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Tag Archives: Musicals

Under California Stars (April 30, 1948)

Under California Stars is one of those “Trigger in peril” pictures in which Roy Rogers’s faithful palomino Trigger, “the smartest horse in movies,” faces terrible danger, and only his best friend Roy Rogers can make things right … with plenty of help from Trigger himself, of course. (Another “Trigger in peril” film, The Golden Stallion, was the subject of a NY Times piece in which Quentin Tarantino waxed rhapsodic about the film’s director. It’s a great article, and you can read it by clicking on this sentence.)

Like most Roy Rogers movies made in the post-war ’40s, Under California Stars was directed by William Witney, a veteran B-movie director born in 1915 who had nearly 40 westerns and serials under his belt by 1948.

Witney was a brilliant director of action. He was reportedly inspired by watching Busby Berkeley direct big musical numbers in which different takes were designed to be cut together for a coherent whole.

Before Witney’s innovative work on action serials, most directors would just train the camera on the stuntmen and let them do their thing, but Witney took a more active role, arranging action set pieces that incorporated elegant camera movements and effective cutting between actors and their stuntmen doubles.

The serials he directed for Republic Pictures were done on a tight budget and an even tighter timeline, so Witney often directed the action segments while his frequent collaborator John English handled the dialogue scenes. (Witney and English directed Adventures of Captain Marvel [1941], which I consider the greatest serial ever made.) Witney’s film work is a far cry from today’s hyperactive, chopped-to-hell action movies, but in many ways he is the father of the modern action movie.

Under California Stars isn’t wall-to-wall action, but the fight scenes are well-done, and like most Witney joints, it’s a classic example of good B filmmaking.

Like most Roy Rogers movies from the ’40s, Under California Stars blurs the line between Roy’s on-screen persona and his real life. He plays a character named “Roy Rogers,” who, when the film begins, is being told by his director, “Roy, you can be mighty proud of your ten years in pictures.” (Roy’s first starring role was in the film Under Western Stars, which was released on April 20, 1938.)

The action quickly shifts from Hollywood to the Double R Ranch, where Trigger and Roy are met by foreman Cookie Bullfincher (Andy Devine), as well as Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers, who sing a hymn to Roy’s good-natured greatness. Roy is also presented with a 10-year anniversary cake and does a radio broadcast from the Double R in which he sings “Dust,” one of the songs that made him famous.

But not everyone is thrilled to pieces about Roy Rogers and his marvelous horse. Lige McFarland (Wade Crosby) and his henchman Ed (House Peters Jr.) resent the handsome do-gooder and hatch a scheme to kidnap Trigger and ransom him for $100,000 … or else.

Under California Stars is a brisk, well-made Saturday matinee western with good songs and hard-hitting action. The whole film is currently uploaded to YouTube, and you can watch it by clicking on the link below. It’s also currently available to download from archive.org.

Oklahoma Blues (March 28, 1948)

Oklahoma Blues
Oklahoma Blues (1948)
Directed by Lambert Hillyer
Monogram Pictures

By 1948, the singing cowboy genre was starting to get a little long in the tooth. Television would soon provide a home for a few popular crooning cowboys like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry — as well as countless reruns of B westerns from the ’30s and ’40s — and at this point, a Poverty Row western like Oklahoma Blues feels more clichéd and predictable than ever.

In this 56-minute programmer, directed for Monogram Pictures by dependable workhorse Lambert Hillyer, Jimmy Wakely plays a singing cowboy named “Jimmy Wakely” who ends up posing as an outlaw called “the Melody Kid” after his big-mouthed friend Cannonball Taylor spreads tall tales. (Cannonball Taylor, incidentally, is played by Dub “Cannonball” Taylor.)

Like most singing cowboy flicks, the plot of Oklahoma Blues is nothing you haven’t seen before, and is mostly a framework for a little comedy, a few fistfights, some shootouts, and — most importantly — a bunch of songs sung by Jimmy Wakely.

Oklahoma Blues mostly takes place in a little town called Rainbow’s End. The town fathers are pushing State Commissioner Walton (J.C. Lytton) to make Rainbow’s End the county seat, but there’s stiff competition from Yuba Junction. Their chances look especially grim after a series of holdups perpetrated by the Drago brothers, Matt (Zon Murray) and Slip (George J. Lewis). Commissioner Walton vows not to make Rainbow’s End the county seat unless someone can roust the outlaws and clean the place up, so Sheriff Sam Oldring (Steve Clark), undertaker Beasley (I. Stanford Jolley), and Judge Emerson (Frank LaRue) hire Jimmy Wakely, whom they think is the singing killer called the Melody Kid.

