I’ve never been any good at finding treasures at flea markets, thrift stores or junk shops. Some people have a remarkable talent for detecting a Rembrandt in the midst of a clutter of paintings of poker-playing dogs and gloomy clowns. Not me: all I see is junk. The same was true about motion pictures until DVDs came along. Only then did I begin to realize that a lot of great songs and routines are to be found in some of the worst musicals and TV shows. Here are seven examples of numbers that I think are much better than their surroundings.
Thank Your Lucky Stars
“Thank Your Lucky Stars” is one of Warner Bros.’ many wartime morale-boosting revues. This one features an exasperating storyline and Eddie Cantor at his most tiresome, twice: he plays himself and a schlemiel who looks just like him. Oy. Yet there are several good numbers in it that make it worth knowing. Here’s the one I like best, featuring va-va-va-voom Ann Sheridan.
Love Isn’t Born (It’s Made)
Till the Clouds Roll By
“Till the Clouds Roll By” is an almost unbelievably bad picture. It purports to be a biography of Jerome Kern, and stars that legend of the Jewish Rialto, Robert Walker. It is possibly the worst of all the A-list Arthur Freed musicals (“Yolanda and the Thief” is equally bad, and it’s creepy in a way this one isn’t, but it at least has a certain demented imagination). “Till the Clouds Roll By” . . . Clouds? What clouds? This picture is devoid of dramatic tension of any kind. Will the nice young lady marry Jerry Kern? Why, yes! Will his music find favor in England? Why, yes! Will he find success on Broadway? Why, yes! On his very first time out? Why, yes! Will Jerry’s fictional loser friend be jealous of his great success? Why, no! As far as I can remember — it’s been a while since I’ve been able to sit through the whole wretched mess — the biggest drama occurs in the scene that begins with Jerry’s astonished voice-over: “I never thought I’d ever keep . . . a scrap-book!” He gives his no-talent, no-count goddaughter (Lucille Bremer, for once in a part that fits) a break — a small part in a show — then has to take her song away from her — but it’s Marilyn Miller (Judy Garland) who does the dirty work for him. The girl kicks up a rumpus and Jerry has to scold her: “There’s a little thing called . . . ‘the Good-of-the-Show,’ ” etc. That’s it. The girl cries, then repents. So much for turmoil. Even the names of his shows are free of drama: “Hitchy-Koo” . . . ! “Toot Toot!” . . . ! “She’s a Good Fellow” . . . ! “Night Boat” . . . ! “Good Morning Dearie” . . . ! But it has several wonderful numbers in it. This one’s my favorite, and it’s the only time I’ve ever heard anyone sing the verse, which is lovely.
Look for the Silver Lining
It Happened in Brooklyn
An appalling picture, very nearly unwatchable. Frank Sinatra and Peter Lawford play a pair of sadsacks just back from World War II, whom no girls want to date. They’re bashful, you see . . . Jimmy Durante is Cupid. Why go on? Yet about forty minutes in, Sinatra introduces one of Jule Styne’s best songs; his performance, in my opinion, is the best of his career.
Time after Time
Small Town Girl
One of the sticky sweet concoctions from the Joe Pasternak unit at Metro. Pasternak went in for the cotton candy operetta white picket fence Americana-style kitsch. In this one, there are several bizarre elements. In the first place, it’s directed by Busby Berkeley, who incorporated a few lunatic ideas into it — as for instance, the Ann Miller number “Gotta Hear That Beat,” in which all the musicians are under the floor, with their arms extending through holes and holding onto their instruments. It’s very weird . . . and pointless. Miller taps around them like crazy. Apparently, this was a difficult number to film and the ordeal of extending one’s arms through the holes while sweltering below was an excruciating torture. At any rate, the effect, though bizarre, isn’t arresting enough to make the torture seem worth the trouble and agony.
