Monday, May 28, 2018

Trocadero (Walter Colmes Productions, Republic Pictures, 1944)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the heaviness of the National Memorial Day Concert I wanted Charles and I to watch something lighter, and I found it in a Mill Creek Entertainment boxed set of 20 musicals (some of them major-studio productions like Second Chorus, Till the Clouds Roll By and Royal Wedding that inadvertently slipped into the public domain, and quite a lot of “race” movies): a 1944 film called Trocadero, made by producer Walter Colmes for Republic Pictures and presented here under a depressingly plainly lettered series of credits identifying it as a “Motion Pictures for Television, Inc.” presentation. That led me briefly to fear it would be one of those horrible cut-down versions Republic president Herbert Yates prepared in the 1950’s to sell his old movies to TV by cutting them to 54 minutes so they could fill an hour-long time slot, but fortunately we got the full 74 minutes this film ran originally. When I looked it up on the review that came up was headed, “Not entirely terrible … ,” and that’s a good way to look at this movie. It was directed by William Nigh, though he was on better behavior than usual (and he was helped by working at Republic, whose physical facilities were state-of-the-art and considerably better than what he was used to at Monogram or PRC; when Republic went out of business in 1958 Yates sold the physical studio to CBS, which renamed it Television City), from an “original” story and script by Charles F. Chaplin (the famous Charlie Chaplin’s middle initial was “S.,” for “Spencer,” and this Chaplin has no other credits on, Garret Holmes and Allan Gale, and there’s nothing particularly wrong with it except it’s the sort of movie that draws on so many of Hollywood’s hoariest clichés you feel you’re about one to two reels ahead of the writers and director at all times. 

It also has virtually nothing to do with the real Trocadero, a nightclub which opened in Los Angeles in 1934 and lasted 13 years under a variety of owners, attracting a movie-star clientele that made it the sort of place you went to as much for the celebrities in the audience as the entertainers on stage. The movie Trocadero begins as “Tony Rocadero’s Italian Restaurant” (and, it’s strongly hinted, speakeasy), and the film starts in 1933. Prohibition has just been repealed and Tony Rocadero (Charles Calvert) is wondering how he can keep his place going and make enough money in the new era to send his two adopted kids, Judy and Johnny Edwards (Rosemary Lane and Johnny Downs), to college. He’s lost in thought, envisioning his plans for remodeling the place and installing one of those long awnings with a marquee on the end of it that were common then, when he steps out into the street to survey where the awning will go — and he’s promptly run over by a car and killed. Tony’s building manager, Sam Wallace (Ralph Morgan, the Wizard of Oz’s brother and for once not cast as a murderer), tells Johnny and Judy that Tony left enough money only to send one of them to college, so Johnny goes and Judy stays behind to run the nightclub. She’s about to go broke when Mickey Jones (Sheldon Leonard) offers to bail her out in exchange for 10 percent of the club’s gross, though he’s really after Judy romantically (or at least sexually). He also insists that the club change its name to something more contemporary than “Tony Rocadero’s,” Judy insists that it will always bear her dad’s name, and ultimately they hit on just sticking his first initial onto his last name and calling it “Trocadero.” (The real Trocadero got its name from an even more famous nightclub in Paris.) 

