Monday, July 21, 2008

Big Bands on Screen: “Thousands Cheer” and Shorts

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

I ran my husband Charles a movie from the previous night’s Turner Classic Movies big-band tribute, Thousands Cheer, a 1943 MGM portmanteau movie. Though it appropriated most of the title of Irving Berlin’s famous 1933 revue, As Thousands Cheer (a show whose conceit was that every song and sketch in it was patterned after a section or a feature in a newspaper — Ethel Waters sang her anti-lynching song “Suppertime” in it as a main news story and the show also introduced “Easter Parade” as representing the rotogravure section in which color photos were printed, a really big deal in a paper then; that’s why the song has the otherwise incomprehensible line, “You’ll find that you’re in the rotogravure”), Thousands Cheer used none of Berlin’s songs and added a plot (a story by Paul Jarrico and Richard Collins called “Private Miss Jones”) about a young aspiring opera singer, Kathryn Jones (the young Kathryn Grayson, whose life was obviously being made easier for her by giving her character the same first name as her own), who’s grown up with her mother Hyllary (Mary Astor) after she separated from Kathryn’s father, career military officer Col. Bill Jones (John Boles), because she couldn’t stand constantly being abandoned while he went off on one posting after another.

Kathryn has achieved enough success that she regularly appears with an orchestra conducted by José Iturbi (playing himself and making his first — but not, alas, his last — film; he’s a quite competent pianist even though hardly on the level of his contemporaries Rubinstein, Horowitz or Barere, an O.K. conductor and a thoroughly lousy actor who can’t even play himself credibly), where in the opening scene she sings a credible version of “Sempre libera” and even goes for the interpolated ultra-high note at the end (since Grayson was ordinarily a mezzo, I wondered how they got her to sing that high: did they transpose it down? Did they transpose it down for the pre-recording and then speed it back up to score pitch when she lip-synched during the shoot? Did they have another singer “patching” her highest notes the way they did in Ziegfeld Follies?), but she’s decided to join her father at his latest posting — a training camp — and do her part for the war effort by organizing shows for the servicemembers.

While waiting for the train, where she’s to meet her dad, she’s suddenly picked up and kissed by draftee Private Eddie Marsh (Gene Kelly) because every other guy there seems to have a girl to kiss goodbye and he doesn’t, and the first hour of Thousands Cheer becomes a dull love story interspersed with an even duller story about the arrogant young man who has to learn to adjust himself to the requirements of military discipline. The kicker this time is that Kelly was himself a star in civilian life — a member of the Flying Corbinos team of circus aerialists (ironically the plot summary describes them as “acrobats” even though the film itself makes a great to-do about the difference between acrobats and aerialists) — and his antagonism towards the military comes largely from his feeling that a man who’s spent so much of his working life in mid-air ought to be in the Air Corps instead of training for the infantry.

Thousands Cheer lumbers tediously along through the usual complications for its first half, and its second half is the show Grayson’s character is supposed to have put together for the boys, filled with much of the talent on MGM’s contract roster: Mickey Rooney (at his most overactedly obnoxious) is the M.C. and the performers include Red Skelton, Frank Morgan, Ann Sothern, Lucille Ball, Virginia O’Brien, Eleanor Powell (doing a boogie-woogie tap number originally filmed for Broadway Melody of 1943, an abandoned project that was supposed to co-star Powell and Kelly), Marsha Hunt, Marilyn Maxwell, Margaret O’Brien, Donna Reed, June Allyson, Gloria DeHaven, Judy Garland (she sings and Iturbi plays a dated novelty called “The Joint Is Really Jumpin’ in Carnegie Hall” about the invasion of jazz and swing music in what had hitherto been a temple devoted exclusively to the classics) and by far the best, Lena Horne singing and Benny Carter playing a marvelous version of Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose” that is also the only number in the film shot with any degree of creativity.

Whereas all the other revue “turns” were photographed in front of a plain curtain, “Honeysuckle Rose” begins with Carter playing the melody silhouetted against an otherwise black background, and the designs, lighting and angles throughout this song are so much better than those in the rest of the movie I can’t help thinking they called in a different director than the amiable hack George Sidney, the overall director of record. (Before he made his debut as a full-fledged director with Cabin in the Sky, an all-Black musical featuring Horne, Vincente Minnelli had shot numbers for Horne in films like Panama Hattie, and maybe he shot this sequence as well.)

The final gimmick is that the Flying Corbinos are called in to perform their act in the camp show, and Eddie Marsh is released from the guardhouse (where he was imprisoned for keeping Kathryn Jones out too late on a date and punching out the sergeant who tried to apprehend him) to perform with his (adoptive; his real ones died when he was 4) parents and family and thereby relearn the need for teamwork so that when his unit ships out — as it’s about to do — he’ll finally knuckle down, follow orders and be a good soldier. Gene Kelly does get one dance number midway through the film, dressed in T-shirt and blue jeans (almost as if he were challenging Fred Astaire, “Take that, you with the top hat, white tie and tails!”) that shows off his athlete’s musculature (Astaire was a superlative dancer, but it took Kelly to show that you could be a male, a dancer and still be butch) and doing a solo routine involving a mop (a gimmick both he and Astaire would use again!), and his number and Lena Horne’s song are the two real highlights of the film.

