Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Movies that I’ve stared at recently on TCM #55 (Ann Miller edition)

Yes, yesterday The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ celebrated Johnnie Lucille Collier’s birthday yesterday—Ms. Collier being more familiar to movie fans as Ann Miller, tap dancer extraordinaire. I watched/recorded most of the entries but unfortunately missed out on Jam Session (1944) and Eve Knew Her Apples (1945) because…well, because by that time my all-too patient mother was starting to subtly suggest a mutiny (she is not a musicals fan by any stretch of the imagination). I should also point out that the review of Reveille with Beverly in this post has been recycled from an earlier blog entry (I originally caught this fun film in July 2008).

Radio City Revels (1938) – When I previewed this film in January 2010 as part of TDOY’s “Coming Distractions” feature I wrote: “…and while I’m sure Revels is going to disappoint me, how can I go wrong with Bob “Bazooka” Burns, Jack Oakie and Milton Berle?” It’s not often that I nail a film like that, but I really hit that one on the head—Revels is a disappointment, despite a stand-out cast. Ann plays Billie Shaw, an aspiring dancer (there’s a wonderful sequence where she tap dances outside a radio broadcast where Kenny Baker—playing himself—is singing I’m Taking a Shine to You) who’s the protégé of Harry Miller (Oakie), a songwriter who couldn’t compose a hit if he had a revolver at his temple. Miller and his piano-playing sidekick Teddy Jordan find themselves relying on country bumpkin Lester Robin (Burns), a native of Van Buren, Arkansas who is capable of writing first-rate tunes…but only when he’s sound asleep. (In a tongue-in-cheek nod to his Kraft Music Hall boss, Bing Crosby, Burns croons “Boo boo boo boo…” every time he’s about to create a song.) Harry eventually gathers up enough material for a hit musical (that features Baker and Billie, along with Jane Froman, Hal Kemp and his Orchestra) produced by song publisher Paul Plummer (Victor Moore)—but when the secret about Lester’s songwriting powers comes out, he graciously turns over Plummer’s check to Lester and his fiancée Gertie (Billie’s sister, played by the delightfully sharp-tongued Helen Broderick).

The problem I had with Revels wasn’t that the songs were mediocre (they were, save for a ditty called There’s a New Moon Over the Old Mill—and I liked that one only because I thought the set it’s performed on was impressive); it’s just that the movie is way too long (even at ninety minutes). There’s one extended “comedy” sequence where Oakie and Berle are desperately trying to get Burns to sleep (they need one more song for the musical; Burns can’t sleep because he’s pining for Miller and thinks she’s going to wed Baker) and I swear it seemed as long as the entire film itself. Still, Revels is a good showcase for its principals—and also features Buster West, Melissa Mason (a dancer who’s almost as limber as Charlotte Greenwood), Richard Lane and Don Wilson—I guess he and Baker were on loan from The Jack Benny Program. In fact, Broderick has a funny line when Baker introduces himself to her: “Sure…and I’m Charlie McCarthy.” But the funniest line is uttered by the peerless Moore who, observing Broderick’s attempts to get Burns to sleep by putting his head on her shoulder (she’s trying to show Moore that it’s Burns who’s the creative genius and not Oakie), deadpans: “I’m guessing you two want to be alone.”

Go West, Young Lady (1941) – The good people of Headstone are being terrorized by a masked Mexican bandit named “Killer Pete”—and when the stagecoach arrives with their new sheriff, Tex Miller (Glenn Ford), there is naturally a sigh of relief from the townsfolk, save for Jim Pendergast (Charlie Ruggles), owner of the Crystal Palace…who’s received a letter from his brother informing him that “Bill” Pendergast is arriving on the same stage, and Jim wants “Bill” to take over as the long arm of the law. To his embarrassment, Jim learns that “Bill” is the nickname of Belinda Pendergast (Penny Singleton), a demure Eastern woman educated at one of the finest finishing schools—but who nevertheless is determined to look after her Uncle Jim, even if that means moving into his digs which is (gasp!) above a saloon. As is expected, Tex and Belinda engage in a whirlwind courtship and manage to capture “Killer Pete,” who is revealed to be…well, I’ll leave that surprise for those who haven’t seen the film.

