Musical Revolution: King of Jazz (1930) Gets a New Restoration (and a Book!)

king of jazz posterWe classic movie geeks know a thing or two about suffering for what we love.

We grieve over the films locked away in studio vaults.

We watch dreary, fuzzy transfers of hard-to-find movies and fantasize about what the film would look like with some tender loving care.

We fork over whole paychecks to go to festivals where we try hard not to blink during screenings of sublime rare films, knowing we may never see them again.

So, good news—a lost film found, a DVD or Blu-Ray release of a buried classic, generous funding for archives—means a lot to this community. And some recent developments have made me jump for joy.

Universal is restoring The King of Jazz. Shot entirely in two-color Technicolor, this 1930 musical revue features toe-tapping tunes performed by Paul Whiteman’s orchestra and spectacular production numbers interspersed with brief comedy sketches.

Film historians James Layton and David Pierce, co-authors of the sumptuous and fascinating Dawn of Technicolor, 1915–1935, are advising on the restoration. I got the king of jazz layton and pierce bookchance to ask Layton, manager of MoMA’s Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center, a few questions about the restoration, the film, and his and Pierce’s forthcoming book, King of Jazz: Paul Whitman’s Technicolor Revue.

If you’ve seen this elusive early sound milestone, you’ve probably seen a mutilated version. According to Layton, “No version of King of Jazz seen since the 1960s has been close to the original release version (which was first screened in New York City on May 2, 1930 at 105 minutes). The VHS releases and various 16mm prints floating around have had at least ten minutes missing and scenes in the wrong order.”

And, as if that’s not bad enough, the way those versions look could give anybody the shrieking fantods.

Early Technicolor’s restricted palette lent a refreshing, eye-popping vigor to trippy early musical sequences. But you’d never know that from the old transfers of King of Jazz circulating these days. With washed-out actors, ghastly dried-Playdough pinks, and heinous shades of blue, the VHS version I saw seems more like a horror movie. When I’m watching Bing Crosby’s first film appearance, I shouldn’t be thinking that he bears an alarming resemblance to Chucky.

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Honestly, squint a little, and you’d think the colorization folks had gotten out their big box of crayons and gone to town. Shudder, shudder.

(Note: most screencaps in this post come from a much prettier original trailer for King of Jazz, which you can watch at the Internet Archive, NOT from the awful feature-length version I saw.)

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If ever a film needed the royal treatment, King of Jazz is it. Heralded since 2012, when this blog was just a gleam in my eye, Universal’s restoration is finally on the verge of bringing all that jazz back to theaters.

The restoration primarily draws on a pristine but condensed camera negative, sliced down to a 65-minute version for a reissue in 1933. Compare that with an original running time of 105 minutes. (Pause for facepalm.) Fortunately, scanned nitrate prints from the Library of Congress and the Danish Film Institute can fill in the gaps.

As Layton told me, “I haven’t seen the finished restoration yet, but I can confirm it will feature footage that has not been seen by audiences since 1930.”

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He and Pierce had initially planned to write an article about King of Jazz to mark the restoration. “But as we were researching we kept finding more and more amazing resources that were too irresistible not to draw upon. We soon decided we had enough for a book!”

King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman’s Technicolor Revue will include many images never before published. For instance, reproductions of Academy Award-winning production designs by Herman Rosse “will form the backbone of the book.”

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Scanning one of Rosse’s production designs for the upcoming book…

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…and the design as it appeared in the film.

Layton and Pierce’s research is shedding light on how early talkie Hollywood continued to produce for foreign markets. Remember the Spanish-language Dracula? Well, Universal simultaneously produced 9—NINE—foreign versions of King of Jazz! Alas, all of these except the French version (preserved at the Gosfilmofond in Russia) are lost.

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A still for “Il re del jazz,” the lost Italian version of “King of Jazz.”

The studio chose a veritable “It’s a Small World After All”-worthy crew of international actors working in Hollywood to serve as hosts for audiences in foreign countries.

“We found extremely rare photographs of nearly all of the foreign hosts, including Nils Asther, Bela Lugosi, Tetsu Komai, Andre Cheron and Antonin Vaverka,” Layton says.

And, if you’re interested in how audiences from Portugal to Japan responded to this surreal riot of Art Deco pop culture—translated into their native tongues—the book will cover that, too. “We worked closely with Gosfilmofond, the Czech national film archive, Museo del cinema in Turin, the Swedish Film Institute, and a host of international film researchers to translate original articles from international newspapers and magazines.”

I asked Layton if he’d uncovered anything else surprising about King of Jazz. He explained, “One of the most eye-opening moments early on in our research was the realization that a lot of the musical numbers were not new to the film; they had been honed on the Broadway and vaudeville stage throughout the 1920s, and were then re-imagined for motion pictures by visionary director John Murray Anderson.”

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Indeed, King of Jazz strikes me as a thrillingly transitional film, sometimes bound to stage conventions, but more often innovative and cinematic, breaking out into an impossibly fluid space. For instance, the musical number “It Happened in Monterey” uses the potential of cinematic space to conjure up a nostalgic past.

The sequence’s “protagonist” (golden-voiced John Boles) starts out singing about his lost love while looking at her portrait in a small, confined room. The camera tracks in towards the painting—which dissolves into the subject of the portrait (Jeanette Loff)—then camera moves out to reveal a vast, romantic stylized vision of old Monterey.

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Sure, you’ll get wide shots of kicklines, as though you were plunked in the audience of a big Broadway theater. Yet, you’ll also get ethereal double exposures, oodles of tracking and crane shots, passages of fast, rhythmic editing, and animated musical interludes, all drenched in the psychedelic glory of early Technicolor.

My favorite shot of the film comes during the“Rhapsody in Blue” sequence, probably the best-known portion of the film, thanks to its giant piano and top-hatted Russell Markert dancers (a troupe we now know as the Rockettes). Yet, amidst all that extravagance, the image that lingers in my mind is this shot of a clarinetist.

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This low angle brings us into the intimacy of the performance and gives us a perspective that we’d be unlikely to encounter in real life. Towering against the glittering blue background, the clarinet player takes on the power of a shaman, channelling the magic of jazz into a new era of audiovisual stimulation.

In a similar vein, look at this overhead shot of the violins section in Whiteman’s orchestra.

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I know what you’re thinking: it looks sort of Busby Berkeley, right? Well, King of Jazz hit theaters in the spring of 1930. And Whoopee!, the first film on which Berkeley worked as a dance director, premiered in New York City on September 30 of the same year.

King of Jazz is both a rip-roaring good time and a key film in the development of the musical as a genre. And for many years it’s been something of a “missing link.” I look forward to learning more about it.

For more information about Layton and Pierce’s new book, check out their Kickstarter and consider backing it. Support film scholarship!

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Now, you might be wondering, how can cinephiles see the restoration? Well, I’ve got more good news.

The restored King of Jazz will premiere at MoMA as part of upcoming series focusing on Universal’s years under the reign of Junior Laemmle.

