Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Jam Session (Columbia, 1944)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved

The film was Jam Session, a 1944 “B” musical from Columbia starring Ann Miller in what was obviously an attempt to duplicate the success of Reveille with Beverly the previous year. Made by the same director, Charles Barton, it copies the earlier film’s format of casting Miller in a movie with a lot of big bands, each coming on and doing a song before fading back into the woodwork of the plot — only this time, instead of a D.J. (based on the real-life Jean Hay, who coined the name “Reveille with Beverly” for her swing-music show on Armed Forces Radio aimed at boosting the morale of U.S. servicemembers fighting World War II), she plays Terry Baxter, amateur dancer from Waterfall, Kansas (the name of her home town is obviously intended by the writing committee — Harlan Ware and Patterson McNutt, story; and Manuel Seff, screenplay — to evoke the same sense of irony as the “Venus de Milo Arms” apartment building we’ve seen in at least two RKO movies) who wins a round-trip ticket to Hollywood as first prize in a dance contest, rents a “room” that’s just an alcove under a stairwell with only a curtain for privacy (the scene in which a mob of people frantically gathers outside the building at the mere hint of a vacancy is one of the funniest moments in the film) and attempts to break into the movie business via a letter of introduction from the film critic on the Waterfall newspaper to Raymond Stuart (Skeets Gallagher in a surprisingly “straight” performance), production head of Superba Studios.

She meets writer George Carter Haven (Jess Barker, a good deal taller than Alan Ladd but with a similarly taciturn manner that should have marked him for major stardom in noir-type roles), who’s suffering a bad case of writer’s block because Stuart has assigned him to write a movie called Jam Session and somehow fit performances by eight big bands in it. Indeed, the film’s director, Berkeley Bell (George Eldredge) — and no true film buff will need two guesses to figure out the real musical director the writing committee was parodying with that name! — has already started shooting the musical numbers without waiting for Carter Haven (like the British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, his last name is two non-hyphenated words) to figure out what sort of story can connect them all.

Virtually all the numbers are shown as movie sequences either in the process of being shot or being viewed in a studio projection room or on a Movieola editing machine, and the film makes a bad mistake by leading off with its best musical performer by far: Louis Armstrong, singing “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” (his first big-band hit, recorded in 1929, which gets a much looser performance here even though the staging is silly: Armstrong is a singing, trumpet-playing bartender whose musicians are lounging around the interior of the bar while a long line of African-American chorines sit at the bar and gape at him in wordless admiration). The musical guest list in Reveille with Beverly was skewed much more towards the swing end of the big-band era than it is here; whereas the earlier film featured more Black performers (Duke Ellington, Count Basie, the Mills Brothers) and better white ones (Frank Sinatra, Freddie Slack with Ella Mae Morse, and Bob Crosby), Armstrong is the only African-American musical star in Jam Session and most of the white bandleaders are people like Jan Garber, Glen Gray, Teddy Powell and Alvino Rey, whose reputation had been built on the sweet-music side of the big-band style but were trying to keep up with the times by doing swing.

The only white jazz musician featured here is Charlie Barnet, whose number — Ray Noble’s “Cherokee,” his theme song — was probably an outtake from Reveille with Beverly since it’s introduced the same way as the songs in that film were: a shot of a spinning record dissolving into a music-video style presentation of the band performing the song identified on the record’s label. (The plot tells us that we’re listening to an acetate but the label we see on screen is a commercial one, Bluebird, the RCA Victor subsidiary Barnet actually recorded for.) Fortunately, the film’s actual plot, though all too predictable and clichéd, is a lot of fun; Miller herself is personable and believable in her part as the wide-eyed innocent but driven girl who’s willing to do just about anything to get into the movies; Barker is excellent in the role of the writer (probably one of the most sympathetic portrayals of a screenwriter by an industry that all too often regarded them, in film plots as well as in real life, as necessary evils); and the situations are old-hat but the writers did manage to ring some fresh changes on them, including having Terry spoil two elaborate film sequences (she ruins a Western chase scene by appearing inside a fleeing stagecoach in modern dress, and spoils one of Berkeley Bell’s musical sequences by tripping over a water cooler, breaking its heavy glass water jug — you have to be my age to remember when these things were routinely made of glass instead of today’s plastic) and also screw up Carter Haven’s script.

At his wit’s end to come up with a story idea for Jam Session, Carter Haven has suddenly hit on the idea of basing it on Terry’s own experiences — only he doesn’t know her as Terry Baxter but as “Betty Smith,” a name she’s chosen to pose as his secretary and get on the Superba lot that way. He dictates her a story that’s basically the plot of the movie we’ve seen thus far — only, well aware of what Hollywood studio bosses really think of writers, he has her pair off with a director instead of a writer at the end — but, totally incompetent at taking dictation or typing herself, she hires a professional stenographer, tries to reconstruct Carter Haven’s story idea and comes up with an incoherent mess that leads Stuart (whom Terry, in a plot gimmick apparently derived from the 1938 Columbia movie If You Could Only Cook even though others, notably George Arliss in The Millionaire, had used it before that, has met incognito while outside the studio posing as an average person to get an idea of what real people think and therefore will want to see in their movies) to fire Carter Haven and bring on another writer.

There’s a big musical number at a Hollywood show featuring singer Nan Wynn — who was probably grateful for the opportunity to be seen in a Columbia movie after having been hired by the studio mostly to be Rita Hayworth’s voice double in her musicals — and it ends the way you expect it to, with Terry Baxter becoming Superba’s newest musical star and featured in an elaborate number, supposedly set in a defense plant but actually looking (as Charles pointed out) rather like Metropolis: The Musical (at one point Miller, dressed in a black lamé sailor’s suit, gets upstaged on screen by a pair of spinning propellers), doing a song called “Victory Polka” that was featured on the Time-Life anthology of V-Discs (special records produced by the U.S. government and sent free to servicemembers while the record industry, beset by two strikes against it by the American Federation of Musicians, couldn’t record new songs) in versions by the Andrews Sisters and Kay Kyser.

Miller’s version actually keeps pace with these recordings — which is not the case with most of the other songs in Jam Session that were also played by more committed swing artists: two of the songs in the movie, “I Lost My Sugar in Salt Lake City” and “‘Murder,’ He Says,” were also recorded by Anita O’Day (and “I Lost My Sugar in Salt Lake City” also exists in a performance by Armstrong from an August 17, 1943 “Victory Parade of Spotlight Bands” broadcast in Dallas), and not surprisingly these jazz singers have it all over their counterparts, Helen Englet (at least that’s what the name sounds like when an off-screen D.J. announces it) with Jan Garber on “Salt Lake City” and an unidentified singer with Teddy Powell on “‘Murder,’ He Says.” Still, Jam Session is an engaging movie and well worth one’s while.