Wakely takes a shine to local restaurant proprietor Judy Joyce (Virginia Belmont), but she bristles at the reputation of the Melody Kid and vows to leave town and close her restaurant if Wakely is hired in an official capacity. Naturally he makes it a condition of his being hired as sheriff that she stay and keep cooking for him.

If you’re a fan of B westerns, this picture delivers exactly what you expect and not much more. As funny sidekicks go, Cannonball Taylor isn’t very funny, and Judy Joyce is a pretty terrible actress, but Oklahoma Blues delivers where it counts — the music. The film features “Oklahoma Blues,” by Jimmy Wakely, “Judy,” by Tiny Stokes, and “On the Strings of My Lonesome Guitar,” by Smiley Burnett and Jimmy Wakely, as well as snippets of other country & western tunes, all sung by Jimmy Wakely.

Incidentally, I recently bought the Monogram Cowboy Collection Volume 1 DVD set, so I’ll be reviewing more of these pictures as they come up in the rotation.

Good News (Dec. 4, 1947)

Hey, kids, do you think “nostalgia” is only something for baby boomers hazily recalling Woodstock or Generation X’ers and their ’80s dance parties? Guess again.

Nostalgia has been around since there were people old enough to remember their youth and know that they’d never get it back. Charles Walters’s Good News, for instance, took viewers in 1947 and 1948 back to the good old days of 1927, when people were dancing the Charleston, when Will Rogers was elected mayor of Beverly Hills, when Coolidge chose not to run again, when “flaming youth” ran wild, and when a girl was a “flapper” and a boy was a “sheik.”

Unfortunately, Good News is about as convincing a portrait of the ’20s as Grease (1978) was of the ’50s.

It’s a sanitized Technicolor version of the racy original, which was based on the hit Broadway play that premiered in 1927.

In the special features section of the DVD I watched, there were a couple of scenes from the 1930 version of Good News, and in spite of their static camerawork and unimaginative black and white cinematography they were totally and completely electrifying.

Take a look at the scene below, in which Dorothy McNulty performs the song “Varsity Drag.” It’s an athletic, goofy, wild number, full of sexual innuendo and all kinds of good stuff that would be impossible to have on screen after the enforcement of the Hays Code (like the underwear shot at 3 minutes and 20 seconds).

Incidentally, Dorothy McNulty later changed her professional name to Penny Singleton and starred in the Blondie movies. She was also the voice of Jane Jetson on The Jetsons.

Anyway, the 1947 version of Good News just can’t hold a candle to that kind of wild vivacity. It doesn’t help that Peter Lawford, who stars as B.M.O.C. Tommy Marlowe, was cast more for his appeal as a heartthrob than his talent as a singer. He’s not terrible, but he looks uncomfortable throughout the proceedings, especially when he has to sing and dance at the same time.

His leading lady, June Allyson, who plays shrinking violet Connie Lane, is also a bit of a disappointment, but their funny duet, “The French Lesson,” is an amazing bit of fast-paced wordplay.

The most energetic and fun-to-watch performer in the film is Joan McCracken, who plays the man-hungry Babe Doolittle. Her performance of “Pass That Peace Pipe” is a highlight of the film.

A very young Mel Tormé also shows up for a couple of songs, “Lucky in Love” and “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” so Good News is worth seeing if you’re a fan of The Velvet Fog.

The song “Pass That Peace Pipe,” which was written by Ralph Blane, Hugh Martin, and Roger Edens, was nominated for an Academy Award for best original song, but lost out to “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” from Song of the South (1946).

Something in the Wind (July 21, 1947)

I mentioned in my review of I’ll Be Yours, which was released earlier in 1947, that Deanna Durbin called the last four films she made “terrible,” and permanently retired from acting in 1948.

But just like I’ll Be Yours, I found Something in the Wind thoroughly enjoyable. The songs are great, the dancing is spectacular, and for the most part, it’s genuinely funny.

I think that Durbin’s retirement from acting had less to do with the quality of the films she was starring in and more to do with her desire for privacy and a normal life. (She apparently hated the public persona she’d been saddled with since she appeared in her first musical comedy, Three Smart Girls, in 1936 at the age of 14.)

Something in the Wind is by no means a great film, but Durbin’s impish sense of humor, beautiful singing voice, and perfect comic timing make up for a lot. It’s also a lot of fun to see tall drink of water John Dall in a light role. (Something in the Wind was made shortly before he would stake his place in cinematic history in 1948 as one of the thrill killers in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and again in 1950 as the firearms-fancying protagonist of the noir classic Gun Crazy.)