Often ridiculed as a brash baby mogul, Junior received studio control in 1929 as a 21st birthday gift from his father, Universal founder Carl Laemmle. (And you thought My Super Sweet 16 was wild!) However, Junior’s term as general manager bequeathed to us some of the greatest and most enduring films of the 1930s, including Universal’s cycle of horror films, All Quiet on the Western Front, and the 1934 adaptation of Imitation of Life.

Junior’s contributions to film history, especially during the no-holds-barred pre-Code era, deserve wider recognition. (Even if he did allegedly think that Bette Davis had the sex appeal of Slim Summerville. We all make mistakes.)

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According to Layton, the Junior Laemmle series, programmed by Dave Kehr, “will include premieres of many new restorations and preservations from Universal’s restoration department.” MoMA will announce dates soon.

(And here’s hoping that these dazzling restorations will make it onto DVD and/or Blu-ray. Seriously, Universal, don’t make me publicly rail against your home release record. Again.)

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If you can’t make the MoMA series, may I interest you in Capitolfest?

This festival screens rare silents and pre-Codes in a 1928 Moorish style movie palace. Believe me, it’s even better than it sounds. King of Jazz poses a special challenge.

As Capitolfest’s Facebook page reports, “unfortunately, there will be no FILM prints [of King of Jazz]. There will be a DCP (digital) print available, however, though we are not equipped to show this at the Capitol. And so, we have decided to show this as our regular weekly attraction at one of the small cinemas next door to the Capitol, from August 11-15.”

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So, two guesses where I’ll be on August 15, 2016.

When it comes to restorations, I usually only see the “after” in the “before and after” process. Having witnessed the wan, chopped-up King of Jazz, I’m especially excited to discover the restoration. I’ll get to observe not only the changes in the film, but also the changes in my reactions to it.

Stay tuned! And don’t let creepy, faded Technicolor Bing Crosby haunt your nightmares.

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My pal Will McKinley of Cinematically Insane has also written about the restoration and done a great interview with James Layton. Highly recommended reading!

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Follow Thru (1930): Fore Play

_follow_thruRed and green, stop and go, naughty and nice: two-color Technicolor is literally made of opposites, of complementary colors that cancel each other out when combined in equal measure.

In pre-Code musical rom-com Follow Thru, the two-color palette, a riot of coral and mint, wages a kind of merry war, to borrow a phrase from one of Shakespeare’s best rom-coms.

This past weekend Capitolfest screened UCLA Film and Television’s 35mm restoration of Follow Thru, transferred from the original camera negative. Sitting in the fourth row, I felt as though I were devouring some rare confection, a peachy parfait of cinematic pleasure. Its two-color cinematography, not to mention infinitely hummable tunes by Henderson, Brown, and DeSylva, banished my blues (pun intended).

Based on a hit Broadway show of 1929, this now-obscure musical frolics through a flimsy plot about a lady golf champ (Nancy Carroll) fighting her fairway rival (Thelma Todd) for the affections of a handsome instructor (Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers). Directors Lloyd Corrigan and Laurence Schwab embrace the toe-tapping whimsy of their source material and never lean too hard on the tension. It’s as though they opened a window in the Great Depression and let an insouciant breeze from the ’20s waft in.

Follow Thru shatters two unfortunately common assumptions about old movies, especially early talkies: first, they were all black-and-white and, second, they were dreadfully stuffy. Well, not only was this 85-year-old musical shot in dazzling color, but it also abounds with more innuendo and risqué humor than you’d find in most modern rom-coms.

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I’ve seen a lot of pre-Code movies, but there were a few lines in Follow Thru that made my jaw drop. For example, curvaceous Thelma Todd hurls herself at petrified millionaire Jack Haley, invites him to come and spend “a week of love” with her, and asks, “Then you will come?” Clearly, um, excited by her advances, Haley sputters, “It won’t be long soon.”

Or consider the sequence where Haley and scene-stealing Eugene Pallette sneak into a locker room full of lingerie-clad ladies with the intention of retrieving a ring. After many shocking revelations for girl-shy Haley, the pair sneak out wearing ladies’ clothes. And, believe me, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Eugene Pallette in a striped day dress.

Like those inscrutable marshmallow circus peanuts you can buy at dollar stores, the thrills in Follow Thru are cheap and possibly damaging to your health, but irresistible… and sort of orangey.

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Why, even the movie’s title turns out to be a double entendre (rather like Much Ado About Nothing, actually). At the end, Rogers and Carroll reunite with the promise of canoodling under some orange blossoms. The hero’s best friend drives away and mischevously calls out, “Follow through!” You get the feeling he’s not talking about a golf swing.

Some movies set out to make a point, some smuggle their messages in, and some have no particular agenda other than your enjoyment. Happily in the last category, Follow Thru pampers its spectators with visual indulgences that transcend its source material.

The film introduces its star, Nancy Carroll, 5 minutes into the runtime with a close-up so delicious that I’d swear it had calories. After taking a careful swing with her golf club, Carroll peers intently into the distance. Just as we’ve adjusted to the rapturous splendor of what we’re seeing, Carroll’s face blossoms into a smile and stuns us anew. The Capitolfest audience greeted Carroll’s face with a ecstatic round of applause.

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If Technicolor founder Herbert Kalmus had dreamed up a movie star to showcase the beauty of the two-color process, he couldn’t have done better than Carroll, with her effervescent green eyes, auburn hair, and apple cheeks. That initial close-up revels in the startling sensuality made possible by technology. As a 1930 advertisement gushed, “The fascinating Paramount star… becomes a new personality under the magic wand of Technicolor—real, vibrant, convincingly alive!”

But that ad copy only partially gets the spell of two-color Technicolor right. Vibrant and alive? Yes. Real? Not by a long shot. That’s why I love it.

Unlike the full spectrum of three-color Technicolor, the two-color process denies us the soothing true blues, cheerful yellows, and sumptuous purples that we see in reality. Instead, early Technicolor plunges the viewer into a festive, askew universe reminiscent of peppermint candy and just as invigorating. Its charm lies in its unreal-ness.

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Due to the vagaries of film preservation and availability, if you’ve seen early Technicolor, it was probably in a short insert sequence, like the masked ball in The Phantom of the Opera (1925), the “Singin’ in the Rain” number from The Hollywood Revue of 1929, or the charity gala scene in Hell’s Angels (1930). These splashy, arresting interludes often display excellent cinematography and color sense, but tend to strike spectators as novelties or flamboyant set pieces, understood primarily in contrast to the rest of the film.

When used for the duration of a feature film, however, two-strip Technicolor gains nuance through its many variations, from shot to shot, from scene to scene. And it’s a sadly little-known chapter of Hollywood history that more than a dozen early sound musicals (as well as some silents and talkies of other genres) were shot entirely in two-color Technicolor.

