Monday, August 15, 2011

Manhattan Merry-Go-Round (Republic, 1937)

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

The film was Manhattan Merry-Go-Round, a 1937 musical from the fledgling Republic studios, whose CEO, Herbert J. Yates, also then owned the American Recording Company, parent of the Columbia, Brunswick and Vocalion labels. I remembered seeing this in the 1970’s and finding it a quite charming film, evidently intended as a sort of follow-up to the 1934 film Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round (a combination musical, murder mystery and gangster film taking place almost entirely on an ocean liner during a transatlantic crossing; it’s also a particularly favorite film of mine but it’s quite different in mood from this one). I’d despaired of ever seeing Manhattan Merry-Go-Round again until it started surfacing from the public-domain DVD companies and then on, and it turned out to be as good as I remembered it even though the male lead, Phil Regan, is hardly as charismatic as the script tells us he is.

The gimmick behind this film is that gangster Tony Gordoni (Leo Carrillo, in an engagingly over-the-top camp performance that seems a deliberate spoof of Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar) is worried about the FBI and, on the advice of his attorney, is buying up legitimate businesses left and right even though he doesn’t know the first thing about running them. One of the businesses he swoops up is the Associated Recording Company (note the similarity between its name and that of the real record company the head of Republic then owned!), which he decides to take over personally, demoting its president, J. Henry Thorne (Selmer Jackson), to manager and taking the advice of Thorne’s secretary, Ann Rogers (Ann Dvorak — and it seems odd TCM didn’t show this in their recent all-day retrospective of Dvorak’s films, since she’s quite good in it as the long-suffering lover), to re-sign singer Jerry Hart (Phil Regan, top-billed), who was Associated’s best-selling record artist until Thorne fired him for getting into a fight with Thorne’s son.

Needless to say, Hart and Ann are in love with each other, but the course of true love is running less than smoothly not only because Ann is understandably jealous of all the other women who throw themselves at Jerry when he performs live (at a club called the Manhattan Merry-Go-Round, whose gimmick is that its floor is on a revolving turntable so he’s literally singing on a merry-go-round!) but because in the second half of the movie Hart is forced to break off his date to marry Ann in order to seduce the great opera singer Charlizzini (Tamara Geva) into recording for Associated. Associated mostly stayed out of classical or operatic music — like the real American Recording Company, which imported a few European classical and opera recordings but made almost none of their own — but Gordoni wants Charlizzini because his mother (Nellie V. Nichols) is pissed at him for not having any “real music” on his label, and in a spooky scene she comes in and smashes a whole stack of Associated records of Cab Calloway, Ted Lewis and other pop acts.

The problem is that Charlizzini is about to give her farewell concert and return to Europe, and what’s more she’s never recorded, sort of like the heroine of Diva — indeed, her contract with her impresario, Martinetti (whose name I suspect screenwriter Harry Sauber intended as a pun on the word “martinet”), has a clause forbidding her to record. Gordoni solves all these problems with typical gangster muscle; he strong-arms Martinetti into letting Charlizzini record and offers, when she resents the idea that she’ll actually be paid for making the record (Jerry has talked her into it by saying it will be a “public service” for her to preserve her voice for future generations), to donate the money to a freshly set up charity. At the same time Charlizzini refuses to record opera — she insists on doing the sort of pop music her new boy-toy Jerry is into and having her record appear on the other side of one of his — and all this screws up Jerry’s romantic prospects with Ann big-time, but in the end Jerry and Ann pair up, as do Gordoni and Charlizzini, and Danny the Duck (James Gleason in a delightful comic-relief part as one of Gordoni’s henchmen) and Kay Thompson (as herself, leading an all-woman group called the Kay Thompson Singers and showing off the style that later influenced Judy Garland, whom Thompson coached at MGM).

Needless to say, there’s an assortment of musical guest stars, including Calloway (whose song “Mama, I Wanna Make Rhythmint” is the highlight of the movie — even though it’s rather indifferently directed, with the camera kept mostly on Cab himself rather than on his bandsmen; the great and tragically short-lived Leon “Chu” Berry plays a hot tenor saxophone solo on the song but we don’t get to see him!), Lewis (doing a couple of his novelty numbers; without Benny Goodman as his ghost clarinetist the quality of his music took a major nose-dive while Goodman, of course, soared to stardom as the “King of Swing”!) and Louis Prima, who’s oddly ill-used — he’s seen leading the band backing Jerry at the Manhattan Merry-Go-Round but we don’t get to hear him either play trumpet, sing or lead his band in a jazz number. Charles Riesner (former assistant to Charlie Chaplin and father of Dean Riesner, who’s the one degree of separation between Chaplin and Clint Eastwood — as a boy he played the bratty kid in The Pilgrim and almost five decades later he co-wrote the script for Dirty Harry) gets sole directorial credit, though supposedly the scenes with Calloway and Lewis were shot by a second unit in New York directed by John H. Auer and supervised by Harry Grey — Auer doesn’t get screen credit but Grey does as musical director).

There’s also an odd credit that says the film is “introducing that cowboy singing star Gene Autry” even though Autry had been playing starring roles for Republic for two years by then, starting with the 1935 serial The Phantom Empire; maybe they meant this film was “introducing” Autry to mainstream movie-goers who didn’t attend the Saturday morning showings where serials and “B” Westerns dominated the fare. And yet another celebrity, this one with nothing to do with music, appears: Joe DiMaggio shows up as the star of a radio broadcast where Gordoni is looking for talent, and he auditions DiMaggio by mistake thinking he’s a singer. Indeed, many of the film’s most delightful gags involve Gordoni’s cluelessness about what makes good recording talent; in one quite extended scene we see a montage of acrobats, sword-swallowers, fire-eaters and other visual performers whom James Gleason’s character has recruited for auditions — and it takes veteran record man Thorne to point out how useless these people would be on an audio-only medium. There’s also an audacious scene in which Jerry chews out Gleason for having bungled his introduction to Charlizzini and explains that Europeans greet each other by kissing each other’s hands — and he demonstrates by kissing Gleason’s hand … in a crowded hotel lobby with plenty of people looking on, shocked. It’s a gag that would have seemed almost routine in the so-called “pre-Code” era but comes off as quite shocking in a movie made in 1937!

Manhattan Merry-Go-Round isn’t one of the great movies but it comes off as pretty good — certainly as good as I remembered it, even though the gags involving Charlizzini and her “diva” temperament get a bit wearing at times (though there’s one generally funny moment in which one of her dogs — she’s got three, two greyhounds and a lap dog — is shown hiding in a cabinet; even the dog knows to stay out of her way when she’s in full diva cry!).