Sunday, October 23, 2011

Melody in May (RKO, 1936)

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

I ran the film Melody in May, a 1936 RKO short featuring singer Ruth Etting — who occasionally appeared in features like Roman Scandals and Hips, Hips, Hooray but mostly did shorts for Vitaphone in the early 1930’s and RKO later — in a wafer-thin plot that casts Etting, using her own name, as an overworked diva who, after making a record of W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” (she sings it decently enough but one would never call her one of the pioneers of white blues; Mae West’s explosive performance of Handy’s “Memphis Blues” with Duke Ellington’s band in Belle of the Nineties comes a lot closer to what this sort of music is about), walks out of the studio through a gantlet of autograph-seekers and star-fuckers and announces her plan to take a month’s vacation in the middle of nowhere. That turns out to be Middletown (Charles joked that they had a bitter feud going with Centerville), where Etting, incognito (though a couple of the townspeople look on as she’s driven into town in a chauffeur-driven white convertible and exchange I-know-I’ve-seen-her-somewhere-before looks), rents a room in a boardinghouse owned by Ma Bradshaw (Margaret Armstrong), who also is proprietor of an ice-cream parlor whose only other employee is her grandson Tommy (Frank Coghlan, Jr.). Tommy is your typical high-school nerd who’s got a hopeless crush on Mary Callahan (Joan Sheldon), girlfriend of B.M.O.C. Chuck (Kenneth Howell). With Chuck out of town, Mary asks Tommy to take her to the big school dance, for which they’ve brought in a band from New York — only he’s already dressed and has bought the tickets when Chuck returns unexpectedly and Mary goes to the dance with him instead.

Ruth Etting watches all this from the window of her room in the boardinghouse, she takes pity on Tommy and asks if he’ll take her to the dance, and he does so — to the accompaniment of a lot of nasty cracks to the effect that Tommy’s date, whoever she is, is really robbing the cradle and it’s a measure of how worthless Tommy is that he has to bring a girl old enough to be his mother. Of course, all the various worms turn when the New York bandleader recognizes Ruth Etting, she gets up to sing a song (the lovely “It Had to Be You” by Isham Jones and Gus Kahn, to which her voice is far more suited than it was to “St. Louis Blues”), and everyone’s attitude towards Tommy does a 180° now that they know he knows a celebrity. It’s a measure of how little the cliquish nature of high school has changed over the years that this plot doesn’t seem dated at all, and Melody in May is an appealing film even though it’s little more than an extended music video with a plot (story by Stanley Rauh and direction by Ben Holmes); at least Tommy and Mary are personable enough we want to see them get together at the end, and Chuck is a nasty enough villain (at one point Tommy offers him his dance tickets, and Chuck says, “I can buy my own tickets,” and tears them up) we rejoice at his comeuppance.