Wednesday, November 30, 2016

IT'S IN THE BAG! (1945)

If anyone can be considered both legendary and forgotten, it's Fred Allen. For over 15 years one of the most popular of all radio comedians, he's remembered now only by show business archaeologists. 

Allen's sole leading movie role, as Fred Floogle in It’s in the Bag!, made at the height of his radio success, was his last shot at Hollywood stardom

Unfortunately, he would have to be content with staying on radio for another four years. For while there are strange comedies, and there are strange comedies, It's in the Bag! is a STRANGE comedy that probably baffled as many of his radio fans as it entertained. It was probably ahead of its time in 1945; perhaps it still is.

Floogle and Parker look forward to being in-laws.
The story, freely adapted from the 1928 Russian novel The Twelve Chairs, certainly sounds like a wacky comedy. Fred Floogle happily gives up his flea circus when left his uncle’s $12-million estate, allowing his daughter to marry Perry Parker, the son of an allegedly rich insecticide magnate who's actually just as broke as Floogle. 

Unfortunately, most of Floogle's inheritance has been ripped-off by the uncle’s lawyers; all he has coming to him is a pool table and five chairs. It’s only after selling the chairs to an antiques dealer that he learns one of them has $300,000 hidden inside its seat. Floogle has to track the chairs down to their new owners to get the money. 

Crooked lawyer John Carradine has
arranged for Fred to get hit by a car; just one
of the movie's many "comedy" highlights.
It’s in the Bag! starts off promisingly, with Fred Allen (as himself) addressing the audience in his flat, nasal New England twang, as he makes sardonic comments about the cast and crew throughout the credits. 

One of the credits is unexpected: Alma Reville, aka Mrs. Alfred Hitchcock, the writer of SuspicionShadow of a Doubt and The Paradine Case. This possibly explains the plethora of murders, both attempted and successful, including that of Floogle's precocious adolescent son, Homer. 

Allen must have realized the final cut was not only a little gruesome but often quite sluggish -- the kind of back & forth dialogue that worked so well on radio grinds many scenes to a halt. Plus, much of it isn't particularly funny to begin with. 

This is where things get strange. Instead of doing re-shoots as is typical, Allen (as himself) added narration throughout the movie while the onscreen actors, including himself, continue to speak their dialogue. This must explain comedy writer Morrie Ryskind’s credit for his “special contribution.” Thanks, Morrie.

"You mean I have to speak even more narration?!"
Initially amusing, then confusing, the narration devolves into irritating, like having to listen to some big mouth in the row behind you trying to impress his date with his alleged witticisms. More than once you feel like shouting, Shut up! I’m trying to watch the movie! Even if the original dialogue isn't funny! 

And stranger still, there are prints in circulation missing the narration entirely; perhaps it was added after an underwhelmingly-received premiere. If so, it meant early audiences missed Fred's endless, endless jokes about in-laws, relatives and studio executives. Well, maybe "missed" isn't the right word.

Fred is confused by Jack's rouge and lipstick.
The producers must have been nervous about Allen's potential box-office, since he’s surrounded by a bunch of radio guest stars. In what was clearly a favor to his real-life friend, Jack Benny plays his stereotypical cheap self, only with material that would have worked far better on TV in the '50s; director Richard Wallace appears to hold every shot to allow for audience laughter which never comes. Further distracting is Benny's strawberry-blonde dye job and strangely feminine make-up. 

Minerva Pious plays Mrs. Nussbaum, a regular character from Allen’s radio program. Her appearances were always a highlight, but you'd never know it here, since much of her dialogue is obliterated by Allen’s narration. I bet she loved that. Oddly, her Yiddish accent often sounds like Gilda Radner's Latina Roseanne Rosannadana. I told you the movie was confusing. 

Jerry Colonna is shocked to get better material than
the star of the movie.
The wonderful Jerry Colonna, on the other hand, scores major laughs as a deranged psychiatrist, while Don Ameche and Rudy Vallee’s understated, self-depreciating performances contrast with Allen’s often-sledgehammer delivery. 

