LET'S PUT ON A SHOW
by Les Phillips

Good News (1947, directed by Charles Walters; written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green). 

Peter Lawford has to pass French if he wants to play football. If he can't play football, Tait University can't win the big game. If Tait doesn't win the game, we can't have big production numbers. High School Musical is King Lear by comparison. 

Charles Walters directed some of the dumbest musicals in history, and he did it well; the big dance routines here are great fun. But the songs generally aren't first-drawer, June Allyson isn't Judy Garland, and Peter Lawford can't really sing (or act). Mel Tormé can't act either, and I don't think he ever played football, but he sings "Lucky In Love" beautifully. Good News needs more, not fewer, gratuitous musical numbers.

Comden and Green bring a light touch to everything, and they're essentially parodists; so Good News, thank God, nudges and winks at the audience. It's not an embarrassing film, but I do want my ninety minutes back.  

Too Many Girls (1940, directed by George Abbott).

Football again. Will Manuelito, the famous conga-dancing Cuban high school football star, sign on to play for Princeton, or for Harvard? (And remember, Manuelito is played by Desi Arnaz.) Too Many Girls begins with this overwhelming question. Then, for some reason I can't remember, Arnaz and his buddies Eddie Bracken and Richard Carlson and the haughty heiress Connie (Lucille Ball) go off to some southwestern college where everyone sings and dances. The guys can't play football, but they join the football team anyway, and suddenly Pottawotamie wins all its games. The girls all cheer. Everybody parties. One good joke: a game against "Texas Gentile University." How'd that get by? Everybody sing!

Lucille Ball is beautiful but wooden.  Her character gets to sing one of the great Rodgers and Hart songs, "You're Nearer." Perhaps the 1940 audience didn't realize that the singing was dubbed. We 21st century types, we know Lucille Ball couldn't really sing, and it's jarring to watch her body emoting so beautifully. Frances Langford, on the other hand, is a revelation; she leads the student body in some song about cake, and she's the perfect plucky American girl. If you wait long enough, Desi Arnaz will lead the entire Pottawotamie student body, plus a lot of other people, in an exhilarating conga line.

Ah, but in the meantime, there's a "plot." Ultimately, Too Many Girls is just too stupid. Good News is King Lear by comparison. The theatrical legend George Abbott directed scores of plays and musicals, including Too Many Girls, on Broadway; but he never did many films. The spaces between the music are utter dead zones. Vaudeville on film needs speed and pizzazz and big-budget if it's going to get by. Still, Too Many Girls fits neatly in a 1940 show biz time capsule. Van Johnson plays "Chorus Boy #41."

Words and Music (1948, directed by Norman Taurog). 

The Rodgers and Hart biopic. Lorenz Hart, a short ugly depressive gay sex addict, is played by Mickey Rooney, a short beautiful manic straight sex addict. Richard Rodgers, one of the few straight composers in twentieth century musical theater, is played by the confirmed bachelor Tom Drake, but that's not important right now. Lena Horne, Gene Kelly, Perry Como, Judy Garland, and Mel Tormé play themselves. Miss Horne sings "Where Or When." Miss Garland's rendition of "Johnny One Note" is a perfect five minutes, worth ten ordinary full-length musicals. Gene Kelly and Vera-Ellen dance "Slaughter On Tenth Avenue." Mel Tormé sings "Blue Moon." Perry Como sings "Mountain Greenery." The actual Judy Garland performs a duet with the fictional Lorenz Hart; which is to say that Mickey and Judy sing their last film duet, "I Wish I Were In Love Again." It's supposed to be 1931, and so the actual Judy Garland would have been nine years old, but that's not important either; all that's important is that Mickey and Judy are singing "I Wish I Were In Love Again." 1948 is near the end of Garland's first career, and she doesn't look well at all, but she sings like a brilliant angel. 

Words and Music closets Larry Hart, but his essence isn't betrayed: Rooney presents a sweet, sad, mercurial artist who couldn't find love or fit neatly into the world. He makes the picture work. I think Mickey Rooney is one of the century's great performers -- it's tragic that he couldn't maintain much of an adult career in film.

Everybody Sing (1938, directed by Edwin L. Marin).

We're in a girls' boarding school, and the girls are supposed to be singing Mendelssohn; but nobody's looking, so little Judy (played by an actress named Judy Garland) riffs into a superb jazz number ("Swing, Mendelssohn!"). For this, the principal expels her. (Miss Colvin: "You've corrrrrrrrrrupted this school for the last time." Judy: "But I can't help it, Miss Colvin. Really I can't. I don't know why, but when I hear music, it does something to me. And what comes out of me is..."[another musical interpolation].) She could go on singing. ("And we'll stay all night!")

Judy's sent home to her family, who are all performers. Mother (Billie Burke) is an actress; Father (Reginald Owen) is a playwright. Sister is a singer, the cook is a musician too, and the maid, Olga, is Fanny Brice; apart from being Fanny Brice, she used to be a grande dame of the stage, back in the old country. The household is flat broke, but they won't be for long. "Don't worry, father," says Judy. "Pretty soon you won't have anything to worry about. I'm going to make us a lot of money!" At sixteen, the pre-Oz Miss Garland seems completely self-possessed, and her comic sense is beginning to develop. She's also a bit on the chubby side, but that baby fat won't last. Soon that nice Mr. Mayer will hook her up with a doctor who knows just what pills to prescribe. I can't look at Brice and Garland together without thinking of Streisand and Garland together, 25 years later. Life and art...

Everybody Sing contains authentic horrors, including Judy singing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" in blackface, Reginald Owen's awful scenery-chomping, and Brice and Garland doing a Baby Snooks routine. The busy plot turns to chaos about halfway through. But there's also some pretty credible screwball comedy and a whole lot of singing from Miss Garland. Billie Burke is her usual fluttery silliness, but this time she's making fun of herself (at last). A little Fanny Brice goes a long way, but she's hilarious here; and, my goodness, what a face. Made for radio, that face was.


©2009 Les Phillips
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