Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Ready, Willing and Able (Warner Bros., 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Ready, Willing and Able, a 1937 Warners musical that represented Ruby Keeler’s last film as a Warner Bros. contractee and her co-star, Ross Alexander’s, last film, period. Alexander was a slight young man whom Warners was giving a star build-up; he was also a tormented Bisexual who hung out at restrooms when he wasn’t pursuing a decidedly unrequited crush on fellow Warners employee Bette Davis. At one point La Bette implored her then-husband, Ham Nelson, to “get rid of that fag” — which Nelson did by beating him up. At Alexander’s next tearoom cruise he was busted by the police and, while awaiting trial, he committed suicide at age 29. Ready, Willing and Able had been finished but not released when its male lead offed himself, and afraid both of potential scandal and the general willingness of audiences to pay money to see a film with a dead star (later in 1937 MGM would release Saratoga, Jean Harlow’s last movie, for which Harlow stand-in Mary Dees filled in the last week’s worth of shooting left when Harlow died, and it was a hit), Warners bounced Alexander’s billing down to fifth and co-starred Keeler with Lee Dixon, whose role had originally been planned as the comic relief.

Ready, Willing and Able was the old chestnut about the unknown who substitutes for the major star — the trope that had zoomed Keeler to stardom five years earlier in 42nd Street — with some variations that showed just how threadbare the old formula was getting. Aspiring writer Barry Granville (Ross Alexander) and his friend, awful songwriter Pinky Blair (Lee Dixon), have somehow got Amalgamated Pictures to put up $50,000 to produce the new musical script Granville has written (presumably with songs by someone other than Pinky — the actual songwriters were Johnny Mercer, lyrics; and Richard Whiting, Margaret Whiting’s father, music) and even to let him play the male lead. The catch is that he must get London musical star Jane Clarke (Wini Shaw) for the female lead or the deal is off. J. Van Courtland (Allen Jenkins), a failed vaudevillian trying to resuscitate his career by becoming an agent (in that great Jenkins voice he moans that being an agent is the one aspect of show business he hasn’t failed at yet), rushes to meet the ship on which Jane Clarke is sailing from London to New York in hopes of signing her for 10 percent of the $1,500 per week Amalgamated is paying her. Only he signs another woman named Jane Clarke (Ruby Keeler), a college student with a stuffy fiancé named Truman Hardy (Hugh O’Connell) and a burning desire to go on the stage instead of continuing with either her studies or her relationship.

Rehearsals begin on the new show and Jane (the one Keeler is playing) predictably falls in love with Barry, and she and Pinky do a dazzling dance number at a nightclub (to the Whiting-Mercer song “Just a Quiet Evening”) to showcase and promote the upcoming production. There’s just one problem; though she’s a fabulous dancer the (American) Jane Clarke can’t sing, and she begs off any use of her vocal cords through three weeks of rehearsals until one sequence in which she’s in her dressing room, playing a record by the British Jane Clarke (on a portable phonograph owned by her roommate/pal Angie, played by Carol Hughes — the record player looks like a large hat box, especially when its lid is closed) and despairing that she’ll never be able to sing like that. Shortly afterwards she tearfully confesses all to Barry — and just then the British Jane Clarke hears about the imposture and threatens to sue Amalgamated. Amalgamated executive Edward McNeil (Addison Richards) first closes the show but then decides to keep it going if the “real” Jane Clarke can be induced to star in it ­— he dictates a telegraph to that effect to his secretary Dot (Jane Wyman in her galley years at Warners) and the real Clarke signs at $2,000 per week, while Courtland insists that Barry honor his $1,500 per week contract with Keeler’s Clarke as well. (The real Clarke is showcased by a snatch of the Whiting-Mercer song “Sentimental and Melancholy,” and while Wini Shaw had a lovely and haunting voice her attempt at a faux-“British” accent kills her ability to put over the song: a surprisingly abusive and inept treatment for a song that Billie Holiday recorded superbly at around the same time.)

There’s a final complication when McNeil and his superior at Amalgamated realize that if Barry can’t put on the show by his September 5 deadline the rights will revert to them and they’ll be able to make a picture of it, while if he does open the movie rights will come onto the open market and Amalgamated will have to bid for them along with everyone else. (What they should do is fire whoever in their legal department drew up such a cockamamie contract.) So McNeil puts pressure on the theatre and the scenery and costumes people to demand their money immediately to ensure that the show can’t open, but for reasons the writing committee (Richard Macaulay, story; Jerry Wald, Sig Herzig and Warren Duff, script) never quite explain Truman Hardy decides to put up the money, the show does open and in a cleverly staged finale — Ray Enright is the overall director, Bobby Connolly the credited dance director but the ending scene, in which the song “Too Marvelous for Words” (the one song from this production that actually became a standard) is given a baroque, over-the-top staging that’s sometimes been credited to Busby Berkeley. Featuring a giant set of a typewriter in which recumbent chorus girls’ legs form the type bars, this big number cleverly wraps it up: the “British” Jane Clarke (who has previously been revealed to be an impostor herself — the Allen Jenkins character recognized her as his former vaudeville partner, Amy Callahan, with whom he did an act with a trained seal, and there’s a great gag scene in which he recognizes the seal coat she’s wearing as their former co-star!) plays Barry’s secretary and takes dictation on a letter he sends the American Jane Clarke on another set, and the giant typewriter with chorus-girl type bars spells out, “I am sorry,” reconciling Barry and Jane both personally and professionally.

Serviceably directed by Enright from an O.K. script, Ready, Willing and Able has its charms, but Warners’ lack of faith in Keeler as a box-office attraction is all too obvious not only in the whole gag about her not being able to sing (she had sung, competently if not spectacularly, in 42nd Street and several of her other films) but in palming her off with the all too visibly nellie Ross Alexander as her co-star instead of Dick Powell (and if he’d played the Alexander role it would have helped this movie a lot). Keeler’s career faded out after this movie: RKO signed her to co-star with Fred Astaire in A Damsel in Distress but then decided she wouldn’t be believable as a British girl (an odd commentary on her performance in Ready, Willing and Able, in which her British accent is reasonably convincing but comes and goes with virtually every scene until her character is exposed — and also ironic because Keeler was Canadian in real life!), so instead they used up her one commitment with a movie called Mother Carey’s Chickens that both Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers had turned down. At the same time Keeler’s famous marriage to Al Jolson was dissolving, so after one more film (Sweetheart of the Campus: Columbia, 1941), she remarried and retired, though she made a brief comeback after her second husband died in 1969, doing a Warners movie called The Phynx in 1970 and making headlines reunited with Busby Berkeley in a 1970 Broadway revival of the 1920’s stage hit No, No, Nannette. She turned up in San Diego in 1988 attending the opening night of the Starlight Theatre’s production of the stage version of 42nd Street (I was there and noted that she was even wearing her hair the same way she had in 42nd Street; she looked like her character from the movie as she would have naturally aged) and died five years later at age 82 in Rancho Mirage.