Wednesday, October 1, 2008

TCM’s RKO Tribute, Day 1

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

A few notes on the major RKO pictures being shown today as part of Turner Classic Movies' five-week salute to the classic studio, which though chronically the weakest of the major companies in the 1930's ironically made some of the best movies and nurtured offbeat talents like Katharine Hepburn, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Orson Welles.


One of the movies that was on TCM this time I actually watched while it was airing (for a change!): Street Girl, a 1929 musical featuring Betty Compson as Frederika Joyzelle, a homeless immigrant from the fictitious European (mittel-Europan, judging from the almost unlistenable accent Compson affected for her role) principality of Aregon (presumably not to be confused with the genuine Spanish province of Aragon — the film was based on a story by W. Carey Wonderly called “The Viennese Charmer,” indicating that in Wonderly’s imagination Frederika came from the very real country of Austria. Anyway, Frederika is on the streets in the opening scene when a piano player named Mike Fall (former D. W. Griffith leading man John Harron) drives off a masher who’s just made a pass at Our Heroine and, when he hears she hasn’t eaten in two days, invites her to come up to the flat he shares with the other members of his band, “The Four Seasons.”

Not only does their group name anticipate that of a famous rock band three decades later, but their individual names are also one of the seasons: clarinetist and dancer John Spring (Jack Oakie, who for some reason is cast in a part that gives him no comedy scenes — and of all the actors in the film he’s the most inept at actually suggesting to us that he can play his on-screen instrument), Ned Sparks as violinist Happy Winter (a nice in-joke given that in this role Sparks is every bit as sour as he was later) and Guy Buccola as guitarist Pete Summer. They’re playing at a cheap restaurant called Beef ’n’ Bean but Frederika is determined to manage them and get them more money to repay them for helping her, so she talks Keppel (Joseph Cawthorne), manager of an Aregonese restaurant in a nicer part of town, to take them on at considerably more money.

All goes surprisingly well until the ruling prince of Aregon (Ivan Lebedeff), who recalls Frederika from having heard her play for him at his palace years before (she’s a violinist who plays classical and Hungarian music, and Betty Compson is actually quite a bit better than the men in conveying the impression that she can really play) and whom Mike, who’s predictably fallen in love with Frederika, goes into several jealous hissy-fits that give this movie what little plot interest it has until the end, when at the opening night of a new club Keppel has financed from the notoriety of having the prince dine at his old one and kiss Frederika, in which he was photographed and his picture run in the newspapers, leading the Aregonians to depose him in absentia and make their country a republic (a plot twist that foreshadows the ending of The Prince and the Showgirl 28 years later), Mike is sent there in place of the prince and, after a big production number to a surprisingly infectious song called “Broken-Up Tune” that features Gus Arnheim and His Ambassadors (a band that, like many in the 1920’s, was named after where it principally played: the Cocoanut Grove of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, and featured violinist Russ Columbo, later turned star singer with Arnheim for a meteoric career that ended with a bizarre and mysterious death in 1934) and which I suspect was originally filmed in two-strip Technicolor but only survives in black-and-white, Mike and Frederika make up and presumably go on to a long and happy personal and professional partnership together.

The writer is Jane Murfin and the director is Wesley Ruggles, who two years later would direct RKO’s only Best Picture winner, Cimarron (unless you count the 1946 Sam Goldwyn production The Best Years of Our Lives, which RKO distributed) and who already was reaching beyond the sluggishness of so many early talkies. The actors speak relatively naturalistically and don’t … stop … between every … line and … sometimes between … every word the way they sometimes did in early talkies, and Ruggles enlivens all the nightclub scenes with camera dollies and a level of mobility that makes this look more like a film from 1933 than 1929. But the pace is still slow, the story surprisingly conflict-less, the songs by Oscar Levant (he wrote quite a lot of songs for the earliest RKO musicals in his ongoing effort to challenge his friend George Gershwin on Gershwin’s pop-song turf; Levant wrote one truly great pop song, “Blame It on My Youth,” that became a standard, but otherwise his output in the genre is pretty well forgotten) and Sidney Clare serviceable (and one of them, “Lovable and Sweet,” a bit better than that, though it does get a bit tiresome when it’s heard three times and the same pre-recording is used all three times, featuring a Bix Beiderbecke-like legato passage on trumpet, supposedly being played by John Harron with his right hand while he’s still playing bass lines on piano with his left — did people really do that in 1929?) and the overall effect pretty soporific. — 10/1/08