William Bendix has just been shot by six other
gangsters. I told you it was a comedy.
Also supporting -- make that overshadowing -- Fred Allen are great character actors, including Sidney Toler (sounding an awful lot like his Charlie Chan alter ego) as a cop, John Carradine as a murderous lawyer, Robert Benchley as Parker, and William Bendix as a delicate gangster who ingests vitamins by the jarful to calm his nerves.

It’s in the Bag!, then, is a veritable time capsule of the 1945 entertainment world, with one of the biggest names of all in the lead. 

But in the end, It's in the Bag! is as much of a chore as it is a comedy. Too much plot, too little story and, if it’s possible, too many jokes. At its best moments, like the hilarious sequence in a movie theater the size of a dirigible hangar, or every time Jerry Colonna opens his mouth, it seems to anticipate Monty Python. 

Then there are other, silly scenes where you just want them to get on with it. After watching It's in the Bag! three times over the years, I've come to appreciate it; I just don't laugh all that much. As his engaging memoirs Much Ado Me and Treadmill to Oblivion demonstrate, Fred Allen was the rare wit who was actually funnier than many of his own jokes.

                                                     *******************

Monday, November 7, 2016

THE WORLD'S GREATEST SINNER (1962)

In a time when celebrities regularly run for public office solely on the strength of their name, The World's Greatest Sinner appears to have been quite prescient. Clarence Hilliard,  bored with being an insurance salesman, makes the obvious job switch to spiritual leader. Although an atheist, he renames himself God Hilliard, quickly gaining followers in his movement. Today, they're known as Clinton voters.

Succumbing to temptations of the flesh and otherwise, a mysterious stranger convinces him to run for president. But as Hilliard goes further down the rabbit hole of his own strange creation, he commits a blasphemous act in order to force the real God to make Himself known -- and does He ever.

Before going further, it's important to know that your appreciation of The World's Greatest Sinner depends on your tolerance for technical incompetence, as it makes Plan 9 From Outer Space look like Days of Heaven. Not a minute goes by when you're not in awe of just how badly made a movie can be.

Every possible flaw that a movie can feature is on full display -- bad sound, sloppy editing, out-of-focus close-ups, obvious dubbing, 5-cent special effects, stiff line-readings... No wonder why the guy who scored The World's Greatest Sinner referred to it as "the world's worst movie" on national TV shortly after its release.

BUT... if you can make it past the first 10 minutes -- an admittedly questionable chore if you were expecting a whiff of professionalism -- Sinner provides the kind of rewards offered only by a movie-maker who careens boldly against the cultural tides of his time, putting on screen his deepest personal beliefs, unashamed of his emotions, daring you to experience what he's feeling every second of the time. The World's Greatest Sinner might not be a good movie, but it's definitely a great one.

Timothy Carey welcomes you into his world.
And its greatness is due to star/writer/director/
producer Timothy Carey. Something like the Christopher Walken of his day, Carey was the ultimate idiosyncratic actor. But whereas Walken pulls you in with his quiet, not-of-this-earth delivery, Carey not only wears his emotions on his sleeve, he throws them at you with the force of Nolan Ryan and a deep, rumbling voice that forces you to pay attention, if only because you're afraid what will happen if you don't.

Without his -- and there's no other word for it -- genius, Sinner would be unwatchable. For Carey revealed the power that pop culture had over the masses that few movie-makers did at the time, and transferred it to his character, in a bold, wild fashion unknown in studio movies. 


Shake, rattle and what the hell?
Hilliard, witnessing the mania that a garage band has over its audience, finally finds his ticket to the big time. He hires his own musicians, dons a gold lame suit, and goes on tour. To watch Carey awkwardly shuffling across the stage before dropping to his knees in front of a frenzied audience and screaming "Please, please, please, please, please take my hand!", and writhing onstage like a worm after a dose of meth, is an utterly mesmerizing, bizarre 16-mm fever dream. 

It's also proof positive that Carey possessed more courage in this one scene than most of today's actors achieve in their entire careers. When you think back to the accolades heaped upon Johnny Depp for wearing eyeliner to play a pirate, it's quite sad how easily impressed moviegoers and critics have become.

