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Fans of older Hollywood musical films have pretty much been ignored in the first decade of DVD. While other genres have been plumbed to their depths, early talkie films in general were considered just too old, too forgotten, too creaky. A lot of Hollywood history was built on New York traditions of Broadway, Vaudeville and Burlesque, but from our present viewpoint eighty years down the line very few first-person witnesses to the era still survive. As this chapter of film history had nothing to offer the director-centric auteur years of film criticism, it has also been woefully under-documented. 1
The Warner Archive Collection has been releasing quite a few talkie musicals from 1929-1930, when several studios were figuring out how to translate Broadway magic and stage personalities to the big screen. At the UCLA film school we saw samples of entire shows that were filmed mostly in long shot with the idea of replicating the stage experience; even in two-color Technicolor the effect was deadly.
Of course, these early musicals represent all that is left of many great stage performers, especially Vaudeville notables not big enough to enter films as stars, as did Fanny Brice and W.C. Fields. As Hollywood musical choreography and camera stylistics were still a couple of years away, we also get a better look at authentic Broadway staging of the time. The chorus girls are heftier but they often exhibit more professional skill than those Busby Berkeley girls that merely had to look good while posing. More importantly, the now-obscure star performers project a show-biz aura scaled for the theater audience. Even when the jokes are stale, it's impossible not to like these authentic show biz troupers.
The Duncan Sisters Rosetta and Vivian were big vaudeville stars in the 1920s, remembered for their "tab production" (shortened, or tabloid) of Uncle Tom's Cabin, a minstrel comedy called Topsy and Eva. Already in their thirties by the time sound came along, they made only a few films. It's A Great Life is an MGM follow-up to the smash success The Broadway Melody, repeating the formula of two sisters trying to make it in show biz.
Clownish Casey (Rosetta) and vivacious Babe (Vivian) work in the sheet music section of a major department store (where plenty of MGM music appears on the racks). They're constantly in trouble but are protected by the kindly supervisor David (Jed Prouty), who is soft on Casey. Babe, meanwhile, wants to marry piano player and wannabe songwriter Jimmy Dean (Lawrence Gray). Casey's show-off antics in the big store revue (a sequence in two-color Technicolor) gets all of them fired; despite an ongoing feud between Casey and Jimmy, the trio enjoys some success with a musical comedy act. The two girls pop out of a piano to sing their theme song by Dave Dreyer and Ballard MacDonald, "I'm Following You".
The act breaks up and the sisters fail separately; only Babe's sickness gets them back together again. Delirious, Babe imagines a glorious Broadway success -- a second Technicolor sequence.
It's A Great Life begins with a snappy chase through city streets, clearly arranged to open up a 100% stage-bound show. Sam Wood's direction is basic but doesn't seem inhibited by the early-talkie limitations lampooned in Singin' in the Rain: the stars don't meet at a flower pot every time they feel the need to speak. Other "musical clichés" are here in full force, including a hayseed barn dance to a song called "Hoosier Hop", and a number built around a fashion show. For the capper, the Hogan sisters shock the audience by appearing in their underwear.
Already 34 years old, Rosetta Duncan looks a little aged for her baby-doll costumes, a concern that probably meant little on the stage. She compensates with solid comedy skills, pulling rubber-face double takes and snapping out some fairly good patter. Casey Hogan is furious at Jimmy, the egotistical accompanist. When a colleague asks for a $2 donation for a funeral for another piano player who has died, Casey whips out her money: "Here's ten dollars. Bury FIVE piano players!"
It's obvious that the sisters, especially Rosetta, can sing up a storm. Their comedy act frequently ends with their signature duet, sung while embracing or walking cheek to cheek. The mawkish ending generates some genuine sentiment thanks to Rosetta's unabashed emotionalism, ditching out on a wedding trip to Europe to rush to her sister's bedside. Babe's "delirious" imagined stage success is a series of numbers bookended with a close-up of a spinning painted umbrella, the film's only nod to stylization.
It's A Great Life is in fantastic shape, with clear audio and a solid picture. The Technicolor sequences with their limited color palate look good as well. Something we don't expect to see are two or three zoom lens shots, including one that racks in and out to indicate the point of view of a dizzy performer. The technique must have been discouraged because it shows up very infrequently in classic Hollywood films. One zoom shot in a Technicolor scene isn't as successful, as the picture gets very soft when the lens telescopes out.
