Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Paramount on Parade (Paramount, 1930)

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

Two nights ago Charles and I watched an uneven but quite entertaining movie, Paramount on Parade, a 1930 all-star musical revue from Paramount studios (as the title suggests) that was meant to compete with the brief spate of all-star revues from other studios: MGM’s Hollywood Revue of 1929, Warner Bros.’ The Show of Shows and Universal’s The King of Jazz (in which Universal’s rather meager talent list was bolstered by the enormous — literally and figuratively — figure of Paul Whiteman leading what with one exception was his finest band: Bix Beiderbecke, the exception, had drunk his way out of Whiteman’s ranks by then but Frank Trumbauer, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang and the other stars of the Whiteman-Bix bands were still there). A “revue,” so spelled, was Broadway-speak for a musical with no plot, not even the threadbare semblance of one that drove most shows in the 1920’s; it was just a succession of songs, comedy sketches, spectacular dance numbers and more songs, comedy sketches and spectacular dance numbers, repeating until the big, splashy finale that was supposed to send audiences out of the theatre laughing, humming the big tune at the end and telling their friends how wonderful the show was so they would see it, too. Paramount on Parade came late in the cycle, when audiences were just beginning to get bored with the endless procession of musicals, most of them rather crudely filmed renditions of famous stage shows or movie “originals” that might as well have been stage shows, and it’s usually considered to be the wittiest and most sophisticated of the bunch —not surprisingly given that, though no fewer than 11 directors are listed on the page for the film, only one writer is credited: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, writer-director of All About Eve and many quite good films whose brittle dialogue is the best thing about them. Paramount on Parade reflects the breadth of Paramount’s contract list — only MGM could rival it and Paramount’s filmmakers made far better use of their players here than MGM did in Hollywood Revue of 1929 — even though the film we have is only about two-thirds of what audiences got to see in 1930. The reason is that, unlike MGM and Warners, Paramount sold off their entire output up to 1949 to MCA’s TV division — and when MCA acquired Universal Studios in 1962 the rights to all the films ended up at Universal, leading to weird releases like the recent Universal Rarities boxed set sold by TCM, containing four films all of which were originally Paramount productions. (I forlornly wished for a Universal Rarities, Volume 2 that would contain similarly unjustly neglected 1930’s films made by Universal itself.)

Originally about one-third of Paramount on Parade was filmed in two-strip Technicolor, but since TV in the 1950’s was still black-and-white exclusively, when preparing it for TV MCA simply stripped out the color sequences and released the black-and-white portions. Only recently have some of the original color scenes been rediscovered, and apparently a partially restored version of the film with the surviving color sequences rests in the vaults at UCLA, whose Fafners have added it to the mouth-watering items in their collection (like the full-color version of the 1930 musical The Vagabond King) they say they’re preserving but aren’t letting us see. As a result of the crude hackery (even worse than the butchery RKO’s successor, General Tire and Rubber — which owned some TV stations and wanted movies for them — wreaked on the 1930 film Dixiana; since its first seven reels were in black-and-white and its last three in two-strip Technicolor, they simply lopped off the color reels, slapped a 1950’s RKO “End” title on the black-and-white portions, and thus ended the film with the villain challenging the hero to a duel; fortunately the color footage survived and the film as currently circulating includes it, and that’s the stuff you want to see because for the most part Dixiana is a dull, lumbering musical but it contains the only extant footage of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in color, doing a solo version of the famous staircase routine he later did with Shirley Temple in The Littlest Rebel, and while the great Bojangles is on screen the film takes off and flies). MCA-TV seems to have printed at least one color sequence from Paramount on Parade in black-and-white — the spectacular finale featuring Maurice Chevalier as a chimney sweep doing an elaborate production number (including a couple of Busby Berkeley-style overhead shots with the chorus dancers in kaleidoscope formation; these shots occur in a number of early musicals, including Hollywood Revue of 1929 and the 1929 version of Rio Rita, before Berkeley ever got to Hollywood to make the great two-strip Technicolor musical Whoopee with Eddie Cantor) to the song “Sweeping the Clouds Away” by Sam Coslow — whose lyrics, with their references to rainbows, seem designed for color.

