50 Movie Pack Classic Musicals, Disc 6

The Great Gabbo, 1929, b&w*, James Cruze (dir.), Erich von Stroheim, Betty Compson, Donald Douglas, Marjorie Kane, Marbeth Wright. 1:32 [1:34].

The * after b&w is for one of the disappointments in this curious film: Portions of the movie are supposed to be in color (“multicolor”), presumably some of the massively staged musical numbers (near the end, we see the marquee noting a cast of 350—I can believe it!). Unfortunately, there’s no color in this print (or, apparently, in any available version). Other disappointments: too many splices and distorted sound in a couple of the big numbers. Otherwise—well, it’s an odd mix of drama and musical, featuring the declining director/actor von Stroheim as an impossibly good ventriloquist (his dummy sings while he’s eating, drinking and smoking) who’s also a harsh egomaniac and abuses his assistant so much that she finally quits (although she still loves Otto, the dummy). Two years later, the Great Gabbo’s a big star in a Broadway show—but the former assistant is also a featured singer/dancer in the show, along with a man who turns out to be her husband. The Great Gabbo wants her back; she tells him the truth; he goes nuts—well, he finishes going nuts, including punching out Otto. It’s an—um—interesting movie. I didn’t pay attention to the year before viewing it; knowing that it’s one of the earliest all-sound movies (and how difficult early sound techniques were), some of the problems with the film (one or two slightly flubbed lines, relatively little camera movement in most of the big musical numbers, exactly one angle for audience reaction shots—or is it the same shot repeated?) are forgivable.

The set of IMDB reviews as of this writing (March 8, 2007) is even more bizarrely varied than usual, including one person who was disappointed because they assumed that all musicals are automatically musical comedies (and this one ain’t no comedy!), one or two who were offended by all that music interrupting von Stroheim’s scenery-chewing, and one who managed to view this as a Communist propaganda film. Right. Watchable enough, and von Stroheim certainly has presence, but I can’t give it more than $1 except maybe as a historic document.

The Dancing Pirate, 1936, b&w*, Lloyd Corrigan (dir.), Charles Collins, Frank Morgan, Steffi Duna, Louis Alberni, Victor Varconi, Jack La Rue, The Royal Cansino Dancers. 1:23.

There’s a fair amount to say about this little gem of a picture—“little” in that it’s not one of the huge music-and-dancing Busby Berkeley or Warner Bros. spectaculars. In addition to the movie as it exists in this set, there’s the movie as it was filmed and some interesting marketing maneuvers. First, the movie. It really is a gem, but as a modest picture with some great dancing—waltz, tap, and glorious Mexican/Spanish ensemble dances. Oh, and two original songs by Rodgers & Hart: The movie isn’t a spectacular, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the real stuff.

The plot’s straightforward. A dance instructor from Boston in 1820 gets shanghaied on to a pirate ship. He manages to escape when the ship’s loading up fresh water in Alta California and intends to go back to Boston—but a shepherd’s spotted the pirate ship, rung the alarm in the little town, and somehow he winds up captured as a pirate (the rest of the pirates sail away, knowing nothing about this). They want to hang him as a pirate, but the alcalde’s daughter wants to learn the waltz; then some soldiers show up—supposedly on the governor’s business (from Monterey) but actually thrown out of the governor’s ranks, and out to seize the alcalde’s lands one way or another. Various hijinks ensue, including a wedding intervention by a nearby band of peaceful Native Americans who are handy with ropes, and of course it all turns out well in the end.

Charles Collins is wonderful (if perhaps a trifle too cheerful in the face of frequent impending death) as the dancing pirate, and boy can he dance. Steffi Duna as the alcalde’s daughter is very good. But do you recognize that second name in the credits? Frank Morgan—the wizard of Oz. He’s remarkable as a frequently bemused alcalde, showing the same mix of bravado and uncertainty as in The Wizard of Oz. I enjoyed it. The print’s pretty good (a little streaking near the end), the sound’s good, I’d watch it again. The ensemble dances in Spanish/Mexican dance outfits are spectacular, partly because they’re not over the top: They’re just dancing in the town square.

The movie as it was filmed? That’s the * after “b&w,” and it’s a disappointment: This was the first dancing musical filmed 100% in Technicolor, as the credits note, and it would be great to see those costumes in color—but this print, apparently like most that are available today, is strictly black & white.

Marketing maneuvers? The jacket shown on IMDB makes this out to be a Rita Hayworth movie. And apparently she’s in the movie—but not in the credits. For good reason. She was 18 years old at the time, and in this as in fourteen 1935-1937 movies, she’s either uncredited or credited as Rita Cansino, sometimes part of the Dancing Cansinos or Royal Cansinos. You’d have to know what she looked like at 18 and look very closely to spot her in the big dance scenes; I certainly didn’t spot her. (And Mill Creek doesn’t credit her, appropriately.) If you read the full set of IMDB and Amazon user reviews, be aware that they’re reviewing several different versions (apparently there is or was a color VHS release at some point—I’d love to see this in color!) and that, as usual, some of them bring their preconceptions to the table. In my case, I’ll just say that I think Collins did a fine job all around, Morgan was amusing, the story was fun and didn’t strike me as outlandish. Even deducting a little for the missing color, this gets $1.50.

Road Show, 1941, b&w, Hal Roach (dir.), Adolphe Menjou, Carole Landis, John Hubbard, Charles Butterworth, Patsy Kelly, Shemp Howard, The Charioteers. 1:27.

This and the other film on Side B don’t really qualify as musicals (each has two or three musical numbers within a dense plot)—but they’re both delightful screwball comedies. This one has a rich bachelor who winds up in an insane asylum thanks to his fiancée, meets “certified lunatic” and joyful eccentric Col. Carlton Carroway (Menjou)—who checks himself in and out of the hospital from time to time, escapes and winds up with a traveling carnival. There’s more to the plot, of course; it’s classic screwball comedy, expertly done and thoroughly enjoyable. Very good print, good sound, just plain enjoyable even if it doesn’t really belong in this set. $2.

Hi Diddle Diddle, 1943, b&w, Andrew L. Stone (dir.), Adolphe Menjou, Martha Scott, Pola Negri, Dennis O’Keefe, Billie Burke, June Havoc. 1:12.

This time, Menjou’s a not-very-successful con man married to a Wagnerian opera singer (Negri); his son (O’Keefe) (who she doesn’t know about) is a sailor, marrying a woman during his three day shore leave. The bride’s ex-boyfriend thinks the sailor’s a golddigger and tells him that the mother’s lost all her money (due to his deliberate scheming and crooked gambling)—but the sailor doesn’t care, and the marriage commences. They want to go on a brief honeymoon, but this is a screwball comedy… Good running gags (one of which, a beautiful woman who keeps showing up in different scenes and apparently different minor roles, blatantly opens the fourth wall as a lead character mentions that she’s a relative or friend of the producer); a remarkable sequence in which four people at a nightclub practice doubletakes (causing the bartender watching them to do a classic doubletake). The print’s not quite as good as Road Show; the musical numbers are fine (one of them really excellent) but two songs do not a musical make; but as a screwball comedy, this is a fine little movie. $1.50, lowered for some damaged sections.

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