Friday, November 23, 2012

Fifty Million Frenchmen (Warner Bros., 1931)

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

The film was Fifty Million Frenchmen, a really peculiar 1931 Warner Bros. production that actually began life as a Cole Porter musical on Broadway in 1929 — and Warner Bros., looking at the grosses of the previous Porter musical Paris and also at the enormous audience for just about any film that featured singing and dancing, put up either all or part of the production cost (sources differ) in exchange for the movie rights. But by the time they were ready to film it in 1931, the bottom had dropped out of the musical-movie market and so Fifty Million Frenchmen hit the screen as a nonmusical farce-comedy with slapstick overtones, and Porter got a screen credit (along with the original book writers, Herbert Fields and E. Ray Goetz) but none of his tunes were actually sung in the film, though some (including the show’s two big hits, “You’ve Got That Thing” and “You Do Something to Me”) were heard in the movie’s overture and under the printed titles that covered the original stage version’s changes of scene. Oddly, though Warner Bros. took out the film’s songs, they hired three of the actors from the original stage production — William Gaxton, Helen Broderick (she made her screen debut here and didn’t make another feature-length film until her memorable turn as the second female lead in the Astaire-Rogers classic Top Hat four years later) and Lester Crawford (Broderick’s real-life husband — their son Broderick Crawford became a bigger star than either of them, though it’s difficult to imagine him as their progeny given what they look like here!) — to repeat their roles in the film. Bereft of its songs and also the two-strip Technicolor it was originally shot in — it’s yet another two-strip movie whose extant prints are in black-and-white (though at least the actors’ makeup doesn’t look as hideous as was the norm in black-and-white versions of two-strip films) — Fifty Million Frenchmen emerges as a sporadically amusing but mostly dreary would-be comedy, remodeled to feature the comedy team of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson.

They were enormous Broadway stars (especially after 1938, when they debuted a madcap revue called Hellzapoppin’ which was basically the ancestor of the 1960’s TV show Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In: it featured a large cast and a lot of flamboyantly unreal situations, including a famous gag in which a woman would be seen by theatergoers carrying a small potted plant and calling out to someone named Oscar; at periodic intervals she’d walk through the theatre calling, “Oscar! OSCAR!” and each time the plant would be larger, until as the audience left they’d see her in the lobby, nestled in the branches of a potted tree, still screaming, “OSCAR!”) but they made only nine feature films, three for Warners in 1930-31, two for Republic in 1936-37 and four for Universal in 1941-45. (The Universal films are generally considered their best but are almost never shown today — any hopes they’d had for ongoing movie stardom were dashed by the almost simultaneous appearance of Abbott and Costello on the Universal lot — and they even made fun of that in their second Universal film, Crazy House, in which they show up at Universal ready to make a follow-up to the movie version of Hellzapoppin’ and get on the intercom of the production head to announce, “Universal’s number one comedy team is here!” He replies, “Send Abbott and Costello right in!” I’m still hoping Universal Home Video will release the four films together in a boxed set the way they did with the first four Bob Hope-Bing Crosby Road movies.)

Fifty Million Frenchmen is a typical Broadway story about love and money among the upper set — in this case, as the title suggests, American tourists in Paris. Jack Forbes (William Gaxton) is the son of a wealthy family who’s attracted to Lu Lu Carroll (Claudia Dell), another rich American in the French capital, but he’s also trying to shake off Marcelle Dubrey (Carmelita Geraghty), a Frenchwoman with whom he had a shipboard romance she obviously took a lot more seriously than he did. She demands a 10,000-franc settlement to leave him alone and the cash-poor (even though he has a line of credit available) Jack accepts a loan from his friend Michael Cummings (John Halliday) to pay off Marcelle. But Michael and a third person in their party, Billy Baxter (Lester Crawford), insist as a condition of their loan that Jack must live for two weeks in Paris without any money at all other than what he can earn in whatever jobs he can get during that time. They sweeten the deal with a $50,000 bet and hire two American detectives, Simon (Ole Olsen) and Peter (Chic Johnson) — one wonders if the Biblical names were a deliberate joke either on the part of the original writers or Joseph Jackson and Eddie Welch, who wrote the screenplay — to follow Jack and see that he doesn’t cheat on the terms of the deal. There really isn’t much more plot to it than that, though the basic situation sets up some interesting gags — in one of which Jack, needing an evening coat for a party Lu Lu is attending, wins one by playing a game of strip poker with the obnoxious kid (Norman Phillips, Jr.) of a couple (Nat Carr and Vera Gordon) he’s been squiring around Paris in a short-lived job as a guide for American Express (it wasn’t always just a credit-card company!), only it’s too small for him.

