Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Sunny Side of the Street (Columbia, 1951)

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

I ended up running a movie for Charles: Sunny Side of the Street, a disc I’d recorded from TCM last September which John P. had screened and warned me about a peculiar glitch in the soundtrack, though he hadn’t told me what it was: in the middle of a musical number by Billy Daniels and pianist Benny Payne (a medley of “I Get a Kick Out of You” — Cole Porter’s song was inadvertently credited to George and Ira Gershwin on the imdb.com Web site! — and “I Hadn’t Anyone ’Til You”) Time Warner got its cable-station signals crossed and we heard a few heavy-metal chords announcing an upcoming event from NASCAR.

Sunny Side of the Street is one of the handful of musicals Columbia produced for Frankie Laine in the early 1950’s — this one was from 1951 and was the second in the series of five (though the last of Laine’s five films for the studio, He Laughed Last, was actually not a musical), and was an appealing if pretty clichéd musical story centered around the then-new medium of television. Frankie Laine plays (more or less) himself — at least his character is called “Frankie Laine” — and he’s a major singing star with a show on the Los Angeles CBS affiliate, though as the plot by Harold Conrad (story) and Lee Loeb (screenplay) has it he’s pretty much an extra in his own movie.

The plotlet is a familiar romantic-triangle routine with aspiring singer Ted Mason (Jerome Courtland) taking a job as a tour guide at the station and falling for information-desk worker Betty Holloway (Terry Moore) while at the same time fending off the advances of his former high-school sweetheart, Gloria Pelley (Audrey Long) — who in the meantime is advising her father, peanut-brittle tycoon Cyrus Pelley (Jonathan Hale), on what sort of program he ought to put on the network. Along the way we get to hear Frankie Laine and Jerome Courtland sing a bunch of interesting old songs, including “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “Pennies from Heaven,” “Let’s Fall in Love,” a nice medley of “I Get a Kick Out of You” and “I Hadn’t Anyone ’Til You” (by Billy Daniels and Benny Payne —Daniels was a Black nightclub singer and Payne was his piano player; he’d formerly been second pianist in Fats Waller’s live band and he managed some nice, piquant Walleresque vocal gestures that cut the pretensions of Daniels’ vocals) and a version in Italian of “Come Back to Sorrento” by singer Toni Arden (playing herself, so she must have had some sort of reputation at the time) as well as a relatively new number called “I’m Gonna Live ’til I Die” that lent itself to Laine’s no-holds-barred manner of interpretation — he really does sound at times like Bessie Smith reincarnated as an Italian-American male!

There’s also an interesting comedy duo of John “J. R.” Stevens (William Waterman) and Al (William Tracy), who are attempting to write Pelley’s show and keep coming up with a series of ideas, each worse than its predecessor, which unsurprisingly fail to impress Pelley and his daughter — the gimmick here is that, except for occasional whispers to his writing partner, Al is mute à la Harpo Marx — and Tracy oddly looks even more like Jerry Lewis than he had in the Hal Roach service comedies from the early 1940’s in which he played a bookish nerd partnered with old-school idiot sergeant Joe Sawyer. Sunny Side of the Street is a nice, comfortable musical with a lot of good singing from Laine and a cop-out ending in which Gloria announces that she’s long since stopped being in love with Ted and therefore he can have his big TV break on her dad’s program without having to give Betty up for it — the sort of movie that no doubt accomplished its purpose of sucking off Laine’s popularity as a concert attraction and major record seller while not challenging him and requiring him either to dance (which he did have to in Bring Your Smile Along) or act (this one didn't even give him a comedy romance).