Although it looks as if actress Singleton is taking a vacation from the Blondie series, Young Lady is directed by Blondie auteur Frank L. Strayer and co-scripted by frequent Blondie scribe Richard Flournoy. Apart from that, Young Lady is a highly entertaining musical Western comedy, with plenty of offbeat and interesting touches both in its plotting and casting. Ford is on the receiving end of some first-rate physical comedy (Penny hits him with two pies…and a frying pan) and there’s a spirited catfight between Singleton and Ann Miller (she plays the saloon’s resident chanteuse) that’s reminiscent of the go-around between Marlene Dietrich and Una Merkel in Destry Rides Again (1939). Miller’s performance of the title tune is one of the best musical numbers I’ve ever seen her perform—but Singleton also gets to strut her stuff (she has a quarrel with Ann, prompting Miller to quit her job) in the delightful Most Gentlemen Don’t Prefer a Lady. But the real treat comes when Allen Jenkins (who plays a cowardly deputy)—an actor whom I’ve seen in more old movies than I’ve had hot dinners—displays his singing and dancing talents (alongside Miller) in the show-stopping I Wish That I Could Be a Singing Cowboy. If you haven’t seen Young Lady, do so at your first opportunity—the cast includes Jed Prouty, Onslow Stevens, Edith Meiser and Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys (who perform Ida Red).

Time Out for Rhythm (1941) – In his Classic Movie Guide, Leonard Maltin describes Rhythm as a “mediocre show-biz musical” and as usual, he’s not at all far from the mark. Richard Lane and Rudy Vallee (let’s face it—Rudy looks lost without his megaphone and he’s really only funny if Preston Sturges had a hand in the script) are partners in an agency who are booking talent for “television shows”—Rudy wants tap dancing phenom Miller and vocalist Joan Merrill (playing herself) to headline, while Dick forces snobbish Broadway chanteuse Rosemary Lane into the proceedings (Lane has Dick wrapped around her finger). That’s all you need to know about the plot; the main reason to watch this movie is for the specialty acts, including Glen Gray and his Casa Loma Orchestra and Six Hits and a Miss (both performing The Boogie Woogie Man—filmed in bizarre Busby Berkeley-ish style). Rhythm remains a first-rate showcase, however, for The Three Stooges—they perform some truly funny routines including their classic “Maha? Aha!” bit; if you’ve only seen them do this in the 1946 two-reeler Three Little Pirates you’ll be bowled over by this version, particularly since Curly (sans stroke) performs it with unbridled gusto. The Stooges even get a novelty number to sing (accompanied by Eddie Durant’s Rhumba Orchestra), aided and abetted by Brenda (Blanche Stewart) and Cobina (Elvia Allman), on loan from The Bob Hope Show. (Allen Jenkins—playing a character named “Off-Beat”—gets another opportunity to strut his stuff in a musical number with Annie entitled Obviously the Gentleman Prefers to Dance.)

Reveille with Beverly (1943) – Ann has the title role in this 1943 Columbia WW2 propaganda effort that was based on the popular AFRS program hosted by Jean Ruth Hay. She’s a radio station switchboard operator who aspires to be a disk jockey, and manages to convince snooty Franklin Pangborn (whose early morning show specializes in playing “longhair” music) to take a vacation, filling in with some swing and jumpin’ jive courtesy of appearances from the Mills Brothers (Cielito Lindo, Sweet Lucy Brown), Count Basie (One O’clock Jump), Duke Ellington (Take the “A” Train), Bob Crosby (Big Noise from Winnetka) and Frank Sinatra (Night and Day). The music is the whole show here, since Reveille’s plot has the nutritional value of a deep-fried Twinkie; William Wright and Dick “Captain America” Purcell are a society swell and his ex-chauffeur newly drafted into the Army and in competition for Miller’s attentions, and Larry Parks is her brother…also a G.I. (Tim and Irene Ryan are also on hand as the radio station manager and his ditzy secretary.) The only major drawback to this movie is that you have to wait till the end to see the incomparable Ann tap-dance up a storm, but Reveille also contains a funny performance from the Radio Rogues, a comedy team (its members were Jimmy Hollywood, Eddie Bartell, Sydney Chatton) that specialized in impersonating radio stars like Amos ‘n’ Andy, Lum & Abner and Kate Smith…and who had a very short-lived series of two-reelers at Columbia in the 1930s. (One of them does a dead-on impression of John Nesbitt, known for his Passing Parade shorts at M-G-M.) It’s short-and-sweet at 78 minutes and definitely worth the price of admission…except I had difficulty figuring out how someone like Wally Vernon got into the service back then.

Bookmark and Share


Jeff Overturf said...

Ann Miller is a good thing to "stare at"on TCM or anywhere!

Stacia said...

"Eve Knew Her Applies" is 100% NOT GOOD. You didn't miss anything, it's a boring remake of "It Happened One Night".

I wish I knew more about the slang phrase "time out for" because there are a lot of movies with the phrase in the title, yet they do not seem to be related to each other.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Ann Miller is a good thing to "stare at"on TCM or anywhere!

You got an Amen, Brother Overturf!

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

"Eve Knew Her Applies" is 100% NOT GOOD. You didn't miss anything, it's a boring remake of "It Happened One Night".

Yeah, in retrospect the only movie I really lament not taping is Jam Session (1944)...I did so much want to see Satchmo.