Thursday, September 3, 2009

Sitting on the Moon (Republic, 1936)

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

The film was Sitting on the Moon, a really charming musical from the first year of Republic Pictures (1936) when the studio was still in transition. Republic was formed by Herbert Yates, a Right-wing slimeball (John Hammond notes in his autobiography just how anti-union he was) who as the head of Consolidated Film Industries, the main independent processing lab for movie film in 1930’s Hollywood, had got a lot of smaller film companies in hock to him. He used that clout to get several studios to merge under his ownership, including W. Ray Johnston’s Monogram and Nat Levine’s Mascot. Neither enjoyed working under Yates’s control; within two years Johnston had pulled out of the merger and received a cash settlement from Yates with which he re-started Monogram (alas, at a much lower artistic level than his first iteration!), while Levine (at least according to an contributor) cashed out of Republic with $1 million which he promptly proceeded to blow on bad bets on horse races. (Levine turned up in 1939 at MGM, of all places, as a contract producer for the studio, but he only made one film for them — Four Girls in White, a story about nursing students — before MGM let him go.)

Levine was still technically head of the studio during its first year and a half or so, and Sitting on the Moon was his personal production; directed by Ralph Staub (whom he promoted from directing behind-the-scenes shorts about movie stars — sort of the Entertainment Tonight of their time — to making features) from a script by Raymond L. Schrock, Sidney Sutherland (who later turned up at Monogram in the mid-1940’s writing Kay Francis’ God-awful final vehicles) and Rex Taylor, it’s a Hollywood behind-the-scenes story but one that’s distinguished from the usual by focusing on a star who’s already blown her career. The star is Polly Blair (Grace Bradley), who gradually got more diva-ish and ultimately blew her career at Regent Pictures (interesting that a film made at a studio whose name symbolized democratic government would feature a fictitious studio whose name symbolizes monarchy!) by walking out on a film in mid-production. Her once-and-future boyfriend, songwriter Danny West (Roger Pryor), is attempting to get her back on the lot at Regent even if only as a chorus girl (shades of A Chorus Line!) but Worthington (Henry Kolker), Regent’s studio head, is inflexible and refuses to allow her to work there no matter how menial the job.

Danny has his own problems; he keeps running short of inspiration for the big song he’s supposed to provide Worthington for Regent’s next movie (at one point he plays a ragtime piece that turns out to be a swung version of a theme from Tannhäuser — though I must confess I didn’t recognize it as such until he said it was in the dialogue) and he’s been married to Blossom (Joyce Compton), a blonde he met in a drunken ramble through Mexico that left him owing $140 to a cabdriver and with a bride he couldn’t even remember meeting, much less marrying. Unable to make a comeback in Hollywood, Polly goes to New York and gets a job with a big radio program, and Danny follows her there and he and his comic-relief lyricist, Mike (William Newell), write her a song that becomes an enormous hit and establishes her as a radio star. There are a few more ups-and-downs in their relationship — especially when Blossom follows him to New York and demands a settlement to end the marriage so he can marry Polly — but it turns out she’s been married 11 times already, thanks to a scam she and that cabdriver (ya remember the cabdriver?) worked out to ensnare male movie personalities and extort money out of them via sham “marriages.”

Though we were watching one of those damnable cut versions of Republic’s movies they prepared to show on TV in the 1950’s — reduced to 54 minutes from an original 67-minute running time (the editing was at least done well enough that there weren’t any obvious lacunae) — Sitting on the Moon (the title is the big song Danny writes for Polly) was a nice, charming little musical, noteworthy for the intriguing singing of Grace Bradley — while she was hardly a match for the great Black singers of the 1930’s, she phrased with much more sensitivity than most of the white girls who sang with the big bands — and also the songs themselves, written by an obscure but not totally unfamiliar songwriter named Sam H. Stept. He would go on to write one of the biggest hits of the war years — “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” made famous by the Andrews Sisters (and also recorded by Glenn Miller) — and several quite good songs, including “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” and “My First Impression of You” (the latter recorded by Billie Holiday in a divinely inspired — or at least so it seems — version from 1938). Stept’s first hit had actually been “That’s My Weakness Now,” a very dated but still charming period piece from the 1920’s recorded by Helen Kane and covered by Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards and also by the Rhythm Boys with Paul Whiteman (and some sensational jazz breaks by Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer).