Friday, September 11, 2015

The Great American Broadcast (20th Century-Fox, 1941)

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

The movie we ended up watching last night was the third in sequence in The Alice Faye Collection, volume 2: The Great American Broadcast, a minor but charming 20th Century-Fox production from 1941 that seems to have been planned as a conscious follow-up to Hollywood Cavalcade: “We’ve done the early history of movies — what’s left? How about the early history of radio?” Alas, they didn’t give this film anywhere near the budget of Hollywood Cavalcade; they filmed it in black-and-white instead of color and Faye’s co-star was John Payne instead of Don Ameche (though neither was a particularly great actor and Faye’s best leading man at Fox, Tyrone Power, had been moved to more important assignments and then quit the studio “for the duration” when the U.S. got into World War II and, like Clark Gable and James Stewart, actually served in combat). The film opens in 1919 at the “Rix Martin Airport,” where Rix Martin (John Payne) is offering tourists the chance to “See New York from the Air” for $3 a pop. The business is bombing and the final straw comes when the phone company installs power lines and telephone poles right in his flight path, though Martin befriends one of the installers, Chuck Hadley (Jack Oakie, who actually got billed second, behind Faye but ahead of Payne). After a few fisticuffs between Rix and the installers, Rix offers Chuck a ride back to the city, and when Chuck refuses to go up in Rix’s plane Rix instead drives him in on a motorcycle. There’s a torrential downpour that drenches the two, and when they get back to Chuck’s room at the Clayton residential hotel they undress and wear robes while their regular clothes are drying. Rix sees that Chuck has outfitted his room with a bizarre series of gadgets that at first Rix thinks is a still for making bootleg liquor — a somewhat anachronistic plot point since it’s 1919 and Prohibition hasn’t gone into effect yet. Chuck explains that it’s actually a radio transmitter and he can use it to send his singing voice across the hotel to the room of his girlfriend Vicki Adams (Alice Faye), a nightclub singer who’s out at the moment. Chuck sends Rix to Vicki’s room to listen (via headphones) to Chuck sing “Give My Regards to Broadway” with a phonograph record providing the orchestral backing (aside from one song in which Alice Faye and John Payne duet with him playing piano and an unseen violinist joins in, this film is blessedly free from the “invisible orchestras” that plagued so many classic-era musicals and which Victor Schertzinger so refreshingly mocked in the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope film The Road to Zanzibar).

Rix is impressed and immediately hits on the idea of broadcasting nightly entertainment on radio; people will be able to listen for free and it will encourage them to buy radios. He intends to (in the modern term) “monetize” the programs with contributions from radio manufacturers, though in the end he also gets companies (including the “Tasty Candy Co.” of Cleveland) to advertise on his programs. Rix gets $2,500 from financier Bruce Chadwick (an oddly Anglo name for a character played by very Latino-looking César Romero; ironically I’ve been reading William Mann’s Wisecracker, his biography of Gay actor William Haines, and he claimed that in the 1930’s Romero was considered a “safe” date by Hollywood producers needing public escorts for their wives or girlfriends). His initial broadcast takes place from the roof of the Clayton Hotel in a driving rainstorm and features Vicki Adams and the famous opera star “Madame Rinaldi” (Eula Morgan, making her film debut; she went on to supporting roles in major films like Mrs. Miniver, The Song of Bernadette, Wilson and Charlie Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdouz, in which he played a serial killer of middle-aged widows and she was one of his victims) and her company performing the sextet from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. The gag is that her tenor disappeared on his way to the studio, so Jack Oakie has to “fake” it to fill in. Eventually Rix and Chuck realize that they need some big event to broadcast “live” so enough people will want radios to make their company financially sound, so they hit on doing a live broadcast of the heavyweight championship fight between Jack Dempsey and Jess Willard in Toledo, Ohio on July 4, 1919 even though their equipment can only reach from Toledo as far as Chicago. The fight is represented by stock footage of the real one — though 20th Century-Fox’s technicians were able to slow down the actual fight footage, shot at the 16 frames per second silent speed instead of the sound standard of 24, probably by printing every fourth frame twice (the trick used by Chaplin when he reissued The Gold Rush with music and narration in 1942), so it integrates well into a movie shot at sound speed and doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb the way the bullfight scenes in the 1931 film The Last Flight did.

