by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I decided to redress the balance by running a couple of the movies Turner Classic Movies showed last January in their Busby Berkeley marathon. One, the 1935 film Go Into Your Dance — the only co-starring vehicle for Al Jolson and his then-wife, Ruby Keeler — was included under false pretenses because Berkeley didn’t choreograph or stage its dance numbers: Bobby Connolly did, though he did so with something at least approaching the Berkeley flair. At the end of their first big number together, “About a Quarter to Nine” — which was so much the “plug song” from the film that Warner Brothers actually started its premiere showing at 8:45 p.m. — Jolson and Keeler magically ascend through the sky and into space until they become the Man and Woman in the Moon, with the faces of 12 chorus girls appearing around the moon’s circumference, forming a clock face as Jolson and Keeler put their own arms into the position of clock hands at — you guessed it — a quarter to nine. Later on, in the film’s other big production, “She’s a Latin from Manhattan,” Keeler and the chorus girls do a marvelous dance on a rotating globe of the world.
The big numbers aside, Go Into Your Dance is distinguished mainly for how the screenwriter, Earl Baldwin (working from a novel by Bradford Ropes, also the author of the book on which 42nd Street was based), incorporated some of the least attractive qualities of the real-life Al Jolson into his character for the film. The real Jolson was known as a massive egomaniac with a total disinterest in the welfare and reputations of the other people who appeared in his shows; he was also a heavy drinker and frequented the racetracks every chance he got. Baldwin took these facts and turned Jolson — as “Al Howard” — into a slimy character who’s rendered himself totally unemployable on Broadway by walking out on show after show, thereby putting whole hordes of chorines and technicians out of work, in order to gamble and play around in the places where the ponies run. Glenda Farrell (the marvelously butch heroine of Mystery of the Wax Museum — the remake of which, House of Wax, suffered majorly from the elimination of her character) plays Jolson’s sister, who discovers him in Aguascalientes after arriving on a cross-country train from New York to San Diego at the Santa Fe depot. (It’s a second-unit shot, to be sure, but at least the Santa Fe Depot where they arrive is recognizable as the real thing — though the train she actually gets off of, after the establishing shot of the real station, is clearly a mock-up on the Warners backlot.)
Farrell actually steals the first half of the film right out from under the principals, as she arranges for her friend, chorus-girl Keeler (playing a character named “Dorothy Wayne” — according to Jolson’s biographer, Michael Freedland, Jolson blew quite a few takes by addressing his wife as “Ruby” instead of calling her “Dorothy” as per Baldwin’s script), to tour the country with Jolson as both his partner and his keeper. (I could just imagine her billing: “She Sings! She Dances! She’s Co-Dependent!”) They score a job at a Chicago nightclub and from there Jolson gets the backing of a gangster (Barton MacLane) whose wife (Helen Morgan) wants to return to show business; MacLane will finance Jolson in his own Broadway show if he’ll give Morgan a part (for which she auditions by — you guessed it — sitting atop a piano and belting out a torch ballad called “The Little Things You Used to Do”) — and thereupon develop the typical plot complications: MacLane loves Morgan, Morgan gets a crush on Jolson, but Jolson only has eyes for Keeler and turns Morgan down — whereupon, in a totally incomprehensible plot complication, MacLane orders two hit men to go to New York and kill Jolson for turning down his wife’s advances. (Warner Brothers seems to have been interested in combining both the kinds of movies they were best known for at this time — musicals and gangster films.)
Meanwhile, Glenda Farrell gets herself arrested in Philadelphia for being in a hotel room with a female friend while two gangsters mow down a third — an even more unbelievable plot complication involving a character we’ve been led to believe up until then was a paragon of level-headedness — and Jolson puts up the bond money to get her out on bail rather than give Actors’ Equity the bond they wanted to allow him to open the show. In the end, Jolson opens the show after all — the charges against Farrell were dropped with literally minutes to spare — and MacLane tries to call off the hit but can’t reach his killers. So during the intermission, Jolson and Keeler go outside for some air — and the baddies blast away at them, with Keeler getting in front of the bullet meant for Jolson and stopping it with her shoulder. Jolson is about to stop the performance altogether but Keeler convinces him that The Show Must Go On, so the black-faced Jolson goes on and sings the title song (“When you’ve been singing a sad and blue song/Go into your dance”), has a dazzling success, goes backstage to see if Keeler is all right, which she is — The End. For a 1935 musical, it’s a bizarrely melodramatic plot, and Jolson can’t act for beans — it seems odd that he was more effective as an actor in the silent sequences of The Jazz Singer than he was in his all-talkies — but, as with most of his films, once he starts singing the deficiencies in his acting cease to matter. Incidentally, Charles was confused by the trailer for the film, which TCM showed just before it — and so was I, because it showed a scene in which Jolson and Keeler are running through the title song (he singing it and she dancing it) that didn’t appear in the final film! Also, this appeared to be a reissue print — it had the later, more ornate version of the Warner Brothers “shield” logo at the beginning and an opening title which referred to “the show business world of 1935” as if that were already an historic period — possibly one prepared by Warners after the success of the Jolson biopic The Jolson Story from Columbia in 1946 (with Jolson supplying his own voice — and, in the “Swanee” number, his body — for a performance by Larry Parks) rekindled audience interest in Jolson himself. (It’s also interesting to note that in the trailer, which looked like the original one from 1935, Keeler was billed first and Jolson second — while the film itself had Jolson billed above the title and Keeler billed below it!) — 4/5/98
The film was Go Into Your Dance, the second of the three movies Al Jolson made for Warner Bros. after he re-signed with them in 1934 following the debacle of Hallelujah, I’m a Bum at United Artists the year before. It was also the one time Jolson and his (then) real-life wife, Ruby Keeler, worked in the same movie, and after the relative innovation of Wonder Bar one can tell Warners was “running for cover” and piecing this movie together from elements that had worked for them before, both in Jolson’s movies and in the fabulously successful cycle of films Keeler had been making with Dick Powell as her co-star and Busby Berkeley as dance director: 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade and Dames. They even reached for their story to a 1934 novel by Bradford Ropes, another of whose books had provided the story for 42nd Street, and came up with a wild and woolly tale in which Al Howard (Al Jolson), a mega-talented but also incredibly irresponsible entertainer, has disappeared in the middle of the run of a hit Broadway revue, causing its cancellation and putting the entire rest of the cast, orchestra and crew out of work.