Next stop: Fox News commentator.
As Hilliard's followers celebrate their own super-beingness by rioting in the streets, he's sweet-talked into entering politics by a proto-Karl Rove-like campaign manager who is ultimately unmasked as Satan. 

This anticipates by two years the California GOP honchos who convinced Ronald Reagan to run for Governor after watching the sway he held over his audience when delivering a speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater. And no, I'm not saying they were Satan in disguise. Karl Rove, however, is another matter.

Sinner premiere: Carey addresses
the crowd while Zappa waits for
a check that will never arrive.
There's no point in listing anyone other than Timothy Carey in the cast of Sinner; you haven't heard of them. You would, however, recognize the narrator, Paul Frees, who might as well have "Ubiquitous Voiceover Artist" as his middle name. Look at his CV on Wikipedia -- if you lived between 1950 and 1986, trust me, you know him.

Then there's the aforementioned composer of Sinner's score, 21 year-old Frank Zappa. Zappa's trademark atonal music -- and his love for zany xylophones -- are unmistakable. His later unkind words about the movie might come down to not being paid for his work. A thing like that can cloud a guy's opinion.

How can you resist?
But The World's Greatest Sinner belongs to
the incomparable Timothy Carey. A favorite of young, scrappy directors, Carey found success in two early Stanley Kubrick movies, The Killing and, especially, Paths of Glory, where he steals every scene he shares with star Kirk DouglasAlways picky about his work, he turned down roles in the first two Godfather movies, continuing his lifetime choice of concentrating on more personal projects. 

And none were more personal than The World's Greatest Sinner, a movie widely condemned in its day  -- that is, when it wasn't ignored -- but, like Timothy Carey himself, is now rightly considered a legend. 

Even the Beatles were Carey admirers. An alternate cover shot of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band reveals his profile to the right of Ringo. 

Carey's photo is a still from The Killing, where he's aiming a rifle. If you follow what would have been the trajectory of its bullet, it leads straight to John Lennon. 

Even his photo was prescient.

                                                  


                                                       **********************

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

CONSPIRACY (1930)

Never judge a movie by its title, poster, or logline. What little conspiracy there is in Conspiracy happens off-screen. The macabre creature hovering over Bessie Love in the one-sheet is simply a shill to get ticket-buyers. And the plot involving breaking up a gang of drug dealers -- always a juicy topic in the pre-code movies -- quickly gives way to a story about a young woman hiding out after murdering the gang leader. 

Nominal star Bessie Love doesn't have a lot to do other than scream, gasp, and sob. Modern audiences will probably have the same reaction when viewing her co-star Ned Sparks.  

Don't let the door slam on you on your
way out, Ned.
A character actor who usually made an appearance, muttered a couple of nasally wisecracks, then vanished for 20 minutes before repeating the process, Sparks is the movie's real conspiracy -- to drive the viewer bonkers. Sounding like a cross between an agitated Paul Lynde and Squidward from Spongebob Squarepants, Sparks won't simply say a line when squawking it will do.

And I usually like the guy. But here, as mystery writer Wintrhop Clavering, Sparks enters a whole new world of irritating, proving that character actors should never have a lead role. Ironically, it isn't necessarily his fault. A brief perusal through the 1912 novel on which Conspiracy is based shows Clavering to be a "queer fish" (as the authors describe him), but also a serious mystery writer/amateur criminologist who could give Sherlock Holmes a run for his meerschaum. 

But the screenplay and direction ditches this angle for "eccentric" -- if eccentric meant aggravating. Do you think it's funny when a character does a silly workout routine every hour, walks around in open galoshes, yells at everyone he encounters, or threatens bodily harm to his black maid? If so, pull up Conspiracy on YouTube this very instant. You won't regret it, until you do.

Yeah, that's a dead body on the floor.
Sparks actually overwhelms Conspiracy's kind of interesting idea. Clavering has hired Margaret Holt as his stenographer, dictating his latest story based on the murder of drug gang leader Steamer Marko -- not knowing she committed the crime herself in order to prevent the assassination of her brother, assistant D.A. Victor Holt. With the help of reporter John Howell, the gang is rounded up and Victor is rescued.



