Saturday, May 16, 2015

On the Avenue (20th Century-Fox, 1937)

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

I ran Charles the videotape I’d brought over of the 1937 film On the Avenue, with Dick Powell, Madeleine Carroll, Alice Faye, the Ritz Brothers and a score by Irving Berlin, who actually got billed above the title. It contains some of his greatest songs, too — including two that became standards, “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” and “This Year’s Kisses” (the latter hauntingly sung by Alice Faye — yes, she’s competing with Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Carmen McRae, but it’s one song for which Faye’s foghorn voice actually works as a portrait of disillusioned love; if anything, her version is even gloomier than Billie’s, which was recorded early in her career and features a romantic tenor solo by Lester Young) — along with the novelties “Slumming on Park Avenue” (also recorded by Jimmie Lunceford) and “He Ain’t Got Rhythm” (of which I have three cover versions — a Lunceford version with an Eddie Durham electric guitar solo, a Billie Holiday/Teddy Wilson version and a version by Benny Goodman’s band with Jimmy Rushing as guest vocalist!), and “You’re Laughing at Me,” a forgotten ballad which really doesn’t deserve to be forgotten, as well as a cobwebbed novelty from the Berlin catalogue, “The Girl on the Police Gazette,” which actually suits Dick Powell’s voice better than the more contemporary material in the film! On the Avenue also has a much more sophisticated plot than was common in musical films at the time — though the central premise was pretty obviously stolen from MGM’s nonmusical Libeled Lady a year before — an heiress (Carroll) threatens to sue a musical writer/star (Powell) for defamation after his show includes a burlesque of her life. The two go out on a date, fall in love, and Powell agrees to tone down the sketch — instead, Powell’s jealous co-star (Faye) makes it meaner, thus making it actionable (which it hadn’t been before) and giving Carroll the leverage she needs to force the show’s producer to sell it to her and stage an incredible practical joke on Powell, in which she “papers the house” with 400 friends who walk out as soon as Powell opens his mouth to sing.

In addition to these distinctions — a witty plot line (screenplay by Gene Markey — who also produced — and William Conselman), efficient direction by Roy del Ruth and a great Berlin score — On the Avenue also boasted beautiful black-and-white photography by Lucien Andriot (Charles noted that color was not missed — not with the chiaroscuro backgrounds of the musical numbers setting off Seymour Felix’s dances effectively) and an interesting performance by Powell. His character in this one — a bit more ambiguous and less of a cardboard hero than most of the roles he played in his musical years — actually allowed him to show flashes of the laconicism and arrogance he displayed in his later detective films. The film also had some great supporting players (notably Billy Gilbert and Sig Rumann) and it moved quickly over 89 minutes — perhaps a little too quickly, since the outtakes included a title song as well as a routine with the Ritz Brothers and Alice Faye. The latter was actually shown as a newly rediscovered clip at the beginning of the film (somebody at 20th Century-Fox seems to be going through the archives these days — as I mentioned earlier, during the film preservation festival American Movie Classics, without any explanation at all, followed W. C. Fields’ last starring vehicle from Universal, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, with Fields’ scene from the Fox anthology film Tales of Manhattan, also cut from that film prior to its release), and Charles felt the film would have been stronger if that scene had been left in, since it would have made it clearer why the second version of the sketch burlesquing Madeleine Carroll’s lifestyle was libelous, whereas the first version hadn’t been. [Interestingly, this film was remade as the 1960 Marilyn Monroe vehicle Let’s Make Love, a thoroughly dreary and unimaginative movie, with the genders of the leading characters flip-flopped; Monroe played Dick Powell’s part and Yves Montand, a last-minute replacement for Gregory Peck, played Madeleine Carroll’s!] — 10/21/95


