Thursday, February 4, 2010

Crooner (Warners as “First National,” 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran another movie from the backlog: Crooner, a 1932 production by Warner Bros. in “First National” drag recently shown on TCM as part of a birthday tribute to, of all people, J. Carrol Naish last January 21. I could think of better movies — or at least ones that feature him more — to show in this context (including the 1939 Paramount “B” Persons in Hiding, in which Naish played Clyde Barrow and Patricia Morison played Bonnie Parker in the screen’s first movie about Bonnie and Clyde; and the curious 1944 PRC “B” The Monster Maker, in which Naish plays a mad scientist who deliberately infects concert pianist Ralph Morgan with acromegaly as revenge for Morgan’s refusal to let Naish marry his daughter); as it was they focused mostly on Naish’s work as a character actor in early-1930’s Warners programmers, many of them (including Tiger Shark and The Hatchet Man) with Edward G. Robinson as star.

Crooner was a mordant satire of showbiz hype which starred David Manners as Ted Taylor, a recent college graduate who’s trying to keep together the jazz band he and his fellow students started. He tries out at a vaudeville theatre and is told his group is just another jazz band and needs a novelty to be successful. Then he gets a second audition at the Golden Slipper nightclub, owned by Nick Meyer (J. Carrol Naish), only his singer gets drunk and misses the tryout. So Ted takes a vocal himself, only his voice is so faint he can’t be heard until an obnoxious drunk on the dance floor (Guy Kibbee) hands him a megaphone and says, “Let the rest of us in on the joke” — and with the megaphone amplifying his voice (while at the same time making it sound unattractively nasal), Ted is an instant hit and his band lands the nightclub job at $350 a week for four weeks.

On the night his contract is about to expire, Ted’s girlfriend Judy Mason (Ann Dvorak) arrives at the club with agent Peter Sturgis (Ken Murray) in tow. Sturgis, who also has the hots for Judy, promises that he can make Ted into a major star in nightclubs and on radio, and billing him as the “crooner,” he does so — and the major boost to Ted’s fame and income turns him, in classic movie fashion, into an ass, an unscrupulous heel and a prima donna who believes his own publicity to the point where he even hires a (phony) vocal coach who promises to train his voice and get him into the Met even though what we hear of his un-megaphoned voice screeches whenever it rises above the staff.

Crooner does appear to be a movie about — or at least inspired by — the rise of Rudy Vallée, who like Ted in the movie started out leading a band and playing C-melody saxophone (let’s face it: there aren’t that many movies that actually show a C-melody saxophone!) before he started singing through a megaphone, became a nationwide sensation and developed an awful case of diva-itis. (When Vallée showed up at Paramount’s studio in Astoria, New York to appear in the 1929 musical Glorifying the American Girl, he gave out autographed pictures to his fellow cast and crew members — and so many of them got tired of his egomania they either used the photos as dartboards or put them up in the studio urinals and literally pissed on them.)

The plot by Charles Kenyon ignores the fact that singers had been using megaphones at least since the early 1920’s — in 1924 Bing Crosby auditioned for an amateur band called the Musicaladers that was looking for a drummer, but when he brought a megaphone to his audition the leader immediately recognized it and said, “Oh, you sing, too” — and by 1932 they were pretty much being phased out in favor of microphones (some scenes in Crooner show David Manners using both, pointing his megaphone at the square-box microphones that were apparently the standard for nightclub P.A.’s then), just as Vallée’s vogue was passing in favor of Bing Crosby, who though also a “crooner” in the sense that he had a laid-back and intimate vocal style, had a much more beautiful voice and far better musicianship. (Vallée had come up from the ranks of mediocre collegiate pop-jazz bands; Crosby had worked alongside Bix Beiderbecke in Paul Whiteman’s orchestra and then had learned from seeing Louis Armstrong at Sebastian’s Cotton Club in L.A.)

Anyway, once Ted Taylor starts earning money and fame Crooner turns into an all-too-typical musical about the arrogant young punk who burns through his money, surrounds himself with flatterers and leeches, blows off his original girlfriend and takes up with socialite Mrs. Brown (Claire Dodd — who seemed to make a specialty of these bad-woman roles), spending a week with her on her yacht while claiming to be in the mountains resting from a sore throat. Writer Kenyon arranges for a particularly nasty sort of comeuppance for him; not only does his popularity at the Golden Slipper fall off after he starts telling his band to play every number undanceably slow to show off his vocals, but at one point he shows up for work drunk and gets belligerent when he’s heckled from the audience, at one point leaving the stage and punching out a particularly obnoxious heckler — whereupon he’s told that he just hit a cripple: the man had lost a leg in combat in World War I (though his disability wasn’t apparent visually and we and Ted both found out about it from the dialogue alone). Ted ends up playing saxophone in a tiny restaurant for peanuts and Judy gets ready to marry Peter — only at the last minute Peter realizes that she’s still in love with Ted and sends her back to him.

Crooner is a movie whose tropes were probably numbingly familiar clichés even in 1932 — let’s face it, the basic plot had been done far better in Lord Byron of Broadway, an unjustly neglected early musical from MGM in 1929 — and the film betrays signs of major surgery in the cutting room (whereas in most of her “vamp” roles we see Claire Dodd at work on the poor, innocent hero well before she ensnares him, here he suddenly turns up on her yacht and we wonder, “Who the hell is she?”) and also lacks any truly good songs (though that may have been part of the point: not only was the megaphonic “crooning” style rotten, the film seems to be saying, but so was the material the crooners crooned).

The best of a sorry lot is “Three’s a Crowd” by Harry Warren, Al Dubin and Irving Kahal (later Warren and Dubin would write most of the songs for the great Busby Berkeley musicals at Warners); the others are “Sweethearts Forever” by Cliff Friend and Irving Caesar, and a whole passel of songs by Don Hartman and John Hancock (hardly names to conjure with in the history of American popular music): “Goin’ Back Home,” “I Must Have ’Em Young,” “Rice and Old Shoes,” “Sock the Cymbal,” “Sophisticated Rhythm,” “We’re Sure to Meet Some Day,” “We’ve Got the Right Idea,” “Why Did You Do It to Me?,” “Why the Devil?” and “You Grew Up for Me.” (Never heard of any of those songs? There’s a reason for that.)

It’s an engaging little movie but it follows an all too well-blazed trail and doesn’t offer much except for a quite subtle performance by David Manners, whose restraint as a performer actually stands him in good stead here; he doesn’t yield to the obvious scenery-chewing temptations his role offers when the character is on the downgrade, and he’s able (as not all the actors who played these sorts of parts were ) to convince us that he’s still a decent person at heart when Kenyon and director Lloyd Bacon decide he’s suffered enough and he can get his girlfriend back at the end.