Thursday, December 15, 2011

Delicious (Fox, 1931)

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

The film was Delicious, an oddball 1931 musical from pre-20th Century Fox starring their already established “love team” of Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, directed by David Butler — who had helmed their mega-hit from two years earlier, Sunnyside Up — from a script by Guy Bolton and Sonya Levien (based on a previous piece of writing by Bolton, though the records are unclear whether he wrote the source material as an original film story or an unproduced play) that, like Sunnyside Up, cast Gaynor as a poor girl and Farrell as a rich young man who falls in love with her and ultimately hooks up with her Cinderella-style. What made this film unique was that it was the first time George and Ira Gershwin were hired by a movie studio to create an original score for a film, and they were paid the then-whopping sum of $100,000 to do so. Not only that, but the “suits” at Fox clearly thought that George Gershwin’s name would be box office in itself, because the opening title reads “JANET GAYNOR and CHARLES FARRELL in DELICIOUS with GEORGE GERSHWIN MUSIC.”

If they were hoping for a major box-office boost from the Gershwin songs, the Fox people were sorely disappointed, mainly because by 1931 Gershwin’s music was becoming less openly “popular” and much more experimental. He was moving away from the sorts of musicals he’d written in the 1920’s, which had been either revues with no plots at all or star vehicles with silly plots whose functions were just to cue in the songs, and exploring operetta and, ultimately, opera. Delicious opened in New York on Christmas Day, 1931, just one day below the Gershwin musical Of Thee I Sing, which used elaborate contrapuntal devices and featured many songs in the patter style of operettas in general and Gilbert and Sullivan in particular. Gershwin was also relying considerably less on his unquestioned gift for big memorable tunes; he was starting to construct both his songs and his concert instrumentals on what musicians call “motivic cells,” little bits of music that aren’t particularly distinguished in themselves but can be combined to create elaborate and artful structures.

The songs Gershwin wrote for Delicious aren’t in the big-tune style that had made him popular, most of them are patter songs (at least in part because, though this was supposed to be a musical, there was no one in the cast who was a professional singer; he had to make do with Janet Gaynor’s pleasant but limited voice and the patter singing and half-singing, half-rapping of the rest of the cast) and though there’s one pleasant ballad, “Somebody From Somewhere” (a “conditional” love song in the manner of the Gershwin hit “The Man I Love”), which Janet Gaynor sings to the accompaniment of a music box concealed in a whiskey bottle (it sounds whenever the bottle is lifted), little of this music would “work” outside of context and it’s not surprising that none of these songs are among Gershwin’s most covered material (though Ella Fitzgerald recorded “Somebody From Somewhere” — beautifully — on her Gershwin songbook album, and Sarah Vaughan recorded the satirical “Blah Blah Blah,” a commentary on how pop songs are written in which the lines go “blah-blah-blah” except for the hackneyed rhymes, “June/moon,” “above/love,” etc. at the ends of each one, on hers).

What’s most fascinating about Delicious is how dark a movie it really is. The situations are conventional musical tropes and the story is so close a reworking of Sunnyside Up it almost counts as a remake, but director David Butler and writers Bolton and Levien push the basic situations into surprisingly edgy territory. Janet Gaynor isn’t just a slum dweller or a homeless street urchin this time; she’s actually an undocumented immigrant to the U.S. from Scotland. She’s been sent for by her Uncle Angus in Idaho, and along the way she’s befriended a group of Russian musicians and performers who are on their way to the U.S. to open a cabaret in New York — which Gaynor’s character, Heather Gordon, thinks is right next door to Idaho; she promises she’ll visit them often. The film opens with a sequence copied quite closely in James Cameron’s Titanic 66 years later: Heather and her fellow steerage passengers, including her roommate Olga (Manya Roberti) and composer Sascha (Raul Roulien — a real-life Brazilian cast as a Russian! His most famous credit would come two years later, as the Brazilian hotel owner who loses Dolores del Rio to Gene Raymond in Flying Down to Rio) are having a wonderful time, briefing each other on the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner” (which they expect to be on the test for new immigrants at Ellis Island) and gaily dancing to a medley of decidedly non-Gershwin songs, including the “Irish Washerwoman” and “Ortchi-Tchornya.”