The film was On the Avenue, an item from the Alice Faye boxed set I’d just got at Costco along with a Betty Grable boxed set, partly because they were there (and quite reasonably priced) and partly because in my current dire state of mind watching 20th Century Fox musicals is a good antidote to the blues. On the Avenue is a movie that’s been oddly neglected even though it’s one of the best films of its type from the 1930’s, probably because it’s more of a screwball comedy than a musical, and though it’s included in a boxed set of Alice Faye, she’s really only the second female lead and she’s billed third, under the title, whereas the stars are Dick Powell and Madeleine Carroll. It’s been an oddly elusive movie and one I’ve only had the chance to see three times: the first time in the 1970’s on the Sunday late-afternoon movies from Channel 40 in the Bay Area (also the setting in which I first saw King Kong and most of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals), the second when a VHS tape came out on a series called “Fox Studio Classics” in the 1990’s and I grabbed it, and the third last night when I finally got to watch a DVD. The film credits a restoration team, which may account for how rarely it’s been shown over the years; even with the restoration there were still some sequences where tell-tale scratches could be seen on the screen. On the Avenue is a wild story owing more than a little to MGM’s film Libeled Lady from the year before, with Madeleine Carroll essentially in the Myrna Loy role as a super-rich woman threatening a libel suit — though this time not against a newspaper but against Broadway producer Jake Dibble (the marvelous character comedian Walter Catlett, a delight as usual) and singer-actor Gary Blake (Dick Powell), the star of Dibble’s new revue On the Avenue. The show features a sketch satirizing the home life of Mimi Caraway (Madeleine Carroll) and her father, Commodore Caraway (George Barbier), as well as her Aunt Fritz (Cora Witherspoon, a delightfully dotty character who seems to have stepped out of the George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart play You Can’t Take It With You and performs the same plot function Charlotte Greenwood did in Down Argentine Way and The Gang’s All Here) and her polar-explorer fiancé Frederick Sims (Alan Mowbray). Mimi — played in the sketch by Mona Merrick (Alice Faye), Gary’s leading lady in the show and, she wishes, in his life as well — makes her entrance down a long staircase flanked by a retinue of hunting dogs (the familiar hunting fanfare is heard on the soundtrack) and sits across from her father at a breakfast table so long they need to use a phone to talk to each other. The polar explorer and his two sidekicks are played by the Ritz Brothers, 20th Century-Fox’s comedy team and their apparent attempt to build up a zany brothers-based attraction comparable to the Marx Brothers at MGM and the Three Stooges at Columbia — and they’re amusing even though they lack the wit, sophistication and anarchic energy of the Marxes or the balletic precision of the Stooges’ slapstick; they weakened a lot of Fox’s big musicals in this period because, even though they were funny, they were nowhere nearly as funny as the directors and writers of these films thought they were!

When they see the sketch based on themselves, the Caraways walk out of the theatre in high dudgeon and the Commodore calls his attorney and asks him to sue for libel — only the attorney said that since the Caraways are public figures and the sketch stops short of actually lying about them (something we learn when the “real” Mimi Caraway makes her entrance at home in the morning flanked by the same dogs we saw in the sketch in which Alice Faye “played” her), they have no grounds to sue. Instead Mimi Caraway decides to crash the theatre during the next performance of On the Avenue and confront Gary directly; they end up on a picturesque date in which they stay out all night and Gary has to give up his top hat and overcoat (with tails!) to pay off Mr. Papadopulos (Billy Gilbert), proprietor of one of those diners made from a converted railroad car (seen here, and in The Goldwyn Follies a year later, as a symbol of 99-percenters’ innocence and proletarian virtue), and the driver of a horse-drawn cab in which they’ve been riding all night. Mimi gets Gary to fall in love with her, and Gary agrees to tone down the sketch about her in the show — only the version performed the next night is actually worse than the original; instead of making her entrance flanked by dogs, “Mimi” makes her entrance among a gaggle of pigs; there’s a scene in which the actress playing Aunt Fritz makes her entrance doing a Russian dance (she’d been studying Russian ballet as her latest obsession, one she quickly ditches in favor of learning to be a trapeze artist from “Herr Hanfstaengl,” played with his usual drollery by Sig Ruman); and originally there was supposed to be a scene with the Ritz Brothers making an entrance playing plumbers and attracting the attentions of Mimi, who in this version is played as a thinly disguised nymphomaniac with a “thing” for proletarian men. This deleted scene survives and was included on the VHS tape as well as a “special feature” on the DVD, and I suspect the reason it was deleted was it ran afoul of the Production Code; certainly (as Charles pointed out the last time we watched On the Avenue) it makes the next plot point clearer, which is that even though the first version of the sketch wasn’t legally actionable, this one is. Mimi goes to see Dibble and demands that he either sell her the production or find himself sued and financially ruined, and once she’s the new owner of On the Avenue she hires 400 people to sit in the theatre and walk out once Gary and Mona (who was the one who worked up the nastier version of the Mimi Caraway sketch out of jealousy) start their big romantic duet. The big Broadway columnists write items about how Mimi humiliated Gary, and as a result he disappears and only Mona can find him — in an Italian restaurant (“played” by a set we’ve seen in innumerable movies!), trying to get over his humiliation by getting drunk.