Rio Rita turned out to be a pretty mixed movie — a film I’ve always been rather confused about because the original 1970 edition of Leonard Maltin’s book Movie Comedy Teams listed it as being in color all the way through, whereas all the other sources said the first half was in black-and-white and the second half in color (two-strip Technicolor). Also, there’s some uncertainty about the running time; Leslie Halliwell lists it as being 135 minutes long, Maltin as 127 minutes, and the version Turner Classic Movies showed was 102 minutes with the same proportions of black-and-white to color footage as the 1930 follow-up, Dixiana (also starring Bebe Daniels in the title role, comedians Bert Wheeler and Bob Woolsey for the comic relief and featuring a score by composer Harry Tierney, whose art definitely falls on the operetta end of the American musical spectrum, almost entirely devoid of syncopation or jazz influence) — the first 70 minutes (seven reels) in black-and-white, the last half-hour (three reels) in color. It’s also one of the best preserved samples of two-strip Technicolor I’ve ever seen; despite the absence of blue (and even there a lot of the women’s dresses are in the kind of bluish off-green that two-strip costume designers and art directors used to come as close to representing blue as the process could sustain), the colors are warm and rich, with little of the fading to brown characteristic of Technicolor prints in general; the flesh tones are appealing and the overall look of the two-strip scenes is subtle and harmonious, quite a different effect from the garishness and neon brightness associated with the later three-strip process (the look that usually comes to mind when you utter the word “Technicolor”).

So how is Rio Rita as a movie? I’m sorry you asked. It was the biggest-budget film of the first year of RKO’s existence as a studio (1929), yet director Luther Reed shot it in 24 days and for a major-studio release with major stars and a large budget it’s oddly sloppy at times. During one scene in which Bert Wheeler is doing a tap routine (and surprisingly well, too) with a group of chorus girls, the camera pans down to frame him and thereby cuts the girls’ heads off at the neck. Other sequences feature odd little twitches of the camera — it doesn’t really move, actually; it just jerks back and forth, as if the cameraman (locked in a soundproof booth, as was the general practice of the period) was trying his damnedest to follow the action and wasn’t all that sure he could. Reed’s direction is visually capable in the opening scene — in the Fremont Club night spot in a border town in Texas (the fact that a town in Texas, which fought in the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy, would hardly likely to be named after the legendary California abolitionist, wartime governor of occupied Missouri and first Republican Party Presidential nominee John C. Fremont didn’t seem to occur to anybody associated with this film) — in which he pans around the club and discovers two striking-looking people (striking because they’re both wearing Mexican serapés and look almost alike in their costumes), one of whom is the film’s hero, John Boles, and the other is supposed to be the heroine’s brother. The brother and the heroine — the title character, played by Bebe Daniels — live together at the Rio Rita Ranch across the border into Mexico, and the heroine (who for some strange reason bears the full name Rita Ferguson even though she’s represented as a Mexican and speaks all her lines with a thick — and patently fake — Spanish accent) is being amorously chased by an exiled Russian general who owns a gambling ship anchored on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande (where it’s perfectly legal).

It turns out Our Hero is actually a Texas Ranger working undercover to find the whereabouts of a mysterious bandit called “El Kinkajou,” and both he and Our Heroine suspect the brother of being “El Kinkajou,” but in the end it turns out that the nasty Russian general (George Renevant), who has the brother kidnapped midway through the story for reasons that never become quite clear, is the real “El Kinkajou” (well, he had to do something to support himself in the style to which he had become accustomed once he was driven out of Russia by the Revolution) and the brother is a secret agent of the Mexican police. Rio Rita was produced on the stage by Florenz Ziegfeld, and it shows in the elaborate pageantry and the rather static tableaux (particularly at the end, when all the cast members — Daniels and Boles, Wheeler and Dorothy Lee, and Woolsey with whoever the actress was who was playing Wheeler’s ex-wife — are appropriately paired off and everyone in the screen turns their back to the camera so their costumes can billow out picturesquely), though co-scenarists Reed and Russell Mack do deserve credit for “opening out” the piece. Much of the Western action takes place outdoors, and though the locations are familiar from thousands of RKO “oaters” at least they get us out of the stuffy interiors into which most musical films in the early days were kept well locked — and most, if not all, of the musical numbers were clearly pre-recorded and post-synchronized in the technique that would become the standard way of making musicals but was still unusual in 1929. (Interestingly, it’s not at all clear when this story is supposed to be taking place; the Fremont Club in the opening scene has a neon-lit sign and the streets of the town have streetlights, but there are no automobiles or telephones. When MGM remade Rio Rita in 1942 — with Kathryn Grayson and John Carroll in the leads and Abbott and Costello in the Wheeler and Woolsey roles — they made it definitely a story of the World War II present and made the Kinkajou a leader of a gang of saboteurs.)

