Monday, April 16, 2012

NEW FACES OF 1937: Of producers and reproducers

Leigh Jason's RKO musical comedy is a footnote to the history of American comedy twice over. Comedian Harry Einstein, billed as his radio character "Parkyakarkus" (get it?) met actress Thelma Leeds on the set. They eventually married, and from their union came the comics we know now as Albert Brooks and "Super Dave" Osbourne. But that's just one footnote. Here's the other:

Based on a 1933 Saturday Evening Post story, "Shoestring," by George Bradshaw, New Faces of 1937 deals with the troubled production of a Broadway musical comedy. Despite the good intentions of the play's author and a sincere if simpleminded investor, the producer seems determined to sabotage the show by casting incompetents, most notably a deranged-seeming, apparently talentless idiot named Seymore Seymore. Why should the producer do this? Because, after a string of well-meaning flops, he has figured out a system to bilk the public and make a mint for himself. The system is to convince multiple backers and angels to "own" each play. For the current production, for instance, Robert Hunt sold 85% of the production to three different people who don't know each other. But if the play flops and closes after opening night, as Hunt's recent shows usually do, the producer doesn't have to pay anyone back and he pockets all the money that didn't go into the show.
You can see where this is going. I don't know if Mel Brooks has ever acknowledged either the Bradshaw story or the RKO musical, but what we have here, of course, is the core of Brooks's Oscar-winning original screenplay for his directorial debut, 1968's The Producers. Brooks was 11 when New Faces appeared, an age when he was presumably still more interested in horror movies. But that wouldn't stop him from seeing the film later, maybe on television. That's reason enough for New Faces to be better known -- not to prove Mel Brooks a plagiarizer, but to demonstrate what a genius can do with a plot device -- for that's really all that Brooks reproduced in his film -- compared to how New Faces turned out.

New Faces of 1937 is a train wreck of a picture that like many train wrecks remains oddly if not morbidly fascinating. Its purpose, as you may have guessed, was to put over young talent in the singing, dancing and comedy categories. The show within the show takes care of the singing and dancing, and some of the numbers and performers are charmingly bizarre. The title song showcases the girl singers in rocking cradles, each with side-table telephones, from which they emerge to sing like an army of Baby Snookses. I leave it to the specialists and the old-timers to be troubled by that images. More bizarre yet is "Peckin'," which appears to describe the viral spread of a new dance craze which consists of people bobbing their heads like chickens, from the original inspiration of three colored waiters obsessing in an unseemly manner over live poultry through a Cotton Club-like establishment with a vague Hell motif to a lady patron's employment as a maid to a white bride contaminating her wedding party. For those keeping track of The Producers' origins, this is one of the numbers that is meant to be good. The unsettling aspect of New Faces is that it's often difficult to tell which parts comprise the corrupt producer's sabotage and which represent the best efforts of creators and artists. This is something Brooks improved upon tremendously by making it clear that Springtime for Hitler in its original, sincere form is hopeless garbage. New Faces, however, wages a good guys vs. bad guys struggle for the soul of its play, which we are to understand would (or could) be good if the producer didn't sabotage it by cutting the best numbers (restored after he absconds) and casting losers like Seymore Seymore. Then it undercuts the good guys' commitment to the play by having the loser redeem it. Now we're in Producers territory, with Seymore Seymore a likely model for Dick Shawn's Lorenzo DuBois, the hippie moron who turns the planned atrocity of Springtime for Hitler into a comedy sensation. For the film to work, as opposed to the play within either film, the loser has to be funny. This is where New Faces proves an evolutionary dead end.

