Saturday, December 5, 2009

Chasing Rainbows (MGM, 1930)

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

After Corruption I screened Charles Chasing Rainbows, a musical MGM filmed in 1929 but didn’t release until 1930 — at a time when Hollywood was starting to run scared from the musical genre because, aside from Depression-related jitters that economically stressed people might simply stop going to movies altogether (which didn’t really start to happen until about 1931 or so), audiences were beginning to get tired of the flood of musicals they had been inundated with starting with The Jazz Singer and the advent of sound, since the musical was the one common film genre that really couldn’t be done in the silent era. Chasing Rainbows was clearly an attempt by MGM to duplicate the incredible success of The Broadway Melody — they used two of the same stars, Charles King and Bessie Love, and in a committee-written script (“dialogue” by Charles Riesner, who also directed, and Kenyon Nicholson, based on a “scenario” by Bess Meredyth and Al Boasberg, based on an “adaptation” by Wells Root of an original story, Road Show, by Meredyth and Robert Hopkins) they tried to strike the same combination of musical and soap opera that had made The Broadway Melody appealing and popular.

MGM production chief Irving Thalberg also cast Jack Benny in it after Benny’s success as the MC in the plotless Hollywood Revue of 1929, and interestingly he picked a story that, though it’s a backstage musical, takes place not in the weeks leading up to a big show’s Broadway opening but on a later and far less “sung” phase of show business: the touring companies that are sent out after a show’s run on Broadway, usually with much less prestigious cast members. Chasing Rainbows also has a refreshing honesty about people’s sex lives characteristic of the so-called “pre-Code” era; the show’s leading lady, Peggy (Gwen Lee), leaves the cast in mid-tour to go off with a sugar daddy (Eugene Borden), leading stage manager Eddie Rock (Jack Benny) scrambling for a replacement. At first we think he’s going to give the part to chorus member Carlie Semour (Bessie Love), who joined the cast with her former vaudeville partner Terry Fay (Charles King) when he got offered the male lead, but in fact he sends to New York for a new star, Daphne Wayne (Nita Martan). Carlie is in love with Terry, but Terry can’t keep his eyes off other women; Daphne notices this and vamps him, figuring that she can get him to marry her and the two of them can become Broadway stars together — and once she’s established on the Main Stem she can dump him and go off with the man she’s really in love with, Don Cordova (Eddie Phillips), who’s playing the second male lead.

As if that weren’t confusing enough, there are also comic-relief parts for Marie Dressler — as the show’s comedian (she sings two songs, reminding viewers with long memories that she’d been a singer on Broadway and had starred in the musical Tillie’s Nightmare, in which she’d made the song “Heaven Will Protect the Working Girl” one of the biggest hits of the early 20th century, though that’s probably not well known by people who know the show only from the movie Mack Sennett made of it, Tillie’s Punctured Romance, in which Dressler made her film debut but the movie was stolen by Charlie Chaplin, for whom it was a star-making part even though he was playing a villain instead of his sympathetic “tramp”) — and Polly Moran as the dresser. MGM actually built up Dressler and Moran into a comedy team for a while, patterning them loosely after Laurel and Hardy — Moran the skinny, flighty one and Dressler the larger and presumably more grounded one — and on the strength of this movie they were put into a series of vehicles, mostly with one-word titles (Politics, Prosperity, Reducing) and with George K. Arthur (who’s also in this film) as their male sidekick and stooge.

A major problem with Chasing Rainbows as it stands is that the big musical numbers, “Happy Days Are Here Again” (this was the film that introduced that song), “Everybody Tap,” “Love Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues” (which was recorded by Frank Trumbauer’s orchestra on September 18, 1929 with Smith Ballew singing) and one of Dressler’s big features, “My Dynamite Personality,” aren’t in the extant print. They were shot in the two-strip Technicolor process and have completely disappeared — they don’t even survive in black-and-white like the color numbers from The Broadway Melody and Sunnyside Up do — so the Turner Classic Movies print puts production stills accompanied by instrumental versions of the film’s score (at least one of which is a jarringly modern recording) and runs subtitles describing the numbers (and the plot action that’s supposed to be happening during them) to fill in the gaps left by the missing numbers.

This obviously doesn’t help a modern viewer assess whether this was a good movie in 1930 — especially since cutting out four of the numbers unbalances the movie and makes it seem less musical and more soap opera than it no doubt did “complete” — but on the evidence it seems like Chasing Rainbows was a good but disjointed and clunky film that didn’t always take full advantage of the talents of its cast. Bessie Love is good but she gets way too many moments of intense emotional traumas, mostly over Charles King’s faithlessness — she’s good but all those scenes get awfully wearing after a while! Marie Dressler dominates the cast — as she did even up against Greta Garbo in Anna Christie — mainly because as a veteran of both stage and silent film, she instinctively understood acting for talkies far better than most of her co-stars — and while they’re not a patch on Laurel and Hardy, she and Moran work well together and generate sustained merriment if not too much out-and-out laughter. Though only one of Dressler’s songs, “Poor but Honest,” survives in the extant print, it’s a great novelty number and makes it clear that she had real musical talent as a comedy singer.

Nita Martan as Daphne also gets a novelty song, “Do I Know What I’m Doing?” (later reprised in a gag version by Dressler and Moran), and she’s surprisingly good as both singer and actress and we wish we could see more of her. As for Jack Benny, he’s there — he’s a bit hard to recognize at first (mainly because he isn’t wearing the glasses he wore by the time his radio show made it onto TV) and, though he’s doing some of his familiar gestures and vocal inflections (the finger on the cheek, the “Wel-l-l-l … ” vocable) and his timing is excellent, the script (even with one of his future radio writers, Al Boasberg, as his gag man) gives him precious little to say or do and Benny is handicapped (as he generally was in his early films) by the fact that he hadn’t yet developed his radio character, which put all his talents in a frame that was devastatingly entertaining and hilarious. Chasing Rainbows was a box-office flop — in his memoir Benny wrote, “The exhibitors renamed it Chasing Customers” — and “Happy Days Are Here Again” had to wait two years for Franklin Roosevelt’s campaign to adopt it as a theme song and make it a hit.

Ironically, Thalberg renewed Benny’s contract and even gave him a raise from $850 to $1,000 a week (in 1930!), but didn’t give him anything to do; apparently seeking to squirrel Benny away from anyone else who might help him become a movie star, he neither gave him an MGM assignment nor allowed him a loanout to work at another studio, and it was only when Earl Carroll offered Benny the comic lead in the 1931 edition of his Vanities that Thalberg, reasoning that the New York stage wasn’t a competitor he needed to worry about, released Benny from his contract and allowed him to resume his career.