And Tierney’s score, though very much of its time, at least has a lovely title song to carry it and decent, if not spectacular (and not always that well-recorded), voices to carry it. Mood-wise, Rio Rita is not all that different from Whoopee (another Ziegfeld stage success filmed a year later), though with the comedy a relief from an excruciatingly dull plot (instead of, as in Whoopee, the dull plot only marking time between Eddie Cantor’s dazzling comedy routines), and with far less experimentation in staging the dances (though dance director Pearl Eaton did include one overhead shot, in which the chorus girls in Wheeler’s tap number lie on the floor as he does a runaround and jumps over them). — 1/14/98

I finally got to Charles’ place at 2:30 or so and we watched the rest of the 1929 Rio Rita (which we’d stopped watching the night before at the point where it shifts from black-and-white to two-strip Technicolor) and all of the 1942 version of Rio Rita with Abbott and Costello (top-billed this time, not supporting players as Wheeler and Woolsey had been in the 1929 version) and Kathryn Grayson and John Carroll in the romantic leads. Charles found the two-strip in the 1929 version disappointing — it was mostly greens and oranges (the costume designer apparently favored these colors since the two-strip process handled them especially well) — though the film itself holds up fairly well as entertainment, even though Wheeler and Woolsey steal it right out from under the romantic leads. At least John Boles has a pleasant personality and a nice tenor voice — and since he’s playing a gringo (the head of the local company of Texas Rangers, who are chasing after the notorious bandit “The Kinkajou”), he doesn’t have to affect a Mexican accent.

The rest of the cast members seemed to have differing notions of what constituted an appropriate Mexican accent — Bebe Daniels loses her completely when she has her biggest emotional scene in the film (when she has to react to the — false, fortunately — report that John Boles has been killed) — though aside from her silly catch-as-catch-can accent (how a Mexican girl got the last name “Ferguson” is never quite explained in this film), her acting is actually quite good. (She proved in the next few years — notably in the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon and the 1932 film Silver Dollar — that she actually could act very well, especially in parts that allowed her to be both sexy and dramatic.) But Wheeler and Woolsey have the most marvelous parts of the film to themselves, particularly an audacious scene in which they’re ostensibly courting women (Wheeler is courting Dorothy Lee, their frequent vis-a-vis who had an annoyingly squeaky speaking voice but a less offensive, if still childish, singing voice — after all, she was only 17 when she made this film! — and Woolsey is courting the wife Wheeler is trying to get rid of to marry Dorothy Lee) but actually give each other love-slaps and end up in each other’s arms! — 4/12/98


The movie I showed Charles was one of the short items I’d recently recorded from TCM, the 1929 version of Seven Keys to Baldpate that was one of RKO’s first productions (and a hit that made up for a lot of the flops they had in the early days). The story began as a novel by Earl Derr Biggers — known today, if at all, only as the creator of Charlie Chan — about a pulp writer who’s trying to do a serious book and makes a bet with his publisher that he can finish it in two months’ time if he’s allowed to stay in a place where there will be absolutely no visitors. So the publisher sends him to the Baldpate Inn, a summer resort in New England, in the middle of wintertime on the theory that a summer resort in winter is the most absolutely deserted place on earth — and assures him that his is the only key to the place that exists.

Only at least six other people have keys, and they let themselves in while the writer is trying to work and immerse him in a complicated bit of skullduggery involving a corrupt mayor, the head of a streetcar company who’s supposed to be trying to bribe him for the contract, various thugs on the mayor’s payroll, a young female reporter who’s out to expose the whole thing, a local hermit who the townspeople are convinced is a ghost, the vampy wife of the streetcar company head, a respectable widow who’s engaged to the mayor under the misapprehension that he is honest, and a bundle containing $200,000 in cash which is supposed to be the bribe money.

George M. Cohan bought the theatrical rights and made some typically Cohanesque changes: he cut the length of the wager from two months to 24 hours, he made all the participants in the criminal conspiracies plants — actors from a local theatre troupe hired to play all those roles in a scheme by the publisher to prove to his writer how ridiculous the plots of his novels are — and in a final twist he reveals that even that isn’t the real truth: the “actors” and the whole business about their being seven keys to Baldpate are simply the characters in the novel the protagonist has been writing for his 24 hours in the inn, and for which he wins the bet as well as the hand of the ingénue who’s the only other real person in the story besides the writer and his publisher.

The Web site lists, appropriately, seven film versions of the story: one made in Australia in 1916 (which, since Alex C. Butler has the only writing credit, was likely based directly on Biggers’ novel rather than Cohan’s play); a film made in New York in 1917 starring Cohan himself as the writer (who, with Cohan’s usual sense of patriotism, he named “George Washington Magee”!) and filmed in a 70-day period along with two other Cohan-starring adaptations of Cohan plays (Broadway Jones and Hit-the-Trail Holliday were the other two) in an experience which left Cohan distinctly unimpressed with the movie medium (“I am stage-minded, not motion picture-minded,” he said predictably); another silent in 1925 produced by and starring Douglas MacLean as the protagonist (here called simply “William Magee”); subsequent remakes by RKO in 1935 (with William Hamilton and Edward Killy as directors and Gene Raymond as star) and 1947 (with Lew Landers as director and the third Mr. Joan Crawford, Philip Terry, as star) and a pioneering TV version from 1946 which, since it credits no other writer than Biggers and Cohan, must have been staged directly from the playscript.