Ned gets a call from SAG revoking his
membership.
When produced as a Broadway show in 1914 (and, boy, is it obvious), the scenes with Clavering essentially explaining to Margaret how and why the murder was committed, even giving a perfect description of the suspect, probably worked quite effectively. If only director Christy Cabanne hadn't decided to go the comedy route -- a path that often leads off a cliff.





She's dumbfounded by his
remarks, too.
It would have been nice, too, if the flashbacks included some of Margaret's memories of the women in drug dens who "do things even savages wouldn't do!" Man, what a tease this dame is. I wanna see it for myself! Instead, we get too many lovey-dovey bits of business of her with John Howell, who tells her plaintively, "Don't look at me with those eyes." You got something else in mind?

The most fun one can have watching Conspiracy is counting the old movie cliches that come thick and fast. The weak-kneed leading lady. The nutty writer. The wiseguy reporter. The dumb Irish cop. The swarthy "Southern European" drug pushers. (Clavering figures out that the murder victim wasn't American because he had a pierced ear. How times change.) A climactic shoot-out in a dark room. 

Martha is knocked over by the force
of Clavering's vitriol.
And then there's Martha, the stereotypical black housekeeper. Pity actress Gertrude Howard, who is given dialogue and clothes that makes her appear she's auditioning for the part of Mammy in Gone with the Wind almost a decade too early. Even by 1930 standards, her mush-mouthed, syntax-obliterating speech was dated. 

But not as much as the treatment she receives from Clavering, which is so over-the-top that one has to laugh at the sheer insanity of it. Referring to her as "that black assassin" is nothing compared to "You saber-toothed chimpanzee!" and "You fliggly-eyed flat-nosed daughter of Ham!" At least I think he said "fliggly-eyed". I don't know what it's supposed to mean, but I'm certain it isn't isn't good. I hope Howard received combat pay for the job.

Otto Matieson waits to be discovered by
movie geeks 86 years later.
The next fun thing is noticing certain familiar names and faces. Christy Cabanne, for instance, who directed the Douglas Fairbanks cocaine comedy The Mystery of the Leaping Fish in 1916Walter Long, Laurel & Hardy's occasional nemesis. And Otto Matieson, whom I instantly recognized as Joel Cairo from the original 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon. You would have too, if you were a fan of weird old movies with nothing else to do. Who else would watch Conspiracy?

                                                                                                                         
                                                   
                                                  ******************

If you absolutely have to see Conspiracy, go here.

THE PHYNX (1970)


The late 1960's saw a strange mash-up of psychedelic counterculture with the nostalgia craze. Every band, from the Beatles to the Rolling Stones to Moby Grape felt obliged to cut at least one 1920s-style song. Stoned audiences attended midnight shows of Marx Brothers comedies, '30s musicals, and the like.

Always sniffing for the latest trend to cash in on, corporate show business entities tried to give the kids what they wanted. Instead, they made The Phynx, a movie that wasn't released so much as allowed to stick its head out of the Warner Brothers gate, before being quickly yanked back in. Forty-two years later, it finally made its official video debut. Too soon!

So what is the titular Phynx? It's a rock band created by the U.S. government, whom it trains to rescue "world leaders" that have been kidnapped by the Albanian military, because their own agents are too inept to do the job. 

The joke is that these "world leaders" are a veritable "Where Are They Now?" list. To name a few: Xavier Cugat, Rudy Vallee, Ruby Keeler, Butterfly McQueen, Johnny Weissmuller, Dorothy Lamour, Joe Louis... 

Oh hell, just look at the ad in the upper right. The only "current" celebrity was Col. Harlan Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame, while Edgar Bergen was the one entertainer still regularly working. And other than Georgie Jessel (you knew he had to be in there somewhere), nobody gets more than one or two lines of dialogue. They were probably grateful.

"I feel good!... Except for appearing in this
movie."
But wait, there's more! Clint Walker, Trini Lopez, James Brown, Dick Clark, and Richard Pryor play themselves as government operatives whipping the band into shape. The only explanation for Pryor's sorry 10-second appearance -- he's actually shamed by one of the Phynx -- is that he must have been paid with a 16-ounce Mason jar filled with cocaine. 

