Thursday, July 9, 2009

Blonde from Brooklyn (Columbia, 1945)

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

The “feature” we ran after that was Blonde from Brooklyn (incidentally, insists that there was a definite article at the beginning of the title, but the opening credit omitted the “The”), which turned out to be a minor but quite engaging Columbia “B” musical from 1945. It begins with former vaudevillian Dixon Harper (Robert Stanton) being mustered out of the service after World War II by a lieutenant played by Hugh Beaumont (later best known as the father on Leave It to Beaver). He’s putting on a “Southern” act even though he’s actually from Dubuque, Iowa — apparently the South and its stereotypes were his stock-in-trade as a vaudeville performer — and after he gets out of the service, rather than go to college on the GI Bill, he plans to head to New York City to find work as an entertainer. He calls up the “Maestro” jukebox service — which we’ve seen in action in at least one other Columbia movie — a fascinating operation in which depositing your coin doesn’t play a record located there; instead it connects you with an operator in a central room with a bank of phonographs and a library of records, from which the operator selects the song you requested and asks if you want an instrumental or a vocal version.

Dixon is trying to impress an old flame who, unbeknownst to him, got married to a Marine (“The Marines always get there first,” he says ruefully) when he requests a vocal version of a swing number. The “Maestro” only has an instrumental record, but no problem: the operator, Susan Parker (Lynn Merrick) sings the number to the record and so impresses Dixon that he wants to meet her. Alas, her use of the service to make a date gets her fired by the hatchet-faced woman who runs it, Miss Quackenfish (Myrtle Ferguson). Once they meet, though, Dixon decides that Susan would be the perfect partner for his act — despite the fact that, though individually Robert Stanton and Lynn Merrick both have pleasant voices (not great, but pleasant), when singing together they don’t blend well for shit. (When Waylon Jennings was married to Jessi Colter he tried recording duets with her, hoping they’d be the next Johnny Cash and June Carter, but where Johnny’s and June’s voices blended beautifully, Waylon’s and Jessi’s didn’t.)

Nonetheless, they pass the audition and get hired on the radio show sponsored by W. Wilson Wilbur (Walter Soderling) — a marvelous deadpan comic who manages to avoid ever looking excited, or even moved in the slightest, by anything — only in order to appear authentically “Southern,” Dixon hires Col. Hubert Farnsworth (Thurston Hall) to create a Dixie-fried identity for her and coach her in proper behavior for the scioness of a rich Southern family taking a flyer in show business. The colonel — whom we can tell is a con man but that isn’t definitively revealed until much later in the film — gives her the moniker “Suzanne Bellwithers” because his research has indicated that the real-life Bellwithers family died out — only no sooner do Dixon and “Suzanne” get on the air than an attorney surfaces and tells “Suzanne” that as the last surviving Bellwithers she’s entitled to an $800,000 inheritance. Now Dixon and Susan are up against it; if they claim the inheritance they risk being convicted of fraud, while if they admit the truth and acknowledge that she’s really a blonde from Brooklyn, they risk being fired.

Complications ensue when Col. Farnsworth engages a friend and former associate, Curtis Rossmore (Matt Willis, best known as Bela Lugosi’s werewolf sidekick in Return of the Vampire), to pose as another Bellwithers heir and let Susan off the hook by claiming the inheritance — only the will stipulates that only a woman Bellwithers can inherit. Eventually a genuine Bellwithers heir surfaces and gets the money, while Dixon and Susan get radio stardom and each other — though I was surprised writer Erna Lazarus (no relation, I presume, to the woman who wrote the poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty) didn’t do the charming wrap-up I was expecting, in which Susan would be asked if her name really was Bellwithers and she’d respond by flashing her wedding ring and saying, “No, my name is Harper.”

Still, Blonde from Brooklyn is a genuinely charming film, an easygoing little piece of entertainment that gets by on the stars’ appeal. Lazarus’s clever deployment of the clichés (it’s one of those scripts that derives almost exclusively from clichéd situations but nonetheless achieves originality by deploying them in unexpected ways), and sprightly direction by Del Lord, who was a slapstick specialist — he’d begun as a Keystone Kop and Columbia had hired him to do the Three Stooges’ shorts — but proves here he could handle romantic comedy equally well. Oddly, I haven’t been able to get any information on the songs in this film — doesn’t list any of them and Clive Hirschhorn’s book The Hollywood Musical only lists the final number, “My Baby Said Yes” by Sid Robin and Ted Walters — which Robert Stanton and Lynn Merrick sing decently and charmingly in the final sequence … only on July 26, 1944 (a year before the release of this film), Bing Crosby and Louis Jordan had recorded a great version for Decca that blows theirs away completely.