The 1929 version (some sources give the date as 1930) is cleverly directed by Reginald Barker, who got enough camera movement (surprising for an early talkie), scripted by Jane Murfin and stars Richard Dix as the protagonist (also called William Magee). It’s a bit on the stagy side, inevitably, but at least the actors deliver their lines naturalistically and the pace Barker gets into the dialogue scenes is fast enough that this looks and sounds more like a mid-1930’s film than one from the early days of sound. The supporting cast consists of a bunch of people who were never heard of again (Lucien Littlefield, who plays one of the members of the conspiracy, had a long career as a character actor around this time; and Margaret Livingston, who plays the vampy wife of the streetcar company CEO, was the “bad girl” in Murnau’s Sunrise and Louise Brooks’ voice double in the sound version of The Canary Murder Case; she was also the last and longest-lasting wife of Paul Whiteman and actually got him to slim down a bit as a condition of marrying him, but they were the only other cast members besides Dix I’d heard of previously), including a pretty but rather dull leading lady named Miriam Seegar (she’s not bad, exactly, but she’s sufficiently colorless that it’s not hard to figure out why she didn’t become a star).

Dix is a rather odd choice for the lead; he’s certainly a competent actor and he has no problem projecting authority, but he’s not quite right for a rambunctious farce — but then it’s hard to see who would have been right other than Cohan himself or his cinematic avatar, James Cagney (who would have played it superbly, but was still working on Broadway when this was filmed and, when he did go to Hollywood, went to Warners — a studio which at least knew how to get the most out of his rapid-fire acting style, which RKO probably wouldn’t have). Seven Keys to Baldpate was an experimental film for RKO’s sound department, since (like most talkies of its vintage) it has no background music except for a brief theme under the main titles, and therefore it’s “scored” with sound effects — howling winds, banging shutters, blowing leaves, gun noises (guns were hard to do in early sound films because a real gunshot would paralyze the microphone, but the shots in this film are quite convincing and may have been recorded the same way the ones in All Quiet on the Western Front were — by using only half the normal powder charge in each bullet) and the like, with surprising effectiveness.

The final resolution(s) aren’t all that clear in Murfin’s script — about the only clue we get that the incidents of the main part of the film were supposed to be merely products of Dix’s imagination as a writer is that at the end we see him in the pullover sweater and pipe that were the stereotyped “uniform” of a male writer in films of the time, whereas through most of the main action we saw him in a suit and tie; that and the ingénue turns out to be single instead of married to his publisher (as he wrote in the manuscript which we saw dramatized throughout most of the film) — but at least Murfin kept Cohan’s final metafictional frisson whereas the writers of the later RKO versions eliminated it. Seven Keys to Baldpate creaks a bit but it’s a charming piece of entertainment, and the plot is sturdy enough that Cohan’s play still gets an occasional stage revival (and one could well imagine a modern version in which Magee would come to Baldpate with a laptop instead of a portable typewriter). — 10/3/06


I’d been watching AMC’s showing of the 1930 musical Dixiana, which I both had and hadn’t seen before. Some explanation is in order: Dixiana, in its original form, was a 10-reel (100-minute) movie, with the first seven reels in black-and-white and the last three in two-strip Technicolor. Unfortunately, when RKO’s films were sold to TV in the 1950’s, their owners decided that it would be too much trouble to reprint and restore the color sequences, so they took the first 70 minutes of the film, stuck an end title on it and released that — and it was this “aborted” version I had seen previously. Needless to say, I was dying of curiosity to see the rest of it in a newly restored print — especially since the color sequence contains a dance by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson that is generally considered the best thing in the movie. I got interrupted by two phone calls during the movie — though both were short (one was from Jeri Dilno and one from John) — and was not happy.

Still, I got to see most of the additional 30 minutes — and I had my VCR running so I would have a tape of the film in its complete form. I was startled to see blue, or at least a color awfully close to blue, in the two-strip Technicolor sequences — either they had worked out a grey-green that would photograph as blue with reasonable credibility, or the restorers at the UCLA Film and Television Archive have done some tasteful corrective colorization (significantly, none of the “blue” objects in the film were natural items — the sequence was supposed to be taking place outdoors, but it was clearly a studio interior and the camera angles carefully avoided showing sky, whether real or painted). Robinson’s dance wasn’t as spectacular as I had thought — the film takes place in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, and I’d always assumed Robinson was featured in a big production number. Not so: he does a solo dance while ostensibly brushing the thrones on which the King and Queen of Mardi Gras will sit, and since the thrones are mounted at the top of a long stairway, he gets to do much the same staircase routine he did with Shirley Temple in The Littlest Rebel five years later. Even though his feet are annoyingly out of frame much of the time, however, it’s still the best thing in this whole rather pachydermous musical. — 3/17/93


