Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Going Places (Warner Bros., Cosmopolitan, First National, 1938)

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

I watched the movie I’d recorded that morning: Going Places, a 1938 Warners musical directed by Ray Enright in his usual traffic-cop style (I remember when I ran Charles the 1942 version of The Spoilers, with Marlene Dietrich and John Wayne, I found it a surprisingly dull movie despite the star cast — the only exciting part was the final fight, which was directed not by Enright, but by action specialist B. Reeves Eason) and starring Dick Powell and Anita Louise in a quirky story (based on an old play called The Hottentot) involving two race-fixing gangsters (Allen Jenkins and Harold Huber), a sporting-goods store manager (Walter Catlett) and salesperson (Powell), an uncontrollable horse called “Jeepers Creepers,” a stablehand (Louis Armstrong) who can soothe the savage beast by playing the song of the same name on his trumpet, and a lot of rich swells (including Louise and, of all people, Ronald Reagan!) who are putting on a steeplechase.

The plot, which you could just about write yourself from the above data, has Powell hang out among the rich swells posing as a famous jockey, fall in love with Louise, and ride “Jeepers Creepers” to victory in the steeplechase even though the closest thing to a horse he’s ever been on before is the mechanical bucking bronco in his store. (Urban Cowboy, 42 years earlier.) Armstrong and Maxine Sullivan — who shares with him and his band a big production number called “Mutiny in the Nursery” — steal this movie right out from under the white stars (though the number itself is prosaically staged and one wonders what Busby Berkeley or Vincente Minnelli could have done with a song with so many striking images from traditional nursery rhymes) — though Walter Catlett’s Gay act is a real treat (when Powell asks him if he’s ever been in love, he bats his eyes and rolls his head as if he thinks that’s a proposal) and the script (by Jerry Wald, Sig Herzig and Maurice Leo) is surprisingly (at least by 1938 standards!), and refreshingly, frank about the sexual dalliances of the characters. It seems odd that this film includes two of the most beautiful romantic ballads Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer ever wrote, “They Say” and “Say It With a Kiss” (both hauntingly recorded by Billie Holiday), but uses them only as instrumental background music! It’s less odd, unfortunately, that the film casts Armstrong in his first speaking role in a feature movie (prior to this he’d just done guest appearances, popping up, playing a song or two, then disappearing again), but he and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson (another marvelous African-American character actor) had to play the usual shuffling stereotypes. Describing Going Places in his Armstrong biography, Hugues Panassié writes, “Louis not only did a musical number but he had an actual part, even if it was far too modest for his ability. The inept process of dubbing robbed moviegoers of his voice and savory speech in the French version; fortunately his singing was not dubbed, as it was for other films!” Incidentally, Armstrong had already acquired the stout proportions and receding hairline that were to become trademarks of his physical appearance by the 1950’s, when he hit the peak of his international popularity — in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s he’d slimmed down radically and looked surprisingly, and strikingly, handsome; but as early as 1938 he was already lovable, roly-poly ol’ Satchmo! — 3/31/98


