Friday, December 4, 2015

Follow Thru (Paramount, 1930)

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

Two nights ago Charles and I saw a 1930 musical called Follow Thru (that’s the actual spelling), made by Paramount based on a wildly popular musical (it originally ran for 401 performances) by the songwriting team of Buddy de Sylva and Lew Brown (words) and Ray Henderson (music) and book writer Laurence Schwab, with Schwab co-directing the film with Lloyd Corrigan from a script adapted from the original by Corrigan and Frank Mandel, both of whom were uncredited. What made this film especially interesting is it’s one of the few films made entirely in two-strip Technicolor for which the color version survives — and though virtually the only prominent colors are green and red (well, for an outdoor musical set largely on a golf course green is about the only color you really do need!), the color is watchable and really improves on a movie that otherwise has its moments but also its longueurs. The film starts in 1910, when “Dinty” Moore (Don Tompkins), a golf pro at a country club is solemnly informed that his wife is about to give birth to their child, and he’s so sure the kid will be a great golfer he’s even bought a set of miniature clubs for him to play with. Then he’s informed that the “boy” turned out to be a girl, and he takes the news with a shrug of his shoulders and a resigned comment, “Well, girls play golf, too!” The story then flashes forward to 1930, when the girl has grown up to be Lora Moore (Nancy Carroll) — though throughout the film I was assuming the more common spelling “Laura” — and she falls in love at first sight with a visiting golf pro, Jerry Downes (Charles “Buddy” Rogers, third and longest-lasting husband of Mary Pickford — they made a movie together in 1927 called My Best Girl but didn’t become a couple until 1935, after she’d divorced Douglas Fairbanks). The problem is not only that Downes is there to coach her upper-class opponent in the big tournament, Ruth Van Horn (Thelma Todd in an unusual and not entirely successful role for her), but he’s under ongoing contract to his friend Jack Martin (Jack Haley), who’s hired him to be his golf pro permanently so he can’t take on other clients without Jack’s approval.

Jack is scared of women — when he meets one he might actually be attracted to he does a singularly ugly involuntary routine of batting his eyes and making gulps with his mouth like a (literal) fish out of water — and Haley (who was also in the original stage production) portrays this by making Jack a screaming queen, so much so that when he and Jerry start talking about kissing girls I half expected Jack to bat his eyes at Jerry and say, “Kiss me.” Previously Jack went to a masquerade party, whereupon he let a girl get him drunk and steal his ring, a family heirloom that the Martins have had for so many generations Jack’s father will disinherit him if he can’t recover it. The girl who boosted Jack’s ring is, of course, on hand in the main action; she’s Angie Howard (Zelma O’Neal, also in the original stage version, and she and Haley steal the film out from under the two leads), Lora’s caddy, and she’s convinced that Jack promised to marry her and is determined to make him make good on that. Also on hand is an older guy named J. C. Effingham (Eugene Pallette, about midway since his playing a romantic lead for D. W. Griffith in Intolerance and the bloated, gravel-voiced apparition he was in his later character parts) whose plot function is not altogether clear. The film is rather dull to watch during the long sequences on the golf course, but the numbers at least somewhat redeem it even though the dance duets between Haley and O’Neal on “Button Up Your Overcoat” (one of the three original De Sylva, Brown and Henderson songs retained from the stage version — as was standard practice well into the 1940’s, Paramount commissioned new songs from other writers and stuck them in) and between Rogers and Carroll on “A Peach of a Pair” (a nice pun courtesy of songwriters Richard Whiting — Margaret Whiting’s father — and George Marion, Jr.) were truncated to a few steps before the movie cut away from the good stuff back to that boring plot. The plot, in case you were wondering, is that Lora is determined to avenge herself against Ruth Van Horn for beating her in a tournament at the start of the film, and with the support of Jerry Downes and his putting tips she ultimately wins a rematch and puts the rich bitch in her place.

Along the way we get something of a production number to the De Sylva-Brown-Henderson song “I Want to Be Bad” — great flames spout up from the dance floor and the chorus line appears alternately as devils and angels — which is the best thing in the movie. Follow Thru is almost miraculous in its survival — about the only other full-length two-strip musicals that actually survive in color are Samuel Goldwyn’s dazzling Whoopee (preserved because Goldwyn, more than most movie moguls, appreciated that his films were his legacy and should be saved — indeed, his son remembers dad walking him through the film vaults and telling him that that was his inheritance) and Universal’s The King of Jazz (which I’ve read online is in the middle of a major restoration project that has proved so complicated it may be finished before I die, but I’m not holding my breath for it). According to film historian Richard Barrios, Technicolor retained ownership of the physical prints of their movies and had the two-strip prints delivered to them and destroyed en masse when the three-strip process was introduced — but somehow Follow Thru escaped the auto-da-fé and survived in color. In black-and-white it would be just another dull musical from the early days of sound, but in color it’s actually rather fun even though one can see the heavy makeup used to make the characters look credible in the color process. Nancy Carroll in particular looks like a china doll, with huge blotches of rouge on her cheeks — but that’s still better than seeing the two-strip films that now exist only in black-and-white, which look like all the actors, including the males, are wearing heavy black lipstick. One reason Ethel Waters comes off so much better in On with the Show than the white performers — aside from her being by far the best singer in the cast — is the print-down from two-strip to black-and-white did her dark skin less damage than it did to the fairer complexions of the white performers!