Dall plays Donald Read, the scion of the wealthy Read family. When he attempts to “make things right” with the woman to whom his recently deceased grandfather has been making regular payments, he confuses Mary Collins (Durbin) with her aunt (Jean Adair), who is also named Mary Collins. Mary Collins (the younger) is a struggling radio DJ with a beautiful voice, and she has no idea what Donald is talking about, but she’s offended by the very nature of his proposal. When she finds out that her aunt has been receiving payments from the Read family after a failed love affair with the late patriarch of the family, she’s doubly offended, and sets out to ruin the Reads.

The Reads are a pleasantly screwball family — the kind that regularly engages in hilarious kidnappings and fun-loving extortion.

Donald is the straight man of the bunch, his cousin Charlie (Donald O’Connor) is the wacky cut-up, and his uncle Chester (Charles Winninger) is the blackmailing con man who will screw over anyone for a buck.

All of this is just an excuse for laughs, music, and dance, of course, but who cares? Donald O’Connor’s wild, no-holds-barred performance of Johnny Green & Leo Robin’s “I Love a Mystery” is the stuff of legend, and must be seen to be believed. And Durbin is a one-of-a-kind star, and as far as I’m concerned, every film she appeared in is worth watching.

Fiesta (June 12, 1947)

And introducing Ricardo Montalban.

When I sat down to watch Fiesta, those words in the credits floored me. I can’t conceive of what it was like to grow up in a world without Ricardo Montalban. His suave, white-suit-wearing Mr. Roarke, from Fantasy Island (1977-1984), is a mysterious character who was burned into my mind at a young age. Ditto for his insane and weirdly brilliant role as the villain of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). Or his dapper and hilarious bad guy, Vincent Ludwig, in The Naked Gun (1988). Or his work as the pitchman for Maxwell House Decaf.

Maybe it was just the movies and TV shows that I watched, but Montalban seemed ubiquitous.

By the ’80s, he always appeared to be having fun with his “Latin lover” image, but he was never parodying himself. His smooth charm was undeniable, no matter what kind of ridiculous lines were coming out of his mouth. (Like claiming that decaffeinated coffee was “good to the last drop.”)

Richard Thorpe’s Fiesta wasn’t the first film to star Montalban. He’d already appeared in more than a dozen films in his native Mexico. But it was his first Hollywood film, and it was his introduction to American audiences. It was also an opportunity for Esther Williams to perform in a dramatic role that was very different from the roles that had made her famous in MGM’s “aquatic musicals.”

Williams and Montalban play twins, Maria and Mario Morales. Their father, Antonio Morales (Fortunio Bonanova), a former matador, always wanted a son to carry on his work in the ring. After confirming that he is indeed not going to have just a daughter, but rather twins, Morales proclaims his son “The future greatest matador in the whole world!”

Of course, things don’t work out the way Señor Morales expects. His son Mario is a gifted musician and composer who would much rather make music than wear the traje de luces (“suit of lights”) and fight bulls (even though he’s good at it). His daughter Maria, of course, is the one with the real desire to be a torero, but her gender makes such a thing unthinkable.

Mario is torn between his father’s plans for him and the interest that conductor Maximino Contreras (Hugo Haas) shows in his music. Eventually, Mario flees the ring when he finds out his father lied to him about a visit Señor Contreras made to their house. He does so out of anger, but his action is viewed as cowardice by the spectators. Naturally, Maria comes up with a plan to don the traje de luces and impersonate her brother in the ring.

Fiesta has the kind of shopworn plot and lifeless dialogue that one can suffer through if they’re merely the framework for a musical packed with great songs and exciting dance numbers. But while Fiesta is often classified as a musical, it’s not a really a musical. It’s a turgid, woodenly acted drama whose only high points are a handful of dance sequences.

If you like dancing, then Montalban’s numbers with Cyd Charisse (playing a character named Conchita) are worth seeing. (I especially liked the number they stomped out to “La Bamba,” the traditional Mexican song that Ritchie Valens later made famous.) The scene in which Mario hears one of his compositions played on the radio by Señor Contreras’s orchestra and listens in rapture before sitting down at the piano in the cantina to play along would be at home in a musical, but it’s an organic moment. There are no scenes in Fiesta in which the characters just break into song.

In short, it’s pretty lifeless, especially when compared with other Technicolor extravaganzas from MGM. Most of the cast isn’t very interesting to watch. The great silent star Mary Astor is wasted in a thankless role as Señora Morales. Montalban is enjoyable to watch, but Williams is terribly miscast. It’s not that she doesn’t look “Mexican” (you can see plenty of women who look like Esther Williams if you watch Spanish-language television). It’s that she looks nothing like Montalban, yet the audience is asked to believe that she is a convincing double for him when she dons the traje de luces and enters the ring. Her own stunt double is also a completely unconvincing facsimile of Williams during the bullfighting sequences. His muscular buttocks, lack of breasts, crotch bulge, muscular neck, and big ears are pretty difficult to confuse with Williams’s slightly different attributes.

