Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Big Broadcast of 1937 (Paramount, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched the film The Big Broadcast of 1937, the third and most elusive of the four Big Broadcast movies made by Paramount in the 1930’s — one I hadn’t seen myself until last night even though I’ve long been familiar with the other three. The first Big Broadcast is by far the best — the plot deals with radio station owner Stuart Erwin trying to keep his star singer, Bing Crosby, sober enough to perform as the headliner of his big all-star broadcast, and like the later Going Hollywood it traded on Bing’s real-life reputation as an irresponsible alcoholic (a lot of wags in the early days said his nickname should have been “Binge” Crosby!) who missed shows and took a cavalier attitude towards his work. The Big Broadcast of 1936 was a semi-remake of International House and cast George Burns and Gracie Allen (who were in the first Big Broadcast and were part of the 1937 edition as well) as inventors of a remote television device (the same prop built for the film International House) which they used to throw in various guest stars. The Big Broadcast of 1938 took place aboard an ocean liner, which was racing across the Atlantic in a speed contest with another ship, and featured W. C. Fields (in a dual role, though this time around his main character was too boorish to be that funny), Bob Hope (in his feature-film debut), Shirley Ross and Martha Raye. Ross and Raye were in The Big Broadcast of 1937, which starred Jack Benny as radio network manager Jack Carson (it sounds jarring to hear him addressed with the name of another actor!), who’s putting on a huge broadcast to be sponsored by Platt Golf Balls. Platt Golf Balls is a company owned by Gracie Platt (Gracie Allen) and more or less managed for her by her predictably acerbic and long-suffering husband George (George Burns).

Martha Raye plays Carson’s pratfall-prone secretary Patsy, who doesn’t get a chance to sing until she’s pressed into service during the final broadcast, singing “Vote for Mr. Rhythm” (a song by Paramount’s house writers, Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin, that like a lot of Raye’s vehicles at the time was recorded far better by Chick Webb and His Orchestra, featuring the young Ella Fitzgerald doing a far more infectious and swinging version of this supposed anthem to swing), and she doesn’t get the comic romance with Carson we expect. Indeed, the entire film is one of those annoying movies that’s fun enough the way it is, but we expect more from a film that packs together such powerhouse comic talents as Burns, Allen, Benny and Raye! We keep waiting to explode with laughter and instead we get the occasional bright chuckle. There’s a whole slough of guest stars, including Benny Goodman (making his feature-film debut — D. Russell Connor’s bio-discography suggests that Goodman might have been in a short with Ben Pollack’s band previously but he could never nail down definitively whether Goodman was in a film before this; lists a 1929 Vitaphone short with Pollack as Goodman’s first film but Connor reported on this, stating that the soundtrack survived but the film didn’t, and without the visual portion it was impossible to tell just by listening whether Goodman was there or not), Leopold Stokowski (conducting an orchestra billed as a studio group from New York but really the Philadelphia Orchestra, of which he was just about to step down as regular conductor but continue to work with as a guest, including such later movie projects as One Hundred Men and a Girl and Fantasia), Benny Fields (billed as “The Minstrel Man” and singing an annoyingly stentorian vocal on “Here’s Love in Your Eye” — some listings give the song’s title as plural, “Eyes,” but the singular makes more sense — before Goodman’s crew takes over) and Bob Burns (an annoying “rustic” comedian whose gags detract rather than add to the amusement value of this film).

The plot, in case you cared, revolves around Carson’s decision that the success of the Platt Golf Ball program depends on hiring egomaniac singer Frank Rossman (Frank Forest), whose manager Bob Miller (Ray Milland in a part that requires him to be personable, handsome and charming but little more than that) negotiates a deal for him. Gwen Holmes (Shirley Ross) is a D.J. on a small-town station who makes fun of Rossman’s cult-like following by playing his records and talking over them, making snide comments à la Mystery Science Theatre 3000, and Rossman is so determined to get her off the air he insists that Carson’s network sign her but pay her to do nothing. Eventually both Carson and Miller fall for her and renege on their corrupt deal with Rossman, giving her first a guest shot and then co-star billing on the Platt program, but Gwen becomes a diva and has an affair with Rossman to get Miller, her true love, jealous. It ends with the various parties leading each other on a wild taxi chase through the streets of New York (on the Paramount backlot) and Miller marrying Gwen on the air during the Platt program (the show had been promoted as the on-air wedding of Gwen to Rossman, but she had the good sense to bail on that mismatch) while Carson is left emotionally bereft and the Platts are left with each other — this is one of the few films in which Burns and Allen play the married couple they in fact were (until 1941 they were unmarried on their radio show, too, until their initial sponsor canceled them, a replacement offered them much less money, and Burns realized that their popularity had been fading because audiences could no longer accept them as young sweethearts in the first flush of love when they knew they were a long-time married couple off-screen — so he had them play a long-time married couple, it reinvigorated their show and enabled them to stay popular for nearly two more decades, first on radio and then on TV), and they even use their real first names so audiences conditioned to hearing them call each other “George” and “Gracie” on air would feel comfortable.