Follow Thru turns the limitations of the early color process into an advantage by using its restricted range of two opposite colors as a stimulant. The pairing of red and green parallels the madcap rivalries and commedia dell’arte-ish couplings of the film.

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Over the course of Follow Thru’s hour-and-a-half runtime, the piquant balance of reds and greens in each scene heightens the musical’s topsy-turvy charms. A stripe of emerald on a sweater here keeps a scarlet beret there in check. The sparkle of seafoam-colored beads and a spray of ruby feathers (and not much else) on Thelma Todd make an alluring counterpoise to the crimson velvet jacket and forest-green tartan kilt on Nancy Carroll.

The pinks, browns, and subtle celadon shades of outdoor outfits on over 200 extras keep the spring green grass of the Palm Springs fairway from overwhelming the viewer. And a luminous cyan studio backdrop complements the complexions of Rogers and Carroll in a cozy two-shot as they croon—what else?—“A Peach of a Pair” to each other. Covered in blush to register for the Technicolor cameras, the young lovers glow with a rosy flush, as though they share a risqué secret.

Indeed, Technicolor aids and abets Follow Thru’s healthy celebration of desire, courtship, and a new age of permissiveness. The film reserves its flashiest and most humorous use of color for the biggest production number, a playful ode to modern misbehaving. Zelma O’Neil’s performs “I Want to Be Bad,” backed up by chorines who transform from pallid, almost colorless angels to bright red devils… then back into angels.

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Though the number takes place on a stage of a country club (albeit one so opulent and vast as to strain my suspension of disbelief), the film medium stretches that space into something fantastic and thrilling.

A lightning bolt hides a cut and transmogrifies the heavenly choir into kicklines of alluring devils in red body suits. The camera pans across the dancers. Cuts between angles—sometimes abstracting the dancers into patterns of red on green—emphasize the hot rhythm of the music. There’s even a very Busby Berkeley-esque touch when a cherub pulls an alarm, prompting a celestial fire brigade to descend from the clouds and put out the blazing sinners, as flames spurt out of the stage!

Even though the racy dancers end up where they started, as subdued, smiling angels, the musical number exalts the joys of cutting loose. (A scene later Nancy Carroll will go a step further and confirm being bad as an effective relationship strategy when she wins Buddy Rogers back from devious Thelma Todd by gulping down cocktails!) As O’Neil belts out, “If it’s naughty to rouge your lips, and shake your shoulders, and twist your hips, let a lady confess: I want to be bad!”

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The hyperbolic heaven-versus-hell aspect of the song not only ridicules the notion of badness, but also suggests that being a devil is a hell of a lot more fun. The irony, of course, is that none of what the perky comedienne sings about—makeup, dancing, staying out late, maybe some light vamping—is that terrible. It’s hardly brimstone material to “ask for more” out of life, as the lyrics say, right?

Yet, the sanctimonious moral guardians of the 1920s convinced plenty of people that hell is overcrowded with bad little girls who bobbed their hair, laughed at dirty jokes, and took a swig of gin every now and again. “I Want to Be Bad” even includes an allusion to such self-righteous party-poopers: “Some reformers say a warmer climate awaits you,” O’Neil teases, pointing downwards. When she sticks her tongue out at the camera, in many ways she’s really thumbing her nose at the people who were (and are still) threatened by young women making their own choices and enjoying them.

As it happens, the same gaggle of fanatics and censors that the song mocks would make a movie like Follow Thru impossible just a few years later… Fortunately, the film survives in all its irreverent glory. And if it’s naughty to love Follow Thru, then, darlings, I want to be bad!

Alas, Follow Thru is not available on a legit DVD. The screenshots I’ve used in this post are pale and inadequate representations of the film, but I figured they were better than nothing. You can find it online without too much trouble, but all the prints I’ve seen out there are pretty bad.

Just Imagine (1930): Past Forward

justimagineposterCome for the Jetsonian Deco interiors. Stay for the jazzy songs. Leave when El Brendel opens his mouth and spouts some faux-Swedish malapropisms.

Oh, wait, that’s only 15 minutes into the movie. So, steel yourself against creaky ethnic humor and buckle up for liturgical dance orgies on Mars.

A bizarre pre-Code genre hybrid of sci-fi and musical comedy, David Butler’s Just Imagine presents a vision of the future that’s both optimistic and pessimistic—and neither fully utopian nor dystopian.

This disjointed curio is no masterpiece, to put it mildly, but you need to see it at least once in your life, if only to convince yourself that it exists.

Unlike earlier talkie sci-fi extravaganza High Treason (1929), Just Imagine spares us a sanctimonious message. This movie knows it’s ridiculous, but I wonder if it knows how ridiculous. Warning: your camp-o-meter might break.

City on the Edge of (Yesterday’s) Tomorrow

The film opens with a comical comparison between a sleepy New York street scene in 1880, where “you can even hear the rustle of a bustle,” and the claxon-screeching, hectic city in 1930.

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From there, we jump ahead another 50 years—to 1980. (Somehow the writers failed to foresee the big hair, shoulder pads, and synth music. Like I said, it’s not a dystopian future. Although U2 does get a mention at the end. That’s pretty prophetic.)

As a narrator informs us, now “everyone has a number instead of a name and the Government tells you whom you should marry.”

The screen abruptly cuts from a title card to a Metropolis-esque New York of the future, towering with sleek, glistening skyscrapers and teeming with chrome-plated planes
purposefully buzzing along. Minutely detailed and elegant in its uber-urbanity, the skyline of the city no doubt elicited gasps from audiences in 1930. The models and justimagine_skyscraperssets, designed by Stephen Goosson and Ralph Hammeras, remain stunning accomplishments even today.

Out of the air traffic, two angular planes come to our attention. As they move towards each other, high-angle shots let us see other aircraft crisscrossing below and cars edging along bridges further below still, adding breathtaking verisimilitude to the dreamlike city. The pair of planes meet and hover mid-air.

These dizzying heights serve as a trysting place for the conflicted couple—literally and figuratively up in the air—who will dominate our story. As the boy and girl discuss their problems, planes continue to dart in and out of the frame around them.

At its best, Just Imagine engages the viewer on two levels: the technical marvels make us wonder how special effects wizards achieved the illusion while the winning personalities of the leads encourage us to identify with them. Although largely expositional, the opening scene deftly demonstrates this balance, cleverly juxtaposing a striking modern backdrop with the age-old theme of thwarted love. If only the rest of the movie lived up to that promise.

Our Plot Such as It Is

LN-18 (Maureen O’Sullivan) and dashing airman J-21 (golden-voiced tenor John Garrick) want to get married. Unfortunately, the government marriage tribunal has ruled in favor of LN’s other suitor, MT-3, a haughty, vaguely sinister newspaper editor, granting him preference because of his elevated professional position. Unless J can raise his status enough to outrank his rival within 4 months, in time for a tribunal appeal, he’ll lose the girl of his dreams.

