Thoughts From The Music(al) Man (2019) on… Upper World (1934)

We’re back again for the 1934 movie Upper World starring Warren William, Mary Astor and Ginger Rogers!

Alex Stream (Warren William), a big man in the railroad industry, is in the middle of a big merger, which is keeping him quite busy, while his wife, Hettie (Mary Astor), is obsessed with big society parties. Then, one day, he rescues showgirl Lily Linda (Ginger Rogers) from drowning. Grateful, she cooks a meal for him, which he enjoys. Soon, Alex tries to plan an anniversary dinner with his wife, but she declines because she forgot and had a big society party to go to. On his way home from work, Alex passes by the burlesque theater that Lily is headlining and decides on a whim to take her to the dinner he had arranged. He openly admits to the fact that he is married, but they end up spending a lot of time together. Her former boyfriend/manager Lou Colima (J. Carroll Naish) wants to blackmail Alex, due to the upcoming railroad merger being so big, but she loves Alex and refuses. Unwilling to accept “no” for an answer, he steals some letters Alex had written to her. When Alex came in and tried to take them back, Lou tried to shoot Alex, but hit Lily, who got between the two to save Alex. Alex got his hands on another gun and shot Lou. He tried to hide his involvement and got out of there, but it quickly becomes a big case, with at least one policeman breathing down his neck, due to a grudge (more on that in a bit).

While this movie is enjoyable as a fun romantic comedy before it switches into a thriller as Warren William’s Alex tries to avoid being caught by the police, it definitely has its flaws. From my perspective, I would say that most of them have to do with Alex, as he is a hard character to figure out. On the one hand, we’re supposed to cheer for him as he goes from being too busy for a lot of things to trying to find time for fun and wanting to do so with his family, but, on the other hand, we also see his wealth and influence as a problem, particularly when he uses his influence to get his chauffeur out of a traffic ticket (and gets the policeman demoted in the process). It’s annoying seeing one of his work colleagues in the car with him arguing that his driver shouldn’t be given a ticket purely because of who he is, and it makes him look (and feel) like he is above the law. If not for that, I could more easily understand why he is trying to hide his involvement when Ginger’s Lily and her ex are killed, but the fact that he essentially drags down a good policeman through his influence just makes him look bad. And the ending just feels unearned. Honestly, that is the part of the movie that would have BENEFITTED more from the Code going into effect (although I can’t really say how without spoiling the movie). That being said, enough of the rest of the film worked fine as a pre-Code.

Personally, I think the movie is worth seeing for Ginger Rogers alone. After being successfully paired with Fred Astaire in Flying Down To Rio, she made several solo movies (including this one) while she waited for him to end his run in the Broadway and London productions of The Gay Divorce. In this movie, I consider her the most truly likeable character, as she knows that Warren William’s Alex is married and is unlikely to leave his wife for her, but she still enjoys spending time with him and cares for him, even being willing to take a bullet for him. And while the movie doesn’t qualify as a musical, it’s still fun listening to her and Warren goofing around singing “Who’s Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf,” and she also gets to do a burlesque number to the song “Shake Your Powder Puff” (and wearing an outfit that is proof enough that this movie was still a pre-Code). So, again, I like this movie even if only because of her, and I would recommend giving this one a try!

This movie is available on DVD from Warner Archive Collection, and is one hour, thirteen minutes in length.

My Rating: 7/10

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What’s Old Is A New Release Again (2019) with… The Major And The Minor (1942)

Now we have another delightful comedy, the classic 1942 film The Major And The Minor starring Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland.

