Thursday, April 2, 2015

Pre-Code Capsules: CROONER (1932)

David Manners top-billed! Who knew the old boy, that avatar of bland, that pillar of ineffectuality, had it in him? Remembered today as a Jonathan Harker whose presence explains women's attraction to Bela Lugosi in the Universal Dracula, Manners was more than a male mannequin in horror pictures. He was very busy in the Pre-Code era, but usually in support of a female star. In that capacity he's probably at his best in Frank Capra's Barbara Stanwyck vehicle The Miracle Woman, for Columbia, but he spent most of his time at Warner Bros., and for his trouble Warners gave him the lead in this Lloyd Bacon satire a clef. The studio didn't do Manners any big favor, since the title character is an overrated jerk. The picture looks like a dig at Rudy Vallee, the "vagabond lover" who did the most to usher in the age of the "crooner," the popular singer whose style didn't depend on classical training. As Teddy Taylor, Manners wields Vallee's, famous megaphone, the device the crooner needed to project his voice in live performances back before they miked singers in clubs. In the film, Teddy's a bandleader filling in, badly, for the band's regular singer. Guy Kibbee as a drunken heckler hands Teddy the megaphone that will make him famous. To the confusion of many, the kids on the dance floor like how Teddy's voice sounds, and after some hard bargaining with niteclub manager J. Carroll Naish, and through the intervention of an agent (Ken Murray) who becomes his romantic rival, our hero becomes a radio star. Success predictably goes to his head, unobstructed by the revelation that the agent actually writes most of Teddy's fan mail himself. Soon Teddy has delusions of artistry, and Crooner becomes what I presume contemporary audiences would recognize as a parody of Ramon Novarro, M-G-M's latin lover who made a successful singing debut in talkies but tried to make too much of it with operatic training. Teddy's classical training produces results closer to Susan Alexander Kane than Novarro, and while Novarro was still a star, though fading, as Crooner came out, Teddy quickly sinks under the weight of pretension, abandoned by all his old friends until the agent nobly steps aside to let the girl (Ann Dvorak) rediscover him playing pickup gigs in a New Jersey nightspot. Whether it's back up from there the film doesn't say, and it doesn't matter since love, not Teddy, has won. As noted, this isn't a role designed to flatter its star, even though many actors played this rise-and-fall theme at the time. Suffice it to say that Manners is convincing as a smug and overrated jerk, while the story held my interest for its satiric and historical elements.  Notice, too, that despite Warner's good-faith effort, the newspaper ad gives Dvorak top billing. Some things just weren't meant to be. Manners would get top-billing twice more before he retired from cinema in 1936, if IMDB is correct, but both were Poverty Row pictures. Whatever fans he has today ought to treasure Crooner since, though neither his best or his most memorable picture, it shows the great mediocrity at the peak of his career.


Patrick Murtha said...

Manners was apparently gay, which might have had something to do with his turning his back on Hollywood so young (he made his last film at the age of 35). He hadn't soured on acting as such, because he continued to work on the stage. He wrote books from the 1930s on, novels and spiritual testaments; his partner Bill Mercer was also a writer.

His female co-stars all seemed to recall Manners as a fine fellow and a real gentleman. He certainly was a very good-looking, Arrow-collar-type man, and a swell dresser. Even though he died at age 97, he seems frozen in time because the available pictures of him are virtually all from his dashing youth.

Samuel Wilson said...

Patrick, I remember reading the interviews with Manners published in Scarlet Street magazine not long before he died. The interviewer described him as looking all of his ninetysomething years, so it's probably best that no picture ran with the interviews. Manners came across as irritable, particularly on the subject of Dracula, but still articulate and intelligent. I'm sure his departure from Hollywood had something to do with his relegation to Poverty Row but there may have been personal factors as well, if not personal factors in his career decline. Thanks for writing.