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Friday, 8 July 2016

Premiere (1938)

Nearly everything about the background of this film is fascinating. It's a shame therefore that the movie itself is a fairly feeble potboiler featuring a cast, with one exception, of solid wood. We only chose its rare showing at the National Film Theatre because of a very misleading programme blurb which suggested that it was the love child of Agatha Christie and Busby Berkeley -- murder mystery meets extravagant 30s' musical.

For once the introduction by one of the BFI archivists was enlightening and well-presented. It seems there was a very successful 1937 Austrian film of the same name starring the notorious Zarah Leander. A star of Swedish operetta, it was her first German-speaking role and led to her becoming the highest paid film star of World War II German cinema, although she never became a German citizen much to Dr Goebbels' chagrin. She was the 'Nazi Garbo' if you will, and starred in a string of worthy dramas. She never regained her popularity in her homeland after the war, being considered a collaborator. But back to the movie under discussion...

The director of this English film, Joseph Summers, had a copy of the original Austrian movie and cut the extravagant German musical numbers into his pedestrian remake. You know the drill: hundreds of dancers, reflecting mirrors, and a theatrical stage that seems to go on to infinity.  However, he needed to find an actress who could pass for star Leander in the close-ups, especially when clothed in the same gowns, and chose B-player Judy Kelly for the important lead. Naturally the German lyrics needed to be translated into English, but unfortunately Kelly was no singer, so she was dubbed a la Marnie Nixon. Think about it: a flashy German musical production translated into English with a look-alike lead actress who can not do her own vocals. Bizarre! The original cinematographer, costume designer, musical director, choreographer, and writers are not credited.

However the weirdness does not end there. Like the original, Summers' film is set in Paris for no discernible reason and the cast share more or less the same names as their Austrian counterparts, although leading man Hugh Williams has his name changed from the original Fred to Rene!! The plot concerns the murder of an impresario in his box during the premiere of his latest revue, and inspector Bonnard (who just happens to be in the audience) solves the mystery before the final curtain. Bonnard is played by the American actor John Lodge, a scion of the old Boston family and subsequently Governor of Connecticut, as a stolid Scotland Yard type. He and his bowler-hatted minions are supported by a bevy of unlikely-costumed gendarmes. One change to the script was to give him a 'silly ass' sidekick who adds absolutely nothing to the plot, but the character was thought to be a staple in mystery movies of the time, much like Charlie Butterworth in Hollywood films of the period.

The one exception to the feeble casting was the role given to the Hungarian-born actor Steve Geray as the excitable stage manager, who managed to out-act the rest of the cast. Geray went on to a long Hollywood career, generally in notable support in movies like "The Mask of Dimitrios" (1944) and "Spellbound (1945), and he even had a rare starring role in "How Dark the Night" (1946). He continued until 1966 with his ignominious cinema swan-song in "Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter".

The supporting programme shown with the above movie fortunately had its own charms. There was a brief clip of the Norah Jackson dancers from 1932 and the 21-minute "Teddy Bergman's International Broadcast" (1937) which featured some weird musical-hall turns of exotic singers, contortionists, and jugglers, as well as the singularly unfunny Mr Bergman himself. For good measure there were some additional brief clips of unknown origin featuring a girl-group of the period a la the Andrews Sisters and a pair of remarkable sub-teen xylophonists. I'd love to be able to trace these unknown charmers.

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