Kelly prided himself on doing his own stunt work — including the Fairbanksian leaps in his 1948 version of The Three Musketeers — but in this case I’m sure that, though his exercise on the practice bars is recognizably his, the long shots of him on the trapeze were almost certainly doubled. The film ends with the regiment Kathryn’s father commands and Kathryn’s lover serves in marching off to war and Kathryn doing her last bit for the war effort, reuniting her parents (even though it’s only so her mom can see her dad off again!) — an obsession with producer Joseph Pasternak, who is using Grayson here the way he used Deanna Durbin before and would use Jane Powell later, as the catalyst to restore her parents’ marriage — and singing a grandly pretentious number called “United Nations on the March,” composed by Dmitri Shostakovich (of all people to end up an MGM songwriter!) in what the studio ballyhooed as a piece written especially for the film, but which was probably just a chip off his workbench supplied to Harold Rome and E. Y. Harburg, who wrote the English lyrics.

One could see why World War II-era audiences would have lapped this up — they would have been entertained by the numbers and accepted the dull plot as a morale booster — but it wastes Gene Kelly’s talents and really doesn’t hold up that well. Also, early on Kathryn Grayson sings the haunting ballad “Daybreak” (by Ferde Grofé and Harold Adamson), introducing it as her (movie) father’s favorite song, but though she sings it well she simply can’t create the sense of atmosphere Frank Sinatra did when he recorded it with Tommy Dorsey early on in his career as a promotion for the film.

After Thousands Cheer TCM ran six big band-themed shorts and Charles and I watched four of them (the fifth, Desi Arnaz and His Orchestra, we’d seen before — the most remarkable thing about it was the line early on in which the narrator boasts that Arnaz has had three successful careers, as singer, actor and now bandleader, and I joked, “If you think that’s impressive, wait ’til he gets to his fourth career!” — as producer and co-star of the most successful situation comedy in early television, I Love Lucy — and the sixth, a Martin Block-hosted show with the pleasant but unswinging music of Ray Noble and Buddy Clark, I’d watched in the wee hours while recording it and waiting for John P. to go to bed). The first was a Pete Smith Specialty called Groovie Movie, showing some of the jitterbug dance steps and their origins in older, more sedate dance moves like the curtsy and the waltz. Charles was startled at the use of the term “groovy” in a film this early, and I liked the gag of the narrator saying how this was young people’s music and then panning to the face of the piano player, clearly that of a bald, fleshy old man with coke-bottle glasses that made him look like Albert Dekker in Dr. Cyclops.

After that they showed shorts devoted to Woody Herman, Stan Kenton and Larry Clinton. Herman’s was made in 1938, long before his band became a truly great one — he sings “Carolina in the Morning” and “Dr. Jazz” and plays a few O.K. clarinet solos (he wasn’t a virtuoso on the level of Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw, and he was the first to admit it), and there are some spectacular dancers, though the promise of the great singer Lee Wiley was unfulfilled — she’s listed in the credits but there weren’t hide nor hair of her in the actual movie.

The next short, a 1945 (though TCM’s schedule lists 1947) depiction of Stan Kenton and His Orchestra, was the best: Warners’ recording showed off Kenton’s band — particularly Kenton’s use of unusual keys (creating a more brilliant sound than the normal, relatively “easy” keys of C and F most bands played in but also being a lot tougher on the musicians) — better than the records he was making at the time for Capitol, and though the conceit (supposedly a musical biography of Kenton from his early days playing in a trio for tea dances to his later success) was a bit silly and June Christy’s costume and Phyllis Diller hairdo horrendously unflattering (this is not the poised, self-assured Christy we saw on all those 1950’s album covers!), Christy gets an offbeat blues number and sings like a goddess. As I’ve joked before, Kenton owed so much of an aesthetic debt to Edward Kennedy Ellington both as pianist (especially as band accompanist) and as bandleader that, well before David Bowie coined the phrase, Kenton could well have been called the “Thin White Duke.”

The next short was one with Larry Clinton (which I tried to fast-forward to on the DVD and ended up glitching it — there was an occasional freeze-frame and the timer counter froze in place, a warning that it’s probably not that sensational an idea to do scans on a home-recorded DVD made at the slowest speed you can record on and still play the disc on a machine other than the one you recorded it on) and his star singer, Bea Wain; tall, grey-haired, balding and rather cadaverous, Clinton didn’t look much like a swing bandleader, and Wain sang nicely on the song “Old Folks” (though Bing Crosby’s version was far better) but then had to do a novelty called “Corn Pickin’” with a male singer; still, some of their music had the righteous bounce and drive. Clinton’s band was horrendously uneven; I’ve heard records where they did good swing (especially the Decca compilation from 1939 to 1941, A Study in Clinton) and records that were so draggy they were almost unlistenable (like the Hindsight Records transcription album from 1937-38), and here in this film short they were about in the middle.