Friday, January 11, 2013
The glut of 1930s dramas and comedies that take place partially or entirely in the backstage of some song-and-dance show can get a little overwhelming, in a which-one-was-that kind of way, but I have to say it takes a lot for me to really dislike them (a statement that will be tested once my Busby Berkeley set arrives this week). So while Pál Fejös' 1929 musical is, yes, a little stodgy and awkward in that way only early sound films could be, and it's definitely far too long (104 minutes at a time when most ran around 90, often much shorter), and the story is familiar to probably even those who have never seen a single film made before 1990, I gotta say, there's a lot to like.
Let's start from the outside, so to speak. The film never ventures beyond the walls of the Paradise Nightclub, and even the auditorium area is reserved only for the musical numbers, which are themselves pretty staid affairs, but which produce a reaction in their audience like a tent revival. Nightclubs in other such films are usually portrayed as fairly refined affairs, where someone is inevitably thrown out for behaving a little too bawdily after several too many drinks. At the Paradise, that behavior seems to get you in the door! There are people dancing on tables, throwing things onstage (in a congratulatory manner, it would appear), and the level of rabble-rousing far exceeds anything I've seen in any other film. Baz Luhrmann's Great Gatsby looks restrained by comparison. Fejös' camera, which he stuck on a crane uniquely developed for this film, swirls up and down and around the massive performance space, nearly as unrestrained as the attending audience.
Backstage, things are hardly more civil. Like any respectable nightclub of the era, there's heavy gangster involvement at the Paradise, but the sin hardly stops when bootlegger Steve Crandall leaves the room. One girl's spying for a competing mobster, good-girl Billie Moore is frequently seen with Steve himself, and our hero, Roy Lane, is no gentleman in trying to tear her away. He's trying to put together a routine for the she and him, give them a name of their own to put up in lights and some extra money along with it, possibly enough to get married on. Though she's more than eager, and goes to every rehearsal he sets, it's not enough as long as she's out with Steve every chance she gets. So he does what so many guys do - takes petty, selfish actions to try to separate them and win her over, treating her pretty poorly in the process, and never really telling her how he feels.
This might not make for the most nuanced story, but it's a hell of a lot more than the usual bit where the guy and girl, way too nice for anyone's good, are separated by unconvincingly-stretched misunderstandings and -communications. I've certainly lost out on girls because of that, but more often than not, the trick is just treating her decently and being halfway attractive, and while the film cuts these future lovers some breaks along the way (especially with an offscreen mother serving as the Deus ex Machina), it's sweet enough on its own terms. Tack on some fine personality courtesy of star Glenn Tryon (familiar to all good cinephiles as the star of Fejös' Lonesome), some passable musical numbers (Tryon's pretty clearly relying on a double in all arenas), lavish production values, plenty of gangsters-and-showgirls banter, and a Technicolor ending, I've certainly had less desirable evenings at the movies.
Posted by Scott Nye at 1:49 PM