With Sally we jump from Vaudeville to Broadway and to the impressive, talented Marilyn Miller, one of Florenz Ziegfeld's biggest stars. The kind of performing personality that would surely succeed in any era, Ms. Miller instantly charms us with her winning smile and twinkly eyes. Her 1920 show Sally was both a typical Miller vehicle and also her most popular. The First National movie appears to have been filmed in New York utilizing top chorines for the larger musical numbers, which come across as both lavish and authentic.
A sweet, ambitious orphan, Sally (Miller) slaves as a waitress until her beauty catches the eye of a Long Island swell, Blair Farrell (Alexander Gray). Blair romances Sally while ignoring his engagement to Marcia (Nora Lane), who wisely intuits that his heart is elsewhere. While Blair promotes Sally and works up the nerve to break off with Marcia, society matron Mrs. Ten Brock (Maude Turner Gordon) is planning to announce the engagement officially. The show comes together at a big country estate party, where Sally impersonates a Russian entertainer to help out a desperate theatrical agent. Also at the party is the Grand Duke Constantine of Czechogovenia (hilarious Joe E. Brown), who in reality hasn't a penny to his name. "Connie" secretly waits tables at the same restaurant club that employs Sally.
Joe E. Brown performs some funny slapstick and also a clever novelty dance with Ms. Miller, who is skilled at all manner of stage dancing - tap, interpretative, even ballet-like moves. As the leading man / tenor is pleasant but none-too-handsome, Brown's presence livens things up considerably. The original play by P.G. Wodehouse has plenty of good jokes along with a few that make us scratch our heads. We don't know if this exchange in the restaurant was meant to be as dirty as it now sounds:
Agent: "Bring us a dozen clams."
Sally has some okay songs and one terrific hit, "Look for the Silver Lining" by Jerome Kern and Buddy G. DeSylva. Alexander Gray belts it out in a strong tenor voice but Marilyn's sweet warbling has star quality to spare, and an emotional punch to rival Irene Dunne. The movie can be slow (the first song doesn't appear for twenty minutes) but Miller's presence buoys the entire enterprise, aided by Joe E. Brown's comedy support. To see Sally is to get a glimpse at a lost musical tradition that now exists only on records and a few rare surviving films.
A secondary comedy player is the funny Pert Kelton, here a shapely 22 year-old. Twenty years later she became the original Alice Kramden on The Honeymooners but had to relinquish the role in a particularly ugly bit of blacklisting. Ms. Kelton later returned to television work after her role as Shirley Jones' mother in the '62 film of The Music Man.
Sally doesn't look quite as sharp as the previous film, not because of a poor restoration but because the transfer element looks to be a couple of generations away from original. Audio is still good and the picture highly watchable. Only one musical number is present in 2-Strip Technicolor, and the way it cuts in and out arbitrarily, it seems to be a surviving fragment. More likely than not, more scenes were originally in Technicolor. One stage number with chorus girls dressed in large butterfly costumes looks very much as if it were designed in color.
You may also note that in this film and Golden Dawn the left side of the frame is much tighter on the actors than the right. This looks suspiciously like an aspect ratio formatting problem that occurs with silent-to-talkie transition pictures. If Sally used the Vitaphone system, it might have been filmed in full silent aperture. When it came time to make standard sound-on-film prints, the left extreme of the frame would have been lost to the soundtrack stripe, accounting for the off-center compositions.2
I mentioned seeing a desert-set operetta film at a UCLA screening that seemed to go on forever. It might have been Oscar Hammerstein II's The Desert Song (1929), a successful Technicolor musical that apparently inspired a spate of imitators so dismal, the musical genre went into a slump until Eddie Cantor and Busby Berkeley got it going again. 1930's Golden Dawn is also from an operetta by Oscar Hammerstein II, with Otto Harbach. Without any exaggeration whatsoever, it's the weirdest, most dated and outlandishly non-P.C. musical movie we've yet seen.
The crazy setup has a group of English prisoners of war (WW1) languishing in an East African village, watched over by one German officer (Ottoe Matieson) and a native contingent. An opening, silent-movie style title tells us that although the English and Germans are at war in this part of the world, we shouldn't be upset because the black natives are still being properly subjugated. There are no fences or lock-up bunkers, and the English prisoners enjoy the freedom to flirt with the black natives. Two comedic Tommies (Lee Moran & Lupino Lane) vie for the attentions of Joanna (Marion Byron), the spirited daughter of the English surgeon: what she's doing in the camp is anyone's guess. As the comedy relief, Joanna functions much like Ado Annie in Oklahoma!, wrestling with the boys in a novelty song called "A Tiger".