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Meanwhile, famous inventor Z-4 is planning to launch the first rocket to Mars and gives J the chance to become the new Lindberg by piloting the spaceship. Our intrepid protagonist accepts the mission… and the risk that he may never return from the daring expedition.

J blasts off with his best friend RT-42 (Frank Albertson) and their bumbling sidekick Single-O (El Brendel). Together, the trio encounters friendly martians—and their evil twins—and swings home just in time to reverse the tribunal’s decision.

Not-So-Brave New World

In the universe of Just Imagine, nobody seems particularly concerned with fomenting revolution or changing the system. Instead, the characters fight for their own personal happiness within the system and largely play by that system’s rules. The message here isn’t so much “Down with Big Brother!” as “Big Brother, pretty please let me marry who I want?”

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The focus on individual outcomes as opposed to social change betrays the movie as a traditional romantic comedy with sci-fi trimmings. The movie’s lack of interest in revolution also reflects the fearful hesitancy of an America still reeling from the stock market crash. As a result, Just Imagine is too much of a light-hearted romp to deliver the cataclysmic, let’s-burn-this-************-down finale that I crave from retro sci-fi. If nothing goes up in flames—or the reaper doesn’t show up—I’m disappointed.

Spectators in 1930 were disappointed, too. Despite earning positive reviews, this sci-fi flick, which cost over a million dollars to produce, flopped at the box office. Ironically, by playing it safe, Just Imagine may have lost out on an audience ready for a more radical future.

Lack of conspicuous upheaval notwithstanding, the script throws in a few sly jabs that seize on fictional, futuristic premises to criticize the realities of Depression-era life. For instance, a grotesque, matronly census-taker compares the oppressive marriage law to the law that enforced Prohibition (predicted to still be in place in 1980!): “Don’t criticize this Marriage Act,” the crone insists. “It, like the Volstead Act, is a noble experiment!”

Only meddling, sexually-frustrated bureaucrats try to regulate love and booze, Just Imagine implies.

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Perhaps the most startling and forward-thinking line of commentary-laced humor targets the rampant anti-semitism of the 1920s and 1930s. As Single-O looks up in the sky, J-21 and RT-42 explain that everyone flies Rosenblatt and Goldfarb planes; hardly anybody drives a car. “It looks like someone got even with Henry Ford,” Single-O laughs, alluding to the inventor’s well-publicized and vicious hatred of Jews.

The future doesn’t belong to Ford and his kind, the film suggests, but to the very people he wanted to persecute. Pondering a movie where the world of tomorrow feels uncomfortably conservative, I can’t help but appreciate that, in this case, the joke “punches up,” taking on ugly prejudices. Now that’s what I call progress.

Nostalgia for Now

On the whole, Just Imagine envisions a future that’s suspiciously nostalgic for the past, specifically for the halcyon days of 1930. Why, the movie even embeds a denizen of yesteryear into the plot as a surrogate for the contemporary audience.

Doctors miraculously revive Ole Petersen, later rechristened Single-O, who was struck by lightning 50 years before and preserved in a state of suspended animation. (The real miracle, however, is that the doctors don’t put him out of his misery the moment he starts talking.) Through his quirky, exaggerated reactions, Single-O, a time traveler in spite of himself, provides cues telling the viewer how he ought to feel about all that future shock.

For instance, when Single-O learns that food and alcohol come in pill form, eliminating the sensual enjoyment of eating and drinking, he waxes poetical about the pleasures of roast beef and beer. Technology has even taken the fun out of making babies, now neatly dispensed by vending machines. “Give me the good ol’ days!” Single-O wistfully repeats again and again.

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The fact that Single-O winds up as the film’s hero, carrying his companions back to the spaceship on Mars and taking a husky martian captive, affirms Just Imagine’s true purpose: bolstering the egos of 1930s audiences. “See?” You can practically hear the fedora-wearing fellows of 1930 muttering to themselves, “We may not have video telephones or rockets or personal planes, but, dammit, we’ve got gumption.”

In its clumsy way, Just Imagine synthesizes a strain of sci-fi designed primarily to edify the era in which the film was made. Most of the great sci-fi movies criticize (allegorically or directly) the direction of modern civilization. By contrast, Just Imagine launches a fantastic thrill ride to Mars in order to assuage the anxieties of an America troubled by the prospect of no frontier left to conquer—even while it hints that the modest joys of 1930 trump the wonders of 1980. This nifty but silly Fox musical sought to feed the confidence of its original audience. These are the good old days, it insists.

Come to think of it, one could argue that the basic concept of a humorous, feel-good sci-fi flick established by Just Imagine, once liberated from its overwhelming nostalgia, finally found success almost 50 years later… in Star Wars.

Old-Fashioned Girls

J-21 longs for a simpler time and an uncomplicated romance. As he confides to his wingman RT-42, “I like a girl like my grandmother used to be. That’s why I like LN. She’s an old-fashioned girl. I should have lived back in 1930.”

From there, J picks up a sort of ultra-modern lute and begins to croon “Give Me an Old-Fashioned Girl.” Meanwhile RT-42 fantasizes about those hot tomatoes of times gone by in a series of humorous vignettes. A dame in a slinky evening gown ecstatically mixes a cocktail shaker in her kitchen. A peroxide blonde succumbs to a forceful kiss from her beau, first beating on his back then slowly giving in. A young mother rocks the cradle with her foot while puffing on a cigarette and reading a risqué novel.

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Each wordless flashback emphasizes a combination of pliancy and naughtiness as the essence of femininity. The message: past, present, and future, women should serve and do so perkily at that. Apparently the caveman mentality wasn’t expected to die out in the space age (and, alas, it hasn’t yet in 2015).

The alarming future foreseen by Just Imagine grants women even less agency than they had in 1930. The government decides their mates for them based on their suitors’ statuses. And, (un)funnily enough, even though the characters complain about the mannish “modern woman,” this vision of tomorrow didn’t open up many new careers for women. For example, RT-42’s girlfriend D-6 (Marjorie White) works as a nurse, flitting around in a costume that I think you can buy at fetish shops nowadays (not that I’d know, of course), for a crew of entirely male doctors.

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Only the odious female census-taker, who looks like a bluestocking caricature from 1912, complains about gender injustice in the year 1980—and, in so doing, turns into a punchline. “Why, you men have all the best of it. For instance, you can file an application to marry me which I can accept or reject, but I can’t put in an application to marry you,” she explains to RT-42.

His reply: “Not such a bad law at that!”

Wait, Did you hear that? Oh, it was the audible thud from that joke. Ugh.

Though woefully underused, the major female characters of Just Imagine, LN and especially D-6, endow the film with its rare glimmers of pathos and rebellion.