After being in New YorkCity for a year and not getting anyplace in work, Susan Applegate (Ginger Rogers) decides to return home by train to Stevenson, Iowa. However, the money she had saved for the trip was not enough, due to a recent rate increase. After watching a mother and her two children buy tickets, she decides to try making herself look younger so she could buy a half-fare ticket. She manages to get the ticket, but the train conductors are suspicious of her. When they catch her smoking and give chase, she avoids them by ducking into the drawing room of Major Philip Kirby (Ray Milland). Due to his “bum eye,” he perceives her as the little girl she is pretending to be, and offers her a berth for the night. The next morning, some flooding delays the train, and Philip’s fiancee Pamela Hill (Rita Johnson), along with her father (and Philip’s commanding officer) Colonel Oliver Slater Hill (Edward Fielding), come to get him. They find Susan (or “Su-Su” as she is calling herself) in Philip’s compartment, and leave in a huff. Philip, realizing he is in trouble, convinces Su-Su to come with him to the Wallace Military Institute to help him out. He gets out of trouble, and Su-Su is offered a room with Pamela’s younger sister, Lucy (Diana Lynn). Lucy quickly figures out Susan is older than she is pretending to be, and enlists her help. Philip has just returned from Washington, where he had been trying to get back into active service instead of just teaching the young cadets at the Institute, but, behind his back, Pamela had been trying to prevent him getting into active service. Lucy wants to help him out. After dealing with the young cadets, Susan is able to impersonate Pamela on the switchboard for one of her friends with a husband who is high-up in the military. At the school dance, Philip receives word that he had gotten his transfer. Susan plans to reveal herself to him after the dance, but Pamela had discovered the truth, and blackmails Susan into leaving without telling Philip anything.

The Major And The Minor was the first American film directed by Billy Wilder. He, along with his co-writer Charles Brackett, had written a number of movies together, but he had yearned to direct some of his movies, especially since some of the stuff he had written got vetoed by some of the actors and directors he had worked with. Finally given a chance, he decided to do a movie that would have some commercial appeal, so that it wouldn’t be his last. Ginger Rogers was who he wanted for the part, and she liked both the script and the idea of him as a director. For her, the story was a familiar concept, as she had lived that way when she was younger, trying to make herself appear a little younger when traveling with her mother so that she could get half-fare tickets due to lack of funds (although, admittedly, that was probably when she was still young enough that she could actually pull it off).

Now, I know that this movie is not for everyone. As much as the movie relies on the idea that a woman in her mid-20s (the character’s age, not Ginger’s, as she was about 30 at this time) could pass for a 12-year-old, it does strain credibility. Although, to be fair, the train conductors are suspicious from the start, Diana Lynn’s Lucy figures it out quickly, and Rita Johnson’s Pamela and her father assume her to be an adult woman until they are given context by Ray Milland’s Philip. Of course, the young cadets are another problem, considering most of them would (and SHOULD) get in trouble, especially in today’s “Me too” culture. It’s hard to know how to feel about Major Kirby, considering we do see him develop an attraction to the “12-year-old” Su-Su, but at the same time, we do see how it also bothers him a bit (heck, in some ways, their relationship almost reminds me of Mulan and Shang from the animated Disney film).

In spite of those issues, I really enjoy this movie. For me, it is worth watching for Ginger Rogers alone (and I would be hard-pressed to try the 1955 remake You’re Never Too Young with Jerry Lewis in Ginger’s role). This movie does have many fun moments, whether they be when she is buying her ticket at the train station, or dealing with the train conductors, or trying to deal with the cadets on the switchboard. And while I’m not fond of the cadets trying to put the move on her, it is funny to see her use the same strategy on Major Kirby at the end of the movie. This is definitely a movie of another time, when things were more innocent and kids could potentially be safer when traveling alone, or somebody else could be more helpful without being dangerous. I always enjoy watching this movie, and I would easily recommend trying it out (at least, if you can get past some of the issues I mentioned before)!

This movie is now available on Blu-ray from Arrow Films and previously released on DVD by Universal Studios. The Blu-ray release from Arrow looks fantastic, in my opinion. Sure, there are maybe a few scratches here and there, but otherwise the transfer is as good as I could hope for! So far, this is my first disc from Arrow, and if their other releases look this good (as I’ve heard), then I look forward to more from this label! The movie is one hour, forty minutes in length.

My Rating: 10/10

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Thoughts From The Music(al) Man (2019) on… The Cat And The Canary (1939)

Next up from 1939, we have the more Halloween appropriate film The Cat And The Canary starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard.

