Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 7, Number 9: August 2007

Offtopic Perspective

50-Movie Classic Musicals, Part 2

Disc 7

Rock, Rock, Rock. 1956, b&w, Will Price (dir.), Alan Freed, Tuesday Weld, Teddy Randazzo, The Moonglows, Chuck Berry, The Flamingos, Jimmy Cavallo and the House Rockers, the Johnny Burnette Trio, La Vern Baker, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Cirino and the Bowties. 1:25.

There’s a plot of sorts—Tuesday Weld (age 13, in her first role) needs a prom dress and gets involved in some really bad arithmetic (“one percent of $1 is $1”) to get it, but it all works out. Meanwhile, she and a girlfriend, and her square pipe-smoking dad, watch Alan Freed’s TV show on which her boyfriend shows up as a singer. He manages to get Freed (remember Alan “Payola” Freed?) to bring the whole shebang to the prom. There’s a little more, but it’s mostly an excuse for music and lots of it. The disc sleeve’s a little off: It claims this is in color, but it was filmed in black and white (with no budget, apparently), and it lists Chuck Berry as the star. He does one really great number, but that’s it.

The good: Lots of great music of the times, and to Alan Freed’s credit he didn’t hold with racial boundaries. Chuck Berry’s song is “You Can’t Catch Me,” one of his great car songs. The Moonglows and the Flamingos are wonderful (and do two numbers each, as do most others). Johnny Burnette’s rockabilly trio is interesting. Frankie Lymon is a tiny first-rate pro—even if his second number (“I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent”) is, well, strange. Tuesday Weld is charming  as a beautiful, innocent, well-meaning but slightly dumb teenager (even if “her” two songs are dubbed by Connie Francis). The square father’s strangely amusing.

The not-so-good: One awful female child singer. A few musical acts that could have been replaced with more Berry, Moonglows, Flamingos and Lymon. Mostly, though, the pain of watching Freed clap hands at apparently random intervals (or, in one case, add odd vocal chops to a sax-heavy instrumental) and other cases where the kids (some of whom appear to be in their 30s) clap hands simultaneously—but at intervals that bear no relation to the beat. Strangest case: One where band members are clapping to keep time, but one claps on the downbeat while one claps whenever he feels like it.

A cheapie, but with some great music if you can get past Freed and some of the others. As to the IMDB reviews: Most are on the money, but one negative one’s absurd—and one other negative one manages to place Chubby Checker in this movie, which is simply wrong. $1.25.

King Kelly of the USA, 1934, b&w, Leonard Fields (dir.), Guy Robertson, Edgar Kennedy, Irene Ware, Ferdinand Gottschalk, Franklin Pangborn. 1:06.

As a musical, it’s sort of a flop, although one piece does get used a lot. The print’s dark and damaged, dark enough to be annoying. On the other hand, it’s a pretty good comedy, poking fun at “Ruritania”-style monarchies, show biz and efficiency experts. If it weren’t for the print, I’d give it more than $1.00.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Revue, 1955, b&w, Joseph Kohn (dir.), Nat ‘King’ Cole, Delta Rhythm Boys, Ruth Brown, Willie Bryant, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Dinah Washington, Joe Turner, The Clovers. 0:37.

The two movies on side B—the two “Revues”—are pretty much the same thing, which in these cases is high praise. Combined, these appear to be three episodes of a (TV?) show set in the same Harlem theater, with the same host (Willie Bryant) and an incredible variety of music with dance and comedy thrown in. Both cast lists here are incomplete (Bryant pushes the acts through one after another). Don’t expect “Rock ‘n’ Roll” but it’s quite a revue nonetheless. The sleeve reverses the timing for this and the next one. The print isn’t great and the sound is occasionally distorted—but it’s still worth $1, even for what’s basically a half-hour short subject. $1.

