Monday, February 9, 2009

Artists and Models (Paramount, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles the 1937 Artists and Models, a movie I saw once in the early 1970’s and desperately wanted to see again, so much so that I practically had an orgasm when I saw it on TCM’s schedule for February 1, only to find when I recorded it that the first five minutes offered a ragged soundtrack and no image at all, so we sat in the dark and listened to the Yacht Club Boys’ opening song, “The Super-Special Epic of the Year.” The image cut in five minutes into the movie — just at the very end of the song, in time to give us at least a glimpse of the elaborate stage set Paramount built for it — and the rest was glitch-free.

Artists and Models is known mostly as Vincente Minnelli’s first film; in his early days in Hollywood Minnelli only got to do individual musical numbers in other people’s movies, and here his contribution is “Public Melody No. 1,” the big production number at the end featuring Martha Raye (in blackface) and Louis Armstrong. Minnelli had been a hotshot director on Broadway when Paramount gave him a six-month contract in 1937, but after an unhappy tenure there during which this was the only film he got to work on, he went back to New York as soon as the six months were up and didn’t try the movies again until Arthur Freed signed him for MGM in 1940 and told him he could wander around the lot, watching how movies were made, until he’d figured it out and he told Freed he was ready to work.

Frankly, I suspect that “Public Melody No. 1” wasn’t the only number in Artists and Models Minnelli worked on; there’s also an engaging musical parody called “Mister Esquire” featuring human actor Ben Blue in a spoof of classical music with Russell Patterson’s Personettos, a group of puppets, that seems to have his touch — it’s premonitory of the marvelous animated fruit musicians on the dinner table in Strike Up the Band (another “insertion number” Minnelli directed in a movie of which Busby Berkeley was the director of record), just as “Public Melody No. 1” looks forward to Lena Horne’s numbers in Panama Hattie (Minnelli’s first official MGM credit) and even more to Cabin in the Sky, Minnelli’s first full directorial credit and also a film with African-American performers (including Louis Armstrong, though by the time the film was released Armstrong’s part had been cut to almost nothing).

The rest of the film was directed by Raoul Walsh — an excellent director of action films and melodramas but one somewhat at sea in a comedy/musical — and written by the usual committee (Sig Herzig and Eugene Thackrey, story; Eve Greene and Harlan Ware, “adaptation,” and Walter DeLeon, Lewis E. Gensler and Francis Martin, script), who came up with a romantic-quadrilateral plotlet about Mac Brewster (Jack Benny), owner and CEO of the Brewster Advertising Agency, who’s sucking up to silverware heir Alan Townsend (Richard Arlen, who like his director would have been far more comfortable with an action script) because the ad agency is broke and the $1 million (in 1937 dollars!) contract Townsend is dangling in front of him is his and his agency’s economic salvation.

Brewster’s girlfriend is his agency’s star model, Paula Sewell (Ida Lupino, still with strong traces of her native British accent), and she asks him to ensure that she can be both the Townsend Silver Girl and the queen of the Artists and Models Ball, which Brewster is chairing — only Townsend doesn’t want a professional model for this assignment. Instead, he wants a debutante from the Social Register — and accordingly Paula and her roommate Toots (Judy Canova) fly down to Miami so Paula can pose as debutante “Paula Monterey” and snag the Townsend Silver contract. Meanwhile, Brewster has recruited his own potential Townsend Girl, Cynthia Wentworth (Gail Patrick), a genuine debutante who came to his office to fundraise for a babies’ charity and ends up in love with Brewster (and vice versa). She doesn’t get to be the Townsend Girl — that job was promised by Townsend to Paula before he found out she was really a model, which causes a glitch in their own burgeoning relationship — but she does get her charity named as the ball’s beneficiary and she also lands Brewster, while Paula ends up with Townsend and Toots ends up with Jupiter Pluvius II (Monte Blue), a genuinely amusing comic-relief character (one wouldn’t think a Jack Benny movie needed comic relief, but there it is) called Jupiter Pluvius II, a rainmaker who claims his dad, also a rainmaker, started the Johnstown Flood.

There are some appealing songs in this film, including the Academy Award-nominated “Whispers in the Dark” (sung by Connie Boswell — it was a year after the Boswell Sisters broke up and she was still using the normal spelling of her first name instead of “Connee,” the version she favored later — and played by André Kostelanetz as part of a gargantuan production number on a stage built over the Miami beachfront; she sings beautifully but her face is kept in shadow and the number rather lumbers along, and the attempts of the Kostelanetz orchestra to swing are embarrassing) and “Stop! You’re Breaking My Heart,” which was recorded appealingly by Maxine Sullivan with Claude Thornhill’s studio band in 1937 as a followup to their surprise hit of “Loch Lomond” but here is an almost unlistenable duet between Judy Canova and Ben Blue, who seem determined to gang up on its melody and utterly destroy it. Still, the writing committee came up with some pretty good one-liners — most of them for Jack Benny, who left his violin at home on this one but otherwise played pretty much the character he did on radio (there’s a charming little in-joke in which Brewster and Cynthia walk past a radio tuned to the Benny program and Brewster says, “I’ve always liked him,” while Cynthia replies, “Funny — I’ve never cared for him”).

The Yacht Club Boys are explosive as usual — aside from the blacked-out opening number, they get another energetic routine in Brewster’s office in which they burst in with a whole troupe of singers, dancers and even a horse to demonstrate a “gypsy” production number they want to stage at the ball, just adding to the film’s maddest scene which also features Brewster receving the executives of an underwear company (potential clients of his agency) while he’s in his underwear himself — they mistake him for the male model they requested and say he’s wrong for the assignment — because he’s also simultaneously being examined by a doctor (Donald Meek, which is funny enough in itself). Minnelli’s “Public Melody No. 1” number looks like it came from an entirely different movie; shot in rich chiaroscuro black-and-white instead of the plain style Victor Milner used in the rest of the film, the number is rich in visual inventiveness and features some soulful blues playing by Armstrong as well as wild dancing and an overall noir air that makes it a precursor to the “Girl Hunt Ballet” Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse did in Minnelli’s The Band Wagon.

Overall, Artists and Models is a nice movie, not a world-beater but fun in a dorky way and with the big Minnelli number at the end (which also has the advantage of the most talented musical stars in the film!) that predictably got the movie in trouble with Paramount’s Southern distributors — even though Raye and Armstrong never touch, the Southern execs still watched blackfaced Martha Raye (who actually doesn’t look all that dark — more like a white girl who went to a really good tanning salon) cavort with genuinely African-American Louis Armstrong and, with visions of miscegenation dancing in their heads (not that they had to worry; Armstrong’s preference was always not only for Black women but the darkest-skinned Black women he could find!), they scissored it out of the movie and both it and Judy Canova’s rustic rendition of Billy Gashade’s old “Ballad of Jesse James” were frequently omitted from this film during its 1950’s TV showings — while more recently virtually all the advertised showings of Artists and Models turned out to be the 1955 quasi-remake, a vehicle for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis that kept nothing from this film but its title. (Paramount was hoping this would become a musical series on the order of their Big Broadcasts, Warners’ Gold Diggers and MGM’s Broadway Melodies, but after only one sequel — Artists and Models Abroad, a 1938 film which carried over Jack Benny but cast him in a different part — they abandoned the idea.)