There is one song in the movie, a comic number Jack, Simon and Peter do in the detective’s hotel room (which of course comes equipped with a piano), but it’s so crude it’s impossible to believe it’s Porter’s work and more likely Olsen and Johnson wrote it themselves. (“The Laughing Song,” a composition of theirs from their previous movie, Oh, Sailor, Behave!, had been a surprise hit.) There’s also a scene reminiscent of Chaplin’s The Pawnshop in which Jack, about to be thrown out of the hotel for non-payment of his bill, disguises himself as the famous magician Orizon (Bela Lugosi, in one of only two color films he ever made — alas, this one doesn’t survive in color and the other one, the 1947 film Scared to Death, does) and gives a show that ends up with him demolishing a rich guest’s heirloom watch and scrambling it inside a top hat with an egg. The big highlight of the movie is another scene ripped off of an earlier and greater comedian — in this case, an intriguing variant of Buster Keaton’s Cops (and indeed it’s tempting to imagine how much funnier this movie would have been with the Great Stone Face playing Gaxton’s role!) in which Billy Baxter, who wants Lu Lu for himself, has hired two thugs to kidnap Jack. Simon and Peter are following — on foot, even though the kidnapers have a car — and after them is coming virtually the whole gendarmerie, alerted by the hotel manager (Charles Judels) who claims they’ve stolen a purse. The chase scene hits a patch of street that’s been oiled, so the participants slip and slide; and then another part that’s just been tarred, so they get stuck and move in slow motion, and the sequence is funny enough that the inevitable happy ending (Jack and Lu Lu get together, he gets access to his money again, and he gives the bet money to Simon and Peter, who tear up their return ticket to the U.S. and decide to stay in Paris on the ground that “fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong,” the only reference to the famous saying that gives the film its title) just seems anticlimactic.

There’s also a scene in which, in order to trick Jack out of what little money he’s been able to amass, he meets him at a racetrack and tells him to bet on a no-talent horse named Pansy — who wins the race, then is faced with disqualification, then isn’t disqualified after all but in the meantime Jack has torn up his and Lu Lu’s tickets on him so he doesn’t get the winnings (though Helen Broderick has sent him to pick up the proceeds of her bet on Pansy and this momentarily gives Lu Lu the impression that he’s involved with another woman) — and a cute scene earlier on in which Broderick’s character, Violet (she’s essentially the heroine’s sidekick the way she was with Ginger Rogers in her two films with Rogers and Astaire), tells Jack, “I want to be insulted,” but it turns out that every sexually racy thing he can think of to show her, including 3-D postcards and live peep shows, she’s already done. Fifty Million Frenchmen is directed by Lloyd Bacon with rare vitality — at least by his standards — and if the Porter songs had been included and the film survived in color it would be a lot more enjoyable than it is; as it is, it’s just another historical curio with an oddly homely leading man (Gaxton would play leads on Broadway for another decade but it’s readily apparent why he never became a film star — he’s stout, homely and has a grating speaking voice that makes me wonder how he negotiated Porter’s songs in the stage version and again in Anything Goes) and a comedy team that wouldn’t really hit their stride for another seven years. (Another Olsen and Johnson anecdote: during the film of Hellzapoppin’ they wander through several sets at Universal, and in one of them they see, hanging from the prop wall, a sled called “Rosebud.” They were almost certainly the first people to parody Citizen Kane.) Ironically, it would be this film’s director, Lloyd Bacon, who would direct 42nd Street, the film that would restore musicals to popularity, two years later.