by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I ran one of the John Payne movies from his early tenure at Warners that I’d been recording to DVD all morning: Garden of the Moon, a 1938 quasi-musical that seemed interesting mainly because Busby Berkeley was the director. Alas, this was the sort of movie that was getting Berkeley thoroughly disillusioned with Warners at the time — so much so that the next year, when his contract ran out, he signed with MGM and took a cut in his own salary for the promise of bigger budgets for his production numbers. The title Garden of the Moon refers to the nightclub in the prestigious Royal Hotel in Los Angeles (read: the Cocoanut Grove in the now-demolished Ambassador Hotel, where Bobby Kennedy was assassinated), run by imperious manager John Quinn (Pat O’Brien, top-billed) much the way Otto Preminger ran Stalag 17.
In the opening scene we see workers taking down the marquee letters advertising the Garden of the Moon’s resident bandleader, Guy Trent. Quinn thunders to his P.R. person and general factotum, Toni Blake (Margaret Lindsay), that from then on he doesn’t want any unknown bands playing his club and he determines to have Rudy Vallée as his next act. (Vallée is referred to throughout the film but never actually seen, though since he was working at Warners at the time in Gold Diggers in Paris, released 3 1/2 months before Garden of the Moon, I guess they considered him — or at least his name — fair game.) Alas, Vallée cracks up his band bus on the way out to California for the gig, and he and six of his musicians are laid up and unable to work for several weeks. Desperate, Quinn agrees to Toni’s suggestion that he hire the band of the unknown Don Vincente (John Payne) because she likes his record of a swing novelty called “The Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish” — even though Quinn can’t stand it and demands that he play only straight dance music on the job.
Since Vincente’s most recent gig was at an ironworkers’ dance during which a brawl broke out, the place exploded in a riot and the musicians not only didn’t get paid for their work but had to flee for their lives and (more importantly, in some ways) the safety of their instruments, naturally they accept the prestigious, potentially star-making gig at the Garden of the Moon. Only Quinn turns out to be such a petty tyrant he’d rather sabotage his club than help his new band become successful. Their first clash comes when Quinn insists that Vincente let his protégée, singer Mary Stanton (Mabel Todd), sing with the band; Vincente insists that his band never uses women singers because they spark romantic rivalries that break bands up, Quinn insists, and when Mary takes the stage Vincente surrounds her with all five of his band’s trumpeters and they drown her out. Quinn takes revenge by cutting the power to Vincente’s microphone so no one in the audience can hear him when he sings, either, but Vincente retaliates by having the audience gather around the bandstand and having the band play softly so his vocal can still be heard without amplification.
Toni, who’s gradually falling in love with Vincente, gets him an audition for a radio broadcast with a chewing-gum company — working through Garden of the Moon regular Mrs. Lornay (Isabel Jeans in full Margaret Dumont mode), who’s shown up at the club with her protégé, movie ape-man Chauncey (Edgar Edwards), a relationship that, like Quinn’s with his pet girl singer, certainly strongly hints at romantic/sexual possibilities directly verboten under the Production Code! — Toni gets Mr. Lornay, owner of the chewing-gum company, to listen when Vincente’s broadcast comes through to New York that night. Only Quinn gets wind of it and sabotages the broadcast, releasing balloons from the roof of the club during the broadcast (where they pop and sound like a gun battle is in progress) and turning up the amplifiers to end the broadcast in a screech of feedback.
The rest of this film — scripted by Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay from a Saturday Evening Post serial by H. Bedford-Jones and John Barton Browne — consists of similarly petty incidents involving Quinn and Vincente (surprisingly there isn’t a romantic-triangle plot line — neither Quinn nor anybody else but Vincente is interested in Toni), culminating in an elaborate publicity stunt in which Toni, to keep Quinn from firing Vincente, hires an out-of-work waiter and pickpocket named Muller (Curt Bois) to pose as the “Maharajah of Sund,” supposedly an Indian potentate with whom Vincente attended college. Only Maurice (Melville Cooper), Quinn’s head waiter, recognizes the impostor and gives the game away. For the finale, Vincente signs to do the Lornay broadcast and return to New York to do it, Quinn is desperate to keep him at the Garden of the Moon — by then the McGillicuddy brothers who own the hotel (Granville Bates and Edward McWade) have noticed how popular Vincente has become despite Quinn’s machinations and demand that he be kept on — and Toni tricks Vincente into signing a contract with the Garden (pointing out that he can still fulfill his contract with Lornay from L.A.) by staging a phony gangster attack on Quinn, Quinn keeps Vincente’s band, Tony gets Vincente and the whole thing ends more or less happily.