The film was Going Places, an odd 1938 semi-musical from Dick Powell’s dog days as a Warner Bros. star. Two years earlier he’d made Colleen, the last film that co-starred him and Ruby Keeler from the glory days of the Busby Berkeley musicals (42nd Street, Footlight Parade, Dames and Gold Diggers of 1933), and in 1937 Warners dropped Keeler from their contract list after the financial failure of Ready, Willing and Able, her last film for the studio. Powell soldiered on with a key role in Hollywood Hotel — though Benny Goodman’s orchestra was as much a “draw” for that film’s initial audiences than Powell (who played an aspiring singer who was also a saxophonist in Goodman’s band) and two of the Lane sisters, who were the rivals for his love (one a diva-esque star, the other a down-to-earth stand-in whom he ends up with at the end) — but it was clear that Jack Warner and Hal Wallis didn’t have that much faith in his continued drawing power, either. So they put him in Going Places, a film about horse racing (doesn’t the name Going Places just automatically make “horse racing” leap to mind as the subject of a film so titled? Me neither) based on an old Broadway play called The Hottentot (which doesn’t really make “horse racing” leap to mind as a subject, either) by Victor Mapes and William Collier, Sr., which premiered on Broadway on March 1, 1920 (so this wasn’t exactly cutting-edge story material even then) and hired old Warners standby Harry Warren as composer and Johnny Mercer as lyricist to construct a series of songs. Warren and Mercer obliged with “They Say” and “Say It With a Kiss,” two haunting mid-tempo ballads for Dick Powell to sing to leading lady Anita Louise (that it wasn’t Keeler or Powell’s own real-life leading lady at the time, Joan Blondell, itself says volumes about Warners’ lack of faith in this project), and Warners’ music publishing division obliged by placing the songs with such major recording artists as Billie Holiday, Ethel Waters and Artie Shaw. Only for some bizarre reason that seems to be lost in the mist of time, at the last minute Powell’s performances of these songs was cut from the film — and the fact that this was done at the last minute is readily apparent because the song cues remain in the film even though the songs themselves don’t (except as part of the background score, where they’re readily noticeable if you’ve learned them by the recordings by Holiday, Waters or Shaw). What’s left over is the shards of the Mapes-Collier plot, which deals with a failing sporting-goods store in New York City, Detridge and Frome. The remaining owner is Frome (Robert Warwick) but he’s left the management of the place to hidebound Franklin Dexter (Walter Catlett, brilliant as usual) and his top salesman, Peter Mason (Dick Powell). Dexter is so old-school he believes the store should sell only on its reputation and shouldn’t advertise; Mason suggests that the store should send a representative to the upcoming steeplechase race hosted by Col. Withering (Thurston Hall) and his wife Cora (Minna Gombell) at their big estate in Maryland.

There’s only one problem — actually there are quite a few problems but one that rears its head early on is that Col Withering is the store’s biggest customer. He regularly orders moth-eaten stuffed heads of big game from around the world because he’s keeping a mistress (shown surprisingly obviously for a post-1934 film from the era of strict Production Code enforcement) but telling his wife that he’s going on hunting trips, and he relies on Detridge and Frome to supply him with “trophies” of animals he supposedly killed on these fictitious safaris. Also in the plot mix is a couple of corrupt racetrack touts, Droopy (Allen Jenkins) and Maxie (Harold Huber), who seek to make a killing on Jeepers Creepers, a wild, almost untameable but potentially great horse owned by Col. Withering’s son, Jack (Ronald Reagan, who’s billed fourth — behind Powell, Louise and Jenkins — which led Charles to the almost inevitable joke, “Hey, why couldn’t we have had Allen Jenkins as President?”). “There ain’t nothin’ on four legs that can beat that horse!” Maxie exclaims when he sees Jeepers Creepers in action. “Yeah, and there ain’t nothin’ on two legs can ride him,” snarls Droopy at his most Allen Jenkinsish. The only person anywhere in the vicinity who can control him is his stablehand, Gabriel (Louis Armstrong, who more than anyone else really makes this movie; though he’s still playing the silly Black servant stereotype, his singing and especially his trumpet playing blow away all the white cast members), who wrote a song called “Jeepers Creepers” that the horse particularly likes. The gimmick is that Frome allows Peter Mason to go to the Maryland steeplechase posing as Peter Randall, the one star rider the store did sign an endorsement contract with, but who’s unavailable because he’s riding in his native Australia at the moment — and, to get back at Dexter for his martinet ways as Peter’s boss, Peter drafts Dexter into service as his valet so he can boss Dexter around for a change. The idea is that Peter will only appear in the riding togs Detridge and Frome sells and generally promote the store, but naturally a lot of people want the famous Peter Randall to ride their horses — including Cora Withering’s ward Ellen Parker (Anita Louise), who wants him to ride her horse Lady Ellen; and Droopy and Maxie, who want him to ride Jeepers Creepers and are threatening him with the traditional gangsters’ “or else” (“Or else what?” Peter innocently asks) if he doesn’t.

