Monday, August 25, 2014

Lullaby of Broadway (Warner Bros., 1951)

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

Last night I watched one of the films Turner Classic Movies was showing as a tribute to a nearly forgotten almost-star, Gladys George, who had a strong career on Broadway and seemed ready for stardom in films when she drank herself out of a potentially major career, becoming notorious for her unreliability and sinking from featured roles to minor parts in major films and leads in “B”’s. Her biggest movie was probably the 1937 version of Madame”X”, which I’ve seen and which, rather cruelly, cast her as a dissolute woman who falls into the gutter via alcohol and drugs (actually absinthe, a liqueur which counts as both alcohol and drug since it has brain-altering properties from its other ingredients). The film I watched last night was Lullaby of Broadway, an odd choice for a Gladys George tribute because even though she’s in it, her role is pretty peripheral. It’s really a vehicle for Doris Day, made in 1951 in the first flush of her movie success, when Jack Warner regarded her as the great white hope that would save his studio and plunked her into one big, splashy musical after another. One of their strategies for making these films quickly and cheaply was to recycle old songs; Warners not only owned the rights to the great songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin that had been used in the famous Busby Berkeley films of the 1930’s (like “Lullaby of Broadway” from Gold Diggers of 1935 and “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me” from 42nd Street) but they’d also bought the Chappell music-publishing company, which gave them the rights to songs by George Gershwin, Cole Porter and other luminaries. The plot is nominally a knockoff of Damon Runyon’s “Madame la Gimp” and the film Frank Capra made from it in 1933, Lady for a Day, with Doris Day playing Melinda Howard (why did they give her such blah character names?), daughter of former Broadway star Jessica “Jessie” Howard (Gladys George). Doris — oops, I mean “Melinda” — has been raised in England and her mom has sent her a long series of letters saying that she’s an enormous Broadway star, but really drink and general unreliability have plunged her from that status. What she’s really doing is singing in a sleazy (as sleazy as Warner Bros. could make it under the Production Code, anyway) club in Greenwich Village, belting out songs like “There’s a Shanty in Old Shanty Town” and “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” in a rough, gravelly voice but an appealing one (and it’s almost certainly Gladys George’s own singing voice). Doris is cruised on the ship taking her from the U.K. to the U.S. by egotistical Tom Farnham (Gene Nelson), who in a gag writer Earl Baldwin pretty obviously ripped off from the meeting between Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Swing Time pretends not to be able to dance so he can get close to Our Heroine, when he’s really a fully accomplished professional dancer. (One reviewer lamented that he never got to be as big a star as Astaire or Gene Kelly, but part of the problem may be that he couldn’t sing; his vocals here were dubbed by one Hal Derwin.)

When she gets to New York the house her mom used to live in, and which she still used as a return address on her letters, is now occupied by Adolph Hubbell (S. Z. Sakall) and his wife Anna (Florence Bates); they really own the place, but their servants, Lefty Mack (Billy DeWolfe) and Gloria Davis (Anne Triola), conceal that fact from Our Doris, whose own talents as an entertainer soon land her the lead in an upcoming Broadway show, Lullaby of Broadway, being produced by George Ferndel (Harvey Stafford) and bankrolled by Adolph Hubbell. The film’s one gag is that Hubbell is giving Doris — oops, Melinda — lavish gifts, including a mink jacket (one thing that really dates this film is the reverence towards fur, as well as the cheery indifference to their surroundings with which its people smoke; now that it’s become routine to ghettoize smokers into smaller and smaller slices of the world, and when people think of fur coats they’re more likely to think of animal abuse than status, these scenes “read” very differently than they did in 1951), which lead people (including, eventually, Mrs. Hubbell) to think he’s giving her all this stuff to get into her pants. Not that we believe it; after all, this is Doris Day we’re talking about! (Doris is playing a character so protective of her virtue — something that would become a trademark of hers — I couldn’t help but recall Oscar Levant’s quip that “I knew Doris Day before she became a virgin.”) Anyway, it ends the way you expect it to, with Doris learning the truth about her mom from a reporter trying to interview her about Anne Hubbell’s divorce suit against her husband, which is naming Melinda as co-respondent; eventually everything ends happily, the Hubbells reunite, Melinda pairs up with Tom Farnham — who’s her co-star in the big show — and she returns from the boat she was about to take to go back to England to play in her show on opening night, and it’s a huge success.

Along the way Doris Day gets to sing some of the best items from the Great American Songbook, including Gershwin’s “Somebody Loves Me” and Porter’s “Just One of Those Things,” and there’s an elaborate final number based on the title song in which director David Butler copies the famous opening shot of Busby Berkeley’s original staging of “Lullaby of Broadway” in Gold Diggers of 1935 — Doris Day’s face is just a pinprick in the middle of an otherwise black screen, only as the camera tracks closer to it, it grows in size until it fills the screen. Alas, the rest of the number is pretty ordinary; we get a lot of shots of the proscenium of the stage this is taking place on — serving us notice that Butler and his choreographer, Eddie Prinz, aren’t going to pull the Berkeley trick of having the number take place over acres of space instead of the limited room available on a real stage — and a lot of chorus girls clumping around behind Day and Nelson. When I first saw this film in the 1980’s I was very disappointed that they hadn’t got Busby Berkeley to stage the numbers and had him re-create the marvelous original choreography of “Lullaby of Broadway” in color — though Doris Day’s voice may not have had the sepulchral depth of Wini Shaw’s she was a very capable singer with a surprising feel for jazz (maybe not so surprising since she did begin her career with a big band, Les Brown’s), and it would have been marvelous to see her go through a color version of the famous Berkeley staging of the song instead of the relatively dull Prinz staging we actually get. Still, Lullaby of Broadway is a nice movie — not a world-beater but reliably entertaining, a suitable vehicle for its star, a luscious reminder of the days when color films were actually colorful (this is one of the last gasps of three-strip Technicolor at its vibrant, if somewhat garish, best) and also a surprisingly good showcase for Gladys George — even if the filmmakers were pulling the same nasty trick on her previous moviemakers had done with John Gilbert and John Barrymore: casting them as people destroying themselves with drink when they were doing that for real!