Rhythm and Blues Revue, 1955, b&w, Joseph Kohn and Leonard Reed (dir.), Lionel Hampton, The Larks, Sarah Vaughan, Bill Bailey, Count Basie, Joe Turner, Delta Rhythm Boys, Cab Calloway, Nat ‘King’ Cole, Nipsey Russell, Amos Milburn. 1:11

Same setting, same host, but this is two episodes put together (there’s an obvious cut and Bryant welcomes us again halfway through). More music, including Joe Turner’s version of Shake, Rattle and Roll and Cab Calloway’s astonishing Minnie the Moocher. Great stuff throughout, marred only by serious visual damage to much of the print—but the soundtrack’s OK, and that’s what matters. $1.75.

Disc 8

A quick note about some IMDB reviews, particularly of the second and third movies: I don’t know how to write down a razzberry, but that and some unprintable language constitute my comment. And calling Hi-De-Ho a “race film,” while possibly accurate in terms of original distribution, says more about the commenter than it does about the universal talent of Cab Calloway and his band.

Till the Clouds Roll By, 1946, Color, Richard Whorf (dir.), June Allyson, Judy Garland, Van Heflin, Lena Horne, Van Johnson, Dinah Shore, Frank Sinatra, Gower Champion, Cyd Charisse, Angela Lansbury. 2:15

[Note: This movie was also in Family Classics Movie Pack. I did not re-review it except to check for picture and sound quality. This is the review from the early viewing, unchanged except to change “$4” to “$2” in light of changing DVD prices.] Astonishingly, MGM failed to renew copyright on this biopic of Jerome Kern, so it’s in the public domain. The bio part is so-so, but the musical numbers are great and the print nearly flawless. (I was seeing occasional flaws, then realized that they occurred at regular intervals in the upper right hand corner: They’re reel-change flags, not flaws.) The picture is good enough that I tried it on our big TV to verify quality, which turns out to be VHS quality: Soft for a DVD, and the Pause key shows the difference, but still remarkable for $0.60. And what a lineup of stars, all singing Jerome Kern’s music. $2, easy.

All-American Co-Ed, 1941, b&w, LeRoy Prinz (dir.), Frances Langford, Johnny Downs, Marjorie Woodworth, Noah Beery Jr., Harry Langdon, Alan Hale Jr. 0:53 [0:48].

It’s short for a feature but it’s a charming musical comedy beginning with a drag song-and-dance number (with frat boys from “Quinceton”) and continuing through a simple but well-done plot with enough humor and plenty of music. The print is excellent. Nominated for two Oscars. It’s a Hal Roach film, and I think it’s a keeper. $2.

Hi-De-Ho, 1947, b&w, Josh Binney (dir.), Cab Calloway, Ida James, The Millers. 1:12 [1:03].

Let’s get the bad parts out of the way first. The plot is minor at best. The acting in the plot portion of the movie isn’t wonderful. One song that does not appear is Minnie the Moocher (but there’s one heck of a Saint James Infirmary). The print, while very good, is not entirely flawless (and apparently missing nine minutes). Then there’s the good news: The plot doesn’t matter, since the bulk of the movie is head-on numbers by Cab Calloway and his remarkable band—although the band isn’t as remarkable as Calloway himself. There are a few other numbers (great tapdancing by the Millers, one or two songs by an unremarkable trio), but mostly there’s a lot of Cab Calloway, and I can’t see asking for much more. What an entertainer! Singing, moving, getting down, scatting… One good Cab Calloway number is worth a quarter extra in almost any film—as with Nat King Cole, Lionel Hampton and Count Basie. A film that’s almost entirely Cab Calloway and band—well, I’m torn between $2 and $2.25. (Hey, with Minnie the Moocher it might get the maximum $2.50.)

Breakfast in Hollywood, 1946, b&w, Harold D. Schuster (dir.), Tom Breneman, Bonita Granville, Billie Burke, Ray Walburn, Zasu Pitts, Hedda Hopper, Spike Jones, Nat ‘King’ Cole. 1:30 [1:27].

