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Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The RKO Oddities

When I last wrote I mentioned that I was looking forward to three new-to-television oldies from RKO, so I do feel I obliged to comment on them. The first two were "Curtain Call" (1940) and "Footlight Fever" (1941), but for some reason only the first of these found its way onto my hard disc. Never mind! The second was a sequel of sorts to the first movie and purportedly not as successful. Both films star Alan Mowbray and Donald McBride as a theatrical producer-director team and their double act was only sporadically amusing, to the extent that a second pairing might have begun to become annoying. The story was a kind of precursor of "The Producers": in order to salvage their relationship with their prima donna star who is threatening to sign with another company, the pair commission the worst script they can find as her contractual swansong. They hope that it will do such harm to her reputation that she will be obliged to do their bidding.  Unfortunately she thinks it is the greatest play ever and the boys realise that they stand to lose a fortune, especially since the author, Little-Miss-No-Talent-from-the-sticks, refuses to alter a sacred word. 

Like I said, only mildly amusing before the predictable denouement and a second helping of the same characters would have been de trop. The third film being shown, however, proved to be an absolute gem or perhaps it just happened to tickle my funny-bone. "Sing and Like It" (1934) is a forgotten B-movie from the prolific jobbing director William Seiter, active from the early days, and subsequently the helmsman for such minor pleasures as "Sons of the Desert", "If You Could Only Cook", and assorted Shirley Temple films. In this flick Nat Pendleton and Pert Kelton, normally secondary character actors, are given the leads as an ambitious gang-leader and his moll. She yearns to be on the stage, bored with her pampered life, and he yearns for better quality heists. While he and his gang, dressed to the nines in evening wear, are busy robbing a bank, he overhears a staff amateur dramatic society rehearsal and in particular a rather talentless ZaSu Pitts crooning a soppy paean to 'Mother'. Pendleton is so moved by the sentimentalism (his own dear old mum is serving time) that he forces impresario Edward Everett Horton to star Pitts in his new show, much to Kelton's disgust. Shadows of "Bullets over Broadway" here!

Pitts faithful paramour is played by the always wonderful John Qualen, who only wants to settle down and raise tomatoes, but she yearns for her name in Broadway lights, despite her obvious shortcomings. Horton is terrific as the harassed producer, tearing his hair at the indignities heaped upon him, especially since Pendleton wants to jazz up the script with bad jokes from one of his thuggish sidekicks. However the stand-out performance is from Ned Sparks (a familiar on-screen face, again from the silent days) playing Toots, Pendleton's right-hand man. He acts as a sardonic one-man Greek chorus on the proceedings and his quips and double-takes are priceless. The scene where he pokes a gun in the ribs of the doyen of theatre critics on the show's opening night, to obtain the required cheers, tears, and laughs, is brilliant. As a spoof of the gangster pictures of the period and with enough pre-code double entendres to boot, the movie is tremendous fun, even if one does have to hear the silly 'mommy' song reprised ad nauseam. At a scant seventy minutes, this film never outstays its welcome.

Coincidentally there was also a showing of another RKO rarity "Melody Cruise" (1933) which has been on television previously but which I had forgotten and this proved to be another highlight of my weekend viewing. Directed by Mark Sandrich just before he went on to do five of the Astaire/Rogers confections, this film also relishes pre-code possibilities and combines these with innovative musical numbers and brilliant editing, using the popular 'wipe' technique of the 30s and great photo montages. Good old Charlie Ruggles, the only majorish name in the cast, plays a would-be satyr 'though theoretically faithful to his long-suffering wife, on a solo cruise from the East to the West Coast. After a boisterous bon voyage party in his stateroom, he awakes the next morning to find two scantily-clad showgirls passed out on his sofa, who conveniently 'forgot' to get off the ship; with the help of a mercenary steward (a prancing Chick Chandler) who has cleverly thrown their clothes overboard, he tries to pass them off as his 'nieces' until he can get rid of them. His best pal also on the voyage is played (in his first screen role) by Phil Harris, later better known as a band leader, the husband of Alice Faye, and the voice of Baloo in "The Jungle Book" (1957). He is on board in continued pursuit of European sophisticate Greta Nissen, but is soon entranced by small-town ingénue Helen Mack, despite having promised Ruggles that he will never marry. He posts a letter to his friend's wife, outlining the latter's many indiscretions, 'to be opened should I ever marry' and Ruggles is frantic to prevent that letter ever being taken from its envelope.

The film is an unusual musical insofar as much of the dialogue is in rhyme and most of the 'songs' are actually spoken by the large and anonymous cast, often one word or line at a time such as in the 'He's not the Marrying Kind' number. There is also clever use of various sound effects -- a man sweeping, a whistle blowing -- as part of the music. The only 'sung' song by Harris, is echoed in other languages by Spanish, Italian, and German passengers on other parts of the cruise ship. Even a sub-Busby Berkeley number by a group of ice skaters (after the players have disembarked let me quickly add) has its moments. I'm told that Betty Grable plays one of the stewardesses, but it was obviously a blink-and-you-miss-it role, since I certainly didn't pick her out.

My movie life is full of such little pleasures. Time allowing, I would now go on to rhapsodize about the DVD of the more mainstream "Café Metropole" (1937) from 20th Century Fox starring the beauteous young Tyrone Power, a svelte Loretta Young, a host of my favourite supporting actors, and even two deleted dance turns by Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson. However, I'm out of time for now.   
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