Saturday, October 18, 2008

On With the Show! (Warners, 1929)

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

The film was On With the Show! (the opening credit has the exclamation point in the title, though most of the promotional material didn’t), yet another early musical and Warner Brothers’ (the “Brothers” is spelled out fully on the end credit) answer to the success of The Broadway Melody from MGM. It’s a far less interesting movie than The Broadway Melody even though the plot is distinctive and in more subtle hands would have made a great premise for a film. Unlike most backstage stories, which take place over a period of weeks and cover the entire genesis of a show, from its auditions and opening rehearsals to its opening night, On With the Show! (based on an unproduced play by Humphrey Pearson called Shoestring) takes place all in one night, during the final make-or-break performance of The Phantom Sweetheart in its out-of-town tryouts.

The premise is that this performance will either be the show’s last ever or will get it a berth on Broadway — and throughout the film, which takes place in real time, scenes from the actual performance being given for the audience within the story (if I wanted to sound like a real film critic I’d say “in the diegesis”) are intercut with scenes taking place backstage or elsewhere in the theatre or its vicinity, representing events that are happening while the show is being performed. Arlene Croce once called the film 42nd Street a remake of On With the Show!; Richard Barrios points out that it isn’t — about the only similarity is they both are backstage stories (though 42nd Street is the more conventional type of backstage story which happens over several weeks and takes place over the entire rehearsal process) and they share two plot devices: a rich man has bankrolled the show in an unsuccessful attempt to get a star to go to bed with him, and an unknown replaces an indisposed star and becomes an overnight success.

On With the Show! as it exists now is a pretty pathetic remnant of the film that wowed audiences on its initial release (according to Richard Barrios, in some parts of the country it was an even bigger hit than The Broadway Melody); it was shot entirely in two-strip Technicolor but only exists in black-and-white, and to make matters even worse one-tenth of the image on the left side of the screen has also disappeared. (The problem was the film was originally made in the Vitaphone sound-on-disc process, and when it was converted to sound-on-film that one-tenth of the image on the left side had to be erased to make room for the film soundtrack.) This leads to such bizarre solecisms as the appearance of the Four Covans (a two-man, two-woman African-American dance team that are among the best acts in the film), who thanks to the missing part of the picture mostly turn into the Three (or at best the Three-and-One-Half) Covans. It also suffers from an extraordinarily weak cast — about the only people in it who were heard of afterwards were Joe E. Brown, making his film debut as the show-within-the-show’s comic; and Ethel Waters, making her film debut as a performer who turns up twice, does one song each time, and departs.

Sally O’Neil plays Kitty, the hat-check girl who takes over in mid-show after Nita (Betty Compson), the star, has a fit of temperament and withdraws. Barrios calls her performance “appalling … one of the very worst of the era,” and while I think he’s exaggerating (she’s no worse than Dorothy Lee was in the Wheeler and Woolsey films, and not that far below Ruby Keeler in 42nd Street) there’s no question that, though her character is supposed to be the focus of the film the way Billie Dove’s was in The Broadway Melody, she’s far below the level of Dove’s incandescence. (Then again, Dove had far more to work with; On With the Show!’s writer, Robert Lord, gave O’Neil’s character virtually no depth and it’s not surprising she fell back on whining and pouting through the role to disguise its lack of emotional affect.) Her boyfriend, the head usher, is William Bakewell; the male lead in the show is Arthur Lake (later Dagwood in the Blondie films); Louise Fazenda has a comic part but isn’t used to her potential either (and the loss of the two-strip has cost us the views of her bright-red hair — anticipating Lucille Ball’s famous look — that the original reviewers noted and disliked); Sam Hardy is the harried producer who worries how he’s going to pay the performers; Purnell Pratt is the man who wants to attach the scenery (there always seems to be a man who wants to attach the scenery) until Fazenda successfully vamps him; and Josephine Houston, virtually the only white person in this movie who can sing, is wasted as the character in the show whom Lake jilts for his “phantom sweetheart,” who’s encased in miles of chiffon so that O’Neil can take over the part from Compson mid-show and nobody will notice.

Despite its deficiencies — Lord’s writing was considered dated even then (one reviewer called it “snappy comebacks, 1910 variety”) and the musical numbers are clunkily staged by Larry Ceballos and shot from immobile cameras at far distances — On With the Show! still packs a punch, though like The Broadway Melody it seems more effective when the characters aren’t singing and dancing. (Lord and director Alan Crosland do deserve credit for making the film hang together without the scene-setting intertitles Harry Beaumont and Norman Houston fell back on in The Broadway Melody.) The African-American performers — Waters, the Four Covans and four unidentified Black men who sing backup for Waters during “Am I Blue?” (the big hit song from this film and the only one to become a standard) — come off better than the whites for a peculiar reason: given the way the “look” of two-strip Technicolor became murky and dull when printed down to black-and-white, their dark faces stand out a lot better from the murk than the other actors’ white ones. Waters is also the only singer in the cast who actually knows how to project, an important skill in the earliest musicals because they were still recording the songs and instrumental backing “live” while the scenes were being shot; whereas the white voices tend to get swallowed up by the backing band and the stage noises, Waters’ voice booms out powerfully and one can hear every word of her songs (at least until her backup singers come on during “Am I Blue?”). It’s a shame more musicals weren’t made with this interesting device — about the only later film I can think of that used it was an RKO “B” from the late 1930’s called Forty Naughty Girls, a mystery that takes place during the performance of a show, and in that case the budget was so strangulation-tight they weren’t able to show the actual show!