Tag Archives: 42nd Street

‘The Velvet Touch’: Grande Dame Guignol

Original Poster.

Original Poster.

O Victory, Where Is Thy Death?

In the opening scene of “The Velvet Touch” (Independent Artists/RKO Radio Pictures, 1948), Rosalind Russell, as Broadway diva Valerie Stanton, ends a heated argument with her producer/lover Gordon Dunning (Leon Ames) by braining him with the first heavy object she can lay her velvet-gloved hand on. The irony is perfect, for the weapon is a theatrical trophy: it is the coveted Players Award, which Dunning won for Excellence in the Theatre; moreover, it is a statuette of Nike, Goddess of Victory, who bears aloft a wreath. The eminent actress has therefore crowned the eminent producer with his own laurels; the blow to his head has felled him for keeps: now needs must Gordon Dunning rest upon his laurels until the edge of doom. I find it all wonderfully funny. And after all, it’s Leon Ames: he had it coming. We’ll learn more about why as the picture progresses. Here’s a fraction of that opening scene.

Much of the rest of the picture is spent in flashback, à la Film Noir (though “The Velvet Touch” is too glossy and high-tone to be so categorized), by which means we learn how Leon and Roz arrived at this fatal contretemps. That he cannot bear the idea of being left for another man, Michael Morrell (played by Leo Genn, who murmurs drolly from the first reel to the last), is the most obvious explanation for his unbecoming conduct. But sexual jealousy is only at the surface: there’s a much deeper reason for his fury, and it stems from a classic case of one of Hollywood’s favorite fictional psychological disorders, which may fairly be called Svengali Syndrome.

Get Thee Behind Me, Svengali!

In Hollywood pictures about the theatre, directors are invariably Svengalis: Warner Baxter plucks Ruby Keeler from the chorus line in “42nd Street,” and, by dancing her off her feet for a day and a half, turns her into an overnight sensation. In “Twentieth Century,” Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) makes a brilliant actress out of an awkward, infantile amateur named Mildred Plotka (Carole Lombard). Similarly, in “Maytime,” Barrymore (this time as the crackpot musical genius, Nicolai Nazaroff) turns Jeanette MacDonald into an international prima donna, then shames her into entering into a loveless marriage with him, and in the final reel, the enraged impresario aims a pistol at his rival, Nelson Eddy, and blows a hole through that worthy’s barrel chest. (Well, somebody had to do it.) Clark Gable transforms Jeanette from a hymn-singing ninny into the toast of the Barbary Coast in “San Francisco“: her swinging rendition of the title song apparently sets off the Frisco Quake of Aught-Six, which knocks the nobs off their hill and makes toast of the entire region. In “Lady with Red Hair,” the great Claude Rains, as David Belasco, turns the hopelessly inadequate Mrs Leslie Carter (Miriam Hopkins) into . . . Mrs Leslie Carter, who was known as “the American Sarah Bernhardt.” In “Hello, Frisco, Hello,” international songbird Alice Faye bends over backwards to rescue the scoundrel John Payne from ruin because she believes she owes her success entirely to him. In “All About Eve,” the aging star Margo Channing has a pretty shrewd estimation of her own gifts and self-sufficiency as an actress, yet when her understudy/rival, Eve Harrington, gives a sensational audition, Margo bitterly accuses her director/lover, Bill Sampson, of being responsible for the girl’s stunning performance, which was “carefully rehearsed I have no doubt, over and over, full of those Bill Sampson touches!” (When Eve goes on to win the Sarah Siddons Award for her performance, Eve herself clearly believes the director is responsible for her success.) Most miraculously of all, Dan O’Herlihy turns Lana Turner into the most scintillating actress on Broadway in “Imitation of Life.” We don’t see how he contrives to fashion a silk purse out of that sow’s ear, nor do we get a chance to judge his wizardry for ourselves: Douglas Sirk knew better than to show Lana giving what we’re expected to believe is a great theatrical performance.

Of all these pictures, only “Twentieth Century” and “Lady with Red Hair” offer some evidence of how these directors of genius transform amateurs into great ladies of the stage. (In the former, Barrymore jabs a pin into Lombard’s rump, which does the trick: for the rest of the funny picture, Lombard never stops shrieking. In the latter, Rains stands on an apple box and raises Hopkins’ pigtails over her head to make her stand up straight. Mission accomplished: for the rest of the picture, she’s lousy from a greater height.)

