Sunday, July 3, 2011

Kansas City Kitty (Columbia, 1944)

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

I ran Charles the film Kansas City Kitty, one of two Joan Davis vehicles (along with Beautiful but Broke) TCM ran to commemorate her birthday on June 29 (just before they ran three of the Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy movies to celebrate Eddy’s birthday the same day!). Davis plays Polly Jasper, who has an office in a seedy building which advertises, “Learn to Play Piano by Ear in Six Easy Lessons.” Just down the hall are two shady music publishers, Joe Lathim (Robert Emmett Keane) and Dave Clark (Tim Ryan), who hire her as a pianist when their previous one walks on them because they haven’t paid him in 10 months. She’s supposed to be demonstrating a pretty ghastly song called “You Can Take It from Me” for a vaudeville team, but they leave well before she has the chance to do that, and Lathim and Clark hire her permanently but never actually commit to a salary — they just give her a lot of pseudo-economic doubletalk and promise her “raises” over what she isn’t getting paid in the first place, in one of the most grimly funny scenes in the film.

She’s holding the fort in the Lathim and Clark office alone when in walks South Dakota cowboy Chaps Wiliker (Johnny Bond), who sings her a song called “Kansas City Kitty” and says he wants her to publish it to impress his girlfriend back home in South Dakota ¬— which Our Joan naturally assumes is in the South. Lathim and Clark tell her to buy all rights to the song for $10 but Chaps holds out for $200 — and at this point I was thinking that Polly and the cowboy were going to fall in love with each other and she would go to bat for him when she realized how he’d been cheated on his song. Instead Chaps goes back home and disappears for the rest of the movie even though we’re supposed to believe his song becomes the number one hit throughout the U.S. (and apparently a Columbia “B” budget couldn’t stretch to the montage of huge stacks of sheet music and records by which larger studios indicated that a song had swept the country). Instead the intrigue that materializes is a plagiarism suit filed by Oscar Lee (Matt Willis, the werewolf from Bela Lugosi’s Columbia vehicle Return of the Vampire) that claims “Kansas City Kitty” is a ripoff from a song he published in 1929 called “Minnesota Minnie” that used the same melody.

Told by their attorney that the case against them is going to be a slam-dunk, and needing money instantly to cover the bad check they wrote their landlord to acquire “Kansas City Kitty” in the first place, Lathim and Clark decide to bail on the business and flee to Canada, and they offer to sell it to Polly. Unable to raise the $4,000 asking price, Polly goes to her roommate, Eileen Hasbrook (Joan Frazee), and asks for the $2,500 she and her fiancé Jimmy (Bob Crosby, billed second but given oddly little to do — he appears to be the leader of the band Eileen sings with, and they perform a duet together, but he doesn’t get a solo number in the film and he has surprisingly little screen time) have been saving up to furnish their house once they get married. So Polly and Eileen acquire the publishing company, buy a second song (Saul Chaplin’s “Nothin’ Boogie Woogie from Nowhere,” submitted by a man who calls himself “Ali Ben Ali” [Lee Gotcher] and shows up dressed in an outrageously fake “Arab” outfit) and only then discover the lawsuit against them. Polly decides to see if she can get the lawsuit settled by seducing Oscar, only she ends up simultaneously having to serve dinner to him and her actual crush object, dentist Dr. Henry Talbot (Erik Rolf), in different rooms of her apartment, while also present are a gas man who’s come up to repair a pipe; Eileen is also there and Jimmy drops by in a weird transposition of the stateroom scene from the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera into a domestic (and romantic) setting. It’s by far the funniest scene in the film, not only due to the sheer outrageousness of the situation (Joan Davis entertaining two would-be boyfriends simultaneously and trying to conceal the existence of each from the other), but also the suspense of how she’ll get caught out and what will happen when she is.

Eventually the case goes to trial and Polly displays (on a piano in the courtroom!) how many pop songs of that era derived their melodies from public-domain classics — including “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” from Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu in C-sharp minor, Op. 66, and “Tonight We Love” from Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 — and while she can’t demonstrate a public-domain source for “Kansas City Kitty,” her dentist boyfriend does: he brings in a music box that proves the song’s melody came from the “Rhapsodie Fromage” (the “cheese rhapsody”) by a decidedly fictitious composer from 140 years before. The judge dismisses the case and, in a nice finale, turns out to have written his own song, “California Carrie,” based on … you guessed it, the exact same melody both “Kansas City Kitty” and “Minnesota Minnie” borrowed from that “cheesy” rhapsody composed over a century earlier. Kansas City Kitty is a nice little “B” and there’s nothing in it ground-breaking; Joan Davis’s performance isn’t quite as butch as it was in Beautiful but Broke but there’s nothing as annoying as that long slapstick scene with Davis and a male comedy duo trying to build a house (a series of gags done far, far better by Laurel and Hardy in The Finishing Touch 16 years earlier); the song itself is a serviceable entry by the great Walter Donaldson (whose career had fallen since his height in the late 1920’s, when he wrote “My Mammy” for Al Jolson, “Makin’ Whoopee” for Eddie Cantor, “My Blue Heaven” for Gene Austin and “At Sundown” for Ruth Etting) and Edgar Leslie, and there are a few other nice things in this movie — including a quite appealing adaptation of “The Old Oaken Bucket” by the Williams Brothers (featuring the young Andy Williams, who even that young is quite recognizable even amongst his brothers, and another song called “Pretty Kitty Blue Eyes” (so there are two “kitty” songs in this film!) by Mann Curtis and the recently deceased Vic Mizzy, best known for the theme to the TV show The Addams Family.

It’s a fun little movie, nothing special but quite amusing and a fascinating riposte to the modern-day critics who think for some reason that a comedy involving a genuinely amusing woman is a novelty. There have always been comediennes in film, from Mabel Normand to Marie Dressler to Carole Lombard to Carol Burnett, and both on film and TV (in a short-lived series called I Married Joan that’s been compared favorably to I Love Lucy) Joan Davis was one of the funniest of them.