Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Music in the Air (Fox Film Corporation, 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Music in the Air, which Turner Classic Movies was showing as part of their salute to expatriate German filmmakers who left when Hitler took power (or shortly thereafter) and settled in Hollywood. Music in the Air was a 1934 film by (pre-20th Century-)Fox, originally planned at Fox’s short-lived Paris studio (where German expat Fritz Lang made the marvelous 1933 film Liliom, with Charles Boyer starring in an adaptation of the same Hungarian play that later produced the plot for the musical Carousel) but quickly relocated to the U.S. once Fox decided that their European production effort was a money-loser and shut it down. It was based on a 1932 Broadway musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, and it has two other points of distinction: it was Gloria Swanson’s last film in her long run as a star, from her debut at Essanay in 1915 through her tenures at Triangle, Paramount and United Artists to this one-shot film at Fox. (At the time she made this she was at least nominally under contract to Irving Thalberg at MGM, but she never actually made a film with him and the contract was canceled after Thalberg’s death in 1936.) During the next 16 years Swanson made only one movie — Father Takes a Wife at RKO in 1941, co-starring Adolphe Menjou and Desi Arnaz (she was a woman who married widower Menjou and had to deal with the opposition of his grown kids) — until her great comeback role in Sunset Boulevard, filmed in 1949 and released in 1950. The other point of distinction is that not only were the producer (Erich Pommer) and director (Joe May) of Music in the Air German expats, so was one of the screenwriters, Billy Wilder (his first name was spelled “Billie,” German-style, in his credit), who a decade and a half later would be one of the most successful directors in Hollywood and would make Sunset Boulevard. Vividly directed by May — who begins the movie with a long-shot of a mountain (remember that in the classic film era mountaineering movies were a staple of German filmmaking and were the same reliable crowd-drawers Westerns were in the U.S.) and has the film’s title waft in as if being blown in by a mountain breeze — and quite well acted by a quartet of principals, Music in the Air is a quite stylish film and a welcome rediscovery even though one of the two hit songs from the stage version, “The Song Is You,” was left on the cutting-room floor. (The other, “I’ve Told Ev’ry Little Star,” is included and nicely sung by Swanson and her co-star, John Boles.)

The film takes place in Bavaria, alternating between Munich and a little village 40 miles away as the crow flies and 60 miles by the hiking trail through the mountains which a group of mountain climbers including local schoolteacher Karl Roder (Douglass Montgomery, clad in lederhosen that do quite a good job of showing off his “manhood” and even allowed to show a patch of chest hair — usually chest hair was a bozo no-no in classic Hollywood films; movie males rarely got to show bare chests at all and if they did, either they had no chest hair au naturel or they were obliged to shave it) climb to get to the big bad city of Munich. Roder is also an aspiring writer of song lyrics and his composer is Dr. Walter Lessing (Al Shean, the Marx Brothers’ uncle and the only member of the Broadway cast who repeated his role in the film), who in the opening scene hears a bird warble a tune (Roder caught one of his students hiding the bird in his schooldesk, confiscated it and set it free), writes it down and it becomes “I’ve Told Ev’ry Little Star.” Roder is also dating Lessing’s daughter Sieglinde (June Lang), and the three of them end up in Munich where Roder and Lessing successfully pitch their song to music publisher Ernst Weber (Reginald Owen) for inclusion in a new operetta. The only problem is that the real-life couple who are supposed to star in the operetta, Frieda Hotzfelt (Gloria Swanson) and Bruno Mahler (John Boles), are fighting each other like cats and dogs. What’s more, Bruno is not only the male lead in the show, he’s also its writer, and Frieda’s prima donna antics are pissing him off so much he’s not inclined either to write or act in the new production despite the intense deadline pressure, since the theatre’s manager tells them the operetta has to be produced within days. The gimmick is that when Roder and Sieglinde show up, Frieda and Bruno regard them as delectable potential lovers and use the youngsters to make each other jealous — creating an eerie anticipation of Sunset Boulevard, the other Wilder-Swanson collaboration. Though it’s a comedy, Gloria Swanson is playing a surprisingly similar role: a temperamental star on the thin edge of sanity who successfully seduces a younger man despite his queasy sense of guilt and the presence of an age-peer alternate girlfriend for him.

