Saturday, January 15, 2011

Glorifying the American Girl (Paramount, 1929)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran the 1929 movie Glorifying the American Girl, produced by Florenz Ziegfeld and starring Mary Eaton (also the female lead in the Marx Brothers’ Cocoanuts, shot the same year — 1929 — at the Astoria Studios in Long Island for the same company, Paramount) in a quirky story about a young song-demonstrator who works in a department store with her boyfriend, a wanna-be composer (Eddie Crandall), and a girl named Barbara who spends almost the whole movie looking at them jealously. The young song-demonstrator gets a chance to do a dance number at a beach party (shot on an actual Long Island beach) and attracts the attention of a professional vaudevillian who makes her his partner in his dance act, which is scouted by a Ziegfeld assistant who wants her but not him — though, cannily, he puts her under contract so Ziegfeld has to take both of them and pay him half her salary whether he does anything or not. He also makes a pass at her, which she rejects (interesting and curious to see sexual harassment as a major plot element in a 1929 movie!).

Eventually she returns to New York and gets greeted at the train station by her boyfriend and Barbara (as Anna Russell might say, “Ya remember Barbara?”); as she and the boyfriend speed off in a taxi to her first Ziegfeld rehearsal, Barbara gets run down by a car and taken to the emergency room (the shots of the ambulance rushing her to the hospital — filmed in actual New York streets instead of a back lot — are the most exciting scenes in this movie), and we don’t hear from her again until she accompanies Eddie Crandall to Our Heroine’s Ziegfeld debut — and they turn out to have got married after all, leaving Our Heroine a lovelorn star at the fade-out. (Nothing like getting yourself almost killed in a car crash to get a guy to fall in love with you.)

It’s surprising in retrospect how many of the early musicals had such blatantly manipulative tear-jerking scenes — apparently the lachrymose plot of The Jazz Singer had as much of an influence on early screenwriters for the talkies as its singing and synchronized sound — and Glorifying the American Girl also suffers from the character of Eaton’s stuffy and relentlessly opportunistic mother, and direction by co-scenarist Millard Webb that’s as leaden as his script. Nor are the musical numbers that great — they might be if they still survived in the original two-strip Technicolor, but as is they exist only in murky black-and-white. Ziegfeld’s famous tableaux, with the “glorified” girls wearing elaborate feathered headdresses and being lifted about the stage on swings that seemed to double their apparent size, may have been impressive on stage but just look dull and interminable on screen (the movie The Great Ziegfeld duplicated these elephantine production numbers all too accurately!).

Nor do the Ziegfeld stars add much. Rudy Vallee warbles a little bit of his song “I’m Just a Vagabond Lover” (irritatingly, the camera cuts away from him just when he’s finished his first vocal chorus and is reaching for his C-melody sax). Helen Morgan sings “What Wouldn’t I Do for That Man?” convincingly, but the song is a blatant and inferior ripoff of “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” (her big number from the Ziegfeld production Show Boat) and songwriter Jay Gorney (the lyricist was E. Y. Harburg, who went on to better things with Harold Arlen) proves he’s no Jerome Kern. Eddie Cantor gets to do a tailor sketch he’d done in vaudeville, and he’s funny, but not as funny as he’d later be in his own vehicles (Whoopee — another Ziegfeld stage hit — in particular).

As Nick Clooney (Rosemary’s brother and George’s father) noted in his introduction, Glorifying the American Girl is a major piece of American social history — not only because it was the only film Ziegfeld actually produced himself (more or less) but also because it’s a marvelous fragment of the 1920’s spirit, finished just before the stock market crash and thereby reproducing the devil-may-care Zeitgeist of the pre-Depression era. A newspaper clipping informs us that the price of a ticket to the Ziegfeld show that gives the film its name is $25 — in 1929 dollars! Apparently Broadway tickets aren’t really any more expensive now, when you adjust for inflation, than they were then. — 8/21/96


The film I picked out last night was Glorifying the American Girl, the 1929 Paramount musical produced in association with Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. and one I thought would make an interesting parallel to The Great Ziegfeld, made seven years later at MGM (and four years after Ziegfeld’s death) and purporting to be a biopic of him.