Look fast, folks, you'll never see them again.

The Phynx band members, on the other hand, were unknown musicians playing themselves, hired to fit certain stereotypes. Nervous (Michael A. Miller), intellectual (Dennis Larden), soul brother (Lonny Stevens), and stoic American Indian (Ray Chippeway). Everything but "talented."

Maureen O'Sullivan, Georgie Jessel, and Edgar
Bergen & Charlie McCarthy decide how they're
going to kill their agents.
As with most of Hollywood's attempts at alleged counterculture entertainment, The Phynx's creators had absolutely no connection to their intended audience. Its middle-aged scenario writers and producers, Bob Booker and George Foster, were best known for mainstream comedy albums like You Don't Have to Be Jewish. Their 1968 release, Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts, satirizing Jackie & Aristotle Onassis, is prominently displayed in a scene set at a record store. That piece of self-promotion is more clever than anything else in the movie.

Pat O'Brien weeps at what his
career has come to.
First- and last-time screenwriter Stan Cornyn was, in real life, a 37 year-old Warner Brothers Records PR guy. Not coincidentally, The Phynx is a Warners release. This wouldn't be the only time somebody got a movie gig they were totally unqualified for just because of their connections.





Joe Louis, Col. Sanders and Johnny Weissmuller
think, "I got out of bed for this shit?"
Then there are the songs, written and produced by the legendary Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller, who were responsible for some of rock & roll's greatest hits... of the 1950s. The psych/pop sound required here, however, was way, way out of their league, with only one song of the bunch rising to the level of mediocre. Ironically, The Phynx proves how much better the studio-created Monkees' repertoire was.

Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall yearn for their days
on the Bowery.
And speaking of the Monkees, The Phynx seems to be influenced by that band's silly TV show, rather than their trippy movie Head, written and produced by Jack Nicholson. The Phynx's idea of wit includes a government agent named Mr. Bogey, who talks like Humphrey Bogart; eyeglasses that allow the Phynx to see through clothes in order to find secret maps drawn on the stomachs of three women in Europe; and Martha Raye playing a spy. Fortunately, she's immediately shot.

Otherwise, the writers seem to have given up on an actual story by page 20, depending on blackouts, music performances and montages in order to pad it out to 81 minutes. Stills and continuity problems suggest that a lot of footage wound up on the cutting room floor, so be grateful for small favors.

Dennis Larden, Michael A. Miller, Ray Chippeway,
and Lonny Stevens in their government-
supplied groovy clothing.
It's difficult to tell if the disgust that the bandmates display throughout The Phynx is acting or genuine. Larden in particular appears especially contemptuous of the entire proceedings. Perhaps he remembers being on the cusp of success when his previous band, Every Mother's Son, released the top 10 hit "Come on Down to My Boat" three years earlier, and were never heard from again.

To be fair, there are a couple of amusing moments. One of the military trainers barks at Ray Chippeway, "We're gonna make a real American out of you!" And after Lonny Stevens shoots a beer commercial, the director replaces him with a white actor for TV stations in the South. Oh, and Ed Sullivan being forced at gunpoint to introduce the Phynx, rather than a Dutch elephant act as promised. That's three chuckles, so, technically, it's not a complete washout.

Busby Berkley and Ruby Keeler go from
Gold Diggers of 1933 to Crap Shovelers of 1970.
What's really infuriating, other than the lazy script and unlistenable music, is that there's an intriguing idea lurking inside The Phynx: the CIA is manipulating the idiot masses via celebrities who are secretly on the government payroll. Now that movie, done right, would be worth seeing. In fact, every time I turn on the TV, I think it's for real.

Instead, The Phynx seems to exist only for a climactic reunion of old Warner Brothers stars and their friends, most of whom do nothing but nod their heads in time to terrible music that was dubbed in later.