Howard’s level-headed sister Molly (Glenda Farrell, a welcome sight in this film, bringing her usual authority to her role) figures out that he’s probably bailed to go to a racetrack, and it’s only a matter of finding where one is open. Since all the tracks in New York and the East Coast generally are closed, she heads across country and gets off in San Diego at the Santa Fe depot (Charles and I had just visited the Model Railroad Museum in Balboa Park, which features at least two models of this depot, and that was one reason I wanted to watch this film again: the sequence was actually shot at the real depot, and at least from the outside it looks today pretty much the way it did in 1935) so she can take a bus across the U.S.-Mexico border (remember when it was that easy to get across?) and trace Al to the track at Aguascalientes. (The track at Aguascalientes was a favored hangout of the real Al Jolson, too. A lot of Hollywood celebrities went there since alcohol was legally available in Mexico while Prohibition was at least technically in force in the U.S., though once Repeal went through in 1933 it lost quite a bit of its appeal.)
She finds him in a bar, where he’s crashed the stage show and is blasting out “Cielito Lindo,” and tells him that there’s no chance of him doing another Broadway show since all the producers have blackballed him and the Actors’ Equity Association won’t let their actors work with him because they’re afraid he’ll pull another walkout and leave them all unemployed. While in San Diego Molly ran into Dorothy Wayne (Ruby Keeler), a chorus girl she knew previously, and hits on the idea of getting her to team up with Al and essentially become his minder. At first Al is reluctant — he’s always worked solo and he doesn’t want to change now — but he’s eventually tricked into it by a nightclub owner in Chicago, who had already cut a deal with Molly to hire Al as long as he came with a partner. The two become a major success in Chicago but Dorothy wants to quit the act because she’s fallen in love with Al, while he doesn’t know or care that she exists outside their performances. Al persuades her to stay because he’s hit on a plan to break the blacklist on him in New York: he’ll rent a disused theatre on Broadway and turn it into a giant cabaret, with dancing, an orchestra and a floor show in which he and Dorothy will star.
There’s only one catch: Al’s backer, Duke (Barton MacLane), is a Chicago gangster with a reputation for having people who cost him money knocked off. He’s also married to Luana Bell (Helen Morgan), a former torch singer who wants to make a comeback, and including her in the show is one of his conditions for financing it. Once the principals move to New York and begin rehearsals — and Al, acutely aware of the responsibilities he’s taken on, abandons his cavalier attitude towards his profession and throws himself into rehearsing the cast and preparing the show — Luana starts cruising Al and Al responds, despite the warnings from both Molly and Dorothy that he’s courting trouble big-time by making moves on a gangster’s wife. (This part of the story oddly — and perhaps deliberately — resembles the way the real-life Jolson and Keeler got together: Keeler was the 19-year-old girlfriend of gangster Johnny Irish when Jolson spotted her in a show and started dating her, and when Jolson’s and Keeler’s affair turned serious Irish was furiously jealous and wanted to have Jolson killed. Then his gangster colleagues, realizing that one of them ordering a hit on a major celebrity would bring a lot of police attention none of them would want, talked Irish out of knocking off Jolson, and he gave Keeler up and let Jolson have her.)
