Monday, August 29, 2016


One fine day in the summer of 1933, Al Jolson beat up Walter Winchell at a Los Angeles sports arena. Jolson was "the World's Greatest Entertainer" while Winchell has basically pioneered the concept of the celebrity gossip columnist. Since there's no one really like Winchell today in our crowdsourced gossip cloud, I can only try to suggest as a theoretical modern equivalent Kanye West punching out the host of an awards show on live TV for insulting Kim Kardashian. Winchell, you see, had come to Hollywood to make a movie for Darryl F. Zanuck's new studio, Twentieth Century Pictures, and from what Jolson had heard and seen, the story, directed by sometime actor Lowell Sherman, hit too close to home. It told of a young dancer who rose to stardom as a gangster's protege but fell in love with a singer. To Jolson this sounded uncomfortably like the story of Ruby Keeler, who rose to stage stardom while being courted by a real gangster, only to end up married to Al Jolson. Despite Jolson's forceful objections, the film was finished and released in November 1933. A year and a half later, Jolson and Keeler, mighty stars at Warner Bros., teamed on film for the first time in Archie Mayo's Go Into Your Dance. In some ways their film is a variation on themes by Winchell. These musicals, one pre-Code, one made during Code Enforcement, are two of a kind, proto-noirperas distinct from the vivacious ruthlessness and giddy cartoonishness of other films in the genre, injecting into the familiar backstage or behind-the-scenes proceedings the threat of violent death.

Broadway Through a Keyhole is literally a death-haunted film. Legendary nightclub MC Texas Guinan appears as a barely-disguised version of herself, down to her famed "Hello, Sucker!" greeting. Guinan died three days after the premiere. Russ Columbo, a peer pioneering crooner with Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee, is the film's romantic lead, the singer who wins Constance Cummings from her gangland mentor. Less than a year later he died in what was reported as a freak accidental shooting. Before 1934 was over Lowell Sherman was dead of double pneumonia. Paul Kelly, the film's gangster, really killed a man, serving 25 months for manslaughter before marrying the man's widow. But for all of that, Go Into Your Dance is the more noirish musical, while Through a Keyhole resolves itself into a melodrama of renunciation that redeems the gangster.

Frank "Rocky" Rocci (Kelly) runs the American Poultry Protective Association, or something to that effect. It's a protection racket that collects tribute from anyone transporting poultry to New York City. Through A Keyhole establishes the violent manner in which Rocci establishes his hegemony -- Winchell describes a quiet night on Broadway until a poultry truck is suddenly rammed and wrecked -- but portrays him primarily as a nightclub impresario who amicably buys out Tex Kaley (Guinan) to make her club a showcase for Joan Whelan (Cummings). Rocci's patronage, Whelan's talent and the choreography of Max Mefooski (future director Gregory Ratoff) make Joan a star, making her immediately attractive to Clark Brian (Columbo), a handsome, hypochondriac bandleader at the Florida hotel where Joan vacations who has Hobart Bosworth as an unlikely wingman. Encouraged to cheat on Rocci by her traveling companion, the moll of Rocci's number two man, Joan reluctantly returns to New York when a suspicious Rocci summons her. Clark can't give her up and follows her north, impressing Rocci with his hopeless courage when the inevitable confrontation comes. However improbably, Rocci's convinced that Joan's sincere gratitude isn't true love and shouldn't be exploited by him at the expense of her happiness. The gangster consents to the entertainers' marriage, but on their way to the honeymoon the couple gets carjacked. Clark is tossed from the car while the kidnappers drive off with Joan. Assuming that Rocci is to blame, Clark confronts him, only for both men to realize that that's exactly what Rocci's sometime ally and constant rival Tim Crowley (dependably vile C. Henry Gordon) wants everyone to think. To show his bona fides Rocci goes on a rescue mission, only to charge into his enemy's trap; Crowley has called the cops to tip them off to where Rocci supposedly has Joan stashed. Rocci gets shot up, but the film actually leaves us uncertain whether he'll live or die, ending with him lying in a darkened hospital room, staring lovingly at the nearby lights of Broadway.

Sherman takes the "Keyhole" part of the title literally, using a keyhole as an iris-type transitional device at the opening and close of the film, and occasionally in between. But that's as gimmicky as the direction gets, if you don't count the sub-Berkeleyan dance direction that sometimes descends to raw cheesecake as chorines flex their bare legs, but also achieves the cool of a troupe of cross-dressing females in top hats and tails. The alliteration of Max Mefooski's name made me wonder whether Zanuck didn't intend him as a mild parody of the dancing master of his old stomping grounds at Warner Bros. In the end, Through a Keyhole isn't as edgy as it may have been meant to be, or as grim as Go Into Your Dance gets.