Lawyer Crosby (George Zucco) comes out to the isolated mansion of the late Cyrus Norman. There, he is to read Cyrus’s will to his potential heirs, including Wally Campbell (Bob Hope), Joyce Norman (Paulette Goddard), Fred Blythe (John Beal), Charlie Wilder (Douglass Montgomery), Aunt Susan (Elizabeth Patterson) and Cicily (Nydia Westman). According to the will, Joyce is to inherit everything, unless she dies or goes insane in a short period of time (at which point everything would go to the second heir, whose name was being kept hidden in a second envelope). Since the mansion is rather isolated in the swamps, with no way for anybody to get away that night, they are all given rooms to spend the night in. Soon, some rather spooky things start happening, particularly around Joyce, including Crosby disappearing while he was trying to warn Joyce. While all the remaining men volunteer to help Joyce, Wally in particular helps her out. The two of them manage to find a valuable necklace that Cyrus had left for Joyce, but it ends up disappearing. Wally does his best to try and find out who is behind everything going on, as he cares for Joyce, but can he stop the other heir before Joyce is driven crazy with fear?

This is the third filmed version of the story, following a silent film from 1927, which shared the same name, and a talkie from 1930 called The Cat Creeps. As best as I can tell, the 1939 film is the movie that established Bob Hope as a major movie star, allowing him to really make use of the screen persona that he would become known for. Admittedly, I wouldn’t *quite* call it fully formed yet, considering the lack of quips around the lawyer named Crosby. Had this movie been made a few years later, I can’t help but think he would certainly have been using the opportunity to make fun of Bing Crosby. But, this was made in 1939, nearly a year before he would first work with Bing onscreen (not to mention the fact that Crosby was the character’s name in the previous versions as well, so it was hardly anything aimed at Bing himself).

Honestly, though, Bob Hope is the main reason that this film is considered a comedy. The rest of the cast otherwise seem to play it straight, as if it was otherwise a dark house type of movie. Gale Sondergaard plays the creepy house caretaker Miss Lu, generally in tune with the “spirits” that are haunting the place, and constantly watching everyone from the sidelines (and creeping you out in the process). In some respects, Bob Hope’s character almost seems to be an audience member that’s been dropped into the movie. Since his character is supposed to be an actor, he seems to have some idea of what’s going to happen (based on many plays and such that he had done), accurately predicting that Joyce would be the heir. Obviously, his so-called “knowledge” doesn’t keep him from being scared, or knowing everything that’s going to happen right from the start, but it does help. However you want to look at it, though, his comedy works, and this is a fun movie to watch any time of the year (but especially around Halloween)! Highly recommended!

This movie is available on DVD from Universal Studios either individually or as part of several different multi-film sets, and is one hour, fourteen minutes in length.

My Rating: 9/10

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Thoughts From The Music(al) Man (2019) on… You Said A Mouthful (1932)

Now for our next movie, the 1932 movie You Said A Mouthful starring Joe E. Brown and Ginger Rogers!

Joe E. Brown plays Joe Holt, who works in the shipping department at the Armstrong Rubber Goods And Swiming Wear Company. Partly due to his own fear of the water, he has been trying to create an unsinkable swimsuit. However, he has been the favorite victim for his coworkers to play pranks on and can’t get his boss’s attention for his swimsuit. When he learns that he has inherited his aunt’s fortune, he quits his job and goes to California to claim his inheritance. Much to his dismay, he finds his “inheritance” consists of worthless stock and Sam Wellington (Farina), the son of his aunt’s African-American servant. Now broke, they decide to try finding work on Catalina Island. Before they can get on the boat, they are found by Alice Brandon (Ginger Rogers), who brings them to her father’s home. As they find out, Joe has been mistaken for another Joe Holt, who is a champion swimmer that was coming to take part in a race. Joe tries to tell her the truth, but as she starts to like him and breaks up with her old boyfriend, Ed Dover (Preston S. Foster), he finds himself trying to learn how to swim from Sam. Of course, when he gets his hands on his unsinkable swimsuit, he really feels confident he can do well in the race!

At the time You Said A Mouthful was made, Joe E. Brown was one of the top comedians, and Ginger Rogers was still in the early stages of her film career. They had been paired together earlier in 1932 for The Tenderfoot, which turned out to be a wonderful experience for Ginger, as Joe (the bigger star at the time) was very kind to her, and gave her room to shine. You Said A Mouthful would be more of the same for Ginger, and even provide her better opportunity, as the film’s director, Lloyd Bacon, would shortly be directing the classic musical 42nd Street. He recommended Ginger for the part of Anytime Annie, which helped her career take off.

