With the perky 1935 musical Thanks A Million, Fox's Cinema Archives made-to-order DVD program unearths another "too good to be forgotten" flick from their holdings. Fox is going way back into the archives for this splashy production, among the earliest films released under the 20th Century Fox banner (the merging of the Fox Film Corporation and 20th Century Pictures took place over the summer of 1935; this came out the following November).
Belying its typical appearance, Thanks A Million stands out a bit by incorporating political satire with song and dance. Is it a pip, or all wet? Read on.
Our story revolves around a ragtag band of unemployed touring musicians, headed by Dick Powell's affable crooner, Eric Land. Also in the troupe is Eric's lovely singer-dancer girlfriend, Sally (Ann Dvorak), Sally's wisecracking musical partner, Phoebe (Patsy Kelly), and the group's opportunistic manager, Ned Allen (radio star Fred Allen in his first film). Arriving in a Podunk upstate New York town, the musicians take shelter from a rainstorm in a local theater where a campaign speech is being delivered by a pompous candidate. Although aspiring governor Judge Culliman (Raymond Walburn) speaks to a packed house, the crowd empties out once word gets around that the thunderstorm has passed. Backstage, Ned visitis Culliman and his backers, proposing that his troupe would energize the campaign rallies by having the man serve as part of a larger, more appealing musical program. The gambit proves to be so popular that Eric Land ultimately upstages Culliman when he delivers a speech in place of the drunken candidate. His folksy, brutally honest speechifying proves the be such a hit that Culliman's backers urge Eric to run for governor instead. Eric accepts, mostly for the publicity, but it lands him in hot water with Sally when the wife of one of the campaign's wealthy donors becomes infatuated with him.
Thanks A Million satisfies as Depression-era escapism, with plenty of interesting/odd musical performances and a sprightly cast led by the surprisingly good Powell (about as untethered as he's ever been). The political angle, with the flashy tyro winning out over the old fuddy duddy, has a sharp and oddly prescient edge (thank Nunnally Johnson's script, brimming with 1930s-style dialogue). With its big-city knowingness, the film actually comes across like the sassy, contemporary product put out by Warner Bros. at the time. Not surprising, since this was produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, who had recently left Warners to strike out on this new venture (where he'd settle for decades). It entertainingly drives home the theme of the common guy making good, with the help of emerging technology of radio.
Speaking of radio, Thanks a Million also holds interest as a vehicle for Fred Allen, a popular radio comedian of the day a la Jack Benny. Like Benny, Allen never made a comfortable transition to the movies (or TV, where he was a long-time game show panelist). His characterization of type-A manager Ned Allen is much more abrasive than his radio personality, but at least this offers a rare glimpse of a radio legend in action on celluloid. Grating as he can be, the actor is nicely matched up with the salty Patsy Kelly (after Allen suggests going to the automat for a meal, Kelly quips "Who's got the nickel?"). The film also gives the usually emotive Ann Dvorak a chance to sing and dance (she's great; Kelly, not so much). As noted before, Dick Powell sings and acts with gusto, positively liberated at the chance to break free from the thankless "boy singer" roles from the Busby Berkeley extravaganzas that made him famous.
And what about the music? The original songs by Arthur Johnston and Gus Khan have a perfectly charming sass which falls perfectly in line with the can-do story. In addition to the lead actors, there are a few odd specialty performers in support. One is a quiet yet oddly irritating violin virtuoso, part of Fred Allen's troupe, who goes by the name Rubinoff. An ingratiating singing group rounds out the troupe - The Yacht Club Boys, part harmony singing combo, part slapstick comedians. The relatively loose, modest musical doings are interrupted by an overblown, Gershwin-like number performed by Paul Whiteman & His Orchestra, a piece that stops Thanks a Million in its tracks but holds a fascination all its own.
As part of the Cinema Archives made-to-order discs, Fox's DVD edition of Thanks a Million falls in line with other m.o.d. products in heavily depending on the quality of the source print used. Here, they used an average looking print with lots of dust and some vertical scratches blighting what is overall a pleasantly sharp picture with lots of detail. While the picture quality is keyed towards the dark side, the mastering is fine.
Thanks a Million's somewhat raggedy but decent mono soundtrack is the only audio option here. The music tends to break up and get shrill on the louder end, and there are a few pops and dropouts, but mostly it's a decent listen (incidentally, the film's sole Academy Award nomination was for Sound). No subtitles.
Only a simple menu for this release, with chapter stops every ten minutes in the film.
The cheery 1935 Dick Powell vehicle Thanks a Million could easily be confused with any number of 1930s musicals in the Busby Berkeley mold. The film's fresh and sharply observant take on political spin places it above the others, however. As one of the first products of the newly formed 20th Century Fox studio and mogul Darryl F. Zanuck, the film tackles a Depression-era story with plenty of vim and verve. Snappy work from Powell and co-stars Fred Allen, Ann Dvorak and Patsy Kelly, too. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.