Monday, July 25, 2011

Sing Me a Love Song (Warners, 1937)

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

The film was Sing Me a Love Song, one of an interesting package of “B” musicals from the 1930’s Turner Classic Movies showed in one afternoon, one of the movies Warner Bros. made with operatic tenor James Melton, whom they signed with great fanfare and put in a movie called Stars Over Broadway with Busby Berkeley doing the dance direction. Apparently they were hoping Melton might be their Nelson Eddy, but they seem to have lost faith in Stars Over Broadway even before it was finished, since they cut from the film an elaborate number Berkeley had wanted to do to the song “September in the Rain” in which he would have staged a chorus line of dancing trees. Berkeley never got over the fact that he wasn’t allowed to film his dancing-tree fantasy (and the song “September in the Rain,” now a standard, had to wait two years before it was formally introduced in a film even though snatches of it can be heard in the background score to Stars Over Broadway) and the incident led to his decision to leave Warners once his contract was up.

As for Melton, Stars Over Broadway was a flop and so he got bounced down to the “B” unit for this one, a trifling tale which begins with Melton as department-store heir Jerry Haines, Jr., singing with an orchestra playing in a bandshell located at the end of a swimming pool in Palm Beach, Florida, doing a pretty ghastly song called “That’s the Least You Can Do for the Ladies” (Harry Warren and Al Dubin wrote the songs for this one but they run the gamut from mediocre to dreadful — apparently they were saving all their good songs from the period for the Busby Berkeley spectaculars), when he receives a delegation from his store in the persons of Messrs. Barton (Hobart Cavanaugh) and Willard (Charles Halton), saying that the place is suffering financially and he needs to come to New York and take charge personally. About the last thing Jerry wants to do with his life is run a department store, but he hits on an idea: as long as he’s going to be stuck with the store, the very least he can do is learn how it functions from the bottom up, so he asks for a job in the music department — where he’s already met, and started to cruise, song demonstrator Jean Martin (Patricia Ellis), who of course has responded to him with hate at first sight — under the assumed name “Jerry Hanley.”

What makes this one special is the supporting cast, a virtual who’s-who of comic-relief actors of the time (though Franklin Pangborn and Frank McHugh aren’t represented): Hugh Herbert as kleptomaniac Siegfried Hammerschlag (Herbert’s “woo-woo” act could get tiresome at times, but this film offers him a rare opportunity to shine as a physical comedian); ZaSu Pitts as Jean’s accident-prone co-worker Gwen, who’s broken so many records, musical instruments and whatnot (in one scene she takes a huge bass drum with a torn drumhead and says she’s going to cart it home on the subway because “as long as I’m paying for it, I might as well keep it”) that she’s lucky if she can take home $2 after all the docks from her pay; Allen Jenkins as her fiancé, elevator operator Christopher Cross (little did we know that someday there’d be a terminally bland and boring singer of that name!), who claims that he and Jerry Haines, Jr. are “just like that” and therefore he can lobby Jerry to get anything he wants, from having the employees’ lunch room redone to rehiring people who get fired; and Walter Catlett as supercilious floor manager Sprague.

The film moves through several reels of romantic and comic intrigue, as Jerry is determined to get Jean to date him — one of their dates ends up with both of them in jail because Jerry has “borrowed” an evening outfit for Jean from the store and taken her to a fancy nightclub, and they’re arrested for shoplifting and burglary — and Chris accidentally discovers that two of the four directors of the store company, Malcolm (Charles Richman) and Goodrich (Granville Bates), are deliberately running the store into the ground (they’ve ordered $250,000 worth of unsaleable merchandise) so Haines can be driven out and they can take the store over. It all ends happily, of course, with Jerry revealing himself — and Jean, with the idiocy of the typical movie ingénue of the day, uses that as an excuse to leave him and forces him to assign Chris the task of tracing her — and, using an idea Jean had had earlier of running a mobile department store on a train so customers in the hinterlands can purchase goods straight from New York without the hassle of ordering them by mail, Jerry bails the store out of financial trouble and ends up with a going business and Jean back at his side.

Sing Me a Love Song is a charmingly plotted film with a high laugh quotient — its most surrealistic scene comes towards the end, when Jerry discovers that Siegfried Hammerschlag is the son of the owner of United Railways, and he agrees not to prosecute Siegfried for shoplifting if the Hammerschlags (Siegfried has a father and two brothers, and all four Hammerschlags are played by Hugh Herbert!) will give him a train for his mobile-store idea — though James Melton’s singing gets a bit wearying after a while: he’s got a fine voice but it doesn’t seem to go with his rather pasty face, and as with a lot of other singers with operatic backgrounds Hollywood imported and tried to make stars out of in the 1930’s, actual hard-core opera (after his movie career petered out with just one more film, Melody for Two, he returned to New York and the Met, and he got to record the love duet and aria “Addio, fiorito asil” from Madama Butterfly for an RCA Victor album of excerpts that also featured Licia Albanese) suited him much better than the lukewarm pop songs he got to sing here, and it’s easy to guess why the movie stardom that had found Lawrence Tibbett, Grace Moore, Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald eluded James Melton.