The weakest flick on this disc, but that says more about the strength of the first three. “Breakfast in Hollywood” was Tom Breneman’s radio show at his Hollywood restaurant; portions of a supposed episode of the show (and dinnertime entertainment at the restaurant) form the heart of the movie and pretty much all the music. The main plot involves a girl out from Minneapolis on a bus to meet her fiancé, just out of the armed forces—but he’s not there and she runs into another just-released kid at the show, from the same city. Turns out her fiancé got married. The kid falls head over heels for her. She leaves to go back home. Breneman gets involved. There are secondary plots involving Hedda Hopper’s silly hats and a woman who really wants to have the oddest hat at the show because Breneman tries one on and kisses the woman wearing it. There’s more, of course. Well played. Spike Jones, Nat ‘King’ Cole, and some vocalist each get two numbers; it’s great to see Spike Jones in action, and one of Cole’s numbers is an absolutely first-rate blues piece. The negatives: The print’s not in great shape, with damage to the picture and sometimes the sound. Even with damage, this comes in at $1.50.

Disc 9

Side A of this disc contains Soundies Festival and Soundies Cavalcade. Those titles are artificial, appearing only on the sleeve and as menu slides to cover the six “soundies” included—six brief musical shorts, all featuring black performers.

Mr. Adam’s Bomb, 1949, b&w, Eddie Green (dir.), Gene Ware, Jessie Grayson, Mildred Boyd. 0:20.

Silly but cute comedy, not much more than a sketch. Not much to say. I’ll give it $0.25.

Bubbling Over, 1934, b&w, Leigh Jason (dir.), Ethel Waters, Southernaires, Hamtree Harrington, Frank L. Wilson. 0:20?

Another sketch, although fairly well developed for its brief length. Scratchy video and sound. $0.25.

Open the Door, Richard and Answer to Open the Door, Richard, 1945. William Forest Crouch (dir.), Dusty Fletcher, Stepin Fetchit. 0:09 + 0:10

The last short in Soundies Festival is Open the Door, Richard—a remarkable 9-minute drunk-act monologue by Dusty Fletcher. But in IMDB, that title yields what’s here (as the first short in Soundies Cavalcade) as Answer to Open the Door, Richard, here two minutes shorter than the IMDB summary. This one’s an extended music piece with a jazz group and back-and-forth between Dusty Fletcher (the drunk on the sidewalk) and Stepin Fetchit (Richard, not all that chipper himself but just married and not about to open that door). The second part’s seriously choppy, but I’ll give the combination $0.50.

Murder in Swing Town, 1937, b&w, Arthur Dreifuss (dir.), Les Hite and his orchestra. 0:10.

This one isn’t even in IMDB—not surprisingly. It’s basically two musical numbers with a vague semblance of a plot mixed in. Choppiness doesn’t help. $0.25.

Boogie-Woogie Dream, 1944, b&w, Hans Burger (dir.), Lena Horne, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, Teddy Wilson and his band. 0:13.

Definitely the highlight of this side. The plot, such as it is, has a posh couple falling asleep at a nightclub as it closes—and the dishwashwer (Lena Horne) fantasizes with a couple of other cleanup folks (Ammons, Johnson) about singing and playing with Teddy Wilson. Mostly music, and great music at that. For a change, the video and sound are pretty good. This one gets $0.75—which for 13 minutes isn’t bad.

Reaching for the Moon, 1930, b&w, Edmund Goulding (dir.), Douglas Fairbanks, Bebe Daniels, Edward Everett Horton, Bing Crosby. 1:14 or 1:06 [1:06]

This should be a screwball musical comedy based on Irving Berlin’s musical—except that in this version, only one song remains, more than 44 minutes into the movie. So it really isn’t a musical—but it’s loads of fun, with the senior Douglas Fairbanks acquitting himself as a swashbuckling investor (just before the crash) who doesn’t deal with ladies very well. Mostly set on a cruise ship. Art deco lettering throughout—in the hotels, on Wall Street, on the ship—adds an odd air, but this isn’t meant to be taken seriously in any case. I believe Bing Crosby does one verse of the one song, but he’s good while he’s there. $1.25.

Mr. Imperium, 1951, color, Don Hartman (dir.), Lana Turner, Ezio Pinza, Marjorie Main, Barry Sullivan, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Debbie Reynolds. 1:27.

