Saturday, April 8, 2017

Pre-Code Parade: SING AND LIKE IT (1934)

As the Pre-Code era neared its end William A. Seiter was at the height of his powers as a comedy director. His best known work from this period is the Laurel and Hardy vehicle Sons of the Desert, but Sing and Like It, from the following year, is a neglected gem. It's less well known today because it doesn't sport any titans of comedy, but features an ensemble cast led by ZaSu Pitts, Nat Pendleton and Edward Everett Horton, all key players in Pre-Code Comedy but usually in supporting roles. While Pitts gets top billing Pendleton's really the star player and sets the film's distinctive tone. He plays T. Fennimore Sylvester, a successful gangster in the "snatch" field. He aspires to a high-class lifestyle and frowns on the show-business ambitions of his moll Ruby (Pert Kelton), preferring that she not mingle with mere showgirls. His uptight attitude toward the world of entertainment changes when he leads his gang in a break-in just as the National Union Bank Little Theater Players are rehearsing their annual show in the same building. Fenny is enraptured when he overhears Annie Snodgrass (Pitts) perform her number, "Your Mother." Since this song must be heard to be believed, here's the magic moment as uploaded to YouTube by Jim Melcher.

Moved beyond reason, Fenny now wants to be Annie's artistic patron. Convinced that she deserves a Broadway showcase, he identifies Adam Frink (Horton) as the leading producer of the day and muscles into Frink's latest production. Frink knows disaster when he sees it but Fenny makes him the sort of offer people can't refuse. As Ruby seethes with jealousy, as does Annie's long-suffering paramour (John Qualen), Fenny learns that the show isn't getting much buzz. He tries to change that publicizing a fake kidnapping of Annie that momentarily turns real. Then, informed that reviewer Abercrombie Hitchcock can make or break any play just by his responses in the theater, even before he writes his review, Fenny arranges that he respond the right way. The show presumably succeeds, and Annie is willing to pay the price she presumes Fenny will extract for his patronage, but with his opening-night triumph Fenny feels that he's paid his debt to art, as he puts it and demands nothing else from his muse, who now has stardom, her old boyfriend, and the ransom the boyfriend managed to collect after hijacking the kidnapping.

On paper, Sing and Like It sounds like a precursor of both The Producers and Bullets Over Broadway, but Seiter gives the film its own special, perhaps inimitable flavor through his control over the actors. For starters, this film is more relentlessly cynical than either later picture. Annie Snodgrass's triumph isn't a fairy tale or an ironic satire, but a matter of brute force, with Abercrombie Hitchcock compelled to laugh at horrible jokes and hail Annie's singing literally at gunpoint. Fenny's gang come across as more menacing versions of Damon Runyon's comical Guys and Dolls sort of gangsters. The key to Seiter's triumph here is that while his gangsters sometimes seem clownish, they never act like clowns -- except for the utterly unfunny Junker (Matt McHugh), who acts as Fenny's court jester and writes the "jokes" for Frink's show. The big joke is that Fenny and his circle really have no sense of humor or taste at all, but take themselves very seriously. They are terse and to the point, and Laird Doyle writes nearly note-perfect dialogue for them. In the clip, you see Annie and her boyfriend come out of an elevator that's been hijacked by Fenny's gang. When they arrive at the ground floor and push the button, a gangster operates the machine and barks out the simple command, "Get in!" After a wild ride, the door opens on their floor as they're sprawled on the floor of the elevator. "Get out!" the operator orders. Later, during opening night, the funereal Ned Sparks, playing Fenny's right hand man and translator of big words, holds the gun on Hitchcock. When the reviewer seems confused over how to react to what he sees on stage -- the movie audience no doubt shares his dismay -- Sparks says simply, "You like it." Hearing one of Junker's jokes, Hitchcock asks, "It is funny?" Sparks answers, "What do you think?"

On the directorial side, Seiter illustrates Fenny's self-importance with a slow buildup to his appearance in Frick's office. One of his goons appears first, glaring at Frick, who mistakes him for the head man. Then Sparks appears, and again glares at Frick. Finally, after a wait almost worthy of Sergio Leone, Fenny enters the office. We are never allowed to forget that these men are capable of real violence -- and in true Pre-Code fashion much of that violence is directed at Fenny's moll. In retrospect, the film's most intolerable detail today is its use of Ruby's black eyes for sight gags. It's a joke, immediately after she's ratted out as the mastermind of Annie's actual kidnapping, that she comes out of Fenny's car with a black eye. Then, after they discover that someone has removed Annie from where she left her, Fenny turns on her again and we transition to the next scene with a wipe effect resembling an explosion. Now we're back in Fenny's penthouse and Ruby's wearing dark glasses. He tells her to take them off. She does, revealing a second black eye. Glancing her way, he orders her a second time to take the glasses off. Some people are never going to find this sort of thing funny, but in context Ruby has it coming and what else would you expect of these savages? Fenny's violence is a needed reminder of the threat that hangs over anyone who won't play ball with him, though Frick (an unusually apoplectic turn from the peevish Horton, but perfect counterpoint to the ponderous gangsters) gets away with a lot. Ironically, top-billed Pitts really has little to do but sing her nightmarish song, but Annie's own pretentiousness -- she agrees, after all, that "Your Mother" is a great song -- gives the film's collective delusion its original spark. In a way, Sing and Like It looks forward to the screwball comedy of the Code Enforcement era, but this underworld screwball has a mean streak often missing from later screwball films. It might look like an evolutionary dead end, but that would be because something about it would soon be killed by Hollywood.

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