Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Coney Island (20th Century-Fox, 1943)

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

Last night I was in the mood for a big, splashy musical, and I more or less found one in Coney Island, a 1943 vehicle for Betty Grable at 20th Century-Fox, which had the expected virtues — lots of singing and dancing for Grable (the studio had just pulled the celebrated publicity stunt of having her legs insured for $1 million by Lloyd’s of London, and not surprisingly they had her do a lot of performing in short-short outfits to get maximum exposure for those literally million-dollar legs!) and Fox’s usual neon-bright Technicolor — but also a lot of problems. Like Holiday Inn, the classic musical made at Paramount the year before, Coney Island’s plot (the screenwriter was George Seaton, who three years later would write and direct Grable in one of her best films, The Shocking Miss Pilgrim) is an actively unpleasant story of two men playing mean, vicious and stupid tricks on each other in order to get into the pants of the female lead. And whereas at least in Holiday Inn the two men were Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire and they got to sing and dance to incredible songs by Irving Berlin (when I watch Holiday Inn I hold my nose through the plot portions and let myself be dazzled by the great stars doing those great songs), in Coney Island neither of Grable’s would-be boyfriends sing or dance. The story begins in Joe Rocco’s (Cesar Romero) club on Coney Island — depicted here essentially as a giant carnival midway (anyone who thinks of Coney Island as primarily a beach town is going to be sorely disappointed — there isn’t a shot of an actual beach, or even a studio simulacrum of one, anywhere in this film!). He’s running a rather tacky show whose only real asset is his girlfriend and female star, Kate Farley (Betty Grable), who’s showcased in a series of typically raucous songs for the period (the film is nominally set in 1900 but many of the songs were from the next two decades after that, and the four new songs by Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger are mostly in a similar style).

The club is crashed by Eddie Johnson (George Montgomery, annoying as usual, though at least in this role his character is supposed to be annoying and therefore his nasty streak is rather appropriate), who was once a business partner of Rocco until one night, when they each bet their shares of a traveling circus against each other in a poker game. Rocco presented three aces and won sole ownership of the show, but then Johnson discovered the cards he’d hidden to substitute the aces. Rocco sold the circus he’d won by cheating and used the money to open his Coney Island club, which is frequently visited by a drunken old Irishman, Finnigan (Charles Winninger — a refugee from considerably better musicals — including the 1936 Show Boat and the 1939 Babes in Arms, even though his casting as Mickey Rooney’s father in Babes in Arms makes overacting seem like a genetic trait!), who interrupts whatever other entertainment is going on to lead his fellow patrons in a sing-along of “Who Put the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder?” (It was probably Mr. Murphy just before he walked out on her!) Johnson blackmails his way into half-ownership of Rocco’s club after Finnigan is hit in a bar fight and hits his head on the bar rail — he gets Finnigan out of town and convinces Rocco that his punch killed the old guy — then insists on remodeling the show so it will be classier and showcase Kate in a way that will attract upper-class patrons. After this plot point is established the next shot we see is Kate Farley doing a duet on “Pretty Baby” (a song composed by a Black Gay singer-pianist named Tony Jackson, whom Jelly Roll Morton remembered from their days in New Orleans) with a singing, dancing horse (actually two people in a singularly obvious “horse” costume), and while the scene is entertaining (and “Pretty Baby” is by far the best song in the film, new or old!) it hardly seems to represent the step up in Kate’s career George Seaton’s script tells us it is.

Johnson wants to take Kate out of Rocco’s club into a new one he’s building on Coney Island — of course he also wants to take Kate out of Rocco’s arms into his! — and Rocco tries to forestall this by bringing Broadway producer Bill Hammerstein (Matt Briggs) to the club to discover Kate and sign her for one of his shows. (Bill Hammerstein really existed; he was the son of Oscar Hammerstein I and the father of Oscar Hammerstein II — yes, Oscar Hammerstein II was actually the grandson, not the son, of I — and the real Hammerstein II would write a series of successful musicals, and of the seven shows he wrote with Richard Rodgers that were filmed, six of them were made at 20th Century-Fox.) Only Johnson gets wind of Hammerstein’s impending arrival and takes Kate for a walk on Coney Island so she’ll miss the show Hammerstein is scouting and her far less talented comic-relief sidekick Dolly (Phyllis Kennedy) will go on in her place. Of course, Hammerstein discovers her anyway — she goes to his Victoria Theatre to audition and Johnson substitutes himself for Hammerstein’s audition pianist, though for once he behaves like a nice guy and doesn’t crab her act by deliberately playing badly as we were expecting him to — and ultimately Kate gets the job with Hammerstein and gets a big, preposterous dance number called “There’s Danger in a Dance,” which begins with Kate singing and dancing with a chorus line of men in top hats and red-lined black capes. The original audiences for this film probably didn’t get the parallel, but today one can’t help but wonder, “Why is she dancing with a chorus line of Draculas?” And the night after watching the film The Delightful Rogue, whose big song is called “Gay Love,” Charles and I couldn’t help but be amused by the line “a gay romance” in the “Danger in a Dance” song — looking at the chorus boys Charles joked, “There’s probably a lot of Gay romance going on behind her!” The film segues into a blackface number with four minstrels doing a routine that starts as the spiritual “Deep River” and goes downhill from there (earlier there’d been a blackface number featuring Betty Grable called “Miss Lulu from Louisville” in which she was made up to be about the color of Lena Horne), and the number (choreographed by Fred Astaire’s assistant, Hermes Pan — he worked out the fabled Astaire-Rogers dances with the Master and it was he, not Rogers, who first had to do everything Astaire did only backwards and in high heels; alas, without Astaire to work with Pan was a pretty simple-minded choreographer and one aches for what Busby Berkeley could have done with Betty Grable and these songs) just sort of spirals on and gets more pretentious and less entertaining as it continues interminably.

Coney Island ends with Johnson and Kate together despite one final curve ball thrown by Rocco — Kate is about to marry Johnson when a man shows up from the bank Johnson has applied for a loan for his startup capital and “accidentally” lets slip to Kate that Johnson’s backing for his new club is dependent on her turning down Hammerstein’s offer and signing a long-term contract as Johnson’s star attraction, but later it’s revealed that the “banker” was an actor Rocco hired to keep Kate from marrying Johnson — and by this time both Charles and I were convinced Grable’s character would be better off without either of these creeps and I joked, “Girl, why don’t you dump them both and marry a jazz trumpeter?” (Later in 1943 Grable did exactly that in real life; she married Harry James.) Overall it’s a film that’s entertaining enough but could have been worlds better if Seaton and the journeyman director, Walter Lang, could have made the romantic rivalry less nasty and given Grable songs that showed her off better instead of being either too raucous or too pretentious to suit her. Not that that mattered; Coney Island was a mega-hit and Betty Grable renegotiated her 20th Century-Fox contract and became the highest-paid female entertainer in the world (replacing the previous record-holder, Bette Davis!); it also got remade as Wabash Avenue in 1950. Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne told a bizarre anecdote about the two films in his outro: he said that during the filming of Wabash Avenue Grable told Victor Mature (playing the George Montgomery role) that the story seemed vaguely familiar, like it was a remake of a movie she had dim memories of having seen — and Mature had to remind her that she’d not only seen but had been in the original version!