The first Gershwin song we hear is the title number, actually spelled “Delishious,” because it’s cued by Heather’s insistence on pronouncing the word “delicious” with four syllables and Sascha correcting her that it only has three — then spinning a song that stretches “delicious” and its rhyme, “capricious,” over four notes each. While the steerage passengers have been partying on the lower deck, the first-class passengers have been watching them from above with a mix of envy and disgust: star polo player Larry Beaumont (Charles Farrell) sees Heather dance and is immediately smitten, while his fiancée Diana Van Bergh (Virginia Cherrill) and her mother (Olive Tell) are predictably revolted by the spectacle of people without money actually presuming to enjoy themselves.

To practice their new song, Heather and Sascha sneak onto the first-class deck to find a piano, and they’re discovered by Sascha’s friend and Larry’s valet, Janssen (Swedish dialect comedian El Brendel). They’re also chased by various stewards and pursers until they’re bailed out by Larry, who comes upon them and thinks the song is charming and the girl it’s about is even more so. He says she should be sure to contact her once she gets off the boat if she’s ever in trouble, only he makes the mistake of leaving the note with his contact information to Diana — who’s decent enough she’s willing to give it to Heather, but her mom takes the note, tears it up and throws it in the ocean. Then the boat docks and Heather finds that she’s going to be deported on the spot — her Uncle Angus has lost so much money in the Depression he no longer can afford to support her — and in sheer desperation she hides out in the stall of Larry’s polo pony, Pancho, and sneaks into the U.S. by hiding in the van transporting the pony off the ship and onto Larry’s estate. She’s chased throughout the movie by immigration agent O’Flynn (Lawrence O’Sullivan), who’s after her with a Javert-like persistence.

Janssen hides Heather in an unused room in Larry’s home, and Larry discovers her and offers to help, but she sneaks away the next morning, determined not to accept his charity but to make her own way in the new world. Sascha, who’s in decidedly unrequited love with her, offers her a job in their cabaret but says she’ll have to disguise herself as a Russian; she protests that she can’t possibly sing in Russian, but they say they’ll write her a song that they can sing around her, and the song is yet another Gershwin patter number called “Katinkitschka,” after her “Russian” alias. Larry shows up at the cabaret when Heather performs and actually recognizes her; unfortunately, so does O’Flynn, and she’s forced to flee while Olga puts on Heather’s makeup and passes herself off as Katinkitschka. Heather finds out that Larry and Diana have finally become engaged when the Russians are engaged by Diana’s mother to perform at the wedding, and she reluctantly agrees to marry Sascha on the rebound — only Sascha and the troupe make the mistake of buying her a radio for a wedding present, and the moment she switches on the radio she hears a broadcast of Larry’s big polo match, which announces that he has been seriously injured and taken to a hospital. Immediately Heather sets off for Larry’s home, where he’s recuperating, and Diana lets her in but then calls the police to have her arrested.

Heather flees again and, in the film’s most famous sequence (mainly because it’s been excerpted in a number of documentaries on Gershwin even though the rest of the film was out of circulation for decades), she runs through an Expressionistic nightmare vision of the New York streets to the accompaniment of a Gershwin concert work he began writing in Los Angeles while working on the film (“I was under no obligation to the Fox Company to write this, but the old artistic muse must be satisfied sometimes,” he explained) originally known as “Rhapsody in Rivets,” then as “New York Rhapsody,” and finally as “Second Rhapsody.” (The title “Second Rhapsody” goes out of its way to invite comparison to the “Rhapsody in Blue,” and comparing the two pieces shows just how much Gershwin had evolved technically between 1924 and 1931; “Rhapsody in Blue” is based on three Big Tunes with little or nothing in the way of development between them, while “Second Rhapsody” has one soaring melody but is mostly composed of little musical fragments pieced together and developed the way a classical composer would. I wouldn’t say either is “better” than the other, but that they’re both excellent pieces even though they’re as different as they could possibly be given that they were both products of a composer with as distinctive a “sound world” as Gershwin.)

By far the best musical sequences in the film are the montage to the “Second Rhapsody” (the piano player on the soundtrack was not credited, but the part is played with such power, force and command of this odd music I’m sure it was Gershwin himself) and a dream sequence, early in the film, in which Heather falls asleep on the ship and imagines that she’s getting a heroine’s welcome, including interviews with four reporters, a chorus line full of dignitaries and six dancing Uncle Sams — yet another indication that Gershwin was losing his interest in the traditional musical and was more interested in constructing operetta-ish set pieces (which was probably quite disconcerting to the people at Fox who had no doubt O.K.’d the $100,000 the Gershwins were getting in the belief he’d give them some nice, bright, tuneful songs which would become hits quickly and help promote the movie). Eventually Heather shows up at a police station and turns herself in, and is told that the government is willing to set aside the year-long prison sentence she’d earlier been threatened with, but she’s going to be deported on the next available ship to Scotland — only Larry, who in the meantime has dumped Diana, finds out and crashes the ship himself, intending to have the captain marry them so they can honeymoon in Europe and she can return to the U.S. legally as the wife of an American citizen.