It’s actually an oddly schizoid movie, an 85-minute film (at least in the version we had downloaded from; apparently a 95-minute version exists containing the original two-strip Technicolor sequences, which were shown here only in black-and-white, but the only copy is at the UCLA film archive, where it sits cheek-by-jowl with the other treasures the Fafners at UCLA have restored but which haven’t been made generally available either for theatrical revival or DVD release, including the 1933 film The Power and the Glory — Preston Sturges’ little-known precursor to Citizen Kane — and Jeanette MacDonald’s second film, the all-color 1930 The Vagabond King) whose first hour is a proletarian musical largely along the lines Warner Bros. would be known for later in the 1930’s, while the final 25 minutes are essentially a potted version of a Ziegfeld revue, with highly static tableaux of chorus girls “glorified” by being clothed in feathers and lamé, standing around in the middles of huge sets and doing little or nothing while turntables revolve them and essentially do their dancing for them and three “revue artists” making guest appearances — Rudy Vallée singing “I’m Just a Vagabond Lover” with his band (he carries his C-melody sax under his arm but doesn’t actually play it), Helen Morgan doing a song called “What Wouldn’t I Do for That Man?” (written by Jay Gorney and E. Y. Harburg, who three years and a very different Zeitgeist later would bring us “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?,” but this time were obviously channeling Morgan’s earlier hit, “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” from the Ziegfeld-produced Show Boat) and Eddie Cantor doing a comedy routine in which he’s the assistant to an overbearing Jewish tailor (Louis Sorin) trying to take the measure, in more ways than one, of a nerdy but still stubborn customer.

Glorifying the American Girl took its title from Ziegfeld’s famous slogan — reflecting a self-consciously “classy” approach he took even after the primacy of his Follies was challenged by rival producers Earl Carroll (Vanities) and George White (Scandals), who featured their chorines with considerably less costuming and sexier dance moves (so sexy, in fact, that New York authorities closed White’s shows at least twice — and no doubt he muttered under his breath how great that was going to be for his business once they reopened) — and even for 1929 it’s a pretty static musical, with the production numbers directed (by Millard Webb, who also wrote the film’s story and co-wrote its script with J. P. McAvoy) as if from a good seat in the orchestra (which cost $27.50, by the way — there’s an insert shot of a pair of tickets with that amount printed on them, which caused Charles to gasp at how much that was, especially in 1929 dollars).

The first hour of the film seems hardly to belong to the same world; after a dazzling montage opening showing a giant map of the U.S. with would-be Ziegfeld girls walking across it in the general direction of New York City, while the scene also features double-exposed city scenes reflecting the changes in New York between 1911, when the Ziegfeld Follies began, and 1927, when this film takes place, it cuts to the sheet-music counter at Hertig’s Department Store. The basic plot a romantic triangle featuring three people who work there: Gloria Hughes (Mary Eaton, whom Ziegfeld was trying to build into a replacement for Marilyn Miller, who had just left his employ to make films at Warners), a singer who demonstrates the songs for potential customers; Buddy (Edward Crandall), who plays piano while Gloria sings; and Barbara (Olive Shea), who runs the cash register on the rare occasions one of the demonstratees actually buys a song. Barbara has an unrequited crush on Buddy, but of course he’s only interested in Gloria, and when he isn’t demonstrating other people’s songs he’s using the store piano to try to write some of his own.

Years earlier Gloria had ambitions to crash the Follies, but her two auditions were miserable failures and so she’s slunk behind the counter, her dreams of stardom things of the past — until the store owner throws a picnic that features an amateur talent show by the store’s employees, and Gloria’s dancing impresses vaudevillian Miller (Dan Healy) so much that he offers her a job as “Mooney” in his dance duo “Miller and Mooney,” assuring her that he’s only interested in her professionally, not personally, and telling her he’s got an offer for 20 weeks on the vaudeville circuit in the West. Gloria goes, and on her return to New York she’s scouted by one of Ziegfeld’s assistants, who signs her for a featured spot in the next Ziegfeld show, Glorifying the American Girl — but not before some dodgy negotiations with Miller, who has a contract on Gloria giving him half her earnings and thinks he can use that to get into Ziegfeld’s show himself. In the 1930’s the way the writers and directors of that period would have resolved this particular set of clichés would have been to have someone find a loophole in Miller’s contract and ace him out of Gloria’s career, Ziegfeld would have decided Buddy was a great songwriter and hired him to write his new show, and Gloria and Buddy would have paired off personally and professionally — but the way it worked out in 1929 is that Barbara (ya remember Barbara?) was run over by a car, Buddy helped nurse her back to health, and by the time Gloria had done her 20 weeks in vaudeville and was ready to open for Ziegfeld, Buddy had fallen in love with Barbara instead, the two of them had got married, and they tell Gloria that just before the finale of the show, which means she has to do her big last number smiling through her tears. (The same ending, with the genders reversed, was used the next year for Buster Keaton’s first talkie, Free and Easy — though Keaton was able to make the scene work with wrenching pathos rivaling Chaplin’s and acting skills totally beyond Mary Eaton’s.)

