Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Time Out for Rhythm (Columbia, 1941)

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

Not long ago I’d shown Charles The Big Store, a 1941 (semi-)musical with a trio of comedians who’ve become legends and are still quite popular — the Marx Brothers — and as it happened last night I showed him another 1941 musical with a trio of comedians who’ve become legends and are still quite popular, the Three Stooges. The film was Time Out for Rhythm, a Columbia “B” feature for Ann Miller — though she doesn’t appear until about 25 minutes into this 75-minute film — and Rudy Vallée. The film opens in 1934, when amateur singer and agent’s flunky Danny Collins (Vallée) visits a nightclub owned by Mike Armstrong (Richard Lane) and hears his star performer, Frances Lewis (Rosemary Lane), sing a rather strident version of the ballad “Did Anyone Ever Tell You?” Danny takes her aside and says she’d make a better impression on her audience if she sang the song instead of attacking it — thereby pissing off Mike, who’s got a crush on Frances and is hoping to marry her. His hopes are dashed when Frances runs off with a millionaire, marries him and retires, and Mike and Danny form a partnership and become star agents.

The years flash forward on screen and it’s 1941, Mike and Danny are packaging a TV program (no, that’s not anachronistic: NBC had started regular TV broadcasting in New York City in 1939 even though only about 100 people in New York City had TV sets, and they were expecting to build the service the way they had radio until World War II intervened and pretty much killed the market for new consumer products, and especially for new consumer technologies, for the duration) and they’ve got singer Joan Merrill (who must have had enough of a “name” for 1941 audiences since she’s billed as playing herself), Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra, and Eduardo “Eddie” Durant’s Rhumba Orchestra. All they need is a dancing star, and as (bad, as things turn out) luck would have it Frances Lewis available, having just dumped her millionaire and shown up back in New York, ready to work. She’ll only take the role if the entire show is reformatted entirely around her — and Mike, still moonstruck over her, agrees, much to the disgust not only of Danny but also of “Off-Beat” Davis (Allen Jenkins), his pianist and sidekick (and occasional singer, if you can call it that), who can’t stand Frances’s singing any more than they can her diva antics.

Looking for an understudy in case Frances pulls a hissy-fit and walks out on the show, Danny and “Off-Beat” head for Frances’s apartment hoping to rehearse her in her numbers — and instead they find her out (she’s romancing yet another potential sugar daddy, this one a tobacco heir with the good sense not to smoke himself) and see her maid, Kitty Brown (Ann Miller), singing and dancing along with a record while she cleans the apartment. While Frances is spending most of her evenings drunk or otherwise hors de combat from her dates with her latest bankroll, Danny and “Off-Beat” secretly rehearse Kitty and teach her the entire show — and they put her on in Frances’s place until Mike, in the middle of the program, angrily blows the whistle and takes it off the air rather than see it go on and be successful with someone other than his unrequited inamorata in the lead. Mike and Danny break their partnership, and Danny tries unsuccessfully to get Kitty (whom he’s fallen in love with, of course) a job in a Broadway show — and then he hears that Hollywood talent scout James Anderson (Stanley Andrews) is coming and looking for fresh talent.

Thinking their own audition room isn’t big enough to impress a guy from Hollywood (even though we’ve already seen, supposedly staged in it, a marvelous faux-Berkeley number with the Casa Loma band doing a boogie and their instruments turning into neon outlines on an otherwise black screen — one of the most impressive scenes in the film), they ask Mike to borrow his nightclub, the Skyline Room — only the tsuris with Frances starts all over again: Mike insists that he’ll only let them have the spot if Frances stars in the show, Danny agrees, then Frances takes a powder after Mike confronts her over the fact that there’s a Hollywood talent scout in the audience and if he likes her she’ll sign a movie contract with him rather than stay in New York, perform in Mike’s nightclub and marry Mike — so the show goes on with Kitty, she gets discovered, Mike and Danny resume their partnership and, somewhat surprisingly, there aren’t the usual reconciliations between them and their stardom-minded girlfriends before it all ends.

In case you’re wondering where the Three Stooges fit into all this, they come on at periodic intervals in the action and do some incredibly hackneyed old vaudeville routines, punctuated by the sort of violent slapstick that was their stock in trade and has remained so, getting a few moderate laughs but adding little to the film — until the final nightclub sequence, when, with Frances having taken a powder and the rhumba number about to start, the Stooges take it over. Curly Howard comes out in drag, with Moe Howard and Larry Fine dressed in gaucho costumes, and the film adds two other comic-relief characters, Brenda (Blanche Stewart) and Cobrina (Elvia Allman), both dorkily unattractive in a Charlotte Greenwood or Fanny Brice way and both shining as physical comediennes in a sequence that redeems their otherwise embarrassingly stereotypical casting in this movie just as it does with the Stooges.

Directed by Sidney Salkow (“was he the guy who invented that figure-skating jump?” Charles inevitably joked) from a script by the usual committee — a play by Alex Ruben, a story by future RKO producer Bert Granet and a screenplay by Edmund L. Hartmann and Bert Lawrence — Time Out for Rhythm seems to have been assembled out of bits and pieces of Hollywood’s cliché mill and probably brought a particular sense of dèja vu to Rosemary Lane, who’d already done the same plot in the 1938 Warners film Hollywood Hotel — though in that film she’d been the nice girl and her real-life sister Lola Lane had played the diva from hell. Still, it’s a nicely entertaining film with some surprisingly creative numbers, notably the boogie and rhumba sequences, and it was an all right if not especially impressive showcase for Ann Miller, on her way up the Hollywood food chain from RKO to Columbia to her final glittering destination at MGM.