Monday, December 3, 2012

Pre-Code Parade: DOWN TO THEIR LAST YACHT (1934)

RKO promoted Paul Sloane's musical comedy as "from the creators of Flying Down to Rio," but modern viewers will find Down To Their Last Yacht missing two of Rio's core components: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Of course, Astaire and Rogers were still seen as mere ensemble players at the time, or at most a specialty act, but they're the main reasons Rio is remembered today, and their absence has a lot to do with why Yacht is forgotten. That the studio saw Yacht as a fitting follow-up to Rio indicates that it hadn't yet learned what Rio should have taught it: that the future of movie musicals lay with virtuoso performance. Instead, Yacht is in the cartoonish mode of RKO's earlier Melody Cruise. Songs are shared out among multiple performers, the camera cutting from one singer to another with every line. Yacht is a musical without musicians, unless you count Sterling Holloway's scheming saxophonist who discovers a method of making a roulette ball jump by playing certain amplified notes. If Astaire's ascendancy marked the advent of the classical, Code-Enforcement era musical, Yacht, which appeared in the summer of the transition year, is one of the last Pre-Code musicals. And if "screwball" is the comedy style of the next era, Yacht is just screwy.

The once wealthy Colt-Strattons open the picture literally down to their last yacht. They're living on it while eking out livings in menial jobs, until Nella Fitzgerald (Polly Moran) rents the ship for a Pacific cruise for the nouveau riche, with the Colt-Strattons -- father, mother and pretty daughter (Sidney Fox) as part of the crew -- "the social register serving the cash register." The passengers are a mix of crude businessmen, Italian gangsters, aging gold diggers and a late arrival, the gambler Barry Forbes (Sidney Blackmer), who falls for the younger Colt-Stratton. Yes, in this picture the actors playing the romantic leads share the same first name: not necessarily a good sign. A cynical spirit prevails on board, expressed in the collective performance of "Funny Little World:"

You have to take it or else.
That's the slogan of today.
That's the game you have to play.
Funny little world!
You have to like it or else.
It's the or-else stage for you.
It's the or-else age for you.
Funny little world!

It gets funnier when the ship's captain hired by Nella (the baleful Ned Sparks) appears to deliberately run the ship aground on the Polynesian island of Molakamokalu, where the handsome, scantily clad natives sing of the lack of anything to do but love. The passengers expect to encounter a "blackface Zulu" ruler, but this is no Skull Island. Its queen is a white woman (top-billed Mary Boland) of flighty malevolence, recalling a husband she'd poisoned as the one she loved best. She and Captain Jim have a racket where he brings victims to the island to be looted by the queen and her army of tommy gun-toting natives, but when he proposes taking all the passengers' money himself and leaving the queen with only their possessions, she has him hurled into a cage as future shark food. She has the same fate in mind for all the passengers, whom she forces to exchange clothes with the natives. Their only hope for salvation is the queen's sudden infatuation with Barry Forbes, who convinces her that the worst punishment she can inflict on her victims is expelling them from her island. That sounds like a good idea to her, but just to make a point she has bombs planted on the yacht to explode at sea while her loyal natives celebrate her latest nuptials with a big, quasi-Berkeleyan "South sea bolero" number, "Beach Boy," which skirts the border of surrealism and just plain camp.

Down to Their Last Yacht is a "nut comedy" of a sort that was already nearly obsolete by 1934. Even for nut comedies its ratio of obnoxious personalities to boring lovers is alarmingly high. Sidney and Sidney have zero chemistry, and you have little rooting interest in anyone else. There's something inhuman about Yacht's anarchic impulse, which comes across less as a yawp of freedom than as a refusal to give a damn about anything. For some, that may make Yacht one of the most authentically anarchic efforts from Pre-Code Hollywood, but even then the mentality to which it tailored itself was a minority taste. It's a comedy that probably looks more intriguingly subversive on paper than it is on the screen, and it's hard to say whether a better cast -- Sparks is always welcome but we don't get enough of him -- or better direction may have helped matters. In many ways the imposition of Code Enforcement thwarted Hollywood's creative evolution, but Down To Their Last Yacht is a Pre-Code product that is clearly an evolutionary dead end. As such it could prove fascinating for Pre-Code buffs, but people looking for plain entertainment will find little to see here.

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