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On With The Show
Warner Bros. // Unrated // February 16, 2006
List Price: $26.99 [Buy now and save at Wbshop]
Vitaphone, a company that Warner Brothers purchased in the 1920's, wasn't only responsible for making the movies "talk" with the sound-on-disc system that they invented, but they were also the first to release an all-talking feature in full color, 1929's On with the Show. As The Jazz Singer started a trend towards full-sound features a couple of years earlier, On with the Show had studios scrambling to release movies in glorious Technicolor. This early talkie does still survive, but unfortunately only as a black and white dupe (a 10-second fragment of the film in color surfaced in 2005, but that's all that still exists). Luckily the lack of color hasn't stopped The Warner Archives from distributing the movie to fans as it's quite enjoyable and has some more than a little historical value. It features early appearances by several notable actors and it included the first screen appearance of Ethyl Waters (the second African-American actress to be nominated for an Academy Award, though not for this picture.)
It's crunch time for the cast and crew of the traveling show Phantom Sweetheart. Having trekked across the country honing the musical/drama, the production is deep in debt and the producer has creditors on his tail. If they have a successful show tonight it will mean that they can go on to Broadway, fame, and fortune, and if not the show folds.
Putting on a great show is easier said than done. There's a lot of backstage drama that the has to be sorted out... the comic (Joe E. Brown) is angry that the romantic lead (Arthur Lake) keeps stepping on his lines, the usher (William Bakewell) is trying to get his girlfriend and box-office attendant (Sally O'Neil) a part on stage while she's trying to hold off an investor (Wheelar Oakman) who can guarantee her a starring part if she'll only play ball.
To make matters worse, half way through the show someone robs the box office and steals the money they need to get to the next town (and pay off the creditors). If they can't find the thief, and the missing money, it won't matter how good the performance is the show will be sunk.
Though I'm sure the idea of showing what goes on behind the curtain while a play is being performed didn't originate with this movie, the idea works well in this fun film. They don't have to shoehorn in the musical numbers, they just show what's happening on stage whenever they feel the need for a song. The mish-mash of styles (comedy, drama mystery, and big musical productions) feel more natural too since some of it is just the play that's being preformed.
The performances are generally good and it's great to see so many faces that film buffs will recognize. My favorite person in the cast, though he's only in a supporting role, is Joe E. Brown. He's been a favorite of mine since the first time I saw Some Like it Hot (he plays the rich man who falls for Jack Lemon when he's dressed as a woman). Every line he says in that film is hilarious and he's amusing in this picture too. Brown does a dance on stage that's hilarious and his bickering with the show's lead is great. Ethyl Waters sings two songs (but aside from that isn't involved in the backstage antics) and does a magnificent job. Her rendition of Am I Blue? which was written for this movie, was wonderful and the song went on to be a standard for many years.
Silent actress and WAMPAS Baby Star Sally O'Neil is cute and fun in her role, though it's sad that her film career would be over for all intents and purposes in a few short years. Another silent star, Betty Compton (Docks of New York), is fantastic in her role as the spoiled female star of the stage production. Her part isn't very big until the final act, but when she's on screen she shines in this comic role.
The only real misfire was in the casting of the male lead.
The movie was fun and enjoyable and the ending worked particularly well. It's easy to see why this was a box office smash when it was first released.
This film comes on a single DVD-R in standard keepcase with cover art.
The films mono soundtrack is pretty good. There is some background noise, which is to be expected, but it's relatively minor. The songs come through clearly as does the dialog, and that's what really matters.
It's too bad that all of the color prints are gone, as well as the negative. To make matters worse, the only version of this film that still exists has a soundtrack added to the film which necessitated removing part of the left side of the frame to make room for the audio. Because of that the image isn't as symmetrical as it was intended to be, with actors seeming to stand a bit too far to the left. It doesn't ruin the movie, and there's really nothing that can be done about it in any case. (My rating of the image quality does not take this framing issue into account since it's inherent in all existing prints.)
Aside from that the image is good, but not spectacular. The picture is a bit soft and there is some minor print damage, but it is nearly 85 years old and hasn't had an expensive restoration. The good news is that the image is clear and the contrast is generally fine. It actually looks better than this description makes it sound.
This is a very enjoyable movie. I've always liked the show-within-a-show format and it worked very well in this film. There are some appearances by some great actors and singers fans of early cinema will have a great time. The whole production is just fun and comes highly recommended.