The plot of Music in the Air is pretty much the old-fashioned fish-out-of-water story, though there’s also a strong similarity to The Guardsman in the presence of a real-life showbiz couple whose members are pathologically jealous of each other — rightly so, it turns out, as Frieda makes a bee-line for the innocent young Karl, up to and including offering him a trip to Venice she decides to take in the middle of the show’s rehearsals (though his guilt over the whole relationship, anticipating William Holden’s queasy acting against Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, causes him to bail at the last minute and her to leave alone), while Bruno has such a case of the hots for Sieglinde that he insists she replace Frieda in the show even though she has zero acting experience and a decent voice but no stage presence. (Ironically, Douglass Montgomery and June Lang both had voice doubles — Dave O’Brien and Betty Helstand, respectively ­— but Gloria Swanson and John Boles both did their own singing.) The whole thing comes to a head at the dress rehearsal for the show, at which the producers tell Sieglinde that if she insists on playing the starring role the show will last just one night and all the other cast and crew members will be out of work (why they didn’t sock their backers for 25,000 percent of its costs and abscond with the overages is a mystery to me) — and one of them gives Sieglinde a talk about how the great star Frieda Hotzfelt started as a seamstress, worked hard for years, spent every dime she could save on singing lessons, and only slowly worked her way up the theatrical ladder. This is supposed to convince her that she should go back to the little village in the mountains and be the milkmaid nature intended her to be until she’s ready to marry Karl, but I would have wanted her to deliver a stiff-upper-lip comeback and say, “All right, I’ll admit I’m not ready now, but I’ll go back home, I’ll save my money, I’ll get trained and when I come back here I will be!” Still, despite this annoying bit of classism (a surprising number of Hollywood movies in the early 1930’s openly condemned the attempts of working-class people to work themselves up the class ladder and preached that they were precisely where they belonged when they were proletarians), Music in the Air is great fun. As Charles pointed out, it helps that though made in the U.S. and presented as a star vehicle for Gloria Swanson and John Boles, it’s really an ensemble film and, if anything, the Montgomery and Lang characters are the leads and Swanson and Boles (who don’t appear for the first 20 minutes of this 85-minute film and disappear about 10 minutes before the end) are the second leads.

It also helps that rather than direct it in the bland, conservative, shot-reverse shot style most American directors would have used in a story like this, Joe May mounts his camera on a crane and swoops it up and down for much of the action, picking unusual angles that propel us into the action instead of just presenting it at a safe distance. The high point of the film is an impromptu rehearsal of a new song in the musical producer’s office in which desk lamps become stage lights and the props are whatever comes to hand — including a trash can, which in one lovely shot Gloria Swanson overturns with a lordly indifference to its contents, which are spilling out on the floor as she swoops it over to where she wants it at the moment. Director Joe May had been a major “name” in German film in the Weimar era — he’d had some blockbuster hits, including the two-part film The Indian Tomb (written by Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou and originally slated for Lang to direct, until producer Erich Pommer decided that May was a bigger name and should get the assignment) — but after Music in the Air was a box-office flop he didn’t get another assignment for three years, making a Warner Bros. musical vehicle for Kay Francis called Confession (a remake of a German film called Mazurka) and then ending up at Universal doing mostly “B” movies (including the quite interesting 1939 film The House of Fear, a remake of a part-talkie called The Last Warning from 1929 that had been the last film of another German expat, Paul Leni, and also The Invisible Man Returns and a 1940 version of The House of Seven Gables that both gave Vincent Price early parts in the Gothic-horror genre that would eventually become his specialty) before he sank to Monogram, where he made his last film, Johnny Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, in 1944. Then he and his wife Mia May (she’d been the star of many of his German films) briefly opened a restaurant that, according to his page, “failed because, in keeping with his Teutonic roots, [he] told customers what they should order.” Joe May died in Hollywood in 1954 at the age of 73, a rather sad end to a career that, judging from the few films I’ve seen of his both from Germany and the U.S., showed a quite impressive talent.