Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Breakfast in Hollywood (Golden Pictures/United Artists, 1946)

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

The film was Breakfast in Hollywood, a 1946 production based on an inexplicably popular radio show hosted by one Tom Breneman, who plays himself in the film (and who died unexpectedly young two years later at age 46, though he looks about 10 years older than that in the movie); judging from what we see — and hear — of it, Breakfast in Hollywood seems like it would be rather dull listening, but the movie actually has a certain degree of charm. Basically it seems as if the writer, Earl Baldwin, decided that the way to get a decent, entertaining movie out of the show (which featured ordinary people rather than stars — obviously the stars were working at 8 a.m. when the show aired! — though there’s a scene in the movie in which Breneman introduces two elderly women as the mothers of Joan Crawford and Gary Cooper; the show also included such attractions as a “wishing ring,” a raffle of a cosmetics kit and a segment in which Breneman tried on the ugliest women’s hat in the room, as well as one in which he identified the oldest person in the audience and riffed off that for a while) was essentially to turn Breneman’s studio audience into Grand Hotel. The film contains a series of interlocking plot lines revolving around Breneman’s program and the audience members. Dorothy Larson (Bonita Granville, surprisingly good in a young-adult role) is a girl from Minnesota engaged to a Navy man who’s supposed to meet her in L.A., only she hasn’t been able to find him. Breneman introduces her to Ken Smith (the rather gangly but still appealing Edward Ryan), who’s a sailor and is also from Minnesota; he says he was on the same ship as Dorothy’s fiancé but gets coy and changes the subject in a hurry whenever she asks what happened to him — which I assumed meant that he was dead, though eventually it turns out that he married another girl when their ship docked in Spokane and the sailors got shore leave.

Richard Cartwright (Raymond Walburn) is planning a hot date with two women, neither of them his wife — long-suffering Frances Cartwright (Billie Burke — Walburn was quite a comedown from her real-life husband, the late Florenz Ziegfeld!) — he’s planning to drive them down to San Diego for a day at the Del Mar racetrack, but he gets delayed when he strikes down 82-year-old Annie Reed (Beulah Bondi, who must have been wearing some age makeup since she was only 57 when she made this film) while she’s walking across the street to attend Breakfast in Hollywood. She’s had a ticket to the show for months now and so she refuses to go to the hospital, insisting on completing her walk to the restaurant where the show is broadcast from, and she gets the commemorative orchid for being the oldest person there — only just then she collapses from her injuries in the accident. Elvira Spriggens (ZaSu Pitts) is there hoping to win the silliest-hat contest with a construction that looks something like the model for a Frank Lloyd Wright building, but Hedda Hopper (playing herself) beats her out with something that contains a goldfish bowl on top of her head. Eventually Ken tries to kiss Dorothy (they’re at a photo booth in an amusement park) — he knows her engagement is off but she doesn’t, and she gets upset with him and there are about four more reels of complications before she sets off on the bus back home to Minnesota, Breneman has the bus intercepted and Dorothy arrested for supposedly stealing the “wishing ring” she actually won fair and square, and ultimately she and Ken get together and make plans for marriage and a joint return to Minnesota to raise crops, animals and children. Richard Cartwright suffers the tortures of the damned trying to get away with his two young lovelies — we’re obviously meant to disapprove but actually we feel sorry for the guy — and meanwhile his wife goes through a Breneman-engineered makeover and he now finds her more attractive than the bimbos. (I couldn’t help but make jokes about Billie Burke’s most famous role; when Richard is trying to describe his wife I said he should have told the other person, “She looks just like the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz,” and earlier when she was debating how she was going to get to Breneman’s broadcast I said, “Why don’t you just take your bubble?”)

The show also features musical guests Spike Jones and His City Slickers (all the clanging and banging of his gag percussion gets a bit oppressive after a while, but his novelty songs are still pretty funny, especially the novelty he does called “Hedda Hopper’s Hats”!), singer Andy Russell (a nice crooner/balladeer who does “If I Had a Wishing Ring” and two Spanish-language songs with English lyrics, “Magic Is the Moonlight” — which I hadn’t heard before — and “Amor,” which I had) and, best of all, Nat “King” Cole and the King Cole Trio, doing Don Raye’s “Solid Potato Salad” and a song written for the film by Cole himself in collaboration with Bob Wells (also Mel Tormé’s collaborator on Cole’s enormous hit “The Christmas Song”) called “It’s Better to Be By Yourself.” It’s often forgotten that before he emerged as a great singer Cole was a top-flight jazz piano player; quite a few of his early records are instrumentals and he recorded with such major jazz names as Lester Young, Buddy Rich, Charlie Shavers and the original Jazz at the Philharmonic group (which despite the viscerally exciting horn playing from Shorty Sherock, Illinois Jacquet and the usually much subtler J. J. Johnson, is actually at its best from a jazz standpoint when two people who became legendary names in the pop music market in the 1950’s, Cole and Les Paul, are front and center), and we get some choice glimpses here of his long, spidery fingers at the keys as well as some of the infectious jump-blues singing he did before he started recording ballads with big string orchestras. The pop world’s gain was the jazz world’s loss, yet I find Cole delightful listening in both jazz and ballad modes!