Thursday, May 15, 2008

"Jive Junction": PRC's Attempt at a Mickey and Judy Movie

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Jive Junction is a 62-minute “B” from 1943 which’s trivia section bills as the first release of PRC — which it may have been under that company name (the initials stood for Producers’ Releasing Corporation), though by then the company, under its two previous names (Producers’ Pictures and Producers’ Distributing Corporation), had already been in business for four years. The main interest for me was the director, Edgar G. Ulmer, though the film itself was a pretty ordinary youth musical and there were only two sequences that showed any traces of Ulmer’s personal style. The basic plot deals with Peter Crane (Dickie Moore, top-billed for once), a prodigy who’s been attending a conservatory in New York City and suddenly, for no apparent reason, decides to return to his home town of Pasadena and enroll at Clinton High School, where his attempts to re-start his relationship with his childhood girlfriend Claire Emerson (Tina Thayer) run afoul of big-man-on-campus Grant Saunders (Jack Wagner), who insists that Claire is his girl.

Curiously, though there aren’t any big names in the cast then or since, there are two writers who became famous later on — Malvin Wald (brother of Jerry and later screenwriter for The Naked City and other hits) worked with Walter Doniger on the “original” (quotes definitely appropriate!) story and then the two of them wrote the screenplay with someone else who became even more famous, Irving Wallace — and the three manage to squeeze in quite a few plot tropes and reworkings from other, more familiar, more prestigious films. Though handicapped by a PRC non-budget and two leads who can’t sing, Ulmer and the writers managed to whip out a quite entertaining film even though most of the music is quasi-classical sludge and anyone showing up at a theatre in 1943 expecting that a film called Jive Junction would be full of exciting, dynamic swing would have been sorely disappointed.

It begins with Gerra Young, a young singer in the Deanna Durbin mold (PRC gave her an “Introducing … ” credit and her name is pronounced with a hard “G,” German-style, appropriate considering the German nationality of the director), singing an operetta-ish song called “In a Little Music Shop” in — you guessed it — a little music shop (and yes, it was fascinating to me as a long-time record collector to see the ways records were marketed then, including the sign on the shop wall reminding people that shellac was rationed and therefore if they wanted to buy a new record they had to bring in an old one for trade). Gerra has the hots for Peter, who only has eyes for Claire, though this film moves too fast to make much of the romantic quadrilateral its writers established in the first reel — and Gerra does get to do a quite credible version of the Bell Song from Delibes’ Lakmé with Peter ostensibly accompanying her.

Peter’s world receives a jolt when his mom receives a telegram that his dad, a naval officer, has been killed in combat — and he decides to do what he can to help the war effort; too young to enlist, he’ll set up a canteen for servicemembers in an old barn donated to him by its caretaker, Mr. Maglodian (Bill Hannigan). The canteen isn’t exactly a success — the servicemembers not surprisingly don’t relish the thought of hanging out at a place where all the girls are underage — but Peter has yet antoher scheme: he’ll enter the Clinton school band in a nationwide contest whose first prize is a tour of army camps.

From here the film turns into a quite close reworking of the 1940 Busby Berkeley musical Strike Up the Band, starring Mickey Rooney in Moore’s role of the hot-shot high-school kid who enters a group in the nationwide contest for student bands and Judy Garland as his faithful girlfriend who helps him (and who, being Judy Garland, gets to sing with the band, which Tina Thayer doesn’t). The band steadily rises through the ranks of the competition (and there are still people out there who think the concept of American Idol is actually new!) until, on the eve of the championship broadcast on which they’ll compete with the three other regional finalists, disaster strikes: the Pasadena town sheriff (Bob McKenzie) receives word that the owner of the barn where they’ve been stashing their instruments and rehearsing has suddenly died, and the barn is to remain closed until the will is probated.

All seems lost until Peter sees an ad for a concert at the Hollywood Bowl being conducted by Frederick Feher (playing himself), his old teacher from the New York conservatory, and after a bit of fooforaw with a mean security guard (adding One Hundred Men and a Girl to the awfully long list of movies Messrs. Wald, Doniger and Wallace have ripped off for their script) they get backstage and persuade Maestro Feher to lend them some of the symphony orchestra’s instruments so they can play the final broadcast — which led Charles to wonder why the symphony had so many saxophones (maybe they’d been playing Ravel’s Boléro, probably then and now the most famous classical piece involving saxophones) — and they win with a big number called “We’re Just In-Between,” in which Gerra Young and Beverly Boyd do the same classical vs. swing battle Deanna Durbin and Judy Garland did in their 1936 short Every Sunday (and Garland repeated with Betty Jaynes in Babes in Arms). Earlier, during the short-lived operation of the “Jive Junction” canteen at the barn, Boyd had sung a song called “Cock-a-Doodle Doo” very much in Garland’s style, complete with straight-ahead rhythmic phrasing and booming “belts” on the high notes.

The film’s two most imaginative scenes are one in which Peter, wanting to be alone after he’s heard the news of his father’s death, sleeps in the barn — and suddenly Ulmer turns it into a film noir, all chiaroscuro shadows and deep black backgrounds for the sleeping Dickie Moore until caretaker Maglodian catches him and wakes him up — and a bizarre musical number called “Mother Earth.” The gimmick is that the farm is fully planted, it’s harvest time and the oranges and other produce are going to rot in the fields unless Maglodian can find a work force to harvest them, pronto — and Peter talks him into letting them use the barn for Jive Junction in exchange for his high-school kids suddenly becoming farmworkers. What results is an amazing sequence that, if the song weren’t in English, one would think was spliced in from one of the Soviet “tractor” musicals, as the kids sing a paean to the joys of nature and collective labor while they harvest oranges, bring in the sheaves and even start the next year’s plowing by digging up a thin layer of earth spread on the floor of a PRC soundstage.

The rest of the film doesn’t have much creativity — those interested in Ulmer the auteur will have to look elsewhere — and the songs by Lew Porter and Leo Erdody (who also did the background score, though as an underscorer he’s credited simply as “Erdody”) are serviceable but will hardly make you forget the great songs by Harold Arlen, Rodgers and Hart et al. Mickey and Judy got to sing when they made their way through these particular plot thickets, but Jive Junction is still 62 minutes of harmless fun and, though she’s unattractively photographed by cinematographer Ira Morgan, Beverly Boyd should have had more of a career and it’s surprising a major studio didn’t pick her up and try to build her as a rival to Garland.