Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Two Warners/Vitaphone Shorts: “Hotel à la Swing” (1937) and “The Candid Kid” (1938)

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

The film was Hotel à la Swing, a charming little musical short produced in 1937 by Warner Bros. as part of their Vitaphone “Broadway Brevities” series (Warners kept the name “Vitaphone” as a brand for their shorts, something like Columbia and Screen Gems, long after they stopped using the Vitaphone sound-on-record process and went over to sound-on-film like everyone else at the end of 1930) starring Eddie Foy, Jr. as Reed, the manager of a failed musical revue (and if the revue script was as bad as the jokes Foy gets to tell in the film, no wonder it failed!) whose members try to sneak out en masse from the Grand Majestic Hotel, only to be caught by the hotel manager, Mr. Mayfair (John Guy Sampsel). Mr. Mayfair is hounding them for payment because his creditors are hounding him — he’s regularly being served process notices for lawsuits over one bill or another — and he’s also losing the hotel staff because he can’t afford to pay them. Reed convinces him to let him take over the hotel for 90 days and put in a new policy that will bring them customers: to liven up the fuddy-duddy old place (with wallpaper that looks absolutely ghastly even by the meager standards of 1930’s set design) and offer “service à la swing.” 

While the music in this one isn’t particularly swinging — Warners’ short department had offered 10-minute band shorts by great swing bands both Black (Jimmie Lunceford) and white (Artie Shaw), usually directed either by Roy Mack (the director here) or Joseph Henabery (who played President Lincoln in The Birth of a Nation), but the music here is the typical movie pop-swing played by studio musicians — the whole concept is engaging and the height of the occasion (literally, since it takes place at a nightclub in the hotel on its 70th floor — an obvious parody of the New York Rainbow Room, which advertised itself as “sixty-five stories nearer the stars” and was such a high-end place critic George Simon grimly joked, “Formal dress was obligatory and the prices were also sixty-five stories nearer the stars”) is a production number called “Holiday in Hades,” featuring a stage framed by two giant gargoyles that reminded one imdb.com reviewer of the monster in I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (filmed by American International two decades later!) performed by singer Marcia Wayne and a dance troupe whose director, Harland Dixon, gave it something of a Busby Berkeley feel despite his budget limitations (only 12 choristers and a set that looked like a nightclub, especially in its size, compared to the broad expanses of soundstage space over which Berkeley staged his extravaganzae). The film also features a troupe of Yacht Club Boys wanna-bes called Lane, Tree and Edwards, who do one song as hotel house detectives and another as cooks. (They’re actually on the cusp between the Yacht Club Boys and the Three Stooges, who you’ll recall played nightclub cooks who were forced to double as waiters in Swing Parade of 1946.) The ending is a bit disappointing; Reed’s takeover of the hotel turns out to be a dream, and when he wakes up Mr. Mayfair does indeed let Reed’s troupe take over from the departed hotel staff … as dishwashers and cleaning people, so the film ends with a rhythmic sequence of them all mopping the floor.

Earlier Charles and I had run another “Broadway Brevity,” one included as a bonus feature with the appealing film Gold Diggers in Paris, called The Candid Kid and an intriguing variant on the many movies of the period involving scavenger hunts. This time around the organization pulling the stunts is called the Candid Camera Club, and every year they hold a contest, giving their members virtually impossible assignments involving cameras. The main interest in this short these days is the male lead, the young (and still having scalp hair before his male-pattern baldness set in big-time) Phil Silvers, energetic and a bit annoying as usual — you can add him to Lucille Ball, Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason and others on the short list of people who’d had mediocre film careers at best and were suddenly turned into superstars by early television — and it’s a race between him, another male member of the club and the group’s (apparently only) female member, Josephine Huston (she’s top-billed and the film was obviously designed to showcase her singing talent) to get the bizarre pictures they’ve been assigned to bring back. Silvers, whose character has won the contest the previous two years, needs to get a photo of himself inside a padded cell eating a tamale, while Huston needs one of herself in a gondola — which she achieves by breaking into a department store so she can sit in the stationary gondola they’re showcasing as part of their window display. Eventually the contest is a tie and the contestants escape serious jeopardy with the law, and along the way Huston gets to sing several songs, including the Rodgers and Hart “Lover” (at fast tempo — so much for the widely reported “fact” that Peggy Lee was the first singer to do it that fast!) and Rudy Vallée’s Italian hit “Vieni, Vieni” (which seems to be the reason this ended up as a filler on a DVD of a film that starred Vallée); it’s not a world beater but it’s more fun than Hotel à la Swing and well worth watching even though there were considerably better woman singers, white and Black, around in 1938 than Josephine Huston!