Saturday, January 5, 2013


No genre or subgenre of film ever became more instantly obsolete than the all-talking, all-singing revue of the early sound era. Film historians disparage the revue pictures as an evolutionary dead end while salvaging individual performances or numbers as genuine or guilty pleasures. It doesn't help the revues' reputation that they are perhaps the most overtly branded corporate products in Hollywood history. Only a few actually bear their studios' names, but all of them were designed to showcase their studios' contract talent -- to show the public that hitherto silent stars had voices and could use them in the way talking pictures seemed to dictate -- in song. By their nature the revue pictures are plotless and suffer for that with most critics. You might expect some academics to come to their defense, seeing them as exemplars of the idealized "cinema of attractions," but I'm not aware of any defenders for the revues. That may be because everyone recognizes the corporate imperative behind those pictures, which doesn't fit with the cinema of attractions' supposed pluralistic or subversive potential. The consensus remains that these are bad movies: structureless, primitively staged, hopelessly dated. But aren't those the makings of cult cinema, and what could be more worthy of a cult than these innately weird movies that represent a road not taken, happily or not, by commercial cinema?

So much for devil's advocacy. John Adolfi's revue, a Warner Bros. showcase from before Warners acquired its historic identity as the home of Cagney, Robinson, Busby Berkeley et al, definitely qualifies as a weird amalgam, setting its strange tone immediately with a prologue set during the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution. In a brutal metaphor for the revolution wrought by the Vitaphone -- Warners had premiered The Jazz Singer two years earlier --  some hapless fellow is sent to the guillotine. After the blade falls, a sans-culotte proclaims: "On with the show of shows!" A fun evening for all is practically assured. There follows a musical number with 192 chorus girls in a variety of quasi-military uniforms performing precision marching up, down and across a vast flight of stairs. Adolfi adopts the vantage point of a lucky theater patron, and Show of Shows would have to be seen on a big screen to be given a fair chance. Concede objectively that Adolfi's direction is unimaginative compared to Berkeley's inventions of just a few years later -- he would actually start filming numbers from above the very next year in Samuel Goldwyn's Whoopee! -- but you might still allow that Show of Shows' numbers would work as simple spectacle, the way Adolfi intended, if you saw them on a screen bigger than 19 or 25 inches. On a truly small screen they can't help looking pathetic.

Adolfi moves in closer when star performers take the stage. Chorines can be faceless; stars can't. To no one's surprise, the star turns in Show of Shows are a mixed bag. The biggest curiosity of the picture is a number uniting several silent comedy stars in what was probably the first sound performances for all of them. Ben Turpin, Lloyd Hamilton, Lupino Lane and others are put to work in another commentary on obsolescence, in which they all portray aspiring entertainers who've ended up in all-too modest professions. Turpin stands out from the crowd -- with those crossed eyes he can't help it -- by throwing a "180" after his verse, pitching himself forward heels over head and landing on his back. He looks old to be doing that, but no worse for wear. If this number looks to the past, viewers will get a dim hint of Hollywood's future when Myrna Loy, in the early "foreign vamp" phase of her career, sings and dances in a "two-strip" Technicolor bit of chinoiserie called "Li Po Li." This number shows off the proto-surrealist potential in these early musicals, while the song itself is an oddity in which the title character "takes away all your rice cakes, takes away all your spice cakes." Speaking of surreal, the number is introduced by the figure often acknowledged as Warners' biggest star of the time, except perhaps for Al Jolson -- whose absence is acknowledged humorously in one segment -- the dog Rin Tin Tin. Rinty barks and pulls down with his teeth a small curtain to reveal a sign announcing Miss Loy and company in their number. No doubt his fans were relieved that Rinty had a voice.

Apart from Rin Tin Tin and Jolson, John Barrymore was probably Warners' biggest remaining star and certainly their most prestigious for the intellectual set. The Great Profile appears onstage in modern dress to introduce his subsequent appearance in medieval armor in an expressionistic excerpt from Shakespeare's Henry VI, in the role of the future Richard III. As himself, Barrymore appears hesitantly impromptu, nervously attempting to explain the psychology and foreshadowing of the scene to come. As Richard, he'll make you regret his descent into alcoholic clowndom more than you may have before. He may recite against a stage backdrop, but the precise lighting and the care clearly taken to get every possible effect out of his face make the recital the most vividly cinematic part of the picture. Barrymore may still strike you as a ham, but his scene is delicious -- and no matter how many singers and dancers Adolfi sends out afterward, including Barrymore himself in the all-star finale, nothing that follows will (or can) top it.

How the whole of Show of Shows relates to the sum of its parts will be up to each viewer to determine. With my tolerance for the archaic and my historical interest in even bad performances, I found the whole entertainingly alien in an acquired-taste way. Its utter lack of the sophistication that eventually defined the musical genre by excluding the revues worked slightly in its favor for me. And when Frank Fay was on stage/screen as master of ceremonies the movie actually seemed less archaic than it and the other revues are supposed to be. They seemed to become archaic instantly as talking pictures rapidly acquired sophistication and swiftness of speech, but something about Fay's clunky narcissism and his ball-busting interplay with such dubiously talented peers as Sid Silvers (offering to stand in for Jolson) seemed modern to me somehow. The era of sophistication that set the standards by which Show of Shows seemed hopelessly archaic is itself archaic now, like it or not. That should enable us to judge the revues by new standards. That doesn't mean they're good now, but just that we needn't take our fathers' judgment on our grandfathers' efforts as gospel anymore. It worked for Pre-Code cinema, after all. Maybe history will give the revues a second chance as well.

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