Saturday, November 16, 2013

Stage Struck (Warner Bros./First National, 1936)

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

Last night Charles and I watched Stage Struck, an item from a recent Turner Classic Movies day-long tribute to Busby Berkeley that focused on his lesser efforts rather than monuments like 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, Dames, Wonder Bar or the Gold Diggers movies. Though it ran a full 90 minutes, this was definitely a budget-conscious production that didn’t give Berkeley the money to be Berkeley: it contains none of the famously demented, people-filled extravganzae on which he made his reputation — just three cast members from Gold Diggers of 1933 (Dick Powell, Joan Blondell and Warren William) reunited in a weird story by Robert Lord, scripted by Tom Buckingham and Pat C. Flick, with songs by no less than Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg (the Wizard of Oz guys). The film opens with two high-school boys standing outside a theatre arguing; one of the boys says he’s just given up his ambition to go to college and study engineering. Instead he wants to be a dance director like the famous George Randall (Dick Powell, ornamented with a thin “roo” moustache that just makes him look silly) because “you get to be around beautiful girls all day — and you get paid for it!” The scene, of course, then shifts to a depiction of the trials and tribulations of actually being George Randall, especially once his producer, Wayne (Hobart Cavanaugh), announces that he’s just fired the leading lady of Randall’s new show and replaced her with Peggy Revere (Joan Blondell). Revere can’t sing, can’t dance and can’t act, and she’s a bitchy prima donna with a retinue of dogs (the canine kind) who attack just about everyone near her as if they haven’t been fed for a week, but she’s got two assets that give her the part. She’s got a large bankroll, part of which is financing the show, and she’s currently notorious for having shot her latest husband (non-fatally). Randall almost immediately insults Peggy, with the result that she pulls out of the show, she pulls out her money as well, Wayne can’t afford to produce it without her, and 100 chorus girls, supporting players, general assistants and stagehands are immediately out of work.

On his way out of the show Randall encounters Ruth Williams (Jeanne Madden, billed fifth), the “stage-struck” girl of the title, who’s just come from the Midwest with a purse full of press clippings of reviews of her performances in amateur theatricals. Naturally she thinks she can Conquer Broadway, and equally naturally Randall tries to dissuade her, even setting up a job for her in a flower shop run by a friend of his (of course she doesn’t take it). Randall lives at home with his mother, sister and aunt — the aunt fancies herself his “manager” — all of whom depend on him for their own livelihoods, and they naturally badger him about going back to work. He’s offered a job directing a new show by producer Fred Harris (Warren William), but like Wayne he’s so broke the only way he has of getting together his production cost is to — you guessed it — hire Peggy Revere and let her back the show in exchange for the starring role. Prompted by the coincidence that his assistant’s name is Oscar Freud (a quite nice performance by Johnnie Arthur), Harris hits on the idea of reconciling Randall and Peggy to working together by getting them to fall in love with each other — despite Randall’s actual interest in the fresh, charming and relatively unspoiled Ruth Williams. When Randall refuses to hire Ruth for the chorus of the show — thinking that being in show business will only ruin her — she seeks out the leading man, Gilmore Frost (Craig Reynolds), and gets him to sneak her into the show. The production opens out of town for tryouts, which are a disaster — “the audience laughs in all the wrong places,” the post-show reviews read — and she ends up on the receiving end of a punch from Frost when he chews her out for having made the show fail. Nonetheless, it opens in New York as scheduled, though with Randall virtually having Peggy kidnapped to prevent her from going on, Ruth Williams (of course! When it comes as a total surprise to her, I couldn’t help thinking, “Girl, didn’t you ever see 42nd Street?”) is her replacement, and when the police arrest Frost on a bench warrant Randall himself has to go on in his place … but we never actually see the big finale our movie-conditioned expectations have led us to anticipate and hope for at the end. The romantic entanglements are simply wrapped up as the show is still going on, and then suddenly … The End!

What’s good about Stage Struck are a lot of wisecracks, a brilliantly funny rehearsal scene in which Randall’s assistant Sid (Frank McHugh) has to take over for an absent leading lady in a hymn to the moon, two of the Yacht Club Boys’ hilariously explosive numbers (one of which, called “The Income Tax,” laments the high taxes during the Depression years and has a great punch line: when the voice on the boys’ radio, which actually interacts with them, announces that they have a refund coming, one of them says, “A refund? I won’t pay it!” — and the other, “The Body Beautiful,” is a surprisingly homoerotic parody of bodybuilder and acrobat acts, with the boys dressed in the flounciest costumes Orry-Kelly thought he could get away with), and a quite nice Arlen-Harburg ballad called “In Your Own Quiet Way.” The song is first sung by Dick Powell in the producers’ offices and then on stage by Jeanne Madden, who had a quite lovely voice (hardly in the same league as Jeanette MacDonald’s — I suspect Warners were hoping she’d be “their” MacDonald — though still nice, with luminous high notes) but not much in the way of screen personality when she wasn’t singing. She’s in a typical Berkeley set, in front of a giant window and wearing a dress with a train so long it’s practically transcontinental, and the moment she finishes the song we expect the scene to open up still farther and a big Berkeley production number to happen — but it doesn’t. The other interesting thing about Stage Struck is the way it casts Joan Blondell; usually she was the voice of reason in these sorts of stories, not the crazed prima donna she’s playing here — and Stage Struck was made right after she and Dick Powell got married, which must have made it interesting (to say the least!) for them to play these bitter scenes of hatred right when they’d tied the knot and were presumably in the first throes of love.