TCM is running a festival this month celebrating the eightieth anniversary of the R-K-O picture studio, which in the 1930s cranked out so many memorable classic films like King Kong and the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers pairings. The tribute started yesterday (and will continue each Wednesday till the end of October), and while I made every attempt to get up early in time to watch Rio Rita (1929)—one of the few Bert Wheeler & Robert Woolsey films I haven’t seen—it was no go. (This will teach me not to stay up late the night previous for a showing of High Noon . I guess.)
I rose and shone in time to catch the last ten minutes of Rita, and then watched Seven Keys to Baldpate (1929), the first sound version of the famed George M. Cohan play based on the novel by Charlie Chan creator Earl Derr Biggers. The only other version I had seen was the 1947 one with Philip Terry; so I’m pleased to report that the ’29 film is miles-and-away better and a lot more fun (though it is a tad stage-bound)…with Richard Dix having the time of his life as an author holed up at the mysterious Baldpate Inn for 24 hours in order to win a bet by completing a novel in that same amount of time. I usually associate Dix with the Whistler programmers made at Columbia in the 1940s (loosely based on the radio series of the same name), so it was a refreshing change of pace to find him in positively buoyant spirits.
Next up on the schedule was Dixiana (1930), a musical extravaganza that was the flavor-of-the-month in its day (particularly due to its early Technicolor sequences, much like Rio Rita) but is now dated-as-all-get-out…and a bit offensive to boot. The film barely finishes with its opening credits when a plantation owner (Joseph Cawthorn) remarks to his son (Everett Marshall) that his slaves sing better than any of the others on the neighboring plantations. “That’s because they love you, Daddy,” the son asserts—guaranteeing an outbreak of groans and rolling eyeballs from anyone with the intestinal fortitude to sit through this creaker. The movie—which is every bit as enlightened as Check and Double Check (1930)—does have a redeeming social value or two; I think Bert and Bob’s comedy sequences are well-done (“the three cigars” gag is a classic) and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson struts his tap-dancing-on-the-stairs stuff in the Technicolor Mardi Gras sequence.
“Dixiana” refers to N’awlins circus performer Dixiana Caldwell, played by the lovely Bebe Daniels, and she’s courted by one Carl Van Horn (Marshall) who proposes to her and escorts her to his father’s Happy, Singing Slave Plantation along with her partners Ginger (Woolsey) and Peewee (Wheeler). As she’s presented to high society, Bert lets slip the fact that she’s in the circus bidness and the snobbish, social-climbing Madame Van Horn (Jobyna Howland) orders her out of the house. Dixiana and Company wind up working for the sebaceous Royal Montague (Ralf Harolde), who has designs on Dixiana himself; the film concludes after Montague challenges Carl to a duel (as it turns out, Monty killed Carl’s uncle in a similar fashion) that winds up in the murder of Royal’s faithful lackey (Eddy Chandler). I don’t normally, as a rule, root for the bad guy but I was sort of hoping Monty would end up killing Carl only because actor Marshall has this annoying, simpering grin throughout the picture that really makes you want to slap it off his face. (Marshall, a renowned operatic baritone, made only one other movie before returning to the stage, as a grateful movie-going public cheered him on.)
Dixiana is one of the few W&W features available on DVD, along with Half Shot at Sunrise (1930) and Hook, Line and Sinker (1930) (both of which have fallen into the public domain); Nostalgia Family Video also carries the Bert and Bob comedies Caught Plastered (1931) and Hold ‘em Jail (1932). There’s a petition floating around the Internets somewhere asking TCM to consider releasing more Wheeler & Woolsey features (I’d kill to see Diplomaniacs , Hips, Hips, Hooray! , Cockeyed Cavaliers , Kentucky Kernels  and The Nitwits  in a box set) but I suppose we shouldn’t hold our breaths anytime soon. By the way, TCM found time to squeeze in one more W&W which I hadn’t previously seen: Girl Crazy (1932), an early film adaptation of the George and Ira Gershwin musical. It’s a particularly odd duck, and is certainly not going to make you forget the Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland version anytime soon—but despite the naysayers at the IMDb, I think Bert and Bob are tops.
TCM has some great “counter programming” on this evening opposite the Veep debate: a nice little bundle of film noirs beginning with the recently-released (again) to-DVD Boomerang! (1947) at 8pm. This will be followed by He Walked by Night (1948), the Jules Dassin classics The Naked City (1948) and Brute Force (1947), The Captive City (1952) and Down Three Dark Streets (1954). Naturally, they stick the one noir I’ve not watched in the insomniacs zone (Streets)—but I highly recommend noir fans (and would-be fans) watch every movie in this lineup…particularly Captive, which doesn’t get shown much but is first-rate stuff starring John Forsythe as a crusading reporter out to rip the lid of corruption off a small town. (I’ve always believed that Phil Karlson used Captive as a blueprint when he made The Phenix City Story .)