L: Barrymore instructs Lombard in the art of acting. R: Rains instructs Hopkins.

L: Barrymore instructs Lombard in the art of acting. R: Rains instructs Hopkins.

Prelude to a Kiss-Off

As we have seen, when “The Velvet Touch” begins, Rosalind Russell has grown a-weary of dancing on the ends of Leon Ames’ strings; she is determined to play Hedda Gabler in the upcoming season; she is newly in love with Leo Genn. She must therefore cut herself free from her puppet-master’s strings. But, in the great Svengali tradition, he would sooner ruin her than let her go, and sooner than ruin her, he would bring her to heel. So this native son of Portland, Indiana, brings out the big guns: “Yer not good enough fer heavy drammer.” Besides, he tells her, that sort of guff don’t go over with the “suckers,” as he calls the New York City audiences who have made him rich. He knows what slops to serve up to the moron millions, and, sister, Hedda Gabler ain’t no state fair attraction. He will not permit her to make a fool of herself . . . or him. To that end, he has leaked a story to the press that she has already signed on to do yet another frivolous romp in the Fall, and he’s willing to go very much further to keep her dancing to his tune and starring in his productions.

We get a clear sense of the sort of shows he produces from the framed posters on his office walls: “It’s a Gay Life,” “The Gay Lady,” “Scandalous” and the current season’s “Escapade.” He produces and directs these wafer-thin entertainments, yet his theatre and his offices, tricked out with ostentatious, ornamental Victorian kitsch, are more suited to a producer of the blood and thunder melodramas of Eugène Scribe and Victorien Sardou: his office is crowded with heavy, carved furniture. In the public spaces of his theatre, oil paintings in gilded rococo frames hang on walls that are covered in shimmering damask silk; fluted pillars and pilasters are topped by Corinthian capitals of exuberant gaudiness; heavy brocade draperies and swags trimmed in miles of fringe adorn every landing, niche, entrance; cut crystal chandeliers glitter overhead; there are Turkey carpets as far as the eye can see. It’s the vulgarian’s dream of high class. I imagine Boss Tweed must have looked on similar decor while being fellated at his favorite whorehouse, though he would not have seen a neon sign for the Cabana Café glaring through the bordello window. But if these trappings seem inappropriate for a producer of frolicsome romantic comedies, they are entirely correct for this Tosca-like opening and for the preposterous melodrama that follows.

Rosalind Russell, Leon Ames: Valerie Stanton and Gordon Dunning in happier times.

Rosalind Russell, Leon Ames: Valerie Stanton and Gordon Dunning in happier times.

And just to make it quite impossible to take any of this camp melodrama seriously, there is the stupendously misleading title song, sung in glee-club harmony by an all-male chorus. Written by Mort Greene (lyrics) and Leigh Harline (music), the tune’s jaunty breeziness and idiotic fills (doodle-oodle-oo), lead one to expect the picture will be one of those late-forties disposable situation comedies in which, say, Robert Cummings vies with Brian Aherne for the affections of Virginia Mayo, while Marjorie Main cracks wise, and eggs, in the kitchen. Instead you get Murder on the Main Stem — part Fannie Hurst, part Edna Ferber, part Walter Winchell, part Sardou, part Dostoyevsky — and it’s a whole lot funnier than most of the comedies of the era, but in a sneaky, subversive way (perfect for the McCarthy Era). That is, it is definitely played as high drama — Rosalind Russell and her co-stars (most of them) seem to take it all in deadly earnest, but unless I miss my bet, the screenwriter was having fun at their expense. Anyhow, if you look at it from this point of view, the picture is hilarious, sometimes almost awesomely so.

The picture was produced by Miss Russell’s husband, Frederick Brisson, and her great, elongated full-moon face is rarely out of the frame. Even so, Claire Trevor, as her bitter rival, acts her right off the screen.

Beedle Dee-Dee Dee-Dee, Two Ladies

Moments after Roz flees undetected from the scene of the crime, the body is discovered by Claire Trevor, who makes two serious blunders: (1) she picks up the weapon, and (2) she falls into an hysterical faint. This is a sticky wicket, for it appears to everyone, including (or so it would seem) NYPD Homicide Detective Sydney Greenstreet(!), that she — a woman scorned — must have fainted after having committed a crime passionnel. Meanwhile, Roz has her own fit of histrionics in the privacy of her home, where she sobs, “Oh why did this horrible thing have to happen? Why? Why? . . . Why?” Cue flashback.