This is more like it: most definitely a musical (although Debbie Reynolds—18 at the time—doesn’t sing, and Lana Turner’s songs are dubbed by another singer) and a romance. Turner’s a singer, later a movie star; Pinza’s a crown prince, later king. They meet, fall in love, are separated for 12 years, meet again (this time in California), fall in love again—and are separated again, but we assume it will all work out. Not great, but good (although the heat between Pinza and Turner is room temperature at best), and both color and sound are quite good. $1.50.

Disc 10

Royal Wedding, 1951, color, Stanley Donen (dir.), Fred Astaire, Jane Powell, Peter Lawford, Sarah Churchill, Keenan Wynn. 1:33.

[Note: This movie was also in the Family Classics megapack and the review that follows is from that copy. The movie is such a treat that I watched part of it again; the color and sound are both fine.] Fred Astaire dancing on the walls, on the ceiling, and on a cruise ship dance floor in heavy seas—with Jane Powell, who’s very good. Excellent print through most of the movie (with slight damage in a few minutes), and a wonderful movie—not much of a plot (and Peter Lawford didn’t exactly set the screen on fire with his thespian abilities), but great dancing, fine singing, and just plain charming. Technicolor, generally vivid color. $2.00

The Pied Pier of Hamelin, 1957, color, Bretaigne Windust (dir.), Van Johnson, Claude Raines, Jim Backus, Kay Starr, Doodles Weaver. 1:29 [1:27]

[Also in the Family Classics megapack and not newly reviewed.] Made for TV? While the print’s generally very good, there are quite a few gaps—more disturbing than usual since this is a musical. Van Johnson has two roles (one of them the Pied Piper). The conceit here is that the music is all by Grieg. The problem here is that it’s a lackluster picture. OK, but no more than that. $0.75.

Wild Guitar, 1962, b&w, Ray Dennis Teckler (dir.), Arch Hall Jr., Nancy Czar, Arch Hall Sr., Ray Dennis Steckler. 1:32 [1:29].

Remember Eegah? (C&I 6:12, October 2006) It was a thoroughly lame “scifi” movie slightly redeemed by Richard Kiel (Jaws in Moonraker) as the slightly pre-human title character. It was considerably less redeemed by an untalented and not wildly attractive teenager who tended to break out in song at various intervals, mostly sappy ballads. That teenager was Arch Hall Jr., and the director (and, I believe, producer) was his father, Arch Hall Sr., who also acted in the film. So here we have the same father-son team (although Hall Sr. found a different director), the same mediocre ballads—one of them literally the same—and a picture about corrupt music managers that might have promise if it wasn’t such dreck. Arch Hall Jr. plays a kid who blows into LA from South Dakota with a guitar and $0.15—and immediately Makes It Big, albeit with a crooked promoter (his father) and the promoter’s gunslinging evil sidekick (played by the director). Nancy Czar is, of course, the beauty who falls for him despite silly obstacles (she’s a fine ice skater, based on one of the film’s better sequences). There are also a trio of would-be crooks who make the Three Stooges look like Ivy Leaguers. “Wild” is about as far from this kid’s guitar stylings as you can get: He’s all swoony moony June. Amusing dreck—but still dreck. $1.00.

Murder with Music, 1941, b&w, George P. Quigley (dir.), Nellie Hill, Bob Howard, Noble Sissle & orchestra. 0:59 [0:57].

A bunch of good music from little-heard musical groups—and a plot that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It’s another all-black movie (Nellie Hill was also in Killer Diller, reviewed in C&I 7.5, in a smaller role). Unfortunately, the first half is choppy—those missing two minutes seem to be a half-second at a time, through enough musical and plot sections to make viewing difficult. Too bad; the second half’s better and the music (and one dance number) is excellent. Even with those flaws, it’s worth $1.00.