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For example, in one memorable shot, echoing the work of sci-fi pioneers like Méliès and Zecca, Maureen O’Sullivan’s face appears superimposed over planet earth. Abstracted into a symbol for suffering sweethearts everywhere, she forlornly recites the lyrics of the song “You Are the Melody,” beseeching her lover to return home. Despite the goofy sentimentality of having to speak the words to a song monologue-style, O’Sullivan conveys a world of melancholy (pun intended) and her tender rendition lifts the banal speech to the level of genuine poignancy.

marjorie_white_justimagineOld-fashioned or not, D-6, played by the effervescent and tragically short-lived scene-stealer Marjorie White, refuses to stand idly by while a cruel system marries her best friend off to some entitled jerk. If I enjoyed Just Imagine, and I’d say I did, White deserves much of the credit. She walks away with the picture. For a sample of her peppy charms, check out the best musical number in the film: White’s duet with Frank Albertson, “Never Swat a Fly.”

The bounciest, cutest little minx ever to challenge the patriarchy, D-6 ultimately saves the day by holding up the court proceeding until J-21 can return victorious from Mars.

Rushing to the front of the courtroom, she flips into full-on melodrama mode and accuses MT-3 of being the father of her (nonexistent) children! Were I ever in a jam, I’d want this futuristic flapper feminist on my side.

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Some of the advances Just Imagine predicted have only come true (or at least become widespread) since 1980, like video calling and electric hand dryers, a.k.a. the scourge of the new millennium. We’ve yet to land on Mars, of course, but that’s okay. The red planet would probably be a huge let-down after this movie.

I’d be positively remiss if I ended this post without briefly touching on the gratuitous pre-Code mayhem that is the Mars segment of this film. Apparently, martian civilization consists of leatherboys and dominatrixes in silver-foil headdresses. This peaceful race of people greets visitors by forcing them out of their clothes and into a walk-in bath.

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The beefy martian warrior king, tricked out in a loincloth and studded leather shoulder armor, even puts the moves on Single-O—in the presence of the Queen, no less. The sidekick giggles, “She’s not the queen of Mars. He is!”

And that’s just the good martians. Their evil twins spend their free time in frenzied trance dances around a giant idol, climbing all over its arms and writhing against it in skimpy proto-punk get-ups. Well, what do you know. I guess they did get something right about 1980, after all…

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This post is part of the For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon, hosted by Ferdy on Films, This Island Rod, and Wonders in the Dark. Please consider donating towards the restoration of a one-reel silent comedy, Cupid in Quarantine (1918). If you love old movies, support them. Click the image below to make your contribution to the National Film Preservation Foundation now!

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The Viennese Teardrop: Luise Rainer in The Great Ziegfeld

Rainer_ZiegfeldWe lost a legend yesterday when Luise Rainer passed away at age 104.

The first actor to win 2 Academy Awards in consecutive years—for The Great Ziegfeld (1936), then for The Good Earth (1937)—she deprecated her talent, calling herself “the world’s worst actress.” I think she was being more than a tad harsh.

Apart from her double Oscar triumph, Rainer is best remembered for rejecting Hollywood at the height of her career. Frustrated with the identity dictated to her by MGM and annoyed by the shallowness of Tinseltown, she dropped her contract. She explained her decision in an interview years later, “I felt very uncomfortable on that pedestal. I was not groomed for that outer life… It all didn’t fit quite with what I wanted to do in life. And I needed to leave, to save myself. And that is what happened.”

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Rainer and Louis B. Mayer, who reportedly told her that he could make a great actress out of any good-looker. She said, “I was horrified!”

When I heard the sad news about Rainer’s death, I felt that a rewatch of The Great Ziegfeld was in order. At 3 hours long, it’s a rather tedious, cameo-crammed musical biopic. In other words, it represents just the sort of sprawling, escapist extravaganza that Depression-era audiences craved from MGM, Hollywood’s most prosperous and prestigious studio.

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Even the usually dependable William Powell betrays signs of fatigue throughout this overblown biopic (although, in all fairness, he portrays Ziegfeld with a helluva lot more charm than my love Cary Grant showed as Cole Porter). Myrna Loy is a delight, as she always was, but she doesn’t show up until after the intermission, which is an awful long time to wade through sequins in hopes of a reunion of everyone’s favorite screen team.

As the French-born singer and actress Anna Held, Rainer really does steal the show. She’s like a lilac-scented breeze wafting through an open window on a stifling day.

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She adds a much-needed touch of naughtiness and gaiety to a post-Code musical, as though she’d magically wandered off the set of a Lubitsch musical. Frolicking across a London musical hall stage, she warbles, “Won’t you come and play with me?” Swaddled though Rainer was in yards of lace, the mischievous twinkle in her eye sufficiently conveyed that Miss Held wasn’t inviting her listeners to join her in game of checkers.

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Rainer’s role in Ziefeld paralleled her real-life struggles with the demands of stardom. In one comic scene, Held throws a full-on temper tantrum to rebel against her manager’s outlandish publicity stunts, such as sending her 20 gallons of milk each day to bathe in.

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Held complains that Ziegfeld doesn’t exploit her talents as much as her fabricated personality: “In Paris I was a big success because they liked my voice. In London I was a big success because they liked my singing. But in America to be a big success I need 20 gallons of milk and then sit in it!” One can imagine Rainer launching into a similar tirade against the superficiality of MGM’s publicity machine.

As Rainer said, “I must’ve been the envy of millions of young girls all over America, and they didn’t know my real life… I had great sorrow.”

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I couldn’t find Rainer’s famous “telephone scene” in a better quality than 240p on YouTube, so I decided to upload a higher quality version. Watch “the Viennese Teardrop” at her most iconic, professing her happiness while she tearfully bids adieu to the love of her life.


Rainer’s acting style is considerably more stylized that what you’ll see in most modern films. However, we must recall that she is actually playing an actress—and a rather flamboyant, fluttery one at that—in a moment of intense self-dramatization. It would be utterly out of character for ze great Anna ’eld to approach such a tragic moment with deadpan sorrow or mumbling naturalism.

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According to Rainer, she contributed to the dialogue for this famous scene and drew on her knowledge of contemporary theater to give it depth. Jean Cocteau’s “La Voix Humaine”—a one-woman play in which the protagonist says goodbye to the man she loves over the telephone—served as her inspiration.

“I was able to abbreviate a small scene and I wrote it. And it was obviously a success,” Rainer explained. I’ve seen Cocteau’s heart-wrenching play performed in a small theater, and Rainer encapsulated its primary emotions astonishingly well in her 3 minute scene.

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In the 20th century and beyond, communications technology, from Held’s old-fashioned telephone call to texts and tweets sent from iPhones, have allowed us all to become performers when we “talk” to each other. Instead of looking someone in the eye when I tell them how I feel, I can retool my reactions and dissemble to suit the situation.

This lack of spontaneity does not necessarily mean a loss of intimacy or emotional connection. In fact, as Rainer clearly understood, the ironic contrast between what we say through our devices and what we really feel offers prime dramatic material.

As cute or affected as Rainer’s telephone scene may appear today, she grasped that the surreal disjuncture between her words and her facial expression would resonate with audiences—and she played it up to sentimental perfection.

