Friday, August 31, 2012

Gold Diggers in Paris (Warner Bros., 1938)

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

The film was Gold Diggers in Paris, a 1938 Warner Bros. release (actually as Warner Bros., not First National!) that closed out the Gold Diggers series and turned out to be unexpectedly good — the most entertaining series entry since Gold Diggers of 1933. The early signs weren’t good; Dick Powell was replaced in the male lead by Rudy Vallée, an odd choice because by 1938 his vocal style was considered incredibly dated (though within two years he’d make a comeback appearing in Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story and in 1943 he’d have the biggest hit record in the country with “As Time Goes By,” a 1931 song by Herman Hupfeld that had been used as the recurring theme in the film Casablanca — with the Musicians’ Union striking the record companies, no new records could be made of “As Time Goes By” so Vallée’s old one from 1931 was reissued by RCA Victor and was an enormous hit) and he’d been such an obnoxious presence both on- and off-screen in his previous films that when he appeared in the 1929 film Glorifying the American Girl and presented his fellow cast and crew members with autographed pictures of himself, some of them were so put off by his egomania they posted the pictures in the studio urinals and literally pissed on them. As things turned out, Vallée’s voice turned out to be a good deal mellower than Powell’s — not entirely a good thing since some of the songs in this movie actually could have used the higher but more “butch” sound of Powell’s voice — and he’s an acceptable if not exactly scintillating presence on screen in a pretty ordinary musical juvenile lead. The presence of no fewer than seven credited screenwriters — Jerry Horwin and James Seymour, “idea”; Jerry Wald, Richard Macaulay and Maurice Leo, “story”; Earl Baldwin and Warren Duff, “script” — wasn’t a good sign (regular readers of this blog will be aware that one of my general-field theories of cinema is that the quality of a film is inversely proportional to its number of writers), but somehow the writing committee and director Ray Enright (also not exactly a name to conjure with in movie history) managed to come up with a genuinely entertaining and even zany comedy to keep us occupied during the long stretch between Busby Berkeley’s two big numbers, one at the beginning (“I Wanna Go Back to Bali”) and one at the end (“Stranger in Paree” with a reprise of “I Wanna Go Back to Bali” at the end). Indeed, Gold Diggers in Paris at times seems like the beta version of a Preston Sturges movie, not only because Vallée is in it but because it features a marvelous gag — gangster Mike Coogan (Ed Brophy) is using his ill-gotten gains to subsidize the Academy Ballet company of maniacal dancer Padrinsky (Curt Bois) because he’s developed a love of high culture — Sturges later used in the original version of Unfaithfully Yours. The main plot of Gold Diggers in Paris centers around an international exposition being held in Paris and a committee assigned to recruit the world’s finest ballet companies for a competition.

Maurice Giraud (Hugh Herbert) — who’s so ditzy one expects he was the great-granduncle of Inspector Clouseau (a pretty standard woo-woo role for Herbert without the balls he seemed to acquire in Million Dollar Legs, where he was teamed with W. C. Fields as the principal rivals for the Klopstokian Presidency) — is assigned to go to New York and sign the Academy Ballet for the dance contest, only through a mix-up with a taxi driver he ends up at the Club Bally (spelled “Bali” in the American Film Institute Catalog but “Bally” on screen), whose owners Terry Moore (Rudy Vallée) and Duke Dennis (Allen Jenkins) are about to go out of business because, like some of the Internet startups in the late 1990’s (remember Kazaa?), they’re spending more money per customer than they’re getting back in the form of income. (There’s a funny bit in which their doorman, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, overhears their accountant tell them this — whereupon Eddie decides to help out by actively discouraging people from entering the club, telling them the food is terrible, the drinks are watered and everything is overpriced and they’d have a much better time at some of the other nightclubs down the street.) Terry and Duke seize on Giraud’s invitation as a way out not only from their club’s bankruptcy but from Terry’s ex-wife Mona (Gloria Dickson) who’s hounding him for back alimony and threatening to have him arrested if he doesn’t pay up. In order to turn their gold-digging chorus line into a reasonable simulacrum of a ballet company, Terry and Duke hire ballet teacher Luis Leoni (Fritz Feld, another example of one-accent-is-as-good-as-another casting), who in turn brings along his only remaining student, Kay Morrow (Rosemary Lane), with whom Terry does a meet-cute (he encounters her trapped in a trapeze that was supposed to allow her to dance upside-down on the ceiling but has only got her stuck, and she demands that he get her down — which he does, the hard way) that establishes the hate-at-first-sight that tells any hardened moviegoer that they belong together. Glitches occur on the way over as Mona wangles a way into the show and into Kay’s stateroom as her roommate, and even more glitches occur once they make it to Paris and LeBrec (Melville Cooper), the organizer of the contest, demands to see the Academy Ballet’s rehearsal. Also in the dramatis personae is the Schnickelfritz Band, who are part of Terry’s troupe and are half a fairly good Dixieland band and half the beta version of Spike Jones and His City Slickers, complete with noisemakers and an overall approach to their music that’s not as funny as they clearly thought it was but is still amusing. (Given how good the musicians are — especially the trumpet player — when they’re playing “straight” I suspect that some of the Schnickelfritzes had musician doubles on the soundstage playing the more difficult parts for them.)

The real Padrinsky and his backer, Mike Coogan — who in a pretty incredible turn of events ends up befriending Duke Dennis and agreeing to club LeBrec for him to keep him away from the rehearsals, only by a mistake he clubs Leoni instead — show up and demand that the French government deport the impostors, but thanks to a stratagem from Mona (who inexplicably turns into a good sport by the end) Padrinsky and his company get deported instead, the Bally dancers go on at the festival and win the grand prize (well, with Busby Berkeley choreographing for them and seemingly moving the finals to Le Bourget airport, why not?) and Terry and Kay end up together. While hardly as zany as it could have been with Preston Sturges directing (we can dream, can’t we?), Gold Diggers in Paris is a quite entertaining movie, a rambunctious farce that builds itself from some pretty clichéd situations but blessedly doesn’t take them too seriously — which is just as well because the musical portions aren’t that great: like a lot of the Berkeley numbers towards the end of his Warners career (when Jack Warner was severely limiting his budgets), his two big productions here seem to stop just when they’re getting interesting, and the songs themselves are surprisingly undistinguished given that Harry Warren wrote them with collaborators both old (Al Dubin) and new (Johnny Mercer), but it’s still a fun movie and a worthy capstone to the Gold Diggers series. Incidentally I read in the American Film Institute Catalog that a company called Equitable Pictures actually started a film called Gold Diggers of Paris in 1933, starring Madge Bellamy (from White Zombie), Gilbert Roland and the marvelous villainess Natalie Moorhead, but changed the title at the last minute to Gigolettes of Paris after Warner Bros. complained that the original title could have been confused with Gold Diggers of 1933.