Saturday, January 24, 2015

Hot Rhythm (Monogram,1944)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Hot Rhythm was a movie I really hadn’t had much hope for, mainly because it was presented by Turner Classic Movies as part of a tribute to director William Beaudine — so notorious for making bad movies that Harry and Michael Medved nominated him as one of the “Worst Directors of All Time” in their book The Golden Turkey Awards. Beaudine had actually begun his career in the 1910’s as a director of comedy shorts (including a spoof of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea called — almost inevitably — 20,000 Legs Under the Sea) and had actually worked his way up by the mid-1920’s to direct features with “A”-list stars like Mary Pickford (her last two films in child roles, Little Annie Rooney and Sparrows, in 1925 and 1926 respectively) before the Depression wiped him out financially and forced him to accept a long succession of jobs in “B”-movies (and then, in the 1950’s, in the graveyard of “B” directors, series TV). He’d still made some good movies in the early sound era, like Three Wise Girls (1932) with Jean Harlow (though its quality came more from its writer, future Academy Award winner Robert Riskin) and The Old-Fashioned Way (1934) with W. C. Fields (but then anybody could make a great movie with Fields — all you had to do was make sure the camera had him in range and in focus, and the soundtrack was recording his dialogue audibly), but by the early 1940’s he was forced to work in the swamp pit of Monogram, making things like The Ape Man (1943) — Bela Lugosi’s all-time worst movie, at least until Ed Wood got hold of him! The stars of Hot Rhythm were Dona Drake, a reasonably attractive young woman singer with a reasonably attractive voice (she wasn’t going to keep Anita O’Day or Peggy Lee up nights worried about the competition, but she was a more than competent band-style singer in the manner of Helen Ward and Martha Tilton with Benny Goodman, Edythe Wright with Tommy Dorsey or Irene Daye with Gene Krupa), and Robert Lowery, tall, gangly and oddly clumsy-looking for an actor who within four years would become the screen’s second Batman (in the 1948 Columbia serial Batman and Robin). I also knew that even though the title was Hot Rhythm, there was likely to be very little actual hot rhythm in the movie; “B” studios like Monogram and PRC often made musicals whose titles promised far swingier songs than the films themselves delivered, and this was no inception: the hottest rhythm we hear in the film is in the very opening shot, in which the camera tracks down the various studios of the “Beacon Record Company” (almost certainly the fictional invention of the film’s writers, Tim Ryan and Charles R. Marion, though there was an actual Beacon recording company owned by entrepreneur Joe Davis, one of whose other imprints was modestly called “Joe Davis Records”!) and the first performer we see is a hot Black boogie-woogie pianist. Alas, the camera keeps tracking and we end up in the studios featuring less exciting, though still capable, white performers.