Disc 11

Jack and the Beanstalk, 1952, color and sepiatone, Jean Yarbrough (dir.), Bud Abbott,Lou Costello, Buddy Baer. 1:10. [1:21]

[Also in Family Classics pack, not rereviewed.] I’m not sure why IMDB lists this as 11 minutes shorter than the running time on the DVD, but an Argentine release was apparently somewhere in the middle. This was another pleasant surprise. The surround, in sepia, has Abbott and Costello trying to babysit a rotten kid. The middle, in color, is the book Costello reads to him—or, rather, has the kid read to Costello. It’s a vivid retelling with songs added (which don’t help), with Costello as Jack and Abbott as the greedy butcher (who also climbs up to the castle). Not a laugh a minute, but well done. The print’s good but the sound is a little harsh sometimes. As for the acting, it’s fine—except for the Handsome Prince, who—when supposedly courting the Beautiful Princess (both assuming the roles of commoners, both held by the Giant)—seems to be looking over her shoulder either in a mirror or at his boyfriend. All in all, though, pretty good. $1.50

The Road to Hollywood, 1946, b&w, Bud Pollard (dir.), Bing Crosby, Bud Pollard (narrator). 0:56 [0:53]

[Also in Family Classics pack, not rereviewed.] Bud Pollard, an exploitation director, came up with a stunt to make some quick bucks. He uncovered three comedy shorts made by Danny Kaye for Mack Sennett; when Danny Kaye hit it big in the movies, Pollard stitched footage from the three into a movie he called Birth of a Star—a perfect second feature for theaters that could advertise a big-name star. So Pollard did the same again, this time stitching together excerpts from four Mack Sennett two-reelers starring Bing Crosby, made in 1931 and 1932, with lots of Pollard narration and laudatory comments. The whole thing is just a different form of exploitation. The four short musical comedies on their own might be interesting; the composite is a mess. The print’s only so-so. $0.50

The Big Show, 1936, b&w, Mack V. Wright (dir.), Gene Autry, Smiley Burnette, Kay Hughes, Sally Payne, William Newell, Max Terhune, Sons of the Pioneers, the Jones Boys, the Beverly Hillbillies, the Light Crust Doughboys, Champion, Rex King. 1:10/0:54. [0:55]

The plot: Tom Ford’s making a movie with Gene Autry as his stuntman. Ford goes on vacation (and to hide out from $10,000 gambling debts) and the studio publicist says he’s needed at the Texas World’s Fair in Dallas (where most of this was filmed). Solution? Have Gene Autry don a fake mustache and impersonate Tom Ford. But Ford doesn’t sing—and that’s Autry’s big thing. Lots of music, lots of action with the gangster (who decides to blackmail the studio about the Autry-as-Ford thing, which doesn’t work well because the studio loves having a singing cowboy). Autry wasn’t that hot as an actor at the time, but since he was also playing Ford, he acted as well as Ford. More show biz than western, but plenty of music—and the Beverly Hillbillies were a western singing group a long time before it was a TV show. $1.50.

Black Tights (orig. 1-2-3-4 ou Les Collants noirs), 1960, color, Terence Young (dir.), Maurice Chevalier, Zizi Jeanmaire, Cyd Charisse, Roland Petit, Moira Shearer, Ballets de Paris of Roland Petit. 2:20/2:05 [ 2:03]

This one’s odd and tough to evaluate. It’s four dance performances—The Diamond Crusher, Cyrano de Bergerac, A Merry Mourning and Carmen—with Maurice Chevalier introducing them and providing some English narration. I have no idea how good the dances are (the costumes are fine and done by name designers), although they seemed enjoyable enough. I’d guess this isn’t world-class choreography. The print’s OK (not great), the sound’s OK as well. The big problem: This is a widescreen film, using “curtains” of sorts as black bars. It’s mediocre VHS quality. That means there just isn’t much picture detail to work with—maybe 2/3 of VHS’ 230 lines, if that. As a result, wide shots involving more than two people are so soft as to be uninteresting. A true DVD version (using all 480 lines of DVD, with anamorphic conversion for the widescreen) might or might not be more interesting. As it is, I’m almost reluctant to say $1.25.