I went to see him, bringing two videos, one of the 1930 musical Dixiana and one of the Beatles (the compilation on Goodtimes Video featuring a 1963 BBC documentary, “The Mersey Sound,” a Pathé Newsreel segment on them that marked the first time they were filmed in color, and about half the Washington, D.C. concert that marked the Beatles’ first live appearance in the U.S.). Dixiana is a problematical movie, to say the least. It was actually the last link in a chain that began with a 1927 Ziegfeld stage hit, Rio Rita, which dealt with California during the days when it was still part of Mexico, and a woman (the title character) who’s afraid that her brother is really the notorious masked bandit “El Kinkajou.” The fledgling RKO studio bought the movie rights and put it on screen in 1929, starring ex-Paramount leading lady Bebe Daniels (in her first sound film), resident Universal tenor/actor John Boles and the comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Bob Woolsey (whom Ziegfeld had put together in the stage production), assigning Luther Reed to direct and filming the first half in black-and-white and the second half in two-strip Technicolor.

The filmed Rio Rita was an enormous hit, so honoring the Great God Xerox which seems to so often rule Hollywood, RKO studio head William LeBaron assumed that if audiences liked it once, they’d like it again. So he hired the writer (Anne Caldwell) and composer (Harry Tierney) of Rio Rita to craft a new show that would feature the talents of Bebe Daniels and Wheeler and Woolsey in a similar period setting. The result was Dixiana — an impossible title that is also the name of Daniels’ character, and which at least lets us know when and where this story takes place: in ante bellum New Orleans, or more precisely, in Hollywood’s familiarly romanticized version of the pre-Civil War South, with happy, contented slaves singing their hearts out (in a song called “Mister and Mississippi,” Harry Tierney’s attempt at writing his own “Ol’ Man River” and a totally different song from the one with the same banal title that became a hit in the 1950’s) in front of a picturesque backdrop of palm trees and the ever-flowing river.

Daniels plays a circus performer (she emerges from a giant egg mounted on a platform drawn by two ostriches that turn out to be Wheeler and Woolsey in ostrich suits) who falls in love with the son of a plantation owner (Everett Marshall), leading to the traditional complications (his stepmother decides she’s not good enough to marry into their family, and an evil gambler, Ralf Harolde, wants Dixiana for himself and plots to break up their relationship even if he has to murder Marshall to do it) and — after seven dreary reels of black-and-white and three almost as dreary reels of two-strip Technicolor — Dixiana finally gets her man in the predictable happy ending.

Though it was never a stage production, Dixiana has the almost relentless heaviness of the period stage musicals of the time. Daniels — a marvelous actress in the right part (as the female lead in the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon, she completely surpassed Mary Astor’s performance in the same role in the much more famous 1941 remake) — seems completely lost this time, at ease only when she’s singing. In a 1969 interview, Daniels said Dixiana was “a film I hated making, but which they insisted I make. … [It] had another Harry Tierney score, but not as good as Rio Rita’s. [You can say that again; the songs in Dixiana are terrible, though the worst one, the title song, Tierney can’t be blamed for since Benny Davis wrote it.] … Wheeler and Woolsey were in it again, but my leading man was disastrous. He came from the opera stage, but he looked dreadful when he sang. I had wanted John Boles again.” That she can say again, too; Marshall looked like a barely animated tailor’s dummy (much like Nelson Eddy, in fact; one could easily imagine a remake of Dixiana as a Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy vehicle) and none of the other actors were such great shakes, either, though perhaps that had to do with the fact that on the set of Dixiana, the sound people were obviously still demanding that the actors enunciate their lines very c-l-e-a-r-l-y and s-l-o-w-l-y, and pause after the previous actor’s cue line before they spoke their own — and Luther Reed, unlike some other early talkie directors like Rouben Mamoulian and Lewis Milestone, wasn’t strong enough or willing enough to tell the sound people to go to hell and tell the actors to talk normally.

What’s still entertaining about Dixiana are the Wheeler and Woolsey comedy routines (notably one in which they fight a sabre duel inside a hotel room and end up destroying an ample supply of bric-a-brac before breaking for lunch and using the sabres to spread mayonnaise on their sandwiches) and a marvelous tap number by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson at the end (it’s his first film appearance and the only time he was ever filmed in color; interestingly, he does the same staircase dance — solo — he later did with Shirley Temple) — also the carefully restored two-strip Technicolor itself, which is hauntingly beautiful. (When Dixiana was first released to TV in the 1950’s, rather than spend money restoring the color sequence for a black-and-white medium, it was simply sliced off the film and an RKO end title was stuck onto the end of the black-and-white portion, which ended the film maddeningly inconclusively, to say the least.) — 9/22/96


I headed over to Charles’ place and ran him videos of the two versions of Girl Crazy. Girl Crazy began in 1930 as a stage musical starring Ginger Rogers, Allen Kearns and Ethel Merman, with songs by George and Ira Gershwin including “But Not for Me,” “Embraceable You,” “I Got Rhythm,” “Could You Use Me?” and “Bidin’ My Time.” Though Rogers played the female lead — and when she and Allen Kearns had to do a romantic dance number to “Embraceable You,” they called in Fred Astaire to choreograph it, making this the first Astaire-Rogers collaboration (three years before they actually danced together for the first time, in the film Flying Down to Rio) — it was Merman who became a star, making “I Got Rhythm” the show’s biggest hit with her brassy belting version of it (backed by a pit band led by Red Nichols and featuring three more stars-to-be, Benny Goodman and the Dorsey Brothers).