They hire two bands (actually a common practice of the 1930’s in clubs and dance halls that could afford it: with two bands, one could be playing while the other was resting, and so the music could be continuous), a Latin group led by Eddle LeBaron (playing himself) and a swing unit led by Spike Nelson (Dick “Captain America” Purcell). Judy is unsure whether she wants a swing band since she’s never heard of it before, but Johnny comes back from college in the East and says it’s all the rage there. It soon develops that Spike also has a crush on Judy — in one scene that plays far more grimly in the “#MeToo” era than it no doubt did in 1944, she’s the recipient of unwanted proposals from Spike and Mickey in rapid succession — and when she turns Spike down he quits the club, thinking he can get a job anywhere. Instead he flops and descends into alcoholism (which Nigh shows economically by one quick, silent scene of him passed out on a couch with a bottle next to him). Meanwhile, Johnny gets sidetracked from the nightclub business by meeting and falling in love, sort of, with tobacco heiress Marge Carson (Marjorie Manners, who doesn’t convince us for a moment that she’s really in love with Johnny but does stuck-up bitch superbly), who takes him back East, where her dad has arranged a job on Wall Street for him. Only at the big party where he’s supposed to be presented to the Carsons and their 1-percent friends, he’s bored silly because all the men are talking about stock prices and the women are talking about art shows and classical music (including a baffling reference to a soloist performing “Tchaikovsky’s Fifth” — as far as I know, the only sort of piece Tchaikovsky wrote five or more of was the symphony, nothing involving a soloist), and so he does a spectacular tap dance on their floor and high-tails it back to his sister and the Trocadero. Of course, it all ends happily: Spike returns to the Trocadero, Judy decides to marry him after all, and Marge has a change of heart and decides to return to Johnny at the Trocadero. She also gets her dad’s tobacco company to sponsor the Troc’s radio show.  

Trocadero is the sort of movie that at a major studio its weak plot would be redeemed by a strong succession of guest numbers featuring major musical stars. At Republic we get Wingy Manone covering “The Music Goes Round and Round” (the camera gets close enough to show the black glove Manone wore on his right arm to conceal the fact that a large chunk of the arm was missing — he fingered his trumpet with his left hand — something I remember being embarrassed by when I saw him at a free concert in Marin County in 1974, went to shake his hand afterwards and he pulled the arm away) and the best number, the film’s one African-American performer, Ida James, backed by Bob Chester’s orchestra (which had existed since 1935, had a place on the second tier of swing bands but hadn’t made a movie until this one) in a version of “Shoo Shoo Baby.” I first saw Ida James in a marvelous “Soundie” of the Louis Jordan hit “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” with the Nat “King” Cole trio, and I wondered, “Who’s this great woman singer who’s holding her own in a duet with Nat ‘King’ Cole, and why have I never heard of her before?” I still don’t know why Ida James didn’t have more of a career (she was briefly Earl “Fatha” Hines’ female band singer, but she was overshadowed by his male singer, Billy Eckstine) but she’s marvelous in this one even though the number features a rather pointless staging of her pushing around a giant baby carriage. 

Also worth noting is the nice duet between Johnny Downs and Rosemary Lane, “How Could You Do That to Me?,” even though for a number supposedly being performed in the 1930’s representing a vaudeville act they did in the 1920’s, it’s anachronistic to hear references to World War II-era gas rationing in the lyrics. Lane also gets a nice song called “Bullfrog Jump” which is, alas, interrupted by her comic-relief sidekick (Dewey Robinson), a huge, gravel-voiced man whose name, at least as far as we ever hear, is “Bullfrog” and feels insulted by the song. No fewer than four bands are featured in the finale, an ode to the Trocadero itself — LeBaron’s, Nelson’s, Chester’s and Gus Arnheim’s (Arnheim led the band at the Cocoanut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in the early 1930’s and it was Bing Crosby’s intermediate stop between Paul Whiteman and superstardom as a solo artist; Matty Malneck, who was a violinist and arranger with Whiteman when Bing and Bix Beiderbecke were in his band, also appears) — and we get nice guest appearances by animator Dave Fleischer (who draws a cartoon that comes to life and hits annoying M.C. Cliff Nazarro with a blast of seltzer water), Hollywood columnist Erskine Johnson (who’s in the framing sequences interviewing Sam Wallace about the club’s history) and such other retreads from the early 1930’s as the Three Radio Rogues (two of whom do quite good impressions of James Cagney and James Stewart) and the Stardusters. Trocadero isn’t a great movie, but it’s better than “not totally terrible”; it’s a film of great charm and it has an endearing quality, as if the people made it were nodding and winking to the audience, “Hey, we know we’re not at MGM, but we’re doing our best” — and a Republic budget does have one salutary effect on the film: the Trocadero actually looks like a real nightclub, not an airplane hangar done up in art deco.