Surprise! Hot Rhythm, though unoriginal, is at least fun and stylishly done all the way through. The plot is no great shakes; it has to do with Beacon owner Mr. O’Hara (Tim Ryan) and his battle with crooked attorney (is that redundant?) Herman Strohbach (Robert Kent), manager of Tommy Taylor (Jerry Cooper) and His Orchestra, Beacon’s most successful act. Taylor is resisting pressure from his manager and the owner of the nightclub where he works to add a girl singer to his band — Taylor insists he’s doing fine taking the vocals himself (and the first song we see him perform is — surprise! — the old Harry Barris-Gus Arnheim-George Clifford “It Must Be True” from 1930, recorded then by Arnheim’s band with Bing Crosby doing a superb vocal Jerry Cooper in this version is trying his level best to copy). Jimmy O’Brien (Robert Lowery) and Sammy Rubin (the engaging Sidney Miller) are two aspiring songwriters working for Beacon in its lucrative sideline of recording jingles for radio commercials, though instead of coming up with original melodies for these O’Brien simply recycles public-domain tunes like “Clementine” and “Little Brown Jug.” One of the quartet of girl singers at Beacon who record the jingles is Mary Adams (Dona Drake), and O’Brien runs into her — literally — in a hallway and instantly falls in love with her and is determined to build her career. O’Brien decides to make a test record of Mary by tuning a radio to a broadcast of Tommy Taylor’s band and having her overlay a live vocal on his broadcast performance of the song “Where Were You?” (written by Lou and Ruth Herscher and, while hardly as good as the similar but better-known song “Where Are You?” is actually a quite nice ballad, worthy of revival, that showcases Dona Drake’s voice better than the rather forced “swing” numbers she sings later in the movie). Rubin questions whether that would be legal, but O’Brien assures him there’s nothing wrong with it as long as the record is used only as an audition test and is not publicly released. Well, the inevitable happens and the record gets picked up by mistake along with the six instrumentals Taylor recorded that completed his contract with Beacon; it is publicly released, and despite O’Hara’s and his ditzy secretary Polly Kane’s (Irene Ryan, Tim’s real-life wife and later Granny on the TV series The Beverly Hillbillies) attempts to go around and break all the records of it that have been put on sale (which gets them arrested and O’Brien and Rubin have to bail them out), the record gets released, it’s a hit and Herman Strohbach threatens a lawsuit that could put Beacon out of business. O’Hara decides to pull a fast one on Strohbach by claiming that Polly is the mystery singer on the illegal record — she actually filled in on one of the jingles and thought that was the record her boss was talking about — and O’Brien cuts a record with Polly that turns out to be a novelty hit. It all ends happily, of course, with Strohbach publicly humiliated, O’Hara with two huge hits on his hands and O’Brien and Mary together.

Though owing a lot to Manhattan Merry-Go-Round and virtually every other Hollywood movie of the period depicting the recording industry as a bunch of bozos who, if they ever stumble on something the public will buy, do so purely by mistake, Hot Rhythm is fun start to finish and is especially entertaining when Irene Ryan is front and center. It’s obvious she’s channeling Gracie Allen — and the whole crazy business between her and her boss, played by her real-life husband, is all too reminiscent of all those movies in which Gracie played a bizarrely incompetent secretary for her real-life husband, George Burns — but like Burns, Tim Ryan wrote excellent material for his wife and she manages to duplicate Allen’s feat of being surrealistically dumb instead of just ditzily dumb à la yet another great comedienne who worked with her actual husband, Lucille Ball on I Love Lucy. Her best moments are when she gets so confused about various people’s names she starts introducing people to themselves and then quits in frustration and says things like, “Names! They’re so confusing! Why do people have to have them?” One reviewer, who signed himself (herself?) only as “ptb-8” from Australia, made the interesting case that in the mid-1940’s the quality of Monogram’s output was actually improving, mentioning a couple of other musicals, Lady, Let’s Dance and The Sultan’s Daughter, as well as the “B” noirs When Strangers Marry (an early credit for Robert Mitchum) and Dillinger, before the studio got into bigger-budgeted films like the quite good 1946 Suspense (an intriguing mixture of ice-skating musical and Double Indemnity-ish crime drama with Belita as the skater and Barry Sullivan as her corrupt manager and husband, directed by Frank Tuttle and with Belita showing real acting chops that eluded her ice-skating consoeurs Sonja Henie and Vera Hruba Ralston). Dillinger is the only one of these movies I’ve seen and it’s no great shakes as a film (though it has its moments), but it’s certainly arguable that one shouldn’t judge Monogram just by those dreary East Side Kids/Bowery Boys movies, Sam Katzman’s cheapies with Lugosi and the endless Charlie Chan movies with the dying Sidney Toler and his replacement, Roland Winters; though even the best movies of Monogram 2.0 (the incarnation formed by original founder W. Ray Johnston in 1937 after he exited the 1935 merger that had created Republic) don’t equal the films of genuine quality made by Monogram 1.0 (The Phantom Broadcast, Sensation Hunters and the 1934 Jane Eyre with Virginia Bruce and Colin Clive), it’s nice to know the little studio wasn’t entirely a wasteland — and Swing Parade of 1946, with Gale Storm, Louis Jordan and the Three Stooges (!), also counts as well worth watching.