Because most of the color sequences were simply lopped out of the extant film, we get at least two introductions of numbers — one a gondola sequence with tenor Nino Martini (later the star of Rouben Mamoulian’s great Mexico-set gangster spoof The Gay Desperado) and one a hunting sequence with Gary Cooper (in a musical?) and Fay Wray — where we get to see the intro but not the number itself. Instead, right after we see Cooper, Wray and director Edmund Goulding (the only one of the 11 credited directors actually attributed to a specific sequence — the others are Dorothy Arzner, Otto Brower, Victor Heerman, Edwin S. Knopf, Rowland V. Lee, Ernst Lubitsch, Lothar Mendes, Victor Schertzinger, A. Edward Sutherland and Frank Tuttle — though Clive Hirschhorn’s book The Hollywood Musical says Lubitsch directed all the scenes with Chevalier, and that seems likely to me) introduce the hunting number, the next item is Clara Bow (alas, not getting a chance to flash that magnificent head of red hair in color!) doing a song called “I’m True to the Navy Now.” Bow is actually quite good — much better than Ruth Chatterton, who gets drafted into service with a song called “My Marine,” an obvious knockoff on the famous French song “My Man” that Fanny Brice sang unforgettably in Ziegfeld Follies of 1921 and nowhere near as good as the original. (Fredric March is equally wasted as one of her Marine boyfriends.) Bow gets so far into the spirit that one wonders why Paramount, whose “suits” were at their wit’s end in terms of figuring out how to keep this great silent star going in the talkies, didn’t put her into a full-fledged musical. (Marlene Dietrich, who was supposed to host a German-language version of Paramount on Parade and reportedly shot a scene for this one with Sternberg directing, would do a much similar song called “That Man’s in the Navy” for her 1940 Universal film Seven Sinners; and Carmen Miranda would film her own version of “I’m True to the Navy Now” for her film Doll Face, only Paramount owned the publishing rights and wouldn’t let 20th Century-Fox use the song in a film — indeed, I suspect the ukase from Paramount came down before the number was even finished, because the version we have as a bonus item on the Doll Face DVD is simply a master shot with no close-ups.)

The film opens — after a batch of top-hatted males doing the title song (which was inexplicably revived in the mid-1940’s by the combined orchestras of Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey for a V-Disc session) with Charles “Buddy” Rogers (Mary Pickford’s third husband) and Lillian Roth doing a nice comic duet in front of an elaborate painted backdrop of an old-fashioned clock; the song is almost inevitably called “Anytime’s the Time to Fall in Love” and the duet is clever and engaging. The next routine is “Murder Will Out,” a spoof of detective mysteries that, as Charles noted, anticipated Neil Simon’s film Murder by Death by over four decades: Sherlock Holmes (Clive Brook in his second of three appearances as the great detective, which whets one’s appetite to see his two films as a serious Holmes) and Philo Vance (William Powell) try to talk Sgt. Heath (Eugene Pallette) out of arresting Dr. Fu Manchu (Warner Oland) for murder — and Fu Manchu, desperate to get someone to believe that he’s a killer, shoots Holmes and Vance to death, then escapes from Heath’s handcuffs to disappear into the night. There’s also a number in which two dress shoes and a box miraculously contain Nancy Carroll (a silent star who got some plum roles in early musicals, including The Dance of Life — in a role Barbara Stanwyck had originated on stage under her real name, Ruby Stephens, in the play Burlesque — because of her strong dancing skills) and Abe Lyman’s orchestra in a song called “Dancing to Save Your Soul.” Jack Oakie and Zelma O’Neal get to do a number in a girls’ gym called “I’m in Training for You” — as in his own film Sea Legs, Oakie turns out to be a quite good comic singer — and Helen Kane, the original “Boop-Boop-a-Doop” girl and (inevitably) the first person to voice Betty Boop in the cartoons, does a sequence as a history teacher telling her students that boop-boop-a-doop is the secret of all human events.

Not surprisingly, Chevalier’s three sequences are the high points of the film: one is a supposed illustration of the origins of the apache dance, with him and Evelyn Brent as a feuding couple who shed more and more clothes as they argue and beat each other, to the point where the director cuts away to the piles of clothes as they get higher and higher (this must be Lubitsch directing!); one is a park scene in which Chevalier plays a Paris gendarme supervising the necking couples on the park benches; and one is the big finale. It’s interesting that in at least two of the three scenes he’s in, Chevalier is playing a proletarian; though in his 1950’s comeback he was merchandised as an upper-class French boulevardier his real-life origins were decidedly working-class, and in his Paramount films in the early 1930’s (when he was briefly the number one male movie star in the U.S.!) he alternated between playing aristocratic and proletarian roles — in his best film (indeed, in my not-so-humble opinion the greatest musical ever made, period), Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932), he’s playing a tailor forced to pose as an aristocrat to win the heart of genuine aristocrat Jeanette MacDonald — and he’s great in both. Paramount on Parade is certainly an uneven movie, but at its best it’s considerably more interesting than The Show of Shows or The Hollywood Revue of 1929; ah, if only we could still see all of it!