By 1935 Ruby Keeler had arguably eclipsed Al Jolson as a Warner Bros. musical star, thanks to Berkeley's spotlighting her in his epochal pre-Code musicals.  Jolson was actually on the comeback trail, bouncing back from the failure of the eccentric Hallelujah, I'm a Bum with 1934's Wonder Bar. Still, there were whispers that Keeler was now the bigger star of the family, while Go Into Your Dance itself presents Keeler as Jolson's redeemer while at the same time teasing a jealous fantasy of her destruction that actually was in keeping with the way Jolson played for pathos in his star vehicles.

A generation before Bing Crosby got an Oscar nomination playing a drunken singer, Jolson plays Al Howard, a problematic superstar who gets blackballed from Broadway for his bad habit of walking out on shows early in their runs. The implication is that he goes off on benders, but Jolson doesn't really do a drunk act here. He comes across more like a flighty, irresponsible brat. Of all people, Glenda Farrell, the apex predator of Warners' gold diggers, plays Al's responsible kid sister who struggles to get his career back on track. She arranges for him to headline at a Chicago nightclub, on the condition that he costar with a dancer. While stalker Patsy Kelly hankers for that role -- Al's contemptuous treatment of her only makes him look more like a big jerk -- the plum role goes to Dot Wayne (Keeler), with whom Al inevitably falls in love, insofar as Al can love anyone but himself. He does love that her dancing, combined with his putting over standards-to-be like "About A Quarter to Nine" -- I remember some commercial using Jolson's rendition sixty-some years later -- makes him a big enough hit again that he can think about reconquering Broadway on his own terms, by opening his own club.

Talent he's got, but to open that club Al needs mazuma. Enter Chicago gangster Duke Hutchinson (Barton MacLane), who likes the idea because it'd make an ideal showcase for his own lover, the singer Luana Wells (Helen Morgan, a real-life peer of Jolson). Luana wants to be Al's partner in more ways than one, forcing our hero to struggle between his loyalty to Dot and his obligation to the gangster. His balancing act is disrupted when out of nowhere Sis gets arrested for murder. She needs a huge amount of bail money but all Al's got is his seed money from Chicago, which he needs to post a bond for his new show. At last he's trying to be a responsible entertainer, and now Dot's pressuring him to drop everything and use the money to bail out his sister. He resists, then succumbs. Now the clock is ticking. Sis has to report for trial or else Al forfeits the gangster's bail money, his club never opens, and he's a dead man.

As the deadline approaches, Hutchinson sends two hitmen to New York to whack Al if the club fails to open. At nearly the last moment -- Al's already making an apology speech to his cast and crew -- Sis and her lawyers come through with exculpatory evidence and the show can go on. Word reaches Chicago, but Hutchinson already has his men staked outside the club and in this caveman age he has no way to contact them and wave them off. He tries to warn Al but the star is already on stage (in blackface, of course) and can't be interrupted. Finally Hutchinson thinks of his own girl and phones Luana to have her call off the hitmen. In a sublime moment of understated evil, she steps outside to verify that there are, indeed, hired killers at hand, and simply gives them a nod. If Al won't have her, he can die....except that it's Dot that takes the bullet. She lives, sure -- and as far as we know Luana goes unpunished -- but this is brutal stuff for a 1935 musical, and if we're to judge these two films as proto-noir musicals, then Go Into Your Dance actually ends up more hard boiled, despite Jolson, than the pre-Code Keyhole.

As a just plain musical, Go Into Your Dance is better at singing than dancing. The title song became a sort of unofficial theme for musical comedy at Warners for the rest of the decade; I recognized it instantly from many other studio films. As cinema it's Jolson's big blackface moment (he does a defensive sort of Mammy song in his own skin early in the picture) and despite the black it comes off better than the more ambitious numbers staged by Bobby Connolly, Busby Berkeley presumably being busy on Gold Diggers of 1935. The "About a Quarter to Nine" number is Berkeleyesque in ambition but Connolly and Mayo lacks the master's cinematic instincts or his way with bodies en masse. It reels into nonsense like a dissolve transition turning a Keeler solo dance into a minstrel show and an embarrassing shot of Keeler and Jolson sitting on the moon that Georges Melies could have topped. Neither movie discussed here really has a classic number to make it a great musical, though Go Into Your Dance clearly has the talent to be one. Together they take us to a fascinating dead end of musical-film evolution, along a path that probably could not be taken any further once Code Enforcement had fully set in and bubbly happiness was the order of the day.

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