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Rainer baulked at Hollywood’s commercialism because she believed that true acting was about giving, about sharing art and passion with an audience. When Ziegfeld was released, American women were watching the men they loved (and depended on) shrivelling into husks of their former selves and, in many cases, drifting away from them. For these burdened mothers, wives, and daughters, the Viennese teardrop’s courageous mourning provided an elegant, idealized catharsis.

“Whatever impression I gave was that of a woman in love and that was my success,” Rainer said, analyzing her appeal in her adopted country. “People could identify themselves with my emotions.”

In a movie suffocating under mounds of spangles and feathers, Rainer incarnated a most unlikely 1930s heroine: a flighty but brave diva who refined the art of sobbing with a smile on her face.

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Songs to Remember: Celebrating the Soundie

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They’re short, snappy, and will have you humming to yourself all day long. They don’t usually have much of a plot, only an excuse for a good tune and some swingin’ choreography. Featuring top musicians, they also helped to launch the careers of future superstars. Seldom watched in single servings, they were usually enjoyed on a self-contained device that looped them in a playlist.

It really sounds like I’m describing modern music videos, doesn’t it?

Well, guess what? Long before the MTV generation, soundies—short musical interludes on film—entertained viewers with infectious tunes, often set off by stylized dramatic scenarios panoramand dance routines. Between 1941 and 1947, over 2,000 soundies circulated through nightclubs, bars, restaurants, or other public spots. Patrons could view a reel of eight of these brief 16mm videos on a kind of audiovisual jukebox or “movie machine,” called a Panoram.

So, while the soundie harkened back to the early motion pictures seen through the peep hole of a Kinetograph, the form also foreshadowed YouTube and today’s era of brief, stimulating clips, savored by an individual or two rather than a crowd. Although cheaply produced, these shorts “required a new kind of image, one not dictated by narrative but by the affectivity of song,” as historian Amy Herzog writes in Medium Cool.

More important, this genre of short film also provided a vibrant showcase for facets of American culture too often excluded from mainstream motion pictures. Within the eight-film formula of the soundie reel, a number featuring African American musicians was typically the finale. So, to honor Black History Month, I though I’d celebrate this key form of African American culture on film, since soundies gave performers of color their chance to shine far more frequently than did feature films of the 1940s. Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Nat ‘King’ Cole, the Mills Brothers, Dizzy Gillespie, and ‘Fats’ Waller—to name just a few—all reached audiences through this new form.

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Although soundies were no match in budget or viewership for the Hollywood musical, they still remain intriguing, and often delightful documents of voices seldom heard in classic movies.

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Consider one of my favorite soundies, “The Outskirts of Town.” This marvelously witty and unusually well-made short packs a concise marital farce in under three minutes and gives two of Hollywood’s most sadly underused talents, Theresa Harris and Dudley Dickerson, a chance to play comparatively subtle—as opposed to stereotyped—comedy. Shambling in the door after a presumably hard day at work, Dickerson plunks down at the kitchen table and sings a dry lament about his wife’s roving eye. Meanwhile, his aforementioned better half, Harris, as breathtaking as usual, flirts hilariously with a series of deliverymen… literally behind her husband’s back!

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This soundie exemplifies the clever use of the cinematic language that the form, at its best, was capable of. The video opens with a lingering tilt upwards from a melting block of ice, lying on the floor, next to two sets of feet, as the camera reveals the charmingly coquettish wife cuddling with the ice man. The use of multiple planes of action later adds to the sophisticated humor of the piece, as Dickerson mournfully croons to the audience while his wife’s escapades take place in the background.

Although admittedly a less than ideal depiction of a couple’s home life, this soundie still portrays the lives of its characters as a subject worthy of the audience’s attention and interest. Which is still an improvement on classical Hollywood’s banishment of African American characters to the corners of its universe.

Interestingly enough, the Production Code—which banned risqué content and enforced a racially regressive worldview—didn’t apply to soundies, since they weren’t distributed for theatrical release. Indeed, with the Soundies Distribution Corporation of America delivering the reels, content might range from maudlin and pure patriotic songs to a striptease. Consequently, “The Outskirts of Town” and other soundies not only turned the spotlight on actors usually confined to the sidelines, but also relied on a slightly more mature and morally ambiguous comedic style that you’d see in many post-1934 features. The result reminds me of what would have happened had Ernst Lubitsch directed a soundie.

Although far from an equitable vehicle for expression—since the producers, distributers, and directors were often white—soundies offered a comparatively positive image of African Americans in an era of segregation. I’m not trying to claim that they’re innocent of stereotyping or demeaning content, but more often that not, the exuberance of these videos encourages identification and admiration rather than distance and mistrust.

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For instance, “A Zoot Suit,” probably one of the more famous soundies due to the presence of a young, luminous Dorothy Dandridge, presents its lead singers as a chic young couple. The soundie defines them primarily by their peppy knowledge of fashion terminology. As the boy and the girl, Paul White and Dandridge, prepare for their Sunday date, they describe their choice of à la mode attire with zingy lyrics to their tailor and seamstress, respectively. Now, the zoot suit (and possibly other sartorial slang in the short) does connote race, since the style was especially popular among minorities, but the racial dimension isn’t coded negatively.

Rather, the soundie’s enthusiasm for White’s zoot suit reinforces the right of minority communities and individuals to develop and delight in their own identity and flair—and to influence mainstream culture with their style. The couple’s fashion vocabulary shows them to be on the cutting edge of fashions that were by no means exclusive to African American sub-culture in the 1940s. Attractive and likeable in appearance and graceful and eager in their stylized movements, the boy and the girl demonstrate their status as modern young Americans who would’ve probably been relatable for viewers of any background.

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Plenty of soundies subordinated narrative in favor of a more presentational mode of performance. The shorts might feature a big band or musical ensemble giving their rendition of a popular song, perhaps punctuated by a dance number or a brief vignette. For instance, in “Your Feet’s Too Big,” attention shifts back and forth between Fats Waller’s wry rendition of the lyrics and a disastrous dancer dominating the floor of a nightclub. Just as modern music videos might include actors playing out a scenario but really focus on the main artist, it’s Waller—not the awkward dancer—who gets the last laugh. Looking into the camera, he drolly talk-sings, “In fact your pedal extremities are quite obnoxious!”

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Similarly, in “Take Me Back Baby,” which features Count Basie and his orchestra, leisurely paced, well-framed shots of different musical sections emphasize the professionalism and the polished teamwork of the ensemble. However, the saxophonist, given a rest in the tune, nods off, dreams about his girl, and begs her to forgive him. By the end of the song, however, we’re back with the band, in the same atmosphere of creative coordination that’s noticeable at the beginning. The dream sequence creates an interesting A:B:A structure, a hybrid between a filmed performance and a dramatic musical number that, again, foreshadows the tropes of the modern music video.

harpEven without semi-narrative content, soundies balanced the duel goals of highlighting the performer’s talents while working with the potential of film as a medium. Kaleidoscope effects sometimes accentuated the dexterity of soloists like pianist Maurice Roco and jazz harpist LaVilla Tulos. It would be eye-catching to watch their fingers at work in a single close-up, but refracted into simultaneous images, the energy multiples amazingly. Since shadows were cheap, dancing silhouettes cast on to walls might enhance the noirish ambiance of a song, as in this soundie of “Minnie the Moocher”—with Cab Calloway, who else?