Another oddity is the following number, in which Bobby Van, having just received some excellent news, gleefully hops across Metro’s backlot Connecticut village in three or four very long takes. Along the way, he’s a public nuisance: he forces his attentions on nearly everyone who crosses his path, shakes maracas at a baby in a pram, rattles a parrot’s cage, upsets a horse, robs a fruiterer, sets loose a pack of strays from the dogcatcher’s paddy wagon, etc. The townspeople seem to think he’s adorable, so it’s easy to find his misdemeanors charming and commendable — but it’s awfully strange to see such wanton outlawry being winked at in Old Man Mayer’s law-abiding backlot. Pay close attention to the little dog in the final seconds — at approximately 2:53. On cue, he jerks himself up onto his hind legs, then skips unsteadily across the street with Bobby, but loses his balance short of the opposite curb and lands on his fore-paws. When he rises up again, he strains to catch up to the action, executes a sweet little hop over the curb, only to fall down on all fours again . . . then turns miserably in the wrong direction, his back to the camera, tail wagging like mad and scampers awkwardly out of frame — no doubt toward his irate master, who you just know is waiting for him round the corner, brandishing a rolled-up newspaper. It’s terribly poignant, the way his tail curls down, still wagging, just as he totters off to his doom — I’ve been laughing about it for years. See for yourself.
Take Me to Broadway
Yet there’s an even weirder number that made its way into the picture. First, you must understand that the small town where the action takes place is the Whitest place on the planet. It’s the coyest, whitest, most virginal little hick-town ever to be incorporated on the lily-white backlot of MGM. Yet smack in the center of the story, a judge’s daughter (Jane Powell), in cahoots with the local turnkey (Connecticut Yankee Chill Wills), lets a man (handsome eunuch Farley Granger) out of jail and accompanies him to an after-hours nightclub where Nat “King” Cole sings this sultry song. The following day, she stays in her pink bedroom in her pink flannel nightie and listens to the song on her nightstand radio. All by itself, this song doesn’t seem as weird as it does in the context of this parallel Whites Only Universe of MGM Small Town America. What is the blackest man in America doing in the whitest girl in America’s bedroom on the backlot of All-White Metro? The only thing lost out of context is its weirdness. But in or out of context, Nat “King” Cole is fantastic.
My Flaming Heart
And here’s another Bobby Van number. I make no claim that it’s great, only that the energy and pizzazz are remarkable. André Previn conducts, and the Metro orchestra is on fire. And even if there were not all that great hoofing to make it memorable (the first time I saw it on TCM, I couldn’t get over it), there is Bobby Van’s awesome wasabi-colored jacket, which is the greatest sports jacket I’ve ever seen. I also get a kick out of the girl at the beginning who sings/croaks “We wonder how we ever let the fella get away” . . .
Fine Fine Fine
The Judy Garland Show
This one is cheating a bit, since this song isn’t from a movie, but “The Judy Garland Show,” which was usually quite terrible. This episode, in particular, was atrocious — Steve Allen did nearly ten minutes about his new musical concerning the life of Sophie Tucker (the show ran exactly eight performances — April 15, 1963 – April 20, 1963: good riddance to bad rubbish); Mel Tormé, in a tuxedo with ruffled shirt and high-water slacks, sang the Ray Charles’ hit, “I’m Comin’ Home,” on a set filled with white motorcycles; female dancers vogued about him in elaborate hairdos and white gowns, while he was all finger-poppin’ and “with it” — perhaps the funniest (unintentionally) number of all time. (You can find it for yourself on YouTube; I won’t have it here: to quote the aggrieved elevator-man, Clancy, from Cheever’s “Clancy in the Tower of Babel”: “I’m not taking that up in my car!”) Then at the end of the show, Judy Garland belted out this song by corny old Vincent Youmans, and it’s unforgettable. It always makes my hair stand on end, no matter how often I hear it. Every single atom of her is committed to the material. It has been said that “Through the Years” was her favorite song. And why not?
Through the Years