Disc 12

Fiesta, 1941, color, LeRoy Prinz (dir.), Anne Ayars, Jorge Negrete, Armida, George Givot, Antonio Moreno, The Guadalajara Trio, José Arias and the Tipica Orchestra of the Mexico City Police. 0:45.

Remember The Dancing Pirate (C&I 7:5, May 2007), filmed in color but only available in black and white? I said I’d love to see that one in color. Well, this somewhat similar (albeit much shorter and less complex) film, also set in a Mexican rancho and with good folkloric dancing, is in color—and spectacular original Technicolor at that, more colorful than most later movies. The plot is simple enough—the rancho owner’s niece is returning from Mexico City and her childhood sweetheart expects they’ll be married, but she shows up with a bozo hunk of a radio actor who she’s engaged to…anyway, it all works out. Almost all of the movie is music, singing and dance, all well done, in simply spectacular costumes and color. The print is in excellent shape; it almost seemed to be DVD quality. Truly a small gem. $1.50 only because it’s too short for $2 or more.

Let’s Go Collegiate, 1941, b&w, Jean Yarbrough (dir.), Frankie Darro, Marcia May Jones, Jackie Moran, Keye Luke, Mantan Moreland, Gale Storm. 1:02

Silly college-fraternity plot based on rowing and a crook passing for a new oarsman. Not many songs, but the ones here are good. Very early Gale Storm (she was 19 at the time), and she does stand out. $1.

Up in the Air, 1940, b&w, Howard Bretherton (dir.), Frankie Darro, Marjorie Reynolds, Mantan Moreland, Gordon Jones, Lorna Gray, Tristram Coffin. 1:02.

Apparently Darro and Moreland made a number of buddy pictures. In this case, they both work at a radio station where a mediocre singer gets shot (as, later, do a couple of others) and Darro tries to solve the crime and get on the air. Lightweight comedy, but not bad. $0.75.

Minstrel Man, 1944, b&w, Joseph H. Lewis (dir.), Benny Fields, Gladys George, Alan Dinehart, Roscoe Karns, Jerome Cowan, Judy Clark, John Raitt (as himself). 1:10 [1:03].

Two Oscar nominations, for best scoring and best original song (“Remember Me to Carolina”), and apparently based on a real character’s success, fall from grace (after his wife dies in childbirth) and eventual redemption. Fields as Dixie Boy Johnson is less than magnetic on the screen and has an odd singing style that you may love or hate. Lots of music, to be sure, much of it very good. Whether you like this movie or not may depend on your tolerance for blackface: Fields and, later, Judy Clark as his daughter (Dixie Girl Johnson on stage), both white, both use classic blackface for their minstrel-show roles. I find that too unsettling (especially in 1944) to give the film more than $1.00.

Rhythm in the Clouds, 1937, b&w, John H. Auer (dir.), Patricia Ellis, Warren Hull, William Newell. 0:53.

Nicely done, with more than enough plot for its modest length. An aspiring songwriter cons her way into the apartment of a successful writer who’s out of town, sells her songs as being cowritten with the missing artist and manages to pull things together when he returns. Good music, nicely paced, a good “second film.” $1.25.

Sitting on the Moon, 1936, b&w, Ralph Staub (dir.), Roger Pryor, Grace Bradley, William Newell, Henry Kolker. 0:54.

William Newell, a nervous sidekick in the previous flick, is also a sidekick this time—as a lyricist to Danny West, who falls for a failing movie star, writes her a song, makes her a success on radio but in the process winds up failing himself (aided by a bogus Mexican marriage while he was drunk). Naturally it all works out. Enough good music to make it work, but enough missing frames in the print to make it awkward. $0.75.

Summing Up

There are some winners here: Rhythm and Blues Revue, Till the Clouds Roll By, All-American Co-Ed, the wonderful Hi-De-Ho, Royal Wedding.

I calculated $30.50 for the first half. That makes the total $63.75 for the set as a whole, with at least eighteen movies that bear watching again. That sounds about right. At $16 or so, it’s a bargain, for the rare flicks and for the just plain good ones.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 7, Number 9, Whole Issue 93, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at OCLC.

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