World premiere at a shopping center in Glendale --
that's really all anybody needs to know.
And if Warner Brothers' record division intended The Phynx to be a launching pad as a real band, it was in for a big disappointment. The soundtrack album, if it even existed, probably appeared in fewer record shelves than it did boxes marked RETURN TO SENDER

It would be easy to write "The Phynx stynx." It's probably already been done. But it's worse, being cynical in its own way as Triumph of the Will. And at least that gave you a chance to cheer Jessie Owens. The only thing to cheer in this movie is that you never have to see it again. In fact, you can just skip it the first time.

Trivia: Leo Gorcey died before The Phynx was released. The official cause was liver disease, but I think it was shame.

                                                                  

                                         ********************************

SON OF DRACULA (1974)

As with a few other movie misfires on this blog, Son of Dracula has a good premise. What if the legendary vampire's son was born of a human mother -- and, over time, acquires human feelings, such as empathy and love? Does he submit, or continue to live the life of neck-biting immortality?

Really, not a bad idea. The problem is everything else.

When you think of vampires, singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson probably isn't the first person who comes to mind. Nor is Ringo Starr as Merlin the Magician. But since Ringo was the producer, and Nilsson his drinking/snorting buddy, you have no other choice. Except to avoid it.

He shoulda stayed in bed.
Dracula's son, "wittily" named 
Count Downe, has returned to London for his coronation as Overlord of the Netherworld -- what we in America call Speaker of the House. Unbeknownst to Downe, Baron Frankenstein covets the title for himself. 

But Downe falls in love with Amber, the assistant to Dr. Van Helsing, triggering his desire to become fully human. While Van Helsing offers to perform a vampire-ectomy, Baron Frankenstein plans to make the surgery go fatally wrong. But unlike other Dracula movies, Son of... features a happy ending for the lovers. And audiences, too, because it finally ended.

Trick or treat!
It's difficult to know what exactly Son of Dracula's creators had in mind. The poster sells it as a rock & roll horror comedy, but is played almost completely straight. Downe walks the streets of 1970s London just so he can gaze at the Nilsson album Son of Schmillson in a record store window. Creatures like the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and Frankenstein's monster make appearances, wearing make-up out of a high school play. Son of Dracula is a horror movie, alright, but not in the right way.

David Baille (left) looks for a way off the set.
Further muddying the waters is the cast. Nilsson plays his part very seriously, as if planning on a future in the movie business, but is hopelessly outclassed by British co-stars Freddie Jones, Dennis Price, Suzanna Leigh, and David Baille, who are all way too good for this picture. 

Then, of course, there's Ringo Starr as Merlin, who proves that being an ex-Beatle can take you just so far as an actor -- like playing Ringo Starr in A Hard Day's Night and Help!.

Admittedly, it's kind of clever that the movie is willing to upend the Dracula legend by making Van Helsing the vampire helper rather than hunter. (SPOILER ALERT: It turns out Van Helsing is really Merlin in disguise.) And whether intentional or not, Son of Dracula is something of a (very) slight remake of the great 1934 Fredric March movie, Death Takes a Holiday, only with a second-rate script, cheesy monsters, and Keith Moon on drums.

Roll over Beethoven, and tell Bram Stoker
the news.
Son of Dracula's excuse for being a musical is that Count Downe has been studying music for the last century or so, allowing him to occasionally break out in song. Of the seven numbers, only the goofy "Daybreak" was written for the movie; the others originally appeared on earlier Nilsson albums. 

Shot in 1972 but bound & gagged on the shelf for two years, Son of Dracula -- one of eight releases from the Beatles' Apple Films -- is one of those productions that screams "midnight movie," i.e., low budget, badly-made, and meant to be watched under the influence. 

But no amount of insomniac stoners in college towns could make it a cult favorite (another dubious cinematic term), and it soon disappeared into the Netherworld. A faded, slightly damaged VHS copy can be yours to behold on YouTube. 

Or you can just listen to a playlist of Son of Dracula's songs and skip the movie entirely. Otherwise, you'll probably wind up driving a stake into your own heart.


                                                   *********************************

SOMETHING TO SING ABOUT (1937)

Judging solely by its plot, Something to Sing About isn't much to sing about. New York bandleader Terry Rooney is promised movie stardom by Galor Pictures. Temporarily leaving his fiance/band singer Rita Wyatt back East, Rooney falls victim to studio machinations and a manipulative press. 