RKO bought the movie rights and filmed it in 1932, revamped as a comedy vehicle for Bert Wheeler and Bob Woolsey — and as a Wheeler and Woolsey comedy Girl Crazy was quite funny. Alas, as a musical it left a lot to be desired. Eddie Quillan and Arline Judge were cast as the romantic leads, with one Kitty Kelly (not the gossip biographer of today, who spells her last name “Kelley” anyway) doing the Merman role — and demolishing “I Got Rhythm” in a thoroughly awful performance that made Merman sound like Maria Callas by comparison. (Merman’s trademark was singing loud, and this early her loud vocals were still usually in tune — Kelly’s “I Got Rhythm” is neither loud nor in tune, and any resemblance between what Gershwin wrote and what Kelly sang is purely coincidental.) It’s a pity, because the number is staged quite creatively, with pinpoints of light playing on the people in an otherwise dark nightclub setting (in this version, Quillan as Danny Churchill has been sent out West to take over his father’s ranch, and he’s turned it into a dude ranch/nightclub/ casino).

The 1932 Girl Crazy was suppressed for years because MGM bought the movie rights from RKO to remake the film as a Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland vehicle in 1943 — and the film was so obscure that even Leonard Maltin wasn’t able to get to see it for his Wheeler and Woolsey chapter in his book Movie Comedy Teams. And even the usually reliable Clive Hirschhorn got much of his information on the film wrong in his entry on it in the book The Hollywood Musical; he identifies frequent Wheeler and Woolsey vis-a-vis Dorothy Lee as “Woolsey’s contralto-voiced wife” — actually she’s playing Wheeler’s squeaky soprano-voiced girlfriend, and in that capacity she shares with Wheeler the one new song Gershwin wrote for the film, “You’ve Got What Gets Me” a cutesie-poo duet that’s a much more conventional song than the ones carried over from the stage play.

Mitzi Green (the delightful child impressionist, here cast as Wheeler’s sister) gets her two cents’ in during a duet between Eddie Quillan and Arline Judge on “But Not for Me,” one of Gershwin’s greatest songs that gets thoroughly mangled here — and manages to outsing them both (in fact, Green has by far the best singing voice of anyone in this film) while doing superb imitations of Bing Crosby (she makes a joke out of being unable to copy his whistling, but nails the soulful look he assumed while singing perfectly), George Arliss and Edna May Oliver. The only other song carried over from the stage version is “Bidin’ My Time,” sung as a scene-setter in the opening scene (a grimly amusing one in which a group of Western baddies who have taken over the town of Centerville, Arizona, where the film takes place are preparing a tombstone for the next sheriff, whom they are already planning to murder — in the next scene they do so on screen, this being a “pre-Code” Hollywood-glasnost movie in which both the sex and the violence are considerably more explicit than they were allowed to be after 1934); Hirschhorn lists “Could You Use Me?,” “Sam and Delilah,” and “Embraceable You” as being in the film, but they’re not heard. (Maybe they were filmed but not used; Maltin’s book said that contemporary reports in the trade papers indicated that this project was a victim of the turnover at RKO, since William LeBaron was fired as studio head in the middle of shooting and David O. Selznick was brought in to replace him; the result credits LeBaron as producer and Selznick as “in charge of production,” and reportedly several already-filmed songs were junked by Selznick when he reviewed the project after the takeover.) The 1932 Girl Crazy was a fine Wheeler and Woolsey comedy but a lousy musical, largely due to the absence of any great (or even decent) voices in the cast. — 10/5/98


I went home and ran a videotape of the 1932 version of Bird of Paradise, produced by David Selznick at RKO and directed by King Vidor, shot on location in Hawaii (even though the story takes place in Polynesia) with very extensive retakes at the RKO lot because, of the 24 days they spent on the Hawaiian location, only one was actually clear. The stars were Dolores Del Rio and Joel McCrea, in what is a sort of Tarzan of the Apes in reverse: McCrea lands on a Polynesian island and falls in love at first sight with Del Rio, who plays the chief’s daughter — who, naturally (this being Hollywood), is under a tabu and can only marry a prince of her own tribe. McCrea spirits her away to another island, only to find her anxious to return to her home island when the local volcano, which has been kept extinct for years (so the superstitious natives believe) by their regularly throwing a few human sacrifice victims into its mouth (one a year), starts to erupt. Eventually Del Rio gets the opportunity to come to “civilization” with McCrea, but — in truly altruistic fashion — she prefers to go back to her island and throw herself into the volcano to spare her people any further damage from the eruption.

