Friday, 30 May 2014

Dixiana (1930)

I'm back to obscurities again after last week's attempt to go with the flow with a modern populist film. The reason for this is that the satellite SkyArts Channel (a very good thing in principle even if they repeat most of their programmes ad infinitum) is currently doing a 13-part series titled "Hollywood Singing and Dancing". It's based on a 2008 set of DVDs covering the various decades, so it's obviously being chopped and re-assembled to cover the same material over thirteen weeks.  So far I've viewed one programme devoted to the 1920s and a two-parter covering the l930s (which came out significantly shorter than the l930-themed disc).

Since one tends to think of the l920s as the culmination of the silent era, one wouldn't have thought that there would be enough material to broadcast an hour on musicals made between 1928 and 1930, but there was a wealth of films covered. With the coming of sound at the end of that decade, audiences couldn't get enough of staged sound spectaculars, even if they tended to be filmed as if one was sitting in the audience watching the stage from one's seat. There was often no attempt at telling a story, and importing Broadway stars who could sing and dance but not act was often a formula for disaster. All of the studios tried to get in on the musical film's new popularity, but the public was soon sated with these early attempts at mass entertainment. By 1930 this first surge of musical films was dead in the water and would not be revived until the mid-30s by the likes of Astaire and Rogers, Busby Berkeley, and yes, Shirley Temple.

I have over the years seen a selection of these early sound musicals and apart from their historical oddity value, there is little to commend them, and in fact many of them are now 'lost'.
One that is still available and which on paper seemed to have a lot going for it was the above title, which can be viewed on good old YouTube. Various factors appeared promising: popular singing star and silent film actress Bebe Daniels in the lead, supposedly solid support from the comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey (madly popular in the early 30s for their innuendo-laden humour before the Hays Office kicked in), the first film appearance of dancing legend Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson, and the final reel in early two-strip Technicolor.

Despite the lavish production where money seemed no object, I did find it something of a disappointment. Daniels as the eponymous Dixiana was OK, but her co-star Everett Marshall, imported for the role from the Metropolitan Opera in New York was solid mahogany, and the music was singularly unmemorable. Wheeler and Woolsey, whom I have only occasionally seen before were to my taste spectacularly unfunny; their main shtick was to challenge all-comers to a bet that they could not pick up three cigars from the floor, one at a time, without saying 'ouch'. They would then kick their helpless victim up the backside! What jolly japes. Bojangles was as always wonderful -- all three-minutes of his screen time! Black performers in 'white' movies were always only given small bits so that their performances could be cut out to avoid 'offending' audiences in the Southern states. The Technicolor was pretty nifty 'though and probably gave those early viewers their nickel's worth. 

The story, such as it was, concerned Marshall falling in love with New Orleans circus-performer Daniels, who appears in a speciality number with Wheeler and Woolsey dressed as dancing ostriches (!). He takes them to meet his parents on their vast plantation (with its happy Negro workers), but snobby mummy kicks out her beloved son's fiancée when she learns of her circus past, and Daniels is far too noble to let her beloved alienate himself from his family. When she tries to re-join the circus, her act is no longer wanted so the three of them go to work for slimy gambling-house owner Ralf Harolde. He plans to make Dixiana Queen of the Mardi Gras (cue the colour sequence) and his bedroom queen as well, but trusty Marshall and his down-to-earth Daddy save the lady and the day.

It's another instance of my being glad to have seen this film but of my being equally hard-pressed to recommend it as anything other than a curiosity.
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