Even when Rita marries him in Hollywood, contractual obligations force her to pretend that she's Rooney's personal secretary. Some men would prefer their wives to at least pretend they can cook.

Further bollixing their marriage is studio diva Stephanie Hajos, who tells a gossip columnist that she and Rooney are engaged. A heartbroken Rita goes back to New York. When Rooney realizes that he's become a patsy in his road to fame, he joins Rita back at the New York bandstand. 

Your average game of Chutes & Ladders probably provides more suspense. That's why it's necessary to go behind the scenes to the making of the picture, and discover just how fascinating the unjustly neglected Something to Sing About really is. 


Cagney jumps for joy when he tells Jack Warner
to shove it.
In 1936, James Cagney, feeling underpaid and misused by home studio Warner Brothers, became a free agent He was quickly signed to Grand National Pictures in a bid by the studio to rise above its poverty row status. Something to Sing About was Cagney's second and final Grand National production before returning to Warners, proving you can go home again if you're offered $150,000 per picture plus script approval and profit sharing.

While offering Cagney plenty of dance numbers, Something to Sing About lacks the familiar, welcoming faces you'd look forward to from a Warners musical -- Joan Blondell, Dick Powell, Una Merkel, Hugh Herbert, Ruby Keeler, and about a dozen or two more. 


Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think these three
actors would appear in the same scene.



The only recognizable supporting actors Something to Sing About offers are William "Fred Mertz" Frawley as the Galor Pictures press agent, and Dwight Frye (the evil sidekicks in Dracula and Frankenstein) as a snippy make-up artist who, at the time, would have been described as a "swish." (LGBTQS, perhaps?)

Also missing are memorable songs, which is unfortunate if you're making, you know, a musical, along with the overall glitz and polish you'd find in a Warners picture. It's rather strange, in fact, to see an A+ actor like James Cagney in what looks like a PRC movie -- which makes sense since PRC took over the Grand National studio three years later. 


"Oh, my secretary always makes out with me after work."
What Something to Sing About does offer, however, is a brutal takedown of the studio system Cagney wanted to escape. In order to keep his character, Terry Rooney, in line, Galor Pictures does everything it can to make him think he's a no-talent nobody whose movie career will be over before it even begins. Studio peons mock him behind his back. His marriage is kept under wraps so female fans aren't jealous.

Even contract players are eager to see him fail, with one stunt man refusing to pull his punches during a fight scene. Cagney must have found that bit particularly cathartic, since it allowed his character to not only fight back, but literally destroy the set, and throw bricks at the director and tech crew. You've wanted to do that work at least once, right?

The Asian guy speaks better English
than Cagney.
Yet the most interesting scene involves Rooney's Asian servant Ito, played by Philip Ahn. Ito is initially presented as the usual humble, pidgin-English gofer. Only when feeling comfortable around Rooney does he admit, with perfect, non-accented diction, that he wanted to be an actor, but no studio would hire him because of his race. This, too, must have been cathartic for the Korean-American Ahn, who was forced into stereotypical Asian roles for most of his career.
Sweetest of all, however, Rooney continually addresses the studio head, Bennett O. Regan, by his initials, B.O. No wonder Cagney considered Something to Sing About one of his two favorite movies. He got to stick it to Jack Warner and his former studio in front of the world and get away with it. You'd have to wait for The Sweet Smell of Success and The Bad and the Beautiful for such a savage show business expose.

You won't leave Something to Sing About humming the songs. In fact, it's better to skip through the musical numbers where Cagney doesn't appear. Just concentrate on his wonderfully athletic choreography and the take-no-prisoners story he's happily wallowing in. That sound you'll hear from time to time is Jack Warner rolling over in his grave.

                                                       ********************

GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE (1933)


In this, the worst presidential campaign since 1932 Germany, President Judson Hammond of Gabriel Over the White House looks awfully good -- even if he goes awfully far to help raise America out of the Depression.