The broadcast is a success, though it’s briefly interrupted when a tube in Chuck’s transmitter burns out and he has to risk burning his fingers to pull it out and replace it. Alas, on the night of the broadcast Vicki accidentally locks herself into the ladies’ rest room at the train station while they’re waiting to return to New York and Rix rescues her, but in the process he embraces her and they realize they’re in love — much to the discomfiture of Chuck, who walks out on Rix’s operation and accepts an offer from Bruce Chadwick to work for his new radio station, which quickly becomes the top New York station and virtually drives Rix out of business. Chadwick offers Vicki a contract to sing on his station, and she’s unwilling to take it, but agrees after Rix walks out on her (he’s still in love with her, of course, but doesn’t want to keep her tied to him if she can do better elsewhere). Of course — as we could tell from César Romero’s “roo” moustache and overall Latin-lover demeanor — his interest in Vicki is more than just professional. Eventually Chuck puts into practice an idea Rix had back when they were still partners — renting space on long-distance phone lines so a radio broadcast from New York could be heard all over the country at the same time — and on the night of “The Great American Broadcast,” introduced by a theme song sung in stentorian tones by James Newill (who both looks and sounds so much like Douglas MacPhail from MGM’s Babes in Arms I thought it might be he), in what’s essentially a recycling of the ending of the Tyrone Power-Alice Faye vehicle Alexander’s Ragtime Band with the genders reversed, Chuck brings Rix backstage and then has him go on, introducing Rix as the originator of the nationwide network idea and joining him and Vicki for the trio, “I Take to You.” Rix ends up with Vicki, of course, and Chuck is paired off with Chadwick’s secretary (Mary Beth Hughes, wasted as usual; her femme fatale performance in the 1945 film noir The Great Flamarion should have made her a major star, but didn’t), while Chadwick presumably has to content himself with making oodles of money from his national radio network.

The Great American Broadcast is an O.K. entertainment, directed effectively by Archie Mayo (he was at least marginally better than Irving Cummings, who usually got the assignment for Faye’s vehicles) from a committee-written script (Don Ettlinger, Irving Blum, Robert Ellis, Helen Logan and an uncredited Samuel Hoffenstein, who was probably responsible for the mordant quips) and benefiting enormously from the guest stars 20th Century-Fox shoved into it, including the Nicholas Brothers, the Ink Spots and the Wiere Brothers. The Nicholas Brothers you probably already know about — they and the Ink Spots are introduced as porters at the train station in Toledo where Rix and Chuck set up their equipment to broadcast the Dempsey-Willard fight, and they set four suitcases on the floor of the station and do a spectacular dance around and sometimes on top of them that’s easily the best thing in the movie. The Ink Spots were a Black singing group (originally there were four of them, though later incarnations featured just three) who started out as Mills Brothers imitators but eventually developed their own sound, mainly due to the high falsetto tenor of Bill Kenny, who joined in 1936 (two years after the group was founded) and worked out arrangements in which he would sing the first chorus of a song “straight,” then the group’s bass singer, Hoppy Jones, would talk his way through another chorus. This approach, used almost exclusively on ballads, gave the Ink Spots a unique style that was very influential — among the songs Elvis Presley recorded on his first session for Sun Records was a cover of the Ink Spots’ “I Love You Because,” where with his incredible vocal range Elvis was able to do both the tenor lead and the bass rap (later he’d pull the same thing when he covered Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters’ version of “White Christmas,” singing the first chorus like McPhatter and the second like the Drifters’ bass singer, Bubba Thrasher). In The Great American Broadcast the Ink Spots sing “Alabamy Bound” (just before the Nicholas Brothers do their spectacular dance to it) and “I’ve Got a Bone to Pick with You,” a new song by Harry Warren and lyricist Mack Gordon, whose songs for the score are serviceable without being great.

The Wiere Brothers were a trio 20th Century-Fox imported from vaudeville; they were Europeans and had previously made the film Vogues of 1938 (a Walter Wanger musical whose production ran so far over schedule they had to change the title — it was originally Vogues of 1937), and though Leonard Maltin’s entry on the Wiere Brothers in his book Movie Comedy Teams said the Wiere Brothers’ contribution to Vogues wasn’t used in the final cut, it was certainly in the film when I saw it on American Movie Classics in the 1990’s. Evidently Fox thought they were going to be the replacements for the Ritz Brothers, who’d quit the studio and moved over to Universal in 1940, but whereas the Ritzes were manic and energetic (Charles and I watched their spoof The Three Musketeers and he called them a bastard combination of the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges), the Wieres were subtle and witty. They appear twice in The Great American Broadcast, first doing a cheese commercial and then performing as “The Stradivarians,” doing an act as three comic violinists dueling with each other (and at least one of the Wieres was a genuinely talented violinist — just like Jack Benny, who actually knew his way around a fiddle and jammed effectively with Joe Venuti in private but had to play terribly in public to keep up his image); the act is brilliant and incredibly funny, but one can see why the Wieres didn’t make it big as U.S. movie stars and in fact made only two more major film appearances (in the Hope-Crosby Road to Rio in 1947 and Elvis’s vehicle Double Trouble in 1967). The Great American Broadcast isn’t a great film, and its portrait of radio’s early days is a pretty sanitized one (even more than that of the early days of movies in Hollywood Cavalcade!), but it’s comfortable entertainment raised to a higher level when the guest stars are on the screen.