Most pervasively, soundies would grab the viewer’s attention by singling out performers with expressive close-ups or closer shots. Now, we’ve all come to accept the intimacy that forms between the illuminated faces on our computer screens and our experiences as solitary viewers. But try to imagine how electrifying it would’ve been to have Cab Calloway or Louis Armstrong performing seemingly just for you—not for a nightclub or for a theater full of moviegoers—in the 1940s. Soundies brought the beauty and joy of these artists and their music to viewers in a way that, in my opinion, wouldn’t be really experienced again until the birth of YouTube. In an age of enforced separation, the soundie was a medium of incomparable closeness.

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A largely forgotten time capsule from a rich moment in American music, soundies deserve to be enjoyed and remembered for the rare glimpses they offer of gifted African American personalities and performers.

Here are a few other entertaining soundies or soundie compilations that you can watch on that great digital Panoram, YouTube:

A wonderful half-hour of soundies

Louis Armstrong – “Swingin’ on Nothing”

The Mills Brothers – “Lazy River”

Dorothy Dandridge – “Cow Cow Boogie”

Cab Calloway – “The Skunk Song”

Dizzy Gillespie – “Salt Peanuts”

Out of Tune: Murder at the Vanities

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“The last thing she said over the phone was, ‘You were going to take me to the opening of the Vanities. Now you want to shove me off on a cheap picture show. Nuts!’ ”

—Bill Murdock (Victor McLaglen), Murder at the Vanities

What happens when you put Agatha Christie in a blender with the Ziegfield Follies and some kind of powerful hallucinogen? 

You’d probably get Murder at the Vanities, a film that offers more proof, if needed, that Paramount was the most head-scratchingly, jaw-droppingly, self-destructively, censor-defyingly cuckoo bananas studio of the pre-Code era.

In fact, if this movie has one virtue, it’s the ability to offer up every major motif of the unbridled early 1930s in one big, flamboyant sampler. It might accurately be retitled Pre-Code-O-Rama or the Hays Capades.

A terrific reminder that egregious mash-ups didn’t originate in the 2000s, Murder at the Vanities combines two popular genres of the 1930s: the backstage musical and the complex murder mystery. “What an intriguing premise!” I hear you thinking. No dice. Unfortunately, nearly all of the characters can only be described as shrill and unlikable. (I strongly suspect that a previous incarnation of Seth MacFarlane had a hand in this movie.) Yep, that’s right, folks. I subject myself to some bad movies, too—and all for you!

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Interestingly, this film was directed by the much-maligned Mitchell Leisen who’s behind at least two films that I love (Death Takes a Holiday and Midnight), but whose real talents may have resided in his gifts as a production designer. Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder thought so too, although not quite that kindly. Both of those talented gentlemen decided to direct their own films because they so despised what Leisen did with their writing. As Wilder vituperated, “All he did was he f**ked up the script and our scripts were damn near perfection, let me tell you.” Ouch!

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(Because I try to be a gallant soul, I do encourage you to read Mark Rappaport’s attempt to resurrect Leisen’s reputation. Just don’t tell Wilder or Sturges I told you.)

Well, in this case, Leisen’s Murder at the Vanities lacked even the backbone of a coherent screenplay, much less a script by luminaries like Wilder or Sturges. However, the movie didn’t have to be such a hot mess. A similar musical-murder genre mashup of the 1930s, Charlie Chan at the Opera managed to be much more tautly paced, interestingly shot, and emotionally involving than Vanities.

Trust me, though, if you can stomach some nastiness, racism, sexism, and general vulgarity, the kitsch value and sheer weirdness of Murder at the Vanities makes it worth watching.

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On to the plot—which I found as skimpy as the costumes. The usually huggable Victor MacLaglen plays dim-witted policeman Bill Murdock who decides to investigate some backstage hoopla, such as falling stage lights and potentially lethal bitchiness, at the musical extravaganza Earl Carroll’s Vanities.

The Vanities, as an attraction, aren’t fictional, by the way. They were a real musical review which rivaled the Ziegfield Follies for popularity on the early 20th century variety/exploitation scene. Many of the dancers, billed as “the Most Beautiful Girls in the World,” were brought over to Hollywood especially for this film. Poor dears.

Anyway, since Detective Murdock couldn’t get tickets to the show for his date, he agrees to do some ineffectual sleuthing on the other side of the curtain in order to leer incessantly at a parade of nubile, virtually naked chorines. He bares his teeth like a gorilla during mating season and exhibits even less grace and charm as he stumbles through the backstage mayhem.

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King Leer gets a backstage pass…

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You see, a catty blues belter named Rita Ross (perennial pre-Code mean girl Gertrude Michaels) had a thing going with leading man Eric Lander (Carl Brisson). Ross flies into a jealous rage when she finds out that he’s going to marry operatic brunette Ann Ware (played by the golden-voiced Kitty Carlisle who’s wasted in an irksome nicey-nice role).

Why two women are going head-to-head over Lander is anyone’s guess, since smiley, stocky, heavily-accented Carl Brisson doesn’t exactly light up the screen, despite a fine crooner voice. Seriously—where’s Maurice Chevalier when you need him? I think even a Great Dane could’ve filled out Brisson’s role better.

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Eric Lander tries to talk reason to Rita Ross—who fully deserves the epithet of “Vanity.”

Anyway, mayhem and murder ensue. Who were the writers kidding with the plot? The insane Murder at the Vanities exists for two reasons—and they may be summarized as follows: T and A. The nutty musical shamelessly flaunts the assets of its girls, girls, girls who wear even less than we’re used to for pre-Code dancers. Unfortunately, these dames aren’t anywhere near as rhythmically gifted as their Warner Brothers counterparts. I mean, a lot of the time they’re just standing there like a magazine centerfold! Paramount tried to cover up the dancers’ lack of coordination (well, not cover up… distract) with the most insubstantial outfits short of birthday suits. We’re talking fronds and fig leaves.

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Now, I don’t necessarily object to objectification. For instance, while Busby Berkeley objectified the female body, that genius also abstracted it to the point of sublime unreality and harmony to stimulate a kind of audiovisual ecstasy. Berkeley created the closest thing to avant-garde cinema that Hollywood ever produced. By contrast, Murder at the Vanities is basically a peep show with a few dead bodies.

Art never gets off the runway in its static, unimaginative panoplies of flesh, arranged by Larry Ceballos and LeRoy Prinz. And Prinz—who later worked on Yankee Doodle Dandy and South Pacific—should’ve known better! We watch a bunch of dangerously odd musical numbers transpire on a revolving stage—there’s none of the inventive, dynamic, extradiegetic spaces of Berkeley musicals which tend to flood into sets that couldn’t possibly exist on a single stage.