Bird of Paradise is one of those uneven movies in which scenes of great beauty and strength alternate with scenes that are absolutely silly (notably when McCrea gives Del Rio her you-Tarzana, me-John lessons in English). The gorgeous photography (by Edward Cronjager) is appealing — though this is one old movie in which color is definitely missed — and Del Rio’s performance is quite good; unlike most Hollywood actresses cast as indigenous people, she really manages to suggest someone from an entirely different culture, nervously put off by her first contact with white men, and without any comprehensible dialogue to help her she manages to communicate her simultaneous attraction to McCrea’s character and fear for what this could mean to herself and her tribe. It’s a challenging and compelling performance in a movie which is otherwise quite ordinary in its acting. John P. remembered the 1951 remake, in which Louis Jourdan and Debra Paget played the McCrea and Del Rio roles, and color was used — though its director, Delmer Daves, was hardly a King Vidor! — 7/7/95


One was the original 1932 The Most Dangerous Game, which turned out to be much less interesting than its reputation suggested. First of all, the print (not a Madacy print, but from something called United American Video) was pretty bad: grainy, faded, with one whole reel in which the sound was incredibly murky and hard to understand (and it wasn’t a hi-fi stereo track either). Second, although the jungle set (the same one used in King Kong) was properly atmospheric and the last 20 minutes or so, containing the climactic hunting scene, were well-staged action, the long buildup to the action was pretty dully directed by Ernest Schoedsack and Irving Pichel. Third, the casting was way off; Fay Wray was good enough as a female lead if there really had to be one (there wasn’t in Richard Connell’s original story), but Joel McCrea hadn’t settled into an appreciation of the subtleties of film acting, and Leslie Banks was just way too overbearing and overacted as the villain, Count Zaroff. When one thinks of the actors who were around then who could have played this part to perfection — Stroheim, Veidt, Lugosi, Karloff and probably several others as well — one wonders how Banks got the job (and also how Alfred Hitchcock was able to calm him down enough to get that good performance out of him in the original The Man Who Knew Too Much two years later). Add a Max Steiner score that was just as overbearing as the performances, and the result is a sporadically interesting but not terribly important movie (amazing that this production team was working on a real masterpiece, King Kong, at the same time: a beautifully constructed, well written, well staged, well acted and well scored film!). — 7/28/93


The other movie I ran for Charles last night, The Most Dangerous Game, was a derivative movie at the time it was made (1932, based on Richard Connell’s story published in 1924) and holds up as an exciting horror thriller, albeit uncomfortably reminiscent of other movies being made during the same time that hold up even better. The Most Dangerous Game featured the same jungle sets as Kong, the same producer/director (Cooper and Schoedsack, though since Cooper was busy with Kong Irving Pichel replaced him as Schoedsack’s co-director) and four of the same actors: Fay Wray as the damsel in distress, Robert Armstrong as her alcoholic brother and Noble Johnson and Steve Clemento as the mute servants of the mad Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks, a comic actor making his film debut as the villain — most of his movies were apparently “bad guy” roles, though ironically his other oft-seen film today is the first version of Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, in which he’s the hero and Peter Lorre, in his first English-language role, is the principal villain).

Though there’s no supernatural element in the plot — Zaroff is a psychopathic villain (an expatriate Russian nobleman who has become bored with hunting and has established himself on a Caribbean island where he captures people and hunts them down) but one within the bounds of terrestrial reality — much of the setting and mannerisms seem to be drawn from the Universal horror films: Zaroff introduces himself to his unwelcome guests (and us) in a gigantic hall reminiscent of Castle Dracula, and in cultured tones similar to Lugosi’s in the 1931 Dracula film — and his butler Ivan (played by Noble Johnson, who was mixed-race and therefore could play either Blacks or whites) is straight out of The Old Dark House, with his ugly face, thick beard and muteness. Charles asked if there was some stipulation in the Butlers’ Union contract with the Mad Scientists’ Association that required that all butlers in these movies be mute — and I mentioned that the character was mute in Connell’s original story as well.

In fact, The Most Dangerous Game — except for the addition of the Fay Wray character — is a pretty close adaptation of the Connell story (at least as I remember it from high school), though I wish scenarist James A. Creelman (son of one of Hearst’s star turn-of-the-century reporters) had retained more of Connell’s sardonic dialogue. I particularly remember the scene in the Connell story in which Zaroff is coolly ticking off the most important attributes of a perfect game animal, and he says, “ … and, above all, it must be able to reason.” Rainsford (who has the ominously “bloody” first name of “Sanger” in the story but is simply called “Bob” in the film) says there isn’t any animal that can reason, and Zaroff says, “My dear, there is one that can.” Rainsford — in a scene that would have played beautifully on film — comes to the shocked realization of what Zaroff means, and says, “But surely you don’t mean — ” and Zaroff, still cool, replies, “Why not? I am speaking of hunting.” “Good Lord!” says Rainsford. “You are speaking of murder!”