One fascinating thing about Delicious is that it’s one of the most class-conscious American musicals ever made; it’s hardly the only one that addressed class issues via a rich person/poor person couple, but it’s one that pushed the tropes considerably more relentlessly than most. Janet Gaynor’s character is trapped not only by poverty but by status — her situation as an undocumented immigrant seeking to survive on her own merits is one that rings true today, and the constant surveillance she’s under by O’Flynn (whose Irish brogue marks him as either an immigrant or the son of an immigrant himself — indeed, much of the film turns on the irony of one generation of immigrants overly enforcing the rules on the next and forgetting what they were going through when they or their parents were the newbies heading into Ellis Island), makes us not only sympathize but ache for her as she negotiates a game that is largely stacked against her, and if it weren’t for Larry’s interest in her would be totally stacked against her.

Delicious is also a fascinating film for the sheer weight of its staging; while part of the overall darkness may be an artefact of the condition of the surviving print, clearly it was intended from the get-go by director Butler and cinematographer Ernest Palmer as a dark, chiaroscuro, almost noir atmosphere piece. I’d been a bit skeptical of Tag Gallagher’s theory in his book on John Ford that the presence of German director F. W. Murnau on the Fox lot in the late 1920’s led a number of the Fox directors, including Ford, to copy his style and make their movies darker, richer and more atmospheric — but much of Delicious is shot with such a rich, dark sense of atmosphere it looks like the sort of film Murnau might have directed if he’d lived long enough to make a musical. In terms of cinematic style it’s much closer to the Sternberg/Dietrich films and the ones Mamoulian and Lubitsch made with Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier than the template set by 42nd Street a year later (in which urban poverty was represented not by atmospheric cinematography of a stylized cityscape but by clearly, plainly photographed scenes filmed on grungy-looking sets of working-class apartments), and while it misses a few opportunities (when Larry left Heather and Sascha at the piano whistling their song I was hoping for a Love Me Tonight-style scene in which the entire passenger complement of the ocean liner, as well as the crew, would have picked up the song), it grabs so many it’s hard to believe that the director was a hack like David Butler rather than someone with a more creative reputation.

 Delicious has its flaws: Janet Gaynor’s Scottish accent comes and goes, and while she’s mostly credible in portraying the shifting emotions of the character, her naïveté is so extreme (she thinks Ellis Island is run by a Mr. Ellis and that New York and Idaho are so close together she can easily live in one and visit the other) one can understand the London Times reviewer’s comment that “her affectations are increasing at such an alarming rate that there is a real danger that in her next film she will relapse into baby-talk once and for all.” Charles Farrell barely can act at all (this film happened to be made while the young Humphrey Bogart was under contract at Fox, and if the people running the place had seen what they had in him from his performance in John Ford’s Up the River they might have given him this part and got a tense, riveting performance rivaling Gaynor’s instead of a tailor’s dummy being steered through scenes on autopilot), and El Brendel is funny but wildly variable — his lines are brilliantly funny sometimes and wince-inducing other times. Raul Roulien actually gives the lovestruck songwriter a genuine sense of pathos — anyone who knew him only from his “stick” performance in Flying Down to Rio (even though there he was playing his real nationality!) will be startled at how multidimensional an actor he is here!

 Delicious was advertised as “a screen poem, presenting a lyrical setting to the lilting refrains of George Gershwin’s music,” but there’s nothing particularly lyrical about Gershwin’s music (he’s known to have written at least one more song for the score than was used, “Mischa, Jascha, Toscha, Sascha,” but it was yet another Gilbert and Sullivan-esque patter song, this time about famous Russian-born violinists) and the London Times said, “Mr. Gershwin’s music is eccentric and aggressive, and the film is, in its conventional sentimentality, its precise antithesis.” That’s an arguable way to look at Delicious, but Butler’s stylistic direction and the overall darkness of the atmosphere puts an edge on what would otherwise be horribly treacly sentimental situations and puts Delicious alongside Hallelujah, The Love Parade, Applause, The Smiling Lieutenant and Love Me Tonight in the top tier of early musicals.