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The musical variety show within the movie opens with a tone-deaf, hammering musical number about the women who perform in these shows. “Where do they come from and where do they go?” Mary Carlisle asks, as a series of poses give us a few ideas. The half-naked girls pose on cigarette boxes, work in artists’ studios, or pop out from perfume containers.

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Women bought and sold, women as commodities. Women on display for easy purchase and consumption. Hmm. Where have I seen that before? Oh, yeah, every other pre-Code movie.

Then, for no good reason, a bunch of cowboys show up and there’s a mini-orgy of lassos. So, are you freaked out yet?

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The next number takes place on a desert island, swaying to the languorous strains of “Live and Love Tonight.” Whatever my feelings about the movie, I personally adore this wistful tune of the “sweet music” genre. The staging adds to the lulling, dreamy quality of the song. This time, we watch a stage full of recumbent ladies waving feather fans to make the whole floor ripple and undulate.

Meanwhile, Lander, wearing a ripped romper, sings the dreamy song and practically lies on top of his duet partner. That’s right about where I wanted to go all Oedipus on my eyes.

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Don’t you DARE splay any more or I WILL turn off my TV set…

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Just when the viewer is starting to wonder what the Paramount executives were smoking, we get the answer with the musical number—and, no, I am not making this up—“Sweet Marijuana.”

In this novelty rumba tune, Gertrude Michaels pines away for the wacky weed, actually singing to it, as though it were a person: “You alone can bring my lover back to me, though I know it’s only just a fantasy.” (Kitty Carlisle later claimed that she had no idea what Michaels was singing about. I bet she didn’t inhale, either.)

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We also savor shots of a bunch of stationary chorus girls dressed as cactus blooms—naked from the waist-up. And if that weren’t the kicker, one of them suddenly notices something dripping on her shoulder from the catwalk. Blood. She screams just as the number is closing and the cops discover the first body.

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The next musical number, “The Rape of Rhapsody,” lives up to the inflammatory suggestiveness of that name, though not as you might think. In the first part of the number, “The Rhapsody,” Lander, in unfortunate Beethoven breeches, plays a classical ripoff melody at a piano as superimposed dancers swirl around him. Okay, that’s standard fare. Nothing too weird there.

Just you wait.

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Part two takes place in some vaguely Napoleonic salon, where a classical orchestra is presenting the rhapsody as a dull, plodding march. Suddenly, a bunch of black jazz musicians show up in the orchestra, peacefully hijack the tune, and swing it like mad.

And, out of nowhere, Duke Ellington—yes, really him—pops up, filling the screen with his exuberance and refinement as he jams away, giving us an intimate mini concert. We get to look over his shoulder and watch him tickle those ivories. His genuine performance is, without doubt, the best part of the movie. Duke’s glowing celebrity persona and incendiary talent gives us a moment of respite from the trite flatness and flashiness of the film. It seems that he’s the one living thing in it.

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Meanwhile, a bunch of maids of color jump up and start dancing. Gertrude Michaels, in a matching maid outfit, leads the gang and sings the “Ebony Rhapsody,” despite being about as ebony as Snow White. They tap around and everybody has a good time to the new swingin’ tune led by Duke and his ensemble. This might be an uprising, but it’s a fun, friendly one. Jazz babies of the world—unite!

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Until the disgruntled white conductor comes in with a prop machine gun and “shoots” them all for taking over his rhapsody.

Um… are we supposed to find that funny? The gleeful laughs of the audience within the movie suggest that we are—but in what way? Funny as in “Oh, it’s funny to watch black musicians get killed for distorting white music”? Or funny as in, “How exaggerated and ridiculous that was! We all love black jazz as well as white music”? And the whole idea of black musicians, moreover respectable, widely acclaimed black musicians, “raping” white classical music throws us right back to Birth of a Nation territory—albeit in a symbolic, quasi-humorous fashion.

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So, again, the question presents itself: if this is humorous, at whose expense? Is “The Rape of Rhapsody” a musical spoof of the black-versus-white tensions that movies melodramatically portray or is it feeding real aggression?

I suppose that it’s aiming for an innocuous parody, since, after all, the excellent African American jazz musicians do elevate posterthe artistry of the scene—anyone can see and feel that.

They’re part of the attraction and Ellington received prominent billing on the poster, even though he’s only in the film for a few minutes! Nevertheless, the unexpected violence of “The Revenge” leaves a bad taste in our mouths

How did they pitch this bit to Duke Ellington? What did that genius think of all this absurdity and his complicity in it? I have no idea. And the film doesn’t seem to want to answer me. Which is pretty damn disturbing.

But, then again, Vanities is a disturbing film. When we finally discover who the murderer is (SPOILER!), if you didn’t guess in the first reel, like I did, she’s not a self-interested monster, but a victim lashing out against her tormentor. Perhaps the most sympathetic member of the cast, Norma, the maid who scurries around backstage, taking abuse from leading ladies, finally flipped out and killed the tyrant queen of her world.

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This demented, simple-minded killer launches into a long speech about how she was glad she killed the wicked Rita (who actually bumped off the first victim—don’t ask). As Norma whips herself into a frenzy with her confession, she looks right into the camera, breaking the escapist confines of the film.

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Her gaze creeped me out, I must say, almost as though she were accusing me and the audience of being complicit in her abuse, as if by watching the show, we were ignoring some other big problem.

We feel deeply sorry for plain, put-upon Norma—she only killed a really terrible person who beat her and wanted to destroy everyone else’s happiness. This kind of sympathy for a murderer as a victim, of course, was a total no-no as soon as the Production Code came into full potency. But here, as the police lead Norma away, the lead characters promise to help her with her legal defense and actually call out, “God bless you!” Don’t expect to see THAT after 1934!

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Nevertheless, in a way, the excesses of Murder at the Vanities make me (almost) feel as though the end of the pre-Code era may have been due. For every Temple Drake, Scarface, or Black Cat, for every blasphemously brilliant pre-1934 film, there were probably a lot more movies like Vanities: largely mindless, insulting, lecherous spectacles. Ultimately, I would still argue that the impact of the great pre-Code movies outweigh the gratuities of the rest, but Vanities is hard to swallow.

And yet—always I hesitate to condemn a film—because in spite of the painful musical numbers and creaky plot, this movie, perhaps unintentionally, tells us something about the time and the issues churning under the surface of even blind entertainments.

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“Cocktails for Two”: the least bizarre musical number in Murder at the Vanities

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This crazy musical also gave us an enduringly popular hit, “Cocktails for Two,” and includes (briefly, though) the unusual plot element of a female private eye! Although it fails to develop any kind of engaging conflict, it does scratch at the surface of a lot of economic, sexual, racial, and legal tensions in society.

Like the chorines in Murder at the Vanities, the truth may not be naked, but enough certainly peeps through.

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