I like Esther Williams a lot. She’s beautiful and appealing, not to mention a hell of a swimmer. But this was just the wrong role for her. Also, her “romantic” scenes with Jose “Pepe” Ortega (John Carroll) are dead on arrival.

Although the film begins with a statement of sincere thanks to the Mexican people, the production was a troubled one. The cinematographer, Sidney Wagner, and another crew member both died of cholera after eating contaminated street food. Esther Williams’s husband, Ben Gage, and makeup artist George Lane were both expelled from Mexico after a fight with a hotel employee. And a stuntman died of an infection he contracted after being gored in the groin by a bull.

The largest problem the production ran into had to do with bullfighting, which director Thorpe chose to depict in a sanitized fashion. For example, the first time we see Mario’s moves in the ring, he skirmishes with an uninjured bull who charges at him over and over as he dances around the ring and flourishes his cape, avoiding several near misses. Eventually the bull gets too tired to continue, and the fight is over.

During the bullfights in Fiesta, only the bullfighter’s life seems to be in danger. It is presented as a dangerous sport. In reality, the outcome of a bullfight is rarely in question, and it is less a sport than an artistic, ritualized slaughter in which the torero is judged according to his grace and style, not whether or not he kills the bull. (According to this article, which was published last year in The Guardian, only 52 matadors have been killed in the ring since the year 1700. There are myriad injuries, of course, which range from minor to spectacular. If you have a strong stomach, click here.) In Fiesta there are no banderilleros jamming spikes into the bull’s back, bleeding it out and tiring it. There is no taunting of the bull or clownish antics on the part of the other toreadors in the ring, like grabbing the bull’s tail and skiing through the dirt as the bull circles. And, most important of all, there is no killing of the bull with a single sword thrust — the estocada.

Bullfighting is inextricable from the national identity of most Spanish-speaking countries. The people of Mexico were already angry that their own toreadors could not star in the film, so the depiction of bullfighting as a bloodless spectacle added insult to injury. When Thorpe had finished shooting Fiesta, his unit manager Walter Strohm convinced him that the bulls used in the film should all be killed to assuage the anger of the Mexican people. Thorpe acquiesced, even though the bulls had cost $1,000 each, which is nearly $10,000 in today’s dollars.

Saddle Pals (June 6, 1947)

Of the movies Gene Autry made after serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II, Saddle Pals is my favorite so far.

That’s not to say that I loved the picture. I think Gene Autry is a great country singer, but as a leading man, I find him flat. But Saddle Pals is funnier and generally more entertaining than the last few Autry pictures I’ve seen, and it wasn’t a chore to sit through.

The picture begins when the beautiful, wealthy, and devil-may-care Shelly Brooks (Lynne Roberts) buzzes Gene, his boys, and their cows with her brand-new Lincoln. Of course, she blows a tire not long after, and Gene’s such a gentleman that he doesn’t hold her bad behavior against her, and changes the tire for her.

Shelly’s brother Waldo T. Brooks Jr. is raising rents on all the ranches in the valley so his wealthy family can be even wealthier. Not only is it unfair, it’s downright illegal, says attorney Thaddeus Bellweather (Irving Bacon), and he’ll handle the case for Gene just as soon as he gets back from trout season … which is going to last a long time.

So Gene and the Cass County boys (his backup band/ranch hands) head to the Brooks ranch to talk to Waldo, who turns out to be an effeminate, hysterical, rubber-faced hypochondriac played by Sterling Holloway. It turns out that Waldo is barely in control. It’s the Brooks Land Corporation that’s raising rents, under the direction of their evil leader Bradford Collins (Damian O’Flynn).

Waldo gives Gene control of his money. Gene tells Collins that he wants to buy into the corporation. Gene is then forced to come up with $50,000 in 30 days. He comes up with most of the money by selling off the Brooks’s show horses, and then decides to throw a rodeo to raise the rest of the money.

Shelly and Waldo have an adorable little sister, Robin (Jean Van), who wants desperately to be a cowgirl. She’s got the skills to pay the bills, so Gene puts her in the rodeo, but Collins uses the fact that she’s a minor to get Gene in trouble with the law.

Collins doesn’t stop there. If you’ve ever seen a B western from the ’30s or ’40s before, you know those greedy land-grabbing real estate barons never stop at legal malarkey, and sure enough, by the end of the picture there’s an out-of-control wagon on fire with Robin inside, and Gene and his horse Champion Jr. in hot pursuit.

