nerds who imagined they were Great Lovers, consistently unable to understand why everyone on Earth doesn’t love them.
With this in mind, Oakie was a Natural to play Mussolini in Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, and he did a fine job of it in his last great part. He can still be seen in small parts as late as The Wonderful Country, but the Golden Days were behind him.
Bob Hope shared most of Oakie’s persona, but where Oakie was the eternal Cheese, Hope was the inveterate Schnook, with a hungry vulnerability that Oakie never sought. He also looked slightly more like a Leading Man.
I particularly like Hope’s “Road” pictures, where he and Crosby send up Adventure Flicks with gay abandon. Road To Zanzibar for example, has a highly enjoyable fight between Hope and a Killer Ape, where both combatants use the corniest old wrestling Routines imaginable: Airplane spins, Body Slams, leg-holds, beating the ground in mock-agony, etc. etc.
THE BIG BROADCAST. Paramount, 1932. Bing Crosby, Stuart Erwin, Leila Hyams, Sharon Lynn, George Burns & Gracie Allen, The Mills Brothers. Director: Frank Tuttle.
THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1936. Paramount, 1935. Jack Oakie, George Burns & Gracie Allen, Lyda Roberti, Wendy Barrie. Director: Norman Taurog.
MACHINE GUN MAMA. PRC Pictures, 1944. Armida, El Brendel, Wallace Ford, Jack La Rue, Luis Alberni, Julian Rivero. Director: Harold Young.
I must have lived a sheltered life. I had never heard of El Brendel until I watched this movie. You’re never too old to learn more about the movies than you knew the day before. “El” is short for Elmer, and Brendel is pronounced “Bren-DELL.”
He was a vaudeville star, so I’m told, whose shtick was a comically funny Swedish accent. Most of the films he made through the 1940s were comedy shorts, in which he invariably played characters named Ole, Ollie, Oley, Knute or Axel Swenson, but by the 1950s he’d worked his way up to television, including an appearance on Perry Mason, among other quite prestigious shows.
In Machine Gun Mama he’s teamed up with Wallace Ford as two guys from Brooklyn who are in Mexico trying to deliver an elephant to someone whose address they’ve apparently lost. When their truck breaks down, a carnival nearby catches their eye, and that’s where the movie begins.
Let me back up for a moment. I thought when I bought this movie that maybe I was I was buying a movie about Ma Barker and her gang. Not so. Not at all. Not for a minute. The Mexican actress named Armida plays the title character, and where the machine gun comes in is a small story in itself. As it happens, Armida, the carnival owner’s daughter, is also the girl sitting in the dunking booth. Hit the bulls-eye with a baseball, and in she goes.
Three times in a row. All at the hands (or pitching arm) of Wallace Ford’s character. Armida, a miniature spitfire (just under five feet tall), takes offense at this, runs over to the booth opposite, turns the prop machine gun around and blasts away, destroying a lot of property but no lives, thank goodness.
She also falls in love with John O’Reilly, the famous “kibitzer” from Brooklyn (that’s Wallace Ford), but her father… Wait, wait, there’s an elephant in the room. Really. And there’s a bad guy (Jack Le Rue) to whom Armida’s father owes a lot of money to, but the elephant (really) is such a star attraction that…
I suppose that if you’re still with me, there’s a chance you’ll watch the movie, so I’ll say no more. It’s a lot of fun, not the silly, slapstick sort at all — or mostly not — but the kind of quiet fun that may make you smile a lot without ever cracking you up.
There are some songs and dance, too, but mostly (and strangely) not until the very end of the movie, which finishes up all of the story lines so quickly I had to back up the DVD to see what I’d missed. You can watch the entire 60 minutes for yourself online here on www.archive.org.
THAT NIGHT IN RIO. 20th Century Fox, 1941. Alice Faye, Don Ameche, Carmen Miranda, S. Z. Zakall, J. Carrol Naish. Musical direction by Alfred Newman; Hermes Pan, choreographer; music and lyrics by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren. Director: Irving Cummings. Shown at Cinevent 35, Columbus OH, May 2003.
Oh, that eye-popping technicolor! Great color cinematography makes you want to lap it up like sugar candy, and there was a time when that kind of color was not an unusual occurrence on the screen.
And That Night in Rio, starring a very popular trio of musical comedy performers, matches its eye-grabbing color with vibrant performances that provide some of the movie magic (and it doesn’t have to involve ghosts) that used to be more commonplace.
Well, maybe Alice Faye, a favorite of my errant youth, is somewhat matronly and reserved, but she still cuts a mighty lush figure in a nightgown. (Yes, there’s a semi-naughty bedroom sequence that stays fairly primly but still suggestively on the right side of the Production Code.)
And Carmen Miranda exudes so much energy that it’s relaxing to have Faye taking center screen, with her mellow voice purring seductively in the lyrics for “They Met in Rio.” Ameche’s dual roles may not have the malevolent fierceness of Chaney’s in The Blackbird [reviewed here ], but they suit the well-constructed comic plot to a “T.” A delightful opening film for the Saturday night screenings.
Editorial Comment: To watch a five minute clip from this movie, featuring Carmen Miranda and Don Ameche singing “Chica Chica Boom Chic”, go here on YouTube. Spectacular, indeed!