Monday, July 29, 2013

Movie Roundup #20: Music, Maestro, Please!

Garden Of The Moon (1938)

Some time ago I posted  the production number "Girl Friend of the Whirling Dervish" from the movie Garden Of The Moon because it's one of my favorite movie musical bits. Last week I finally got to watch the entire movie again and it still held up.

This film is a typically efficient, rapid-fire Warner Brothers comedy of the late 30s' concerning an ongoing battle of wits between the leader of a dance band and the manager of the ritzy Hollywood night club he's playing at, The Garden Of The Moon.  Pat O'Brien plays the scheming manager in the same fast-talking manner he used whenever he wasn't playing a priest in those days and the bandleader is played by John Payne long before he became known as a dramatic actor in thrillers and westerns. The movie is directed by Busby Berkeley, the last musical he would direct for Warners and while there are none of the elaborate dance numbers of his heyday, he did manage some inventive staging of two musical numbers by the band, "Dervish" and "The Lady on the Two Cent Stamp".  (That's not a typo. Once upon a time stamps did cost two cents.)

Watching the film for the second time I was surprised to notice more and more familiar faces in the cast in early parts of their careers. There was Payne, of course, but there was also Penny Singleton, who would later gain fame in the Blondie movies, in a small part as a singer forced onto the band by O'Brien.  Then there are the band members who do much of the singing in the musical numbers. Trumpeter Johnny "Scat" Davis worked in several Warners films in this period but the bug-eyed trombone player with the handlebar musctahe is none other than Jerry Colonna a few years before he would become famous through Bob Hope's radio show. The shock for me was seeing a balding, portly violinist in the group. That was Joe Venuti, one of the earliest jazz violin soloists. Here's "Dervish" again.  Venuti is the guy who screams "Alligator! That's the ticket!" at the end.

Carolina Blues (1944)

Garden showed up on  TCM as part of an all day session of movies featuring big bands. Besides Garden I got to catch most of Carolina Blues, a film featuring bandleader Kay Kyser and his orchestra.

Kyser and his guys made a group of decent little comedies for RKO in the Forties but this came out after that and was made by Columbia Pictures.  It wasn't the same. This film had too many plot lines going on and dragged out interminably to the point where I bailed before the end.  In one storyline, Kyser's singer, Georgia Carroll, was quitting the band to get married and a girl, played by dancer Ann Miller, kept trying to replace her. At the same time Kyser's band is trying to go on vacation but he's trying to get them to stay together to play fundraising concerts to finance a battleship that would be named after his hometown, Rocky Mount, North Carolina. On top of all this Ann Miller's character and her gambler father, played by Victor Moore, are pretending to be rich to impress Kyser but he thinks because Miller's rich, she doesn't have the drive to stick it out in show business.

You see how complicated this gets? And that's not even mentioning the big all-black dance number in the middle of the picture, "Mr. Beebe", featuring Harold Nicholas and the Four Step Brothers, that has no relation to the rest of the movie or the momentary appearance of Doodles Weaver as a Kyser lookalike.

The one thing I really couldn't get my head around is that in the movie Carroll, the actual singer for Ksyer's band, was supposed to be quitting to marry a serviceman but in real life she was already Kay Kyser! Yet here he was in this picture making goo-goo eyes at Ann Miller often with his wife in the same scene.

Also there was a great opportunity lost considering what stuidio this movie was made at. One of the featured comedian-musicians in Kyser's band was a trumpeter who called himself Ish Kabibble. He was known for a black bowl haircut that looked just like the hairdo of a certain member of a comedy team who worked for many years at Columbia. This picture would have been made for me if there had been a scene where Larry Fine and Curly Howard approached Kabbible from the back and said "How ya doin', Moe?"  At the very least I hope somebody at least thought of it at the time.

The Un-Tony: Gandolfini and Stewart

Welcome To The Rileys (2010)

When James Gandolfini passed away recently most of the attention naturally went to his work as Tony Soprano especially since he didn't live long enough to do a lot of other lead roles. Welcome To The Rileys was one of his few post-Tony films that deserves some recognition.  In it Gandolfini plays Doug Riley, a business owner who, along with his wife, is still feeling the effects from the death of his teenaged daughter in a car wreck several years before.  On a business trip to New Orleans he meets Mallory, an underage stripper and prostitute with a defiant attitude and gets it in his head to stay in New Orleans for an indefinite time to help the girl get her life in order while also trying to make up for his own loss.

The story is basically predictable but it works because the work of the three lead actors is so good. Gandolfini, as hie did in The Sopranos,  lets all his emotions play across his face and body and makes his character's exhaustion and sorrow feel very real.  Kristen Stewart as Mallory comes off sad and pathetic but able to respond to kindness and shows some innate dignity that comes through when she rebels against the Rileys trying to take over her life.

The most searing acting, though, comes from Melissa Leo playing Mrs. Riley. At the beginning of the film she is so traumatized by her daughter's death that she refuses to leave her house. As the movie progresses however she exhibits a lot of nervous but determined resolve as she drives to New Orleans alone and reunites with her husband and comes to grips with the idea of having an instant foster daughter.

This is Lifetime Movie material played with restraint and ambiguity.  Mallory does not end up in the bosom of the Rileys at the end of the story but the feeling comes through that all three people come out of this experience a lot more healed than they were before. It's a quietly effective little film that shouldn't be overlooked when discussing Gandolfini's career.

No comments: