Sunday, September 13, 2015

Awkward Early Talkie Theatre: "Sally"

The 1929 film "Sally" is more than an awkward early talkie -- it's also a kind of time capsule, preserving the elements of an elaborate Flo Ziegfeld stage show and the winsome performing style of its star, Marilyn Miller, who appeared in Ziegfeld shows and reviews from 1918 through the early 1930s.

"Sally" is based on the Ziegfeld success that ran from 1920-24, including a world tour and a final series of performances back in New York City. Miller appeared in a 1925 film version as well as this one, for which she reportedly received the record-breaking salary of $100,000 -- roughly a thousand dollars per hour of work.

Sally Bowling Green works as a waitress in a Manhattan hash house. She's an orphan who was abandoned at the offices of the Bowling Green telephone exchange, hence her name. Her dream is to be a dancer, but in the meantime she's the world's worst waitress.

Sally strikes up a friendship with Blair Farrell (Alexander Gray), a society swell who always stops outside the restaurant and waves at Sally inside. Alas, Blair is betrothed to another rich woman and is bound by family pressure.

When Sally messes up one too many orders of flapjacks, she is bounced from her job and ends up as a waitress at the Elm Tree Inn, a roadhouse managed by the gruff-but-kindly Pops (Ford Sterling). Sally's co-worker and buddy is a waiter named Connie (Joe E. Brown). In real life he is the Grand Duck Constantine of Czechoslovenia and Pops, a native of the same country, keeps Connie on the job out of loyalty.

Blair has been looking all over for Sally, and when he finds her at the Elm Tree Inn they don't waste much time before breaking into the show's big number, Jerome Kern's "Look for the Silver Lining":


Miller and Gray make an appealing pair, although his singing style doesn't date as well as Miller's. Her dancing style is pleasant, as well -- she actually seems to be having fun and doesn't stomp with the joyless passion of a Joan Crawford or a Ruby Keeler. One of the movie's highlights is this charming eccentric dance that Sally does with Connie:


Blair is in love with Sally, and as one of the Elm Tree Inn's best customers he persuades Pops to let Sally perform for the patrons. She is a hit! Hooper, a big time agent (T. Roy Barnes), happens to catch Sally's act, along with his frail, Rosie (Pert Kelton, forever known in trivia circles as the first woman to play Alice Kramden in "Honeymooners" sketches). Hooper hires Sally to appear at a high society soiree but she must pretend to be a Russian entertainer. Why? Because if she doesn't, there's no third act.

Originally filmed in two-strip technicolor, "Sally" exists now only in a black-and-white print with just a moment of two of recovered color footage. Here it is, from a number called "Wild Rose," with Sally doing her Russian act:


As a result of her appearance, Sally signs a big contract with Flo Ziegfeld and Blair disappears. Cut to Sally's opening night on Broadway, and a big old production number with dancers dressed as butterflies:


After the show, all of Sally's old friends come backstage to congratulate her, but Blair is nowhere to be found -- or IS he??!?!

Miller was a huge star on Broadway, but only made three films, with "Sally" being the first. She returned to the stage after the third film, 1931's "Her Majesty, Love," and died in 1936 of a sinus condition. She was 37.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Pre-Code vs Post-Code: "Whistling in the Dark"

Usually when we compare pre-code and post-code versions of the same movie, the big differences are in the tone or in dialogue of the films, with the pre-code example a more sophisticated -- and yet more earthy -- version of each.

In the case of the 1933 and 1941 versions of "Whistling in the Dark," however, the difference is more than that, and it comes down to the leads in both films -- the subtle, Broadway-inflected performance of Ernest Truex in the 1933 version and the more exaggerated performance of Red Skelton in the 1941 film,
informed by his work on the radio and in vaudeville.

Opening on Broadway in 1932, "Whistling in the Dark" by Laurence Gross and Edward Childs Carpenter came to the screen in 1933 with two of its main leads intact -- Edward Arnold as gangster Dillon and Truex as Wallace Porter, a best-selling author of mysteries who is forced into planning a real-life murder by Dillon and his associates. The author of the screenplay and the film's director is our old friend Elliott Nugent.