First we see how Roz tried to patch things up with Claire a few days before the bludgeoning. Roz is unusually restrained. Claire is (ahem) less so. The result is a nice bit of camp: catfight lite.

Later in the picture, we learn that Claire has been hospitalized. Roz goes to visit her, amusingly attired as if she were a very chic nun in a satin and silk habit and wimple. She makes me think of Caitlyn Jenner as Father Christmas. Roz extends the olive branch, but Claire is having none of it. And to prove it, she speaks two of the greatest camp lines ever.

The screenplay is by Leo Rosten, who wrote the best-selling “The Joys of Yiddish.” I have to believe that Rosten was laughing his head off when he wrote, “Where did you get your luck, Valerie? Or does God pity the wicked?” and “If you had any decency, you’d face it yerself. But you haven’t: yer rotten! All the way through!” At any rate, the brilliantly funny author of “The Joys of Yiddish” simply couldn’t have taken any of this stuff seriously. Believe me, I’m not knocking it. I think it’s great. But it’s great because it’s so funny. Much of “The Velvet Touch” is as fabulously, deliriously foolish as the best parts of “Deception,” and almost as entertaining. It lacks a towering, unforgettable performance to match Claude Rains’ supremely witty sadist Alexander Hollenius, but there is more than enough mad, grandiloquent silliness in “The Velvet Touch” to make it a thoroughly entertaining picture. For fans of Rosalind Russell, Claire Trevor, Leo Genn, Sydney Greenstreet, or for that matter, Leo Rosten, it is not to be missed.

Busby Berkeley Dance Numbers

Original Poster

Original Poster

Gold Diggers of 1933” is a picture that I like a lot — especially Guy Kibbee as the dyspeptic, jumpy banker, a Boston blue-blood stiff-neck, who is putty in the hands of any pretty girl who sits in his lap and calls him “Fuffy.”  Joan Blondell is the sort of pretty girl who would call him “Fuffy” and cheerfully rob him blind, but in this one, she sets her cap for the hatchet faced Warren William. It therefore falls to wisenheimer Aline MacMahon to take Fuffy to the cleaners, which she does hilariously and completely. Blondell had a long career; I’ve seen her in a lot of bum pictures, but I’ve never seen her give a bad performance. It’s possible that this is her very best of the 158 pictures she made. In “Remember My Forgotten Man,” she so easily could have been sentimental, but she stays tough and underplays it. A terribly unappreciated actress, she’s excellent in “Nightmare Alley.” Aline MacMahon is an actress who is always worth paying attention to; her type of smart, single gal who knows the angles, but keeps missing the boat, stopped showing up in pictures sometime in the 1950s. MacMahon’s stock character went away, but her style hasn’t dated at all. In a small part, Ginger Rogers is funny, coarse, and she sings “We’re In the Money” in Pig Latin.

Guy Kibbee, Joan Blondell:  'Every time you say "cheap & vulgar," I'm gonna kiss you!' 'Cheap & vulgar! Cheap & vulgar!  Cheap & vulgar!'

Guy Kibbee, Joan Blondell: ‘Every time you say “cheap and vulgar,” I’m gonna kiss you!’
‘Cheap and vulgar! Cheap and vulgar! Cheap and vulgar!’

When I was younger, I didn’t care for the Warner Bros. Vitaphone backstage musicals. I always admired the way the men were dressed — I love the double-breasted suits with the wide lapels and the fedoras, but the slick hair, the pencil moustaches, the blackened lips, the mascara around their eyes — all of these things gave me the creeps. And everything about Dick Powell — his appearance, the rat-a-tat tremolo of his voice, the stridency of personality — repelled. (I still can’t stand him, though I can’t deny he’s talented.) So I always avoided the Vitaphone musicals. Then, back in the early spring of 2001, when I had just finished unpacking from a trip to Paris, I turned on the television and saw about two thirds of “Footlight Parade” on TCM. For some mysterious reason, my former objections no longer had any weight — how could I have ever disliked this sort of picture? There was so much about the genre to please me: tap dancing, berserk production numbers, loud-mouth floozies, bubble-headed chorines, harried directors and stage managers, gangsters talking out the side of their mouths — I suddenly realized it was the sort of entertainment that I’d been looking for all my life! How had I lived for more than 40 years without ever having seen “Footlight Parade”? I thought it was absolutely hilarious from the moment I turned it on. I especially liked the hard-berled patter and the Depression Era slang. The first lines I heard spoken turned out to be my favorites: the put-upon dance director (Frank McHugh) screams at the chorus girls. “No, no, no! Girls! This is supposed to be a Prosperity number!” And a gum chewing chorine with peroxide hair and a Betty Boop voice replies indignantly, “How can we look Prosperity when he’s got Depression all over that pan o’ his?