But what didn’t get in this film via the script comes in through Banks’ performance; apparently the actor had been wounded in World War I and had had to have his face reconstructed, which gave him a right profile of leading-man attractiveness and a left profile of dark ugliness and villainy (and Schoedsack emphasizes this by giving him a scar on the left side of his forehead, which he rubs, ostensibly involuntarily, at his craziest moments). Though the video print we were watching (from United American Video) was of poor quality and much of the dialogue was hard to hear, the movie held up as a good thriller (aided by the authenticity of the jungle traps Joel McCrea as Rainsford builds to trap Zaroff, all of which were based on ones Schoedsack had seen natives build and use in the East Indies), though hardly at the level of originality of its companion piece, King Kong! Incidentally, it was remade twice — by Robert Wise as A Game of Death, with John Loder, Audrey Long and Edgar Barrier, in 1945, using the long-shot action footage from this version — and as Run for the Sun, with Richard Widmark (as the hero!), Jane Greer and Trevor Howard, in 1956 — and in both those versions the expatriate Russian aristocrat Zaroff became an expatriate Nazi (called Krieger in the 1945 version). — 11/4/96

I ran Charles the 1932 version of The Most Dangerous Game, a movie I hadn’t seen in 10 years (since the last time I ran my videotape for Charles) but which emerged as quite good. Produced by the same people who made King Kong (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack) and actually shot at the same time (King Kong was RKO Production 601 and Most Dangerous Game was Production 602) on some of the same sets and with some of the same actors (Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Steve Clemente, Noble Johnson), but released a year earlier because it didn’t require the elaborate dimensional animation and post-production work of Kong, The Most Dangerous Game was co-directed by Schoedsack and Irving Pichel (I suspect Pichel did the interiors and Schoedsack did most or all of the action) and written by James Ashmore Creelman based on Richard Connell’s popular 1924 short story of the same title.

The plot is familiar: internationally famous big-game hunter Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea) — the character’s first name was “Sanger” in the original story but no doubt the change was to give the actors an easier name to pronounce — is on a private yacht that’s shipwrecked, thanks to deliberately misplaced buoy lights that cause ships to crash on a coral reef and sink. The island is owned by Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), a Russian aristocrat who fled the Revolution — cannily he had deposited most of his fortune in Swiss banks so he still had his money — and continued to hunt around the world until he realized that hunting was getting too easy and was beginning to bore him. At first he tried using a bow and arrow instead of firearms, then he hit upon the idea that what he needed was “not a new weapon, but a new animal.” So he bought the island in the middle of nowhere and arranged for boats to wreck themselves on its reefs so he and his servants, Ivan (Noble Johnson) and two characters identified only as “Tartar” (Steve Clemente) and “Scarface” (Oscar ‘Dutch’ Hendrian), can abduct the survivors and force them to be hunted like animals.

Brilliantly directed, written in a way that keeps most of the values of Connell’s original story intact (though, following traditional Hollywood practice, Creelman and his bosses couldn’t resist adding a woman to the dramatis personae), marvelously staged and given plenty of slithery jungle sets for Rainsford and Zaroff to play their game of “outdoor chess” (a term given this sickening “sport” by Zaroff in Connell’s story and retained for the film) as well as an almost nonstop score by Max Steiner that looks forward (for good and ill) to his later work, The Most Dangerous Game’s only real weakness is the casting of its villain. Leslie Banks is at least superficially right but he’s way too hammy in a part that is already so over-the-top in conception it needs restraint from the actor. Though Banks’ reputation was primarily for the kind of cultured villain he’s playing here, his best performance in a movie was as the hero in Alfred Hitchcock’s first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much — certainly from The Most Dangerous Game one would never guess that this actor would play a part that James Stewart would ultimately remake, but his neurotic excesses were channeled by Hitchcock into a legitimate expression of grief at the kidnapping of his daughter.

Banks is physically right for the villain — one side of his face was considerably homelier than the other, and Schoedsack, Pichel and cinematographer Henry Gerrard only had to shoot him from one side or the other to make him look either courtly or evil (and the RKO makeup department helped by giving him a deep forehead scar which he rubs in his nastiest moments — it almost seems to throb in sync to his moods) — but at a time when there were so many great character villains in Hollywood that would have been available, like Boris Karloff (the master of understated horror acting), Bela Lugosi (he would have been as hammy as Banks but at least his real Hungarian accent would have been more believable as a White Russian than Banks’ phony “Russian” one), Erich von Stroheim (who’d memorably played an evil White Russian expat in his own silent film Foolish Wives) or the actor who could probably have played it better in 1932 than anyone else, Lionel Atwill (I couldn’t help but imagine his ringing tones booming out Zaroff’s lines with more snap and real emotion than Banks managed, and that early he would have been at least as believable as a man of action in the jungle), Leslie Banks seems to have been cast from poverty instead of strength. — 9/12/06