Dillon works for crime boss Lombardo (C. Henry Gordon) and is trying to extort protection money from stubborn brewer Otto Barfuss (our old friend Joseph Cawthorn). When Wally and his fiancee Toby (Una Merkel), on their way to get married, encounter car trouble just outside of Lombardo's estate, Wally meets Dillon and brags about his crime-solving expertise. Dillon holds Wally and Toby captive at the estate until Wally formulates a perfect murder plan that the gangsters can use on Barfuss.

Since prohibition and its related opportunities for crime were a moot point in 1941, the later version of "Whistling in the Dark" changes the gangster's estate to a "sanitarium" run by cult leader Jones (Conrad Veidt), whose racket is charming wealthy old ladies into joining his group and then leaving their earthly belongings to him when they pass.

Wally tries his sponsor's product.


The 1941 film also changes Wally's character to someone much more suited to Skelton's style of broad, visual comedy. Wally is still a crime expert, but here he is "The Fox," the hero of a radio show who, every night, foils the bad guys and saves Carol (Ann Rutherford), an actress who is also Wally's real-life girlfriend. The scene introducing Skelton's character nicely establishes that premise and shows us some fun footage of a radio show being produced:    



The opening also establishes that the 1941 version of Wally has not one but three women in his life -- Carol; Fran, the sponsor's daughter (Virginia Grey); and his business manager, Buzz (Eve Arden, not utilized enough). The evil Jones visits Wally and poses as a prospective sponsor for his show -- then when he gets Wally out to his estate, Jones forces him to plan the murder of an heir who is standing between Jones and a cult member's fortune. Carol and Fran end up at the mansion too, held captive with Wally.

In both films, Wally tries unsuccessfully to call for help, with Truex's underplaying taking the honors here -- he tries to make the call as quietly as possible and ends up mumbling into the mouthpiece:




The 1933 version of "Whistling in the Dark" contains several pre-code allusions, including cracks about bank failures and the stock market crash. Wally also drinks quite a bit. And there's an interesting scene that isn't in the 1941 version at all -- convinced that the gangsters will kill them, Wally and Toby lock themselves into a bedroom and exchange their wedding rings in their own ceremony. Toby then strips down to her camisole and hops into bed, ready to consummate the marriage while Wally flutters about, not knowing what to do.


On the other hand, there's a scene in the 1941 version that isn't in the 1933 film, and it's likely
inspired by the success of "The Ghost Breakers" of the year before, a haunted house movie with Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard. It involves Skelton, Rutherford and Grey trying to escape by following a secret passageway and running across assorted skeletons and mummies designed to supply a quick fright/laugh to the audience.

Wally does end up concocting a plan for murder that involves slipping poison into the victim's toothpaste tube. Once the gang leaves to implement the plan, Wally starts trying to contact the authorities by rigging up a radio to use as a transmitter. One of the denser gangsters finds out (played by Nat Pendleton in the 1933 film and Rags Ragland in the 1941 film), and Wally pretends he's doing a radio broadcast to throw the guy off. Here's how the scene plays out in both films:




When it comes to pacing, the 1941 version of "Whistling in the Dark" has it all over the 1933 version. The older version is too stagebound - it pretty much takes place in the one room where Wally and Toby are being held. And as good as Truex might have been on stage, his small stature and diffident comic manner don't translate very well to film. By contrast, for better or worse, Skelton pitches his performance to the back row, but it works. I'm not much of a Skelton fan, especially when it comes to his later sloppy TV performances, which can display a breathtaking contempt for the audience, but here he's fresh and funny.

The 1941 version of "Whistling in the Dark" was much more popular than the 1933 one -- so popular that Skelton appeared in two sequels. As for Truex, he alternated between Broadway and Hollywood, appearing in the films "Bachelor Mother" and "Christmas in July," among others, and the play "George Washington Slept Here," which was made into a 1942 film with Jack Benny. Truex also appeared in two episodes of "The Twilight Zone," including the classic "Kick the Can."