Last Thanksgiving night my husband Charles and I had enough time alone after our dinner guests leave to watch a couple of movies together, including an oddball musical called George White’s 1935 Scandals. George White was a Broadway producer who, like Earl Carroll, decided to rip off Florenz Ziegfeld’s formula for success by doing a musical revue (Broadway-speak for a show without a plot or storyline) with a one-word title, changing the contents every year and putting the year number at the end of the show. Ziegfeld had the Follies, Carroll the Vanities, and White had the Scandals — a name he chose to let prospective audiences know that his show would feature racier sexual content than his competitors’. In 1934 the Fox Film Corporation hired White to make a movie called George White’s Scandals that, among other things, marked the screen debut of Alice Faye. The film was a big enough hit that they drafted Faye to be in this one, too, along with rather homely-looking leading man James Dunn (who’s playing a juvenile lead in this one even though his usual gig at Fox just then was playing Shirley Temple’s father — indeed, he did that so often quite a few 1930’s moviegoers thought he was Shirley Temple’s real dad!); Eleanor Powell, in her first film aside from a brief bit as “Party Guest/Dancer” in 1930’s Queen High); Ned Sparks; Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards; Arline Judge (who just two years after her — forgive the pun — sensational performance in Monogram’s proto-noir Sensation Hunters got stuck in a nothing role); and Lyda Roberti (the tragically short-lived Eastern European performer whose specialty, like Carmen Miranda’s later, was fracturing the English language; alas, after her marvelous showcase as “Mata Machree, The Woman No Man Can Resist” in the 1932 film Million Dollar Legs, her film career had nowhere to go but down).
They also got Jack Yellen, who had co-written with Milton Ager the score for John Murray Anderson’s magnificent King of Jazz (1930), not only to work on the songs as lyricist for Joseph Meyer (indeed, one of the reasons I was interested in this film was because I’m working on a CD compilation of Meyer for my annual songwriters’ tribute), but to write the script as well, apparently attempting to duplicate the transition of Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby from songwriters to screenwriters. Meyer apparently wrote only one complete score for a movie, this one, and from the pleasant but rather old-fashioned (even by 1935 standards) songs he supplied it’s easy to see why; Meyer was a great songwriter in the 1920’s and he lived until 1971, but unlike similarly long-lived songwriters like Ieving Berlin and Cole Porter his style didn’t change or grow with the times. George White’s 1935 Scandals is basically a revue, though there is something of a plot: on his way to a vacation in Palm Beach, Florida following the closure of the 1934 Scandals, George White (playing himself and claiming in the credits that the “entire production was conceived and directed by him — though imdb.com lists two “ghost directors,” Harry Lachman and James Tinling, as also working on the film) gets off the train for what’s supposed to be a five-minute stop at a town called Crossway in Oglethorpe County, Georgia. (The name “Oglethorpe County” is a tribute to James Oglethorpe, who founded the first British settlement of Georgia in the 1730’s and set up the colony as an alternative for people in debtors’ prisons in England.) George White sees a poster advertising a local theatre performing a show called “White’s Scandals,” produced and directed by Elmer White (Ned Sparks at his most Ned Sparkiest), who’s also the ticket-taker, the ticket-seller, the MC and, it turns out later, both the mayor and the sheriff of Crossway. George White is particularly upset that they’ve ripped off his name and his concept for a show, especially one whose main attraction is a dog act, so he decides to stay in Crossway, see the faux “Scandals” for himself and essentially copyright-troll it out of existence.
Only he changes his mind rather quickly when he sees the show and in particular the team of Honey Walters (Alice Faye) and Eddie Taylor (James Dunn) doing an act together to a song James has written — or at least he dictated the words and music to Aunt Jane Harper (Emma Dunn, apparently no real-life relation), much the way Irving Berlin couldn’t read or write music and needed a “musical secretary” to transcribe his songs for him. They aren’t exactly the most charismatic musical leads of all time —Faye was still wearing her hair in the platinum-blonde color of Jean Harlow’s which photographed dead white on the relatively slow film used in 1935, and there’s only one song (a late-in-the-film reunion duet between her and James Dunn called “You Belong to Me”) where we hear the world-weary moan that later became Faye’s trademark. As for James Dunn, he’s an avuncular-looking fellow whose main gig at Fox at the time was playing Shirley Temple’s father — which he did so often a lot of 1930’s moviegoers thought he was her father for real. George White’s 1935 Scandals has a plot of sorts — George White plucks Honey Walters and Eddie Taylor out of the knock-off rump Scandals and stars them in the 1935 edition of the real Scandals; they’re an immediate sensation but he worries that the “Broadway mud” will attract them and stick to them. The Broadway mud duly arrives in the persons of Larry Daniels (Walter Johnson) and Marilyn Collins (Eleanor Powell in her first major role — she gets to do one solo dance in a stunning black sequined pantsuit, but other than that she’s just another “other woman”), who make beelines for Honey and Eddie, respectively. Under the thrall of their new partners, Honey and Eddie start showing up late for the Scandals, their performances fall off, George White chews them out and they respond by turning in their two-weeks’ notices — which White accepts immediately, being so disgusted with them he pays them their severance but firing them from the show. (The marquee for the theatre where the Scandals is playing rather mournfully changes the billing from “Honey Walters and Eddie Taylor” to “All Star Cast.”)