Seymore Seymore is played by Joe Penner. As Jack Benny used to say, there will now be a pause while the audience asks, "Who?" Penner himself is a sort of footnote to the history of American comedy, having provided the vocal model for "Egghead," the Merrie Melodies cartoon character who evolved into Elmer Fudd. Penner was a pop-culture meteor, emerging suddenly as a radio star, breaking into movies and scoring a Broadway hit in The Boys From Syracuse before dying from heart failure at age 35. He was a comic made for radio, no more than a voice really and that pitched somewhere between Larry Fine and Pee Wee Herman. He got by on catchphrases like "Wanna buy a duck?" "You naaasty man!" and the one he uses a few times in New Faces, "I'll smash you!" Penner is what they call a "nut comic." That means nothing he did really had to make any sense. He just went out and acted out and hoped people would laugh. People during the Depression, it seems, were ready to laugh at anything -- what else explains the Ritz Brothers? That's all that explains Penner from a modern perspective. In person, he is less than nondescript. If he looked like Egghead I might understand better, but he really has no memorable features, and that, more than his limited material, may have doomed him in movies. Yet New Faces of 1937 would have us think that this profoundly unfunny man could save its play twice over. Since the good guys are determined not to let him ruin the play, when Seymore shows up backstage they start chasing him around and end up onstage, or else silhouetted against sheer backdrops, making him an accidental sensation like Charlie Chaplin in The Circus. Then he manages to get in front of the curtain and compels the orchestra to play one of his specialty songs, something about something making his heart go bump-bump-bump, echoed by an uncooperative drummer. Despite his clear failure to be so bad that he's good, we are to understand that the audience likes him, though it remains unclear whether his act in particular put over the play. To this viewer it seemed like Robert Hunt should be laughing all the way to the bank, but this was the era of Code Enforcement and Crime Could Not Pay. Only under such circumstances, it seems, could Joe Penner be a success in movies.

While Penner is fatal, the supporting comics don't help much. Harry Einstein's Parkyakarkus character -- his accent is supposed to be Greek, I guess -- comes across here as a surlier, stockier, more thuggish version of Chico Marx, right down to the malaprops. If anything, "Parky" is more stupid than Chico. This film's idea of a joke is to have him, as Hunt's right-hand man, ask Hunt why he makes flops. After Hunt explains in detail George Bradshaw's golden premise, Parky says there's one thing he still doesn't understand -- why does Hunt make flops? Gene Wilder he ain't. And then there's 28 year old Milton Berle in the role that arguably set his career in the visual media back by a decade. Berle is one of the good-guy characters, the naive investor I mentioned a while back. He shines best in a lengthy digression I presume to have been taken from a vaudeville sketch Berle did (the sketch, "A Day at the Broker's," gets a separate credit from "Shoestring"), in which he happily abandons any pretense of playing a character and just does Berle, or an early version of Berle. Berle's talents, such as they were, weren't particularly suited to the narrative arts. He was a sort of nut comic himself, and it may be only because he only succeeded in middle age that he doesn't seem fully formed here. Outside the bubble of the broker sketch, a timely satire of the irrational swings of the stock market, Berle is virtually a straight man for the likes of Penner and Parkyakarkus, and it's a measure of how little impression he actually made that he actually works in that role.

New Faces of 1937 proves that you can have a plot idea of incredible potential and botch it with almost inversely proportionate perfection. Once can imagine Mel Brooks as a young comic analyzing all the ways this film went wrong and solving all the problems it made for itself. The smartest thing he did, I can see now, was to make the perpetrators of the production swindle the sympathetic heroes rather than the skulking villains of the piece. It helps to have them discover their criminal idea almost by accident, rather than opening with them as practiced operators of the con. As I wrote earlier, it helps above all to make clear that the play itself is hopeless until the producers overplay their hand and tip it into so-bad-it's-good territory. It may be that the so-bad-it's-good concept, with its nod to camp, may not have occurred to 1930s writers, though we should reserve judgment until someone reads "Shoestring" and tells us how it ends. The Producers itself illustrates the principle. By making its play as bad as possible and casting it as badly as possible, Brooks achieved a comic triumph. By not being bad enough, New Faces of 1937 is simply bad. It may simply be bad in the wrong places, but that makes all the difference.

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