The songs in Saddle Pals are generally good, even though there’s no single stand-out number. The songs include “You Stole My Heart,” “Which Way’d They Go,” “The Covered Wagon Rolled Right Along,” “Amapola,” and “I Wish I Never Had Met Sunshine.” Also, Sterling Holloway, who’s sort of like a less-funny, more-irritating version of Jim Carrey, is used judiciously in the picture, and most of his scenes are humorous, if not exactly hilarious.

Copacabana (May 30, 1947)

Hey there! Do you like the comedy of Groucho Marx? Do you like the music of Carmen Miranda? Do you like the sweet song stylings of Andy Russell? Do you like beautiful women with nice legs?

You do? Well then, brother, have I got a picture for you.

Alfred E. Green’s Copacabana is a classic example of a Hollywood product that is designed for only one purpose — to entertain.

The plot of the film is little more than an excuse to showcase Groucho Marx’s wordplay and fast-paced comedic line deliveries, Carmen Miranda’s mesmerizing vocal performances, big musical numbers featuring the 14 beautiful “Copa” girls, and Andy Russell’s syrupy, sentimental songs.

The plot, which can summarized on the back of a cocktail napkin, is this: wildly unsuccessful nightclub performer Lionel Q. Deveraux (Groucho Marx) and his fiancée of 10 years, equally unsuccessful nightclub singer Carmen Navarro (Carmen Miranda), decide that desperate measures are called for. Deveraux has been kicked out of more clubs than he can count, and threats like, “This is an outrage. You’ll hear from my lawyer, as soon as he gets a telephone,” clearly aren’t getting him anywhere.

So Deveraux decides to pass himself off as a top talent agent. He arranges for Carmen to perform for Steve Hunt (Steve Cochran), the owner of the most glamorous nightclub in Manhattan, the Copacabana. Without Deveraux onstage with her, Carmen makes a positive impression, but Steve wants to see more of Deveraux’s acts. Naturally, he has only one act — Carmen — but some quick thinking produces a second act, the beautiful and mysterious “Mademoiselle Fifi.”

Mlle. Fifi is of course just Carmen with a white costume straight out of the Arabian Nights, a blond wig piled atop her head, and a heavy veil to cover her face. Deveraux explains to Steve why she never takes the veil off. “No one but her lover is allowed to gaze upon her face,” he says. “Not even her husband.”

Meanwhile, the starry-eyed Anne Stuart (Gloria Jean) toils away in the office of the Copacabana as Steve Hunt’s gal Friday, unable to tell Steve how she really feels. Will she ever be able tell him? Will the wide-eyed, golly-gee naïveté of singer Andy Russell (played by singer Andy Russell) and his encouragement that she express herself through song help? Will that song be called “Stranger Things Have Happened”? You’ll just have to see Copacabana to find out.

I’m not the biggest fan of musicals, but I’m perfectly willing to sit back and be entertained by one if it’s well put together, and Copacabana features plenty of entertainment bang for your buck. It’s especially entertaining if you’re as much of a sucker for great gams as I am. The Copa girls are blessed with pretty faces, good singing voices (although I’m not sure if they were actually singing during their numbers), dancing ability, and — most of all — shapely getaway sticks, which are on display even when they’re in the background. When Mlle. Fifi sings her first number at the Copa, “Je Vous Aime,” the Copa girls are draped all over the place like leggy cats, listening in rapture.

And speaking of perfect pins, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Gloria Jean’s final song and dance with Groucho Marx and Carmen Miranda, in which she wears a shorts and high heels outfit that might be the cutest thing I’ve seen in a movie from 1947 so far.

I believe this was the first film in which Groucho Marx appeared without his classic greasepaint mustache and thick glasses get-up. (His actual mustache and regular glasses aren’t wildly different, of course.) Also, his brothers, Harpo, Chico, and sometimes Zeppo, are nowhere to be seen in Copacabana, but it’s still worth seeing if you’re a Marx Brothers fan. It’s not as sublime as Duck Soup (1933) or A Night at the Opera (1935), but it’s still a funny, entertaining film, and offers the last chance to see Groucho in his classic get-up, when he performs Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby’s song “Go West, Young Man” in a slightly surreal scene. (Click the name of the song to watch the performance.)

Most of the music in Copacabana is written by Sam Coslow. It’s uniformly good, but for my money, the best song in the picture is Carmen Miranda’s performance of “Tico Tico No Fubá,” which was written by Zequinha de Abreu and Aloysio de Oliveira.