'Footlight Parade':  'This is a prosperity number!'

‘Footlight Parade’: ‘This is a prosperity number!’

At first glance, the “Forgotten Man” sequence at the end of “Gold Diggers of 1933” seems strangely out of place, even in a picture that has its fair share of surreal Busby Berkeley numbers: how odd to conclude a featherweight farce with a bucket of ice cold water in the face!  But the entire picture has been leading up to “Remember My Forgotten Man” from the very first scene — we’re watching the final rehearsal of the comically sarcastic “We’re in the Money”; marshals show up with a court order to shut the production down for non-payment of bills. It’s a perfectly delightful, merry comedy, but the Great Depression and social injustice run through every scene. “Gold Diggers of 1933” is the one of the few Busby Berkeley extravaganzas in which the non-musical parts are as entertaining as the musical numbers.

The picture was released in May of 1933, which means it must have been filmed sometime in the fall or winter of 1932, or at the latest, at the very beginning of 1933.  In June of 1932, the Bonus Army — 43,000 starving World War I veterans marched on Washington to demand cash payments for their service certificates; on July 28, President Hoover called in the Army, under the command of General MacArthur and General Patton, who routed them.  The newsreel cameras were on the scenes; the footage of Federal troops firing on starving veterans was seen by movie audiences all over the country. The political climate of the Forgotten Man number.  And Busby Berkeley, who was himself a veteran of World War I: a drill sergeant. No number could be more perfectly suited to his talent, background and temperament. Next time you watch one of his big numbers, notice how little real dancing goes on.  There’s a lot more marching and close order drill than dancing in his choreography. It’s reasonable to suppose that the previous summer’s routing of the Bonus Marchers must have made a deep impression on a man whose entire career was based on what he did in the army.  And one more thing:  when the movie was released, a smaller version of the Bonus Army had reformed and returned to Washington to see if the new President would be more accommodating.  So they were very much in the news.

The Forgotten Man number

The Forgotten Man number

As much as I like “42nd Street” as a picture, I prefer the Broadway musical version.  Everything about the stage show is more appealing.  The plot is the same, but it’s sprightlier and funnier and has about a dozen musical numbers instead of three or four.  The additional numbers are taken from the other Vitaphone backstage musicals written by Harry Warren and Al Dubin.

Ginger Rogers:  Her money-maker looks like a microphone.

Ginger Rogers: Her money-maker looks like a microphone.

As for Ruby Keeler, her stardom seems to be a freak of the times she lived in — it’s hard to believe anybody ever mistook her gracelessness for talent or considered her strikingly beautiful.  I think any popularity she enjoyed must have been based on her obvious lack of talent and grace — she’s a natural underdog who succeeds by sheer pluck.  She’s so utterly undistinguished (Pauline Kael referred to her as “the awesomely untalented Ruby Keeler”) that I expect every starstruck female who saw her pictures must have told herself:  “Say, even I could do better than that!”  Her success may have been due to the way her deficiencies allowed audiences feel superior to her.

Keeler was married to Al Jolson for ten years.  Before she met him, she had been the girlfriend of Johnny Irish, a notorious gangster in the Dutch Schultz mob.  Jolson gave Keeler’s mother $1 million as a dowry and was required to ask Irish for his consent.  The gangster agreed, but warned Jolson if he ever abused her, he’d pay for it with his life.  Now there’s a loving father!  Keeler’s heavy-footed dancing has been derided for as long as I’ve been aware of her — I call her Clunkletoes — but as a gentleman, I feel obliged to offer one word in her defense.  Contrary to popular belief, Ruby Keeler was NOT, technically speaking, a tap dancer:  she was a buck dancer.  Buck dancers wore heavy shoes with hard wooden soles and did not use metal taps.  This required them to strike the floor much more heavily and violently than tap dancers.  Buck dancing was a casualty of the growing popularity of tap dancing — one look at Ruby Keeler plying her terpsichorean trade and it is easy to see why.  But one should in fairness admit that the clunkiness of her dancing is not entirely her fault.