You Said A Mouthful is a nice, simple comedy. Some things haven’t aged well (Joe’s little gesture of sticking his fist under his chin as he goes into his inner monologue is overdone a few too many times and slows things down), but I enjoyed it. It’s worth it to see Joe being taken water-skiing (or “aqua-planing” as they called it in the movie) against his will (even if the background is a rear projection screen for part of the time). The race is definitely fun (a little unrealistic as to how long he stays underwater at times, but that’s part of the fun)! Like I said, it’s early Ginger Rogers, before she had her screen persona fully developed, but between her and Joe E. Brown, there is some fun to be had! At one hour, ten minutes, the movie doesn’t drag on, but feels just right. While I have seen better movies, this is one that I am glad was released on DVD by the Warner Archive Collection!

My Rating: 7/10

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Thoughts From The Music(al) Man (2019) on… The Noose Hangs High (1948)

HEY ABBOTT!!!! We’re back again for the 1948 comedy The Noose Hangs High, starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello!

Ted Higgins (Bud Abbott) and Tommy Hinchcliffe (Lou Costello) work for the Speedy Service Window Washing Company, but during one of their breaks, they are mistaken as employees of the Speedy Messenger Service by bookie Nick Craig (Joseph Calleia). He sends them after $50,000 owed him by somebody else, but upon giving them the money and getting a receipt, the guy sends two of his own thugs after them to get the money back. Ducking into another office to escape, Tommy tries to mail the money to Nick, but, without knowing, sends him the wrong envelope. Nick is furious when he discovers he got the wrong messengers, since he owes the money to Julius Caesar (or I should I say “J.C.,” as that is the only name Nick knows him by) McBride (Leon Errol). He forces Ted and Tommy to stay in his office overnight where he and his goons could watch them, and when the mail arrives, the money is not there. Since J.C. McBride has given Nick 48 hours to come up with the money, Nick decides to give Ted and Tommy 36 hours to get the money back. They find that Carol Blair (Cathy Downs) got the money and spent most of it. They try to find ways to make the money back while trying to reach out to J.C. to convince him to give Nick more time. In the process, they also run into Julius Caesar (but don’t put two and two together to realize that he is J.C.), who befriends them.

At the time this movie was made, Abbott and Costello had it in their contract with Universal that they were able to make at least one movie a year apart from the studio. They decided to produce The Noose Hangs High themselves, remaking the Universal-owned film For Love Or Money. Essentially, with their own creative control, the movie’s plot ends up being more of an excuse for them to do some of their various comedy routines without them interrupting the flow of the movie as had been the case in some of their previous Universal films. Within this movie, they have routines such as “Mustard,” “Hole In The Wall,” “Mudder/Fodder,” “Getting Arrested” and a few others. The movie is certainly fun enough. While it’s not one of their best films, it’s certainly within the upper half of their films, in my opinion, and always worth a few good laughs!

This movie is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Classicflix. It is one of the first movies I bought from this label (and was and remains at this moment the only film that I had heard of before they released it). The transfer on this movie is wonderful, and has easily convinced me to try out a lot of the other movies that they have been releasing. Easily a highly recommended release of a wonderful film! The movie is one hour, seventeen minutes in length.

My Rating: 9/10

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Thoughts From The Music(al) Man (2019) on… Ninotchka (1939)

As the old movie posters said for the movie, “Greta Garbo laughs!” in the classic 1939 comedy Ninotchka, also starring Melvyn Douglas.

Three Russian commissars (Sig Rumann, Felix Bressart and Alexander Granach) come to Paris with the intention of selling jewelry that had once belonged to the Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire). However, Swana is living in Paris, and she learns about the jewels through a former Russian nobleman working at the hotel the commissars are staying at. She sends her lover, Count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas), to delay the sale of the jewelry in the hope that she can reclaim it. Leon helps introduce the commissars to some of the pleasures of Paris and capitalism, but special envoy Nina Ivanovna Yakushova, or Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) is sent to take over the case. Leon accidentally meets her on the street, and is instantly smitten (although at first neither realizes who the other is). Once she overhears his telephone call with one of the commissars, they realize who they are with. Leon still likes her, and keeps trying to