Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Show of Shows (Warner Brothers, 1929)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ended up showing Charles a recording I’d recently made from TCM of the 1929 Warner Brothers (they were still spelling out the word “Brothers” instead of abbreviating it “Bros.”) all-star musical The Show of Shows, one of a number of plotless revue-type films made by several of the major studios in 1929-1930: The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (MGM), Paramount on Parade and The King of Jazz (Universal, featuring Paul Whiteman and his orchestra and marking the film debut of Bing Crosby). Charles and I had seen this together before in the late 1990’s — I had checked out of the library Richard Barrios’ book on early musicals and was frantically running every film I could find mentioned in it that I had in the collection — from a videotape I’d recorded off TNT in the 1980’s, back when TNT was Ted Turner’s premiere movie channel (though, unlike TCM, it interrupted the movies with commercials) instead of the bizarre mix of sports shows and Law and Order reruns it shows now. Since then, one of the original two-strip Technicolor reels of the film had been rediscovered and added to the version shown on TCM: “Li-Po-Li,” a bizarre number introduced as a “Chinese Fantasy” (the introduction is done by, of all entities, Warners’ biggest star of the silent era, Rin Tin Tin, who barks to get our attention and then pulls down a screen listing the title of the number and the people featured in it, Nick Lucas and Myrna Loy).

Sources differ on just how much of this film was originally in two-strip: Warners originally announced that all of it would be, but apparently because of the limited number of color cameras Technicolor had available and the frantic demand for color sequences in the early days of the talkies (sound had already vanquished the silent screen almost completely by 1929 and quite a few people were convinced that color was the next great technological horizon for film and would similarly take over from black-and-white in the early 1930’s — and if it hadn’t been for the Depression and the limits of two-strip it very well might have) a few sequences were shot in black-and-white. (A “trivia” poster on cited a 1929 Variety review which said it was all in color except for a 17-minute segment of part one and four minutes at the beginning of part two.) What is undoubted is that when Warners put together a version of The Show of Shows for TV showings in the 1950’s, they printed it in black-and-white and that’s the only version that was available for years until the color version of the “Li-Po-Li” sequence was rediscovered. Also, because the original movie had been in the Vitaphone sound-on-disc process, they had to re-print the movie to accommodate a sound-on-film soundtrack — and rather than either re-center the image or letterbox it, they simply sheared off the left one-ninth of the image to make room for the film soundtrack, which resulted in some annoyingly lopsided compositions through most of the movie. The Show of Shows is a lumbering spectacle, with physically impressive production numbers filmed totally uncreatively — like a lot of early musicals, we get the numbers all right, but we’re stuck with a camera that plants itself from the vantage point of a good orchestra seat in the theatre and never moves, pans or cuts. (In one scene the camera panned about five degrees — and, as Charles said, the energy level of the film shot up just from that one minor change in camera angle.) So we get scads of choristers marching up and down huge sets and looking like ants on a wedding cake, and we don’t get any truly memorable songs either: nothing in this film has come even close to becoming a standard (though one of the numbers briefly introduces “Your Mother and Mine,” which Paul Whiteman recorded in May 1929; and another has a bit of “You Were Meant for Me,” an oddity in that the song was written for MGM’s mega-hit The Broadway Melody and it was very rare in those days for a song composed for one studio to turn up in a film from another).

What’s more, the Warner Brothers were bound and determined to include just about everyone they had under contract — the only ones they didn’t get were Al Jolson (who probably demanded way too much money) and George Arliss, though Arliss’s favorite director, John G. Adolfi, was assigned the project — and, obviously inspired by MGM’s Hollywood Revue of 1929, they decided to use a comedian as MC. Unfortunately, while MGM’s choice was a genuinely amusing young comic on his way up — Jack Benny — Warners’ picked a dreadful one that was on his way down, Frank Fay. Fay’s routines are so lame — hardly a fitting component of the self-described “show of shows” — one gets awfully tired of him after a while and wishes someone else in the dramatis personae would strangle him. (At the time Fay was living a real-life version of the plot of A Star Is Born with his then-wife, Barbara Stanwyck: Fay had been introducing her around Hollywood trying to get her screen roles, but once Stanwyck made her explosive debut in Frank Capra’s Ladies of Leisure, she was the star in the family and Fay responded by drinking more and more until Stanwyck divorced him.) There are plenty of people in The Show of Shows, though they’re introduced on screen, if at all, only fleetingly (Barrios said that was because Warners was hoping people would buy the souvenir program on their way out of the theatre just so they’d have a record of who was who), including Loretta Young and her real-life sister, Sally Blane (as part of a number called “Meet My Sister” which also featured seven other pairs of sisters, including Dolores and Helene Costello; Sally O’Neil and Molly O’Day; Alice and Marceline Day; and Marion Byron and Harriett Lake, who became far better known under her later name Ann Sothern). The film opens with one of the weirdest beginnings ever seen in a musical: a French Revolution setting in which Hobart Bosworth orders H. B. Warner to the guillotine, Warner’s head is duly severed (we don’t see the action but we certainly savor the irony that this was just two years after Warner was crucified in his role as Jesus in DeMille’s King of Kings!) and then Bosworth announces, “Prologue is dead! On with the Show of Shows!”