Eventually it ends with a scene that was clearly “borrowed” from It Happened One Night three years earlier but also anticipates The Graduate three decades later: Mona goes to Mimi and tells her Gary is eating his heart out over her, and Mimi bails on her big wedding to the Arctic explorer and runs off with Gary to be married at City Hall. The End. On the Avenue was considered a big movie then, and for it 20th Century-Fox hired America’s most popular songwriter, Irving Berlin, who contributed a dazzling score with several songs that have become standards — notably “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” and “This Year’s Kisses” — as well as some others that were big hits at the time, notably the big novelties “Slumming on Park Avenue” (with Alice Faye wearing a hideous outfit whose top is black with huge white polka dots; later Harry Ritz comes out in drag wearing the same thing, with his brothers mincing around him in a surprisingly homoerotic image for a Code-era film, and though they don’t appear together that way there’s a still photo of Faye and Harry Ritz posing together in the clothes, which Leonard Maltin ran in his book Movie Comedy Teams and captioned, “That outfit doesn’t look good on either of them”) and “He Ain’t Got Rhythm” (set in an observatory with Harry Ritz as an Einstein-esque scientist who, as the lyrics explain, “ain’t got rhythm/So no one’s with him/He’s the loneliest man in town”). They were recorded by all sorts of artists; “He Ain’t Got Rhythm” by Jimmie Lunceford’s band (with Joe Thomas singing and Eddie Durham contributing one of his pioneering solos on electric guitar), Benny Goodman (with the great Jimmy Rushing borrowed from Count Basie to do the vocal), and Billie Holiday with Teddy Wilson; Billie also recorded “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” and “This Year’s Kisses” (the latter in an incomparably beautiful version with Goodman and Lester Young) and Lunceford recorded “Slumming on Park Avenue” with vocals by the famous Lunceford Trio (who were actually sidemen in his band — Lunceford followed the older big-band tradition of having his instrumentalists, if they could sing, double as vocalists, instead of hiring people whose only job it was to sing).

The production numbers are staged by Seymour Felix, who went mostly for best-seat-in-the-theatre views and did not do the Busby Berkeley trick of having the numbers take place over far vaster areas of space than could be contained in a theatre, but whoever was in charge of the singing — and I suspect director Roy Del Ruth (an underrated filmmaker who made the first version of The Maltese Falcon at Warners in 1931 and had already toyed with the screwball/musical blend in Broadway Melody of 1936 at MGM) had something to do not only with that but also with the blessedly restrained singing Powell and Faye do in this movie. Though their voices are recognizable, Powell manages to calm down and project real emotion and feeling instead of just powering his way through each song (Michael Brooks likened his vocal performances in the Busby Berkeley movies at Warners to listening to a dentist’s drill), and Faye also brings a genuine sense of phrasing to her usual foghorn contralto. Faye is also fascinatingly photographed; in at least two scenes she wears a hat with a veil attached, and even when she isn’t so equipped cinematographer Lucien Andriot lights her and angles her close-ups the way Josef von Sternberg and his cinematographers (usually Bert Glennon) shot Marlene Dietrich. On the Avenue is a movie that deserves to be better known; not only does it have great songs by Irving Berlin at the height of his powers and people who knew how to sing them, the plot ( credits Berlin himself with the “original” story from which Gene Markey and William M. Conselman wrote the script) is genuinely charming and effective (and blessedly lacks the nastiness of Berlin’s films Holiday Inn and Blue Skies with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire — even Faye’s character, the most unscrupulous of the bunch, is redeemed by her self-sacrifice at the end), and Del Ruth proves his chops as a director; the all-night date between Powell and Carroll is especially beautifully staged and shot. Ironically, On the Avenue was remade by 20th Century-Fox in 1960 to far less effect as Let’s Make Love, and in that version they flipped the genders of the leads: Marilyn Monroe played Dick Powell’s role and Yves Montand played Madeleine Carroll’s! — 5/16/15