A slimeball agent named Lou Pincus (played as a comic-relief Jewish stereotype by an actor unidentified on the imdb.com cast list) hires Honey and Eddie to perform out of town in Scranton, Pennsylvania for $75 per week — but just then George White receives a telegram from Aunt Jane Hopkins back in Crossway (ya remember Aunt Jane Hopkins? Ya remember Crossway?) saying she’s coming to New York to see the sensationally successful Scandals show featuring her protégées. George White literally mobilizes the New York Police Department to find them — while simultaneously refusing to take the calls of Lou Pincus, the only character in the dramatis personae who actually knows where they are — and he finally catches up to them waiting in Pennsylvania Station (and it isn’t even quarter to four!) for the train to their gig in Scranton. They’re dragged back to the Scandals, they’re a huge success all over again, and for good measure they tell George White they got married that morning and therefore there won’t be any more nonsense involving other partners. George White himself (who takes an opening credit reading, “Entire Production Conceived and Directed By … ” and also a separate credit as dance director) and the “suits” at Fox seemed to have wanted the film to be a close replica of what it was like to watch the stage version of the Scandals — the opening production number is one of those ants-on-a-wedding cake things shit with an immovable camera from a safe distance, which led Charles to reference The Cocoanuts and suggest they really should have called this George White’s 1929 Scandals. The big numbers throughout the film are mostly pretty static — compare the treatment of the song “According to the Moonlight” with Busby Berkeley’s similar but far more cinematic staging of “Shadow Waltz” in Gold Diggers of 1933 (the one with the neon violins) — and when we finally get one overhead shot of a chorus line I burst out, “Finally!”
Though White and his co-directors weren’t as fiercely opposed to the Berkeley style as Mitchell Leisen was when he partnered with Earl Carroll for Paramount’s fascinating 1934 production Murder at the Vanities — Leisen decreed that the Berkeley numbers were ridiculous because they were supposedly being performed on a stage but really couldn’t be done in any conceivable live theatre, so the numbers in his movie would be shot from a safe distance (about that between the stage and an orchestra seat in a Broadway house) and he wouldn’t do moving-camera shots, overhead shots, dancers in kaleidoscope formations or any of the other items in Berkeley’s armanetarium. White seems to have been less doctrinaire about it — he even lifted the Scandals’ curtain design, with paintings of three Asian-looking women on triangular sections that part to reveal the stage, from the “Chinese” number in John Murray Anderson’s stunning masterpiece King of Jazz — but George White’s 1935 Scandals could have been a lot more fun had the big numbers been staged more imaginatively. The film also suffers from the everything-including-the-kitchen-sink mentality of White and a lot of the other revue producers: the opening scene of the performance in Crossway includes a dog act (a quite extended one with several dogs, which starts to pale after a while) and an on-stage dance contest with athletic and fun-looking dancers performing in old vaudeville styles that were already considered dated in 1935. Indeed, one of the most entertaining parts of the film is a dream sequence in which Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards, either loaned out or paroled from MGM, fantasizes being the lover of some of the great “bad women” of history, Cleopatra and Du Barry, as well as playing Romeo in the balcony scene. (Iromically, Edwards had previously been in another movie, Hollywood Revue of 1929, in which the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene was parodied, though he wasn’t involved in it. The scene in Hollywood Revue of 1929 is in two-strip Technicolor and features John Gilbert and Norma Shearer, first playing the scene “straight” and then in a 1920’s slang version.)
Most of Joseph Meyer’s songs are serviceable without being great; there’s a reason why nothing from this musical has become part of the standard songbook, and there was only one Meyer song in the film I’d ever heard before: “The Hunkadola.” I’d known this piece mainly because it was Benny Goodman’s first recording for RCA Victor when he jumped there from Columbia in 1935; though he was only at Victor for four years, those four years (1935 to 1939) were the years in which he established himself and became a star. “Hunkadola” — Goodman’s record eliminated the article but the song clearly refers to “The Hunkadola” — was apparently Fox’s and White’s attempt to start a dance craze based on the ones launched by the first two Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies: “The Carioca” from Flying Down to Rio and “The Continental” from The Gay Divorcée. (Those songs are referred to here as “The Tapioca” and “The Accidental,” and oddly Herb Magidson, who wrote the lyrics for the real “Continental,” is credited here with “additional lyrics” on top of the credited songwriters, Meyer for music and Lemon for words.) The problem with “The Hunkadola” is that the dance instructions in the song are so complicated and difficult it’s well nigh impossible to figure out from the lyrics just how the dance is done — and parts of the ensemble dance are so bizarre and potentially injurious to the female participants I found myself wondering whether some of the shots were done with dummies, especially one scene in which two male choristers literally swing a woman back forth while a third uses her as a jump rope. It’s one of those oddball movies that occasionally dips its toe into the pool of cinema but mostly feels stage-bound — as if White’s main interest in making it seems to have been more to show the rubes and hicks in rural America (of which there was far more then than there is now!) what a George White’s Scandals looked like than to make a truly cinematic musical!