We aren't surprised to see the black extras behaving in standard Unga-bunga mode; that's just the way things are in pre-conscious racist movies. But the African natives with speaking roles are all played by whites in blackface, and performed as if they were American "darkie" stereotypes. Noah Beery is Shep Keyes, a brutal black bully who sings about how much he likes to torture people with his whip -- in a cultured baritone (this is a Viennese-style opera, remember). When Shep speaks normally, his language is all "g'wine" this and "yousa" that.
The story is racist claptrap far beneath all consideration. Native girl Dawn (Vivienne Segal) is light-skinned, blonde and blue-eyed, but nobody seems to doubt the claims of black mama Mooda (Alice Gentle) that she is Dawn's birth mother. Remember Bloody Mary's rather weird relationship with her daughter Liat in Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific? This blackface Mooda wants to "marry off" Dawn to a wooden idol named Malungu, making her Taboo to all men and thereby safe from their corrupting evil. Mooda sings a couple of plaintive "mature woman with issues" songs, that function similarly to songs in later Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, even when delivered by nuns.
Dawn, however is a total ditz who sings of being taken away by "My Bwanna", her pet name for hunky Brit prisoner Tom Allen (Walter Woolf of A Night at the Opera). Tom must figure a way to keep Dawn from being married -- and later sacrificed -- to Malungu. Dawn is chained to the idol's altar much like Fay Wray in King Kong, which lends support to the theory that racist ideas jump from one cultural context to the next, almost unconsciously. It's a show-biz law: any movie with black natives seemingly must threaten the violation of a white woman.
Director Ray Enright plants his camera in a single spot whenever somebody begins an operatic workout; there's no complaining about the singing but the songs are memorable only for their twisted lyrics. Shep Keyes' little ditties about whipping victims sound like something Bluto would sing in a Fleischer Popeye cartoon lampooning operettas. Besides Marion Byron's amusing comedy relief, we've got Lupino Lane (Ida Lupino's uncle, a Brit Music Hall star) performing an extreme novelty dance involving splits, backflips and wild rubber-leg high kicks.
The film's cavalcade of racial slurs never seems to end. All the whites are basically honorable, while Mooda and Shep behave like vermin. We learn that Mooda stole Dawn from her white father as revenge, a nasty back story that reminds us of the Lon Chaney film West of Zanzibar, minus an obscene twist or two. When the venal Shep isn't ambushing and murdering, the natives are preparing sacrificial fires to burn most of the leading players alive. The patronizing attitude of the Brits and their cozy "honor" pact with the Germans is equally offensive -- not twenty years before, the English treatment of Boer prisoners in South Africa added a new entry to the warfare lexicon: "concentration camp".
Dressing up all this pious racism with operetta songs only adds to the overall tastelessness, advancing Golden Dawn to a top roost in the Camp Riot sweepstakes. Obviously, the only public place something like this could be shown would be a school situation, or a venue where it could be preceded by a tall stack of disclaimers; I have African-American friends that I'm sure wouldn't find it the least bit amusing. Then again, the PC practice of sweeping things like this under the rug needs to stop. Old movies with offensive racial content have almost disappeared from view. Hollywood shows like Golden Dawn have been out of sight and out of mind since at least the 1970s. If we want to understand where racism comes from, and why it remains in the cultural mainstream, bizarro evidence like Golden Dawn needs to be kept accessible.
We're told that Golden Dawn was originally in 2-Strip Technicolor, but that no copies have survived. The B&W image is quite good on this Vitaphone production, and the sound overall is clear as well. Some matte paintings help establish mood. The natives normally behave as a lumpen mob but are Thoroughly Modern when it comes to pagan rituals -- their sacrificial dance is choreographed and blocked as if Malungu's altar were center stage in a Broadway theater.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R's of It's a Great Life, Sally and Golden Dawn are separate releases, and represent only a sampling of the many MGM and Warners-First National early-talkie musicals available through the Burn On Demand service.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
It's a Great Life, Sally and Golden Dawn rate:
2. This is a guess, but an educated one. Other formatting and duping issues could conceivably account for the same off-center compositions. And a couple of text titles in the film don't seem to be compromised this way.
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