Ruby Keeler:  The buck stops here.

Ruby Keeler: The buck stops here.

The surreal effects created by Busby Berkeley are every bit as startling as they ever were — perhaps even more so.  As bewildering and mind-blowing as they must have been in the mid-30’s, today it is hard for anybody to conceive that such massive sets would ever be built for a single number or that so many hundreds of dancers should be brought together to create kaleidoscope effects.  It’s an interesting paradox:  the more audiences are exposed to the amazing images that are now generated by computers, the more the production numbers of Busby Berkeley strike them as inexplicable and beyond belief.  The widespread use of computer generated special effects has a way of making one believe that such effects can’t be created any other way.  So when one is suddenly confronted by these berserk, kaleidoscopic patterns being created by ever-changing figures of hundreds of anonymous dancers, far from being unimpressed, one can’t help being truly amazed.  And it’s not just the overhead patterns that surprise and bewilder — it’s the way Berkeley plays with the dimensions.  At the end of “Dames,” the overhead camera pulls back and back from a group of fifty or sixty girl dancers whose legs and arms create various patterns, when suddenly and without warning, the image is torn apart by the heads of Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler ripping through the paper the image has been printed on.  What the hell?!  How did he do that?

Dames:  Last configuration.

Dames: Last configuration . . .

. . . & here comes Dick Powell.

. . . and here comes Dick Powell.

Or there’s another number in which the camera floats between the legs of a long line of chorus girls and then, with the use of trick photography, the mirror image of their legs appears beneath, so that the spread legs and their mirror image describe a diamond shape constructed of shapely legs . . . which then begins to revolve!  What on earth?!

Dames:  Surrealism & trick photography

Dames: Surrealism and trick photography

No, I can’t agree that computer graphics have rendered Berkeley’s demented routines unexceptional to modern audiences — I think CGI has made modern audiences, in effect, more innocent:  they’ve forgotten that startling, other-worldly effects can be created in a real (rather than a virtual) space by real people — all it takes is hundreds of extras, huge sound stages, thousands of hours of rehearsal and lots of extraordinary skillful camera operators.  Oh yes, and talent and a very wild imagination.

Not long ago, I spent a full afternoon and much of an evening watching a whole slew of Vitaphone musicals.  Here’s the element that struck me most forcefully when I first watched more than two dozen of those incredible dance numbers:  it was the juxtaposition of the collective and the individual.  The girls in these numbers are always dressed identically and almost always move identically, yet when we see them up close, there are never two who are pretty in the same way:  one looks like the girl next door, one looks like a vamp, one looks like Jean Harlow, one looks like a prom queen, one is light, the next is dark, and so on.  Time and again, Berkeley has the camera pan down a long line of chorus girls, each of whom smiles directly at the camera in tight close-up; in every instance, the girls are identically costumed, yet each is pretty in an entirely different way from the others, each one is an individual, not a carbon copy; seeing one utterly original, pretty face after another offers a testament to the great variety of feminine beauty (you won’t see anything like this today, when everyone tries to look exactly like everyone else).  Anyhow, I was struck by how generous it was to give so many unknown girls a big, cheerful close-up and I thought, “Gee, he really wants us to understand that every one of these girls is unique.”  But no sooner has this cavalcade of American Beauties been presented to us, but we get an overhead shot that obliterates every trace of individuality and personality — all of those unique girls, now literally faceless,  become merely the little bits of glass that Berkeley tosses about inside his cinematic kaleidoscope.  The only personality that remains is that of the creator of this bizarre creation.  And then I was struck by how seldom anyone dances in a Busby Berkeley number — the talent lies in his vision, not in the movements his puppets execute.

Starlet snowflake

Starlet snowflake

Starlet mandala

Starlet mandala

Starlet poppies

Starlet poppies

Berkeley staged huge dance numbers in which almost nobody danced; there is loveliness and surprise everywhere in his big sequences and there are dozens, even hundreds of uniquely pretty girls, many of whom are allowed to beguile us by smiling fetchingly into the camera.  But all of these hundreds of lovely, charming girls are never shown to possess any talent whatsoever — the talent resides entirely in the person of their director, who demonstrates his weird genius by turning beautiful young girls into kaleidoscopic images of whirligigs, poppies, sunflowers and slithering legumes.

Gold Diggers of 1933:  The Shadow Waltz

Gold Diggers of 1933: The Shadow Waltz