Jackson (Joseph Crehan), the Actors’ Equity representative, insists that Al put up a $30,000 bond to ensure that the cast will still be paid even if he walks out, and Al raises the money but then uses it to bail out his sister Molly, who’s been arrested in Philadelphia on a murder charge of which she’s innocent. Furious both that Al isn’t going to be able to open the show on time and that he’s cruising his wife, Duke calls in a couple of hit men to kill Al on the night the show was supposed to open — only Molly appears for her court date just in time, Al gets his money back, the show goes on as scheduled and Duke, learning this by phone in Chicago, calls Luana and tells her to tell the hit men the contract is off. Only Luana, out of a jealous hissy-fit against Al, lets the assassination go on as scheduled — but in fact Al escapes because Dorothy throws herself in the path of the bullets and gets wounded. Her willingness to give up her life for him finally convinces Al that Dorothy is the woman he belongs with, and the show ends with Dorothy backstage under the care of a doctor who was actually called in from the audience, and Al onstage singing his heart out on the title song, one of those shining-through-adversity pieces and a shameless ripoff of the endings of Jolson’s first three films, all of which finished with him having to give a performance while he was grief-stricken (over the death of his father in The Jazz Singer, the death of his son in The Singing Fool, and the near-death of his son in Say It With Songs).
Go Into Your Dance drew on tropes from previous Jolson films (the number with which he opens the big show in New York, “Casino de Paree,” strongly resembles “Vive la France” from Wonder Bar, in which the bar Jolson was both running and entertaining in was in the real “Paree”) and also from previous Warners films (including shoehorning a gangster story into a musical). The mix is surprisingly entertaining even though Jolson and Keeler aren’t exactly the most charismatic real-life couple ever put on screen — it’s interesting how some couples who were married, or at least romantically involved (Tracy and Hepburn, Bogart and Bacall, Newman and Woodward, Burton and Taylor) struck genuine sparks on screen, while others didn’t (Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks made only one film together, likewise Jeanette MacDonald and Gene Raymond), and in the case of Jolson and Keeler it helps that he was a singer and she was primarily a dancer (so they’re not really in competition with each other) but it decidedly doesn’t help that Tony Gaudio’s cinematography made it all too clear how much older Jolson was than Keeler (Jolson was born May 26, 1886 and Keeler was born August 25, 1910, and he looks a quarter-century older than her on screen) — or that he gave Helen Morgan the same unflattering photography she’d got in Marie Galante the year before. (The next year, director James Whale and cinematographer John Mescall would give Morgan the full glamour treatment in the 1936 version of Show Boat, making her actually look younger than she had in her films the previous two years.)
It also doesn’t help that the song Morgan got, “The Little Things You Used to Do,” isn’t very good; like the rest of the film’s score, it was written by Harry Warren (music) and Al Dubin (lyrics), but clearly writing for Jolson, Keeler or Dick Powell turned Warren and Dubin on a lot more than writing for Helen Morgan. The other songs are splendid, particularly the ones that became hits at the time: “She’s a Latin from Manhattan” and “About a Quarter to Nine.” (Warners was so sure that would be the big hit that they even scheduled the film’s premiere to start at 8:45 p.m.) According to Michael Freedland’s book on Jolson, during the shooting he blew many takes by calling Keeler “Ruby” instead of her character name “Dorothy” or “Dot,” and after the film was premiered and was an instant success, Keeler found Jolson literally crying. Naturally she asked why, and he said, “Because they don’t want me anymore. They want us” — which speaks volumes about why they never made another film together and their marriage broke up within a few years.
Go Into Your Dance is actually a quite good movie, even though Jolson and Keeler make a coolly professional couple rather than a blazingly charismatic one; the direction by the usually hacky Archie L. Mayo is properly atmospheric and moves the story along, the script by Earl Baldwin falls back on pre-tested material but manages to combine some of the clichés in fresh and appealing ways, and the appearances of Glenda Farrell, Helen Morgan and Patsy Kelly (in an all-too-small comic-relief role) add a great deal to the appeal. So do the quite stunning production numbers, credited to Bobby Connolly — though when I first saw this film it was part of a Turner Classic Movies salute to Busby Berkeley and I wondered if they’d just made a mistake. Now I’m not so sure; the dazzling final shots of the “She’s a Latin from Manhattan” number, in which a giant half-globe representing the northern hemisphere revolves around the stage while Keeler dances atop it and the chorus girls cavort around it, seem far more believable as Berkeley’s work than Connolly’s.
Not that the other numbers don’t have their points: the “Quarter to Nine” number, supposedly taking place in the Chicago club before the principals return to New York, has a jump cut straight out of the Lubitsch Merry Widow in which Jolson and his male chorus line (all of whom are carrying walking sticks and wearing top hat, white tie and tails — coincidence or the folks at Warners looking over their shoulders at the competition from Fred Astaire and Top Hat at RKO?) suddenly are in blackface (in The Merry Widow it was Jeanette MacDonald doffing her black widow’s weeds and her entire wardrobe turning in one cut from black to white, with even her black lapdog turning into a white one), and Jolson’s only excursions into blackface in this film are that short bit of “Quarter to Nine” and a longer sequence on the title song towards the end. Go Into Your Dance is an appealing movie, partly on the basis of Jolson’s extraordinary strength as an entertainer and partly because the sweetness and lightness usually associated with musicals are leavened by a bit of darkness; it’s not The Jazz Singer, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum or Wonder Bar but within the limits of a pretty contrived script it manages to work. — 10/6/11