Thursday, April 15, 2010

Radio City Revels (RKO, 1938)

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

The film was Radio City Revels, a 1938 musical from RKO (where else?) that began life as a title for the first starring vehicle for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers — though whether the film planned for those stars under that title had anything to do with the one they finally made is unclear. (The American Film Institute Catalog said it did; Arlene Croce’s The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book said it didn’t, and given the stupidity of the central premise and its utter unsuitability as a Fred and Ginger vehicle, I’m inclined to believe her.) Radio City Revels was based on an original story by Matt Brooks, who therefore most likely deserves blame for one of the silliest central plot lines ever cooked for a film even though he had the help of three other writers (Eddie Davis, Anthony Veiller and Mortimer Offner — the latter two quality scribes with non-embarrassing credits) to turn it into a script.

The story deals with two out-of-work songwriters in New York City, Harry Miller (Jack Oakie) and Teddy (Milton Berle), who live next door to sisters Billie (Ann Miller) and Gertie (Helen Broderick) Shaw, who used to tour in vaudeville and have been left stranded and income-less by its demise. Miller’s and Teddy’s only source of income is a correspondence course in songwriting that they’ve sold to exactly one student, Arkansas hillbilly Lester Robin (played by rustic comedian Bob Burns, who had enough of a reputation in 1938 he’s actually given top billing). Robin is frustrated because while he’s awake he can only come up with songs other people already wrote (like an hilariously fractured version of “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean”) but when he’s asleep he dreams the most beautiful — and original — melodies and lyrics, only to forget them when he wakes up. Miller and Teddy realize this unique talent and start transcribing Lester’s nocturnal emissions, peddling them as their own and becoming star songwriters for the company owned by Paul Plummer (Victor Moore, even more annoyingly whiny than usual). The premise is so weird that at least one critic summed it up by saying it seemed as if the film’s writers had been asleep when they came up with it.

Radio City Revels is a mediocre movie — the songs supposedly composed by Lester in his sleep (actually supplied by Herb Magidson — first Academy Award Best Song winner for “The Continental” from The Gay Divorcée — and Allie Wrubel) are nothing special (though “Take a Tip from the Tulip” is at least infectious, almost annoyingly so, and “Swingin’ in the Corn,” the number Bob Burns participates in in Arkansas before his character relocates and which also features an amusing contortionist dancer with the ability to kick herself in the head, is an obvious ripoff of “Louisiana Hayride” from The Band Wagon but is still a lot of fun) — and yet it’s a haunting one from the sheer weirdness of the plot device and the complications the writers try to come up with to spin their one joke into enough material for a 90-minute feature.

The high and low points come simultaneously in a long scene in which Miller and Teddy, desperate to get Lester to sleep so he can crank out the one song they need to complete the score for the new revue Radio City Revels — while he’s suddenly acquired insomnia because he’s realized that his crush object, Billie, only has eyes for radio crooner Kenny Baker (using his real name in this one and also his real whiny, high, almost countertenor voice) — try everything they can think of to put him under, from giving him an O.D. of sleeping pills (which he merrily chews as if they were candy) to curling up at his feet to pouring warm milk from a hot-water bottle down his throat to filling their apartment full of livestock (on the theory that the familiar sounds from a farm will lull him into sleep) and, in one bizarrely surrealistic moment, throwing a sheep back and forth between them so Lester, who’s lying in bed awake between them, will count sheep and fall asleep. (They finally knock him out accidentally and get their final song.) While a lot of other comedians, from the Marx Brothers to the Three Stooges, could have got more out of this gag, it’s still a scene that, like so much of this movie, isn’t particularly funny but is so weird it works — sort of — as entertainment. It ends with Billie marrying Kenny, Lester marrying Gertie (who’s tumbled to Lester’s secret and used it to blackmail Miller and Teddy into giving him royalties and credit) and Miller and Teddy pretty much stuck with each other.

RKO spent some serious money on this movie — at least two of the numbers, including “There’s a New Moon Over the Old Mill,” are staged on splendiferous sets (the “Old Mill” number takes place on a beautiful white, stylized art deco mill and features four mill maids desperately waiting for male mates; when Kenny Baker shows up they say, “Oh, a man!” — to which I couldn’t help but joke, “That’s a matter of opinion”) — though the splendid bed Ann Miller sleeps in was recycled from Ginger Rogers’ room in Top Hat — and put in a bunch of genuinely talented if not exactly star comedians (though there’s a big difference between watching people like Helen Broderick and Victor Moore as comic relief and watching them in a movie which doesn’t have big glamour stars for them to be comic relief to) — but it’s utterly baffling who they thought the audience for it would be, and as it turned out there wasn’t one: RKO spent $810,000 making Radio City Revels and lost $300,000 on it.