It gets odder after that as the movie lumbers through the typical alternation of musical numbers and comedy routines one expected in a stage revue of the period (a “revue,” so spelled, simply meant a musical show with no plot), though the comedy routines are pretty lame, the music is surprisingly old-fashioned for what was being presented as state-of-the-art entertainment for 1929 (including a lumbering number about the fate of the boys who partnered the Floradora Girls in their turn-of-the-century hit musical — briefly livened up when Ben Turpin turns up as one of the boys, though a slapstick comedian who made his biggest hits for Mack Sennett isn’t exactly the first person you expect to turn up in a musical) and The Show of Shows is mostly a series of historically fascinating tableaux that are more of an endurance test than an entertainment. By far the best parts are Winnie Lightner’s two songs, “Singing in the Bathtub” (an obvious parody of the introduction of “Singin’ in the Rain” in Hollywood Revue of 1929) and “Pingo-Pongo” — Lightner assaults the screen with a ferocious level of energy far beyond what most of the people in this movie are able to muster — the “Li-Po-Li” sequence with Myrna Loy’s dance (she’s a bit too muscular to muster the grace of Ginger Rogers but she’s still an excellent dancer — she’d trained with Ted Shawn, husband of modern dance star Ruth St. Denis and co-founder with her of the Denishawn company — though this and the 1930 Warners semi-musical The Truth About Youth are the only Loy movies I can think of that gave her the chance to dance) and glorious color set design; and a highbrow sequence with John Barrymore, standing on something that at first simply looks like a crag but turns out to be a pile of corpses after a battle, delivering Richard III’s “Can I do all this, and cannot get a crown?” soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 3 (which Barrymore, doing his own introduction, erroneously identifies as from Part 1). This is the only film that exists of Barrymore playing Shakespeare — two attempts in the 1930’s to film his legendary performance as Hamlet came to grief because of concerns over Barrymore’s alcoholism and memory problems, though he made records and radio broadcasts of the Bard’s works — and his performance is fascinating, hammy by modern standards but still believable and in tune with the eloquence of the writing.

Other than those high points (the “Li-Po-Li” sequence seems to have been digitally restored but in a way that was faithful to the limits of two-strip, including the inability to reproduce blues and the turquoise-and-salmon scheme most two-strip films adopted to get around it, rather than just turning it into modern-looking color), The Show of Shows is a slow-moving musical with all too many numbers lasting way too long for their own good, but it’s still historically important and culturally fascinating, and it’s lucky that we have it even in this limited form (if the whole film — or at least as much of it as was in color originally — survived in color it would probably seem a lot better; black-and-white versions of two-strip movies tend to reduce everything to a level of grey-on-grey murkiness), and it’s also noteworthy as almost certainly the first film to feature Black and white dancers performing together on screen in the final number. Charles and I watched with astonishment as some Black chorines turned up in the finale, “Lady Luck,” without any explanation or big to-do — perhaps Warners stuck some Black people in the last number after noting how Ethel Waters had become the star of their previous big musical, On with the Show! (and with that film also surviving only in black-and-white, Waters looms larger than ever if only because her dark skin survived the transition from glowing two-strip to murky B&W better than the white cast members’ lighter hues!) — nice to know that Old Hollywood wasn’t always quite so racist as it’s portrayed (indeed, there’s an edgy joke about the Japanese actor Kamiyama Sojin — the screen’s second Charlie Chan — who, after he makes a guest appearance and leaves, one of the whites tells another of the whites not to associate with “that kind of actor,” which depending on how you read it can be either a racist joke or an anti-racist one).