As in 42nd Street and many of the other Busby Berkeley musicals, we don’t get to see any big production numbers until the end of the film — until then all we see are lower-level performances and rehearsals — and it’s a bit of a wrench to go from a surprisingly somber backstage story to the glamour of a Ziegfeld show, at least as represented here. The following year Ziegfeld would be involved in the production of another movie — the adaptation of his stage hit, the Eddie Cantor vehicle Whoopee — but for that one, not only did producer Sam Goldwyn (who matched Ziegfeld’s passion for respectability and an image of “class” but was a lot more prudent financially) shoot the whole film in two-strip Technicolor, he and Cantor brought in Busby Berkeley to direct the numbers (his film debut) and Berkeley delivered a series of dazzling ensembles, many of them with the overhead kaleidoscope shots that would be his trademark throughout his career; for Glorifying the American Girl director Webb and his choreographer, Ted Shawn (husband of modern dancer Ruth St. Denis and dance teacher of Myrna Loy!), keep their cameras at a discreet distance from the action and don’t move them during the number. The only time the camera goes overhead is when we least want it to — during Mary Eaton’s big solo, when we want the camera front-and-center, Astaire-Rogers style, so we can see how good she is.

The best parts of the movie are the Cantor routine and Morgan’s song — which she sings sitting on a piano (her trademark) mounted on a black pedestal against a black velvet backdrop, so it seems to be floating in mid-air, and Webb’s camera dollies towards it so the image of Morgan, her piano and her accompanist (and blessedly we don’t get the “hidden orchestra” — Morgan and the pianist are the only people we hear) seems to float towards us and get bigger, with a corresponding pull-back that makes her and the piano look smaller and seem to be moving away as her song ends. One odd thing about Morgan’s film career is that she was most flatteringly photographed in her last film — the 1936 Show Boat at Universal — where she looks younger than she did here or in any of her earlier films. Glorifying the American Girl is a movie of undoubted historical importance — for one thing, it’s as close as anyone now living will ever get to seeing a Ziegfeld show (though the 1929 RKO film of Ziegfeld’s Rio Rita — whose color sequences blessedly do survive and are in the commonly circulating print — also comes close) — and it’s a not-bad piece of entertainment, though it suffers from the slow pacing of dialogue early sound engineers insisted on and Mary Eaton’s acting, especially in the picnic scene, seems mind-numbingly incompetent (she’d made only one previous movie, The Cocoanuts, and in that nobody really noticed her — except for her good song-and-dance on “The Monkey-Doodle-Do” — because they were too busy laughing at the film’s stars, the Marx Brothers), though she’s a good enough singer and dancer that her acting skills (or lack thereof) really don’t matter until that final scene, where she’s supposed to be conveying heartbreak and she just can’t do it.

Still, it’s fun — and it’s also noteworthy for a scene outside the premiere of the show-within-the-show in which we get to see the real Ziegfeld (short, stocky, dumpy-looking and not at all resembling William Powell) with his wife, Billie Burke (who’s even shorter than he is — it must have been camera trickery and appearing with 200 little people that made her look towering as Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz), as well as a number of other celebrities of the day, including Paramount president Adolph Zukor, New York mayor Jimmy Walker, Irving Berlin, Charles Dillingham (one of Ziegfeld’s rivals), Irving Berlin, Otto Kahn (New York banker and president of the Metropolitan Opera), nightclub hostess Texas Guinan (who looks about as much like Betty Hutton, who played her in a 1945 biopic called Incendiary Blonde, as Ziegfeld looked like William Powell!), author Ring Lardner, Sr. and actor Noah Beery. (Another star of the future, Johnny Weissmuller, appears as Adonis in one of the revue numbers.) — 1/15/11