Tuesday, April 14, 2015

On the Big Screen: FOLLOW THRU (1930)

Movies have always been capable of making art of its absences. Silent film is recognized now as a distinct style rather than the mere absence of speech. At its best, black and white cinematography was a positive artistic choice rather than the mere lack of color. Shouldn't this also be true of movies made in "two-strip" or "two-color" Technicolor, before the process was perfected and could capture the color blue? Watching these films -- either special scenes in otherwise monochrome pictures (e.g. the silent versions of Ben-Hur and The King of Kings) or else full-length features (e.g. Douglas Fairbanks' The Black Pirate) is like watching cartoons with an eccentric if not obsolete aesthetic sense. Hollywood was well aware of the limitations of the process and its pictures were art-directed accordingly until the world was turned red, green and brown. History has judged harshly, however, perhaps because the heyday of two-color was also the infancy of sound film, not to mention the epoch of the part-talkie, for which few artistic excuses can be made. Few of these early Technicolor films survive intact. Technicolor sequences or entire films survive only in black and white; some don't survive at all. Follow Thru is an exception: a full-length 1930 Technicolor musical that survives intact, though it was considered a lost film, like so many others, for a long time. Musical comedy seems like the ideal material for the two-color process, which highlights the essential, deliberate unreality of all the proceedings. Watching Follow Thru in 1930 may have been a little like watching an all-CGI picture today; you can tell it's not "real," but you weren't exactly looking for "real," were you? That Follow Thru is fantasy we can take for granted. That it's actually quite funny is what puts it over for posterity.

Follow Thru is about golf, sort of. At least that ensures a lot of green in the picture. The plot is typical musical comedy. Two female golf champions -- Nancy Carroll's the good girl, Thelma Todd the cheating villain -- are rivals for the affection of Jerry, a male golf pro (Charles "Buddy"Rogers). Jerry has been hired as a personal instructor for Jack Martin (Jack Haley), a girl-shy department-store heir. Jack goes into eyebrow-twitching seizures at the sight of pretty girls. Coincidentally, he once proposed drunkenly and gave a ring to Angie Howard (Zelma O'Neal), who happens to be the BFF of Nora, the good-girl golfer. Fearing girls, Jack wants to leave the country club where Nora and her rival are competing, but practically everyone contrives to make him stay so Jerry will. Acting as a facilitator, as far as his ability allows, is bra manufacturer "Effie" Effingham (Eugene Pallette), who's willing to help anyone out it gives him a better chance of having his bras sold in Jack's stores.  Because the characters usually act from ulterior (ableit benign) motives, many misunderstandings result from eavesdropping or too-candid conversations, but everything's resolved in time for Jerry to coach Nora -- the film makes clear that her talent only requires moral support -- for her ultimate showdown with her nemesis.

All of the above is scaffolding on which Follow Thru hangs its showpieces. The show was a smash hit on Broadway, and at least one of its DeSylva, Brown & Henderson songs, "Button Up Your Overcoat" ("Take good care of yourself/You belong to me") has entered the "Great American Songbook." The odd thing is that all the best songs go to the comics, while the romantic leads are stuck with several reprises of the uninspiring "We'll Make a Peach of a Pair." Even the third-rate juvenile couple (Margaret Lee and Don Tompkins) get a funny number, "Then I'll Have Time For You." The comedy numbers bring this Roaring Twenties relic close to the spirit of Pre-Code, as when Tompkins sings, "Once I've ruined the figgers/Of a dozen gold diggers/Then I'll have time for you." Probably the ultimate expression of this is Zelma O'Neal's big number, "I Wanna Be Bad," which is also the film's cinematic highlight. As directed by Lloyd Corrigan and Laurence Schwab, the number crosses what we could call the Berkeley Boundary. Angie Howard is supposed to be singing an impromptu song at a costume party with a live jazz band, but the directors jazz things up with double exposures and other special effects to make the scene a more purely cinematic experience. Just as golf as a subject suits two-color Technicolor's peculiar palette, so the process's favoring of red encouraged filmmaker to imagine vivacious visions of Hell, even if Zelma can't call the place by name. At this point you may as well see this clip of Technicolor Temptation Triumphant. Yellow42758 posted it to YouTube.

It falls short of the Berkeleyan standard mainly because the camera itself doesn't cross the Berkeley Boundary to roam among the ranks of falling angels. The song is virtually a Pre-Code anthem, though I'd argue that the more authentic Pre-Code sentiment is "I've Gotta Be Bad!" Still, for 1930 it's a great movie moment that I'm grateful to have seen on the big screen during the Madison Theater's one-day Jazz Age festival.

Overall, Follow Thru succeeds as much as a comedy as it does as a musical. O'Neal and Haley are holdovers from the original Broadway cast and really know how to put over the comedy songs. In their hands "Button Up Your Overcoat" is more reciprocal bullying than love song. Once the future Tin Woodsman makes clear that he's got more going on than the thing with the eyebrows he really grows on you. His non-musical scenes with Pallette are also good, especially a bit that must be one of the first scenes in which men invade a women's locker room. The idea is that Jack must get in there to recover the ring he gave to Angie way back when while she's showering, so that he isn't disinherited for losing a family heirloom. This is a country-club locker room so cocktails are served by a black woman in a nurse's uniform. Pallette's idea is that the boys play plumbers, and in their fake moustaches I'll be damned if they aren't spitting images of Mario and Luigi, except for the derby Pallette sports. There's good farcical slapstick here, and to top it off the plumbers escape by mugging two women, stuffing them in lockers and stealing their clothes. After that the conclusive golf match can't help but be anticlimactic. The main romantic plot often seems like an afterthought, so overshadowed are the stars by the comedians, but Carroll and Rogers are pleasant enough not to be as unwelcome as, say, the musical leads in a Marx Bros. picture. They certainly do nothing to suppress the spirit of fun that prevails here. There's pathos, too, though you have to read that into a picture that was popular, according to reports, despite being obsolete in many ways the moment it appeared. There's a temptation to treat anything that survives from this brief, doomed moment as a treasure, even though much of what does survive is as bad, if not worse with age now, as it was thought to be then. Fortunately, with Follow Thru you don't have to resist that temptation too much -- and that's just how the film would want it

No comments: