Thursday, September 3, 2015

Broadway Gondolier (Warner Bros., 1935)

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

The “feature” Charles and I watched two nights ago was Broadway Gondolier, a quite interesting Warner Bros. musical from 1935 that turned out to be stylish and genuinely entertaining even when the principals (or the musical guest stars) weren’t singing. The early signs weren’t good — Dick Powell was the star, though billed below the title on a miscellaneous card that also included Joan Blondell (two of whose real-life husbands were involved with the production; her first husband, cinematographer George Barnes, photographed it, and her second husband, Powell —whom she married September 19, 1936, over a year after this film was made and just two weeks after she and Barnes divorced — was her co-star), Adolphe Menjou (whose TCM “Summer Under the Stars” day it was when I recorded this) and Louise Fazenda (usually a raucous Marie Dressler type but here cast as a cheese heiress who plays surprisingly dignified and sophisticated comedy). The director was the usually hacky Lloyd Bacon and the script was written by a committee; Sig Herzig, E. Y. Harburg (better known as a lyric writer and Harold Arlen’s long-time collaborator, notably on The Wizard of Oz) and former Lubitsch collaborator Hans Kräly were credited with the story, Herzig and Warren Duff with the script, and lists additional uncredited contributions by Julius J. Epstein and future Warners producer Jerry Wald. (Another writer, Francesco Maria Piave, is also listed because in the 19th century he wrote the libretto for Verdi’s opera Rigoletto, excerpts from which — notably “La donna è mobile” and the Quartet — are heard here.)

Also there aren’t any big spectacular production numbers by Busby Berkeley, Bobby Connolly or anyone else — not that we miss them, as things turned out, because Broadway Gondolier turned out to be a nice mixture of screwball comedy and musical. Dick Purcell (Dick Powell’s character name and later the screen name of another Warner Bros. player) is a New York cabdriver with ambitions to be an opera singer. His vocal coach, Eduardo de Vinci (Adolphe Menjou, cast according to the Hollywood one-accent-is-as-good-as-another tradition), of course is horrified that the man he is grooming for an operatic career might sink so low as to sing on the radio, but that’s the career he goes after — especially after he meets and falls in love at first sight with Alice Hughes (Joan Blondell), receptionist at the UBC network. She tries to get him an audition with E. V. Richards (Grant Mitchell), producer of the Flagenheim Cheese hour, but the imperious Mrs. Flagenheim (Louise Fazenda) doesn’t wait for him to show up and so he doesn’t get the job. Alice scores him a gig making animal noises on a children’s program, but he gets fed up with the whole schtick and angrily chews out the listeners as “brats” and gets fired instantly. (This plot twist anticipates by a decade the famous one in which Nila Mack lost his popular “Let’s Pretend” children’s radio show after one broadcast in which he signed off and then, unaware that his mike was still on, said, “Well, that ought to hold the little bastards for a while.”) After a ghastly country-music number Mrs. Flagenheim concludes that there’s no suitable radio talent in the U.S. and she’ll have to go to Italy to look for a singer classy enough to give “romance” to her cheese products. Richards and Alice accompany her, and Dick stows away on the boat and works his way across washing dishes in the ship’s kitchen (and puts off his fellow dishwashers by practicing opera as he works), and when he meets up with de Vinci, who’d gone to Italy earlier hoping he still had contacts in the Italian opera world he could use to get Dick a job, de Vinci manages to get him a job as a gondolier. When he finds out what a gondolier does, Dick says, “Can’t I ever get away from driving a cab?,” but soon he relents and, of course, Alice, Richards and Mrs. Flagenheim turn up in his gondola, hear him sing (in a marvelously Lubitsch-esque sequence in which the people watching as the gondola passes become his back-up singers) and sign him at once.

De Vinci, acting as his manager, passes him off as Italian “Ricardo Purcelli” and wins him $500 a week, and of course he’s an immediate sensation on the Flagenheim Cheese Hour (where he shares the stage with Ted Fio Rito and his band and the Four Mills Brothers, playing themselves — and I suspect this was the Mills Brothers’ last film appearance before John Mills, Jr., the one who played guitar as well as sang, died young of tuberculosis and was replaced by their father, John Mills, Sr.). Only his new-found success is threatened when Alice’s former boyfriend, Cliff Stanley (William Gargan), a writer at UBC who does the “Buck Gordon” science-fiction serial and always relies on Alice to figure out how to get Buck Gordon out of the latest cliffhanger (“Just have him jump!” Charles yelled at the screen. “It works for Republic!”), threatens to “out” Dick as an American cabdriver if Alice doesn’t jilt Dick and come back to him — only the radio audience likes Dick so much they don’t care where he comes from, they demand to keep hearing that voice, and in the nick of time de Vinci and Alice run him down where he’s been hiding and bring him back to the station to continue his program. The End. It may not seem like much in synopsis — and there’ve been any number of movies, from the Columbia Let’s Fall in Love and its remake, Slightly French, to Jessie Matthews’ marvelous series of British musicals (Evergreen, First a Girl — an earlier version of Victor/Victoria with Matthews’ real-life husband, Sonnie Hale, in the Robert Preston role — and It’s Love Again, and one reviewer added more recent films like Tootsie and Chicago to the list), in which the aspiring star has to enter and continue an outrageous masquerade to achieve fame, but the writing committee enlivened it with a lot of clever wisecracks (notably Alice’s statement about crooners: “They don’t get married, they only get divorced”) and Bacon’s usually slovenly direction turned quite stylish this time around. Broadway Gondolier is a pleasant surprise and shows that Dick Powell 1.0 (the musical star, as opposed to Dick Powell 2.0, the film noir icon) could make a genuinely pleasant, entertaining and even sophisticated movie without having to serve time as the center of Busby Berkeley’s extravaganzae.