Garden of the Moon is reasonably entertaining, but it’s also one of those frustrating films that almost works and could certainly have been a lot better than it was. According to the American Film Institute Catalog, the roles played by John Payne and Margaret Lindsay were originally supposed to go to Dick Powell (not surprisingly, given the stentorian, Powell-esque qualities of Payne’s vocals here) and Bette Davis; Powell agreed to a layoff from Warners rather than do this film and Davis probably went ballistic that she — after her career breakthrough in Of Human Bondage, her first Academy Award for Dangerous, her walkout and attempt to break her Warners contract in Britain, her comeback in Marked Woman and the release of her blockbuster hit Jezebel just a month and a half before Garden of the Moon started production — was still getting handed scripts like this along with Jack Warner’s “Do this — or else!” pronunciamientos.
I can’t really regret that neither Powell nor Davis is in the film as it stands — Davis would have practically defined the term “overqualified” and Powell would have brought a bit more charisma and star power to the role of Vincente but otherwise wouldn’t have played it appreciably differently (ironically, both Powell and Payne eventually gave up musicals and specialized in film noir roles) — but at least with one or both of them the film would have had a bigger budget and there would have been some of those spectacular Busby Berkeley production numbers. As it stands, the Garden of the Moon doesn’t have a floor show or a chorus line at all, and though at least some of the songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin (the star songwriting team from Berkeley’s best films) with Johnny Mercer as second lyricist, seem to cry out for the full-scale treatment (especially the “Whirling Dervish” song and another number called “The Girl on the 2¢ Stamp,” which really dates this movie) cry out for the full Berkeley treatment, they don’t get it. (It’s all too easy to imagine what sort of number Berkeley could have put together from a song called “The Girl on the 2¢ Stamp”: a battalion of chorus girls wave jigsaw-puzzle pieces in the air as they arrange themselves in a kaleidoscope formation and the camera dollies between their legs, and at the end they assemble the jigsaw-puzzle pieces into a giant representation of Ruby Keeler on the 2¢ stamp.)
Instead, Berkeley tries to bring some visual interest to the movie in the ways he shoots the performances by Payne’s band, all oblique camera angles and chiaroscuro shadows, a series of effects just about everyone who directed a musical with a swing band in it ran into the ground over the next decade and which still leaves traces in modern-day music videos (though some of these angles of musicians performing were used even earlier by John Murray Anderson in his pioneering 1930 musical The King of Jazz). As it stands, Garden of the Moon is full of running gags and quirks (like Pat O’Brien’s habit of breaking his watch and then declaring he’s destroyed a family heirloom as the orchestra plays the song “M-O-T-H-E-R” on the soundtrack, thus upsetting whomever he was talking to and getting them to do his will — of course, the camera then pans to his desk drawer, where he keeps a whole bunch of these watches just for these demonstrations) and has the appearance of being originally planned as a far more elaborate (and expensive) film than the one that got made, as witness this list of cast members and characters who were announced for the film but who never made it into the final cut: Rosella Towne (Secretary), Jack Mower (Waiter), Hal Craig (Detective), John Harron (Photographer), Don DeFore (Cowboy Buck Delanye) and Sonny Chorre (Leaping Deer).
While many of the actors who play Vincente’s bandsmen are “gimmick” entertainers — Jerry Colonna is here pre-Bob Hope, complete with handlebar moustache and pseudo-Shakespearean double-talk; and there’s another moon-faced musician whose sole function seems to be to moo at the ends of songs, like a cow — the violinist sounded unusually good, and the closing credits indicated why: he was jazz great Joe Venuti, quite a bit less exciting than he was on his own during the period but still a lot of fun and far ahead of the other soloists (including the unspeakably awful Johnnie “Scat” Davis, who as a white Louis Armstrong wanna-be makes his principal competitor for the white-Armstrong market niche, Louis Prima, seem like a model of subtlety by comparison).
Besides the lack of the spectacular production numbers associated with Berkeley’s name (an absence that probably disappointed a lot of moviegoers in 1938, too!), the other big problem with Garden of the Moon is the miscasting of Pat O’Brien. A stronger Warners personality like Robinson, Cagney or Bogart could probably have pulled off the swaggering club owner and still made him an entertaining figure; O’Brien, used to playing likeable, had done a credible job as the roguish con man in I Sell Anything (though even in that film I sat through most of it thinking how much more fun it would have been with W. C. Fields in the role!), but the part of a fascistic martinet who runs the club as if it were Abu Ghraib was simply wrong for him. (Giving him a romance with Margaret Lindsay and a moment of grace and humanity when he lets her go to John Payne at the end would definitely have helped.)
Garden of the Moon is the sort of coolly professional film the studios in the Golden Age could pretty much turn out in their sleep (and it’s considerably better than some films of the period that look like they were turned out in their makers’ sleep!), but with more distinguished songs and more money to stage them lavishly this could have been far, far better than it is.