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To define the American Musical movie in its basic form, you can't do much better than RKO's Two Tickets to Broadway. This showbiz song 'n' dancer looks very much like MGM product, with its bright Technicolor, squeaky-clean characterizations and 'everything matches' design strategy. Unlike MGM's product, the musical numbers are fairly straightforward, even those choreographed by Busby Berkeley. But the camera direction for the 'book' part of the show is unusually elaborate. RKO production heads Norman Krasna and Jerry Wald were reportedly frustrated by studio owner Howard Hughes' bizarre micromanagement practices; in this show it looks as if the RKO team knocked itself out to impress the eccentric millionaire.
Sammy Cahn's story couldn't be more generic: remember that in the Hollywood Musical, narrative originality is often irrelevant. Pelican Falls senior Nancy Peterson (Janet Leigh) is put on the Broadway-bound bus by her entire class, which makes success on the Great White Way essential. The bus is also transporting three broke showgirls back to Manhattan, Hannah, Joyce and S.F. "Foxy" (Gloria DeHaven, Ann Miller & Barbara Lawrence). They've once again been stranded by their agent (and Hannah's boyfriend) Lew Conway (Eddie Bracken). Another Conway client, singer Dan Carter (Tony Martin) is admitting defeat and packing up, but Lew uses his usual strategy -- outright lies -- to keep him in town. When the girls return, Lew floats an entire revue out of nothing, getting a pair of amusing Deli owners Leo and Harry (Charles Dale & Joe Smith) to put up the cash. Everyone is working under the illusion that the revue has been booked on Bob Crosby's TV show, but Lew is gambling that some impossible break will save the day.
Two Tickets to Broadway is a musical starring a singer who can sing and an actress who can't. Neither of them is an accomplished dancer. Actually, Janet Leigh, Gloria DeHaven and Barbara Lawrence are versatile talents perfectly capable of using charm to close any actual talent gaps. Naturally, all step back when Ann Miller does one of her specialty tap numbers, but choreographer Busby Berkeley makes it look as if all of the women are natural hoofers. Reportedly a really great guy, Tony Martin was a straight crooner who on film mostly came off as a likeable stiff. Director James V. Kern and Berkeley help pump some life into Martin's screen presence.
The dumb script is packed with good character touches and sharp physical comedy -- this is the kind of show where everybody climbs through windows. Eddie Bracken's agent character may be an annoying necessity but the comedian is no slouch. In one scene he's almost hit by a car -- a stunt driver does an abrupt stop about half an inch from Bracken's knees. Except for checking his mark, Bracken shows no sign at all that he's doing a dangerous stunt.
Written mostly by Styne and Robin, the songs are pretty but not particularly memorable. Dan and Nancy's sweet love scenes are aided by the actors' fresh responses. An elaborate 'pretend we're on a date' number in the salon of a girl's rooming house (to Rodgers & Hart's I'll Take Manhattan) has an almost innocent quality. Both Martin and Leigh really look like they want to make a good impression. Most of the musical numbers look less rehearsed and more spontaneous than the overly polished, sometimes too professional work in lesser MGM fare. Nancy visits Dan in the deli courtyard, as he practices piano while rain falls all around (Closer and Closer). The scene has a warm, relaxed mood.
Other songs are less charming. The Worry Bird is built around a Toucan in Central Park (?) and is rescued by Ann Miller's enthusiastic dancing. Bandleader Bob Crosby does an entire musical number (Let's Make Comparisons) based on his more famous brother Bing, who appears as a dummy. Bob Crosby looks like Bing morphed with Harry Morgan. The number dies. The show also pauses for several minutes of colorful but irrelevant trapeze comedy and dancing with a French act, "The Charlivels". Tony sings the Prologue to Pagliacco in a clown outfit, proving that "musical art" pretensions were not limited to MGM films.
The excellent Berkeley choreography comes through in Dan and Nancy's big love ballet- ballad, Are You a Beautiful Dream? You have to watch carefully to see Janet Leigh replaced by a real ballet dancer for the more difficult moves (look for the two shadows). Just when we're wondering why Two Tickets to Broadway isn't better known, the show hits us with a woo-woo ugh-ugh Injun comedy number, Big Chief Hole in the Ground. Our four female leads are sexpot squaws, all of whom bear papooses for the Big Chief (Tony) because his oil wells are pumping up the cash. It's PC poison, in questionable taste even before the ethnic stereotypes become an issue -- and it's irresistible.
The Technicolor Two Tickets to Broadway is a technical marvel, with a camera that cranes around speeding cars and swoops through windows. Just keeping everything in focus must have been a challenge. The active camera adds punch to the show without getting in the way. This was director Kern's biggest picture, and he immediately moved on to a long TV career. Even the insert shots are precise, with cats fighting on cue (very impressive) and looking great in Technicolor close-ups. Tony Martin is the warmest he's ever been on screen and Janet Leigh is both fetching and charming. The other three leading ladies always look terrific, even if they don't rate the good material.
The Charles Dale-Joe Smith comedy team, a long-famous Vaudeville duo, records some of their classic material. The Palace Deli is probably named after the duo's home theater, The Palace. Their long career is reportedly one of the inspirations for the play The Sunshine Boys. It's a sure bet that Busby Berkeley didn't help Dale & Smith with their act, but he does bookend the film with one of his specialties, a High School marching band.
Buddy Baer has a nice bit as a sailor threatening to punch out Eddie Bracken's Lew.
Two Tickets to Broadway forces us to consider the crazy behavior of RKO owner Howard Hughes, who apparently saw the studio as a plaything that he could run into the ground, knowing that his investment was safe just in terms of the studio library and the real estate. Hardly any of Hughes' employees ever laid eyes on their boss, and he reportedly only visited the studio once. He worked out of his corporate office about five blocks West, and also kept a few offices at the Goldwyn lot. As part of his oversight (interference) with this musical, he wanted to approve the sets. He made his crews dismantle all of them, move them to a rented space on the Goldwyn Lot, re-erect them and let them stand for days before he made time to check them out. That reportedly took less than ten minutes, whereupon the dozen or so big sets were all once again struck, moved less than a mile back to RKO and re-built to the tune of many, many thousands of dollars.
The musical has a hot rod but no fast cars, guns or aircraft, so why did Hughes make it one of his personally presented productions? A look at the cast list shows at least thirty starlets, all playing showgirls or aspiring actresses. Among the notables to spot and/or glom in Technicolor are Joan Shawlee, Vera Miles, Mara Corday, Joi Lansing and Mamie Van Doren. Most are just background adornments. How many received personal 2am dinner invites from Howie? Did Hughes become a studio chief for the purpose of establishing an enormous personal harem? We usually hear only about the actresses who said no, or had highly publicized fights with this strangest of bosses, like Jean Simmons.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Two Tickets to Broadway can boast a bright and colorful transfer of a composite element from the original Technicolor. Some scenes are a little cool for color temperature but do no harm. The images are practically flawless, with just a little alignment fringing here and there. It's a great-looking show. In one establishing shot of Broadway at night we see marquees for A Streetcar Named Desire, We Were Strangers and Home of the Brave, which nails the filming date for that stock shot as early May, 1949. The songs come across bright and clear in the perfectly preserved soundtrack. An original trailer is included.
Like many RKO films from this period, the opening globe and tower logo is in B&W, but the "The End" badge is in color. Howard Hughes blew a fortune so he wouldn't have to physically visit his own company, but he apparently said no to shooting a &%@$ color logo.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Two Tickets to Broadway rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.