The guest stars aren’t especially well used — Goodman’s band plays a brief bit of “Here’s Love in Your Eye” after Benny Fields finishes massacring this pretty little song, and later gets a big feature on the old jazz standard “Bugle Call Rag.” Stokowski performs the Bach Fugue in G minor in his own (stentorian) arrangement, and the focus remains on him and his hands rather than on the on-screen players — Charles pointed out he was probably just waving his hands in front of a blank screen while the pre-recorded soundtrack played — though at least his sequence isn’t as weirdly jarring as the token classical piece in The Big Broadcast of 1938, with Kirsten Flagstad singing Brünnhilde’s Battle Cry from Die Walküre standing on a papier-maché “mountain crag” and waving a spear as if it were a baseball bat and she were warming up to take batting practice. By far the best aspect of The Big Broadcast of 1937 is the surprisingly atmospheric cinematography by Theodor Sparkuhl, one of the many German expats who fled the Nazis, first went to France, then came to the U.S. and ultimately took part in some of the early films noir. Sparkuhl’s rich, shadowy chiaroscuro lighting patterns aren’t exactly what we expect to see in a comedy-musical about radio whose stars are Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, but they add a lot to this movie, especially in Frank Forest’s big production number, “La Bomba” (notice the spelling — this is not the famous “La Bamba” that Ritchie Valens later rocked), a silly song not helped by Frank Forest’s stentorian voice that turns into a visual delight thanks to Sparkuhl’s high-contrast images. The director is Mitchell Leisen, who as in Murder in the Vanities (a clip from which is used here as part of a montage of nightclubs to which Milland takes Ross) shot his production numbers from a good-seat-in-the-house perspective and did not let his dance director, LeRoy Prinz, stage any Busby Berkeley-style numbers that couldn’t have taken place on stage (though the set on which “La Bomba” takes place is quite a bit bigger than one would expect from a real nightclub staging a floor show).

The sheer size of the writing committee — Erwin Gelsey, Arthur Kober and Barry Trivers, “original” story; Walter DeLeon and Francis Martin, script — once again makes one wonder why five credited writers (plus the film’s producer, Lewis Gensler) were needed to come up with this ragbag of clichés, but no one went to a movie like this for the script; frankly, by far the best lines of dialogue are the exchanges between Burns and Allen, which were almost certainly written by Burns himself and their usual radio writers rather than Paramount’s hacks — and one thing that’s interesting is that Allen does not come off as a total ditz; unlike another real-life couple who became comedy superstars, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Allen’s wildest flights actually make a surreal sort of sense and are grounded in reality even if they often take a twisted view of it. Through much of The Big Broadcast of 1937, one gets the impression some formidable talents are working under water — George Burns and Jack Benny were long-time friends and their connection lasted even past Benny’s death (when Burns took over the part in the film of Neil Simon’s play The Sunshine Boys that had been intended for Benny) and one would have hoped for a much more convulsively funny meeting between them than the one we got here, and if I’d been writing the script I’d have had Martha Raye get Benny on the rebound once Shirley Ross and Ray Milland definitively paired up. For a major musical it also has a pretty weak set of songs — just about all its most interesting pieces had been written previously, and there’s a fascinating moment on the Past Perfect 20-CD boxed set of Benny Goodman in which the disc goes straight from “Here’s Love in Your Eye” to another film song from 1936, “Pick Yourself Up” from Jerome Kern’s score for the Astaire-Rogers Swing Time, and one can hear Goodman and the boys audibly perk up when playing a far better song from a far better movie than the one they were in! Still, The Big Broadcast of 1937 is a quite nice little movie, and if any of the major-domos at Universal Home Video are reading this, can we please have all four Big Broadcasts in a two-disc box the way you did with the first four Bob Hope-Bing Crosby Road movies (and the way you should do with the four movies Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson made for Universal in the early 1940’s)?