Eventually Droopy and Maxie sabotage Lady Ellen by giving her a diet of apples and water just before the race, which bloats her, and to make it up to Ellen — who in the meantime has decided she’s in love with Peter and, like Joan Fontaine’s character in A Damsel in Distress (a 1937 movie dissed then and now because it co-starred Fred Astaire and someone other than Ginger Rogers, but which is much better than Going Places) she’s aware that he’s a fake but is nonetheless awed by his courage in doing something dangerous and foolhardy just to prove his love for her. The songs that got left over were the marvelous “Jeepers Creepers,” well sung and played by Armstrong and periodically reprised by the Armstrong band and Dick Powell (who sings it to the horse a cappella with a megaphone during the final race) as needed to get Jeepers Creepers to run like a championship horse. (The Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races — the most commercially successfully film they ever had — seems to have started this vogue for movies in which a potentially prize-winning horse needs some weird and rules-straining co-factor to win the big race.) There’s also a gag quartet sung by Dick Powell, Walter Catlett, Allen Jenkins and Harold Huber called “Oh, What a Horse was Charlie,” and a nice production number for Armstrong, Maxine Sullivan (a Black singer who’d just become a major — and unexpected — star for her vocal on Claude Thornhill’s swing version of “Loch Lomond”), the Dandridge Sisters (when they were only in their teens!) and quite a few talented African-Americans with Powell and Louise making periodic vocal interjections. The big number is called “Mutiny in the Nursery” and it’s a series of swing rewrites of classic nursery rhymes and the songs based on them — and if Warners had had more confidence in this project they might have brought in Busby Berkeley (who was still under contract to them) and had him stage the piece on a series of spectacular sets representing the various nursery rhymes instead of just having the whole thing take place on a relatively simple set representing the courtyard in front of the Withering racing stables.

Armstrong is in superb form but the sort of atmospheric direction Berkeley might have given him — or film novice Vincente Minnelli did give him in the big “Public Melody No. 1” number in Paramount’s 1937 film Artists and Models — is sorely missed. Though it would be a stronger movie with a more elaborate big number and with Dick Powell’s big vocals on “They Say” and “Say It With a Kiss” included (even though if they had been, I’d probably be complaining that he didn’t sing the songs anywhere nearly as well as Billie Holiday did!), Going Places is still a fun film, with screenwriters Sig Herzig, Jerry Wald and Maurice Leo plugging a lot of hot wisecracks into that ancient Mapes-Collier plot and Powell and Louise at least personable and appealing, though the romantic sparks don’t fly nearly as brightly as they did when Powell played opposite Keeler or Blondell. Still, Powell’s days at Warners were numbered — yet more evidence of their lack of faith in him was that, though they gave him top billing, it was below the title (actually he and Louise headed a separate card shown after the title credit, and the next was a miscellaneous actors’ card which was topped by Jenkins and Reagan, in that order) — and so were his days as a juvenile musical lead. He kicked around various studios between 1939 (when Warners dropped him after the film Naughty but Nice) and 1944, turning up as a beachcomber in a Paramount musical called Happy-Go-Lucky and a singer who enlists in the Navy to get away from his mobbing teenage fans in the 1941 Abbott and Costello vehicle In the Navy at Universal. In 1944 RKO wanted to sign Powell, thinking that musicals were on their way back, and he insisted that they give him a serious dramatic acting role first — said serious dramatic acting role was in Murder, My Sweet, their superb adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, and suddenly Dick Powell 1.0, musical star, was history and in his place stood, proud and tall (a bit too tall either for Philip Marlowe or his role in Going Places as a jockey, since the real Powell was six feet even and it was difficult for Murder, My Sweet director Edward Dmytryk to get the effect he wanted of Mike Mazurki looming over Dick Powell when Mazurki was only three inches taller), Dick Powell 2.0, film noir icon. — 8/27/14