It wasn't always this way, however. President Hammond, you see, used to put party (political and otherwise) over country first, last and always. Only lightly concerned about the endless promises he made to voters during the campaign, a colleague assures him, "By the time they realize you're not going to keep them, your term will be over." Who was it that said politicians need a public and a private face?


"I faithfully swear to make myself rich off  the
donations of lobbyists, and the backs of the
taxpayers, so help me God."
For Hammond, being president is business as usual. Meaning, press conference questions must be submitted 24 hours in advance, all his answers will be generic banalities, and he is never to be quoted. After listening to answers given during this campaign, that might not be a bad idea.

Being the kind of guy nobody says "no" to, Hammond relaxes by driving his car at 100 MPH -- until he eventually loses control and goes flying headfirst into a coma for several days. Just as it appears to be heading for the polling station in the sky, he undergoes a spiritual transformation, waking up as a combination of Abraham Lincoln, Benito Mussolini, Jesus Christ, and Bernie Sanders. It's certainly more interesting than a party hack with a famous name or a bankrupt casino owner.

"The good news, America, is that you won't have to
travel to Central America to live under a banana
republic strongman."
Once immune to the despair of the unemployed, hungry, and homeless -- not to mention the violent bootlegging underworld -- Hammond runs roughshod over the Constitution in order to right America. When firing his Cabinet isn't enough to prove his mettle, Hammond declares martial law and dissolves both houses of Congress -- with Congressional approval! Now you know it's a fantasy.

But that's not all. Deciding to beat bootleggers at their own game, Hammond opens government-run liquor stores. And how else is he going to get foreign countries to pay their debts but to make sure the US has the largest Navy in the world, and force all other countries to give up their military so they have the scratch to give back to Uncle Sam -- or else. 


"Let's do the dirty before I get conked on the head."
Walter Huston plays Hammond as something of a double role. Initially a blatant roue, he installs his girlfriend, Pendola Molloy, as his "personal secretary", giving the concept of "private dictation" a whole new meaning.


But after experiencing his transformation, Huston goes dead serious, with make-up helping to show how the weight of the office hangs heavy over the Dictator-in-Chief. Out goes rolling in the hay with Pendola; in comes a socialist/ fascist/populist presidency that exists only to help the well-being of the lower- and middle-class. Like I said, fantasy.


"Are you there, God? It's me, Judson."
The movie's spiritual bent is never far from its surface (not surprising for its title, hunh?). Hammond is summoned out of his coma by the sound of a faint horn that only he can hear (Yo, Gabriel, louder!) and an invisible spirit brushing past the curtains of his open window. 

Hammond looks up from time to time for guidance whenever the horn sounds, kind of like a student of Louis Armstrong. Witnessing one such incident, Pendola describes it as "a delicious sense of lassitude." I thought I was the only person who used that phrase.


It would be worth going to trial just to stand
in this cool courtroom.
Gabriel Over the White House is stuffed with startling imagery. The pre-coma President Hammond playing with his nephew, oblivious to a passionate radio speech by the leader of the million-man march of the unemployed and homeless; gangsters shooting up the White House, leading to an art deco/expressionistic court-martial; and the federally-sanctioned firing squad execution of said gangsters -- apparently in New York's Battery Park! -- with the Statue of Liberty in the background. Irony? Approval? All I can do is refer you to Hammond's right-hand man, Hartley Beekman, who's happy to "cut the red tape of legal proceedings." That's one way of looking at it, chum.


Sometimes this doesn't seem like such a
bad idea.
As it is today, 1933 was an uneasy time for America, with an angry, ignored populace ripe for a major shake-up from politics as usual. It was, after all, the year that also saw the release of Columbia's laudatory documentary Mussolini Speaks!, narrated by a gushing Lowell Thomas. Gabriel Over the White House speaks to that unease in a way few fictional movies of the time dared -- especially one released by a major studio like M-G-M.

Whatever you think of his methods, Pres. Judson Hammond puts the working man first. Our two major presidential candidates are in it to satisfy their egos and lust for power. There's only one cure for what ails America: Make America Hammond Again! 

And while you're at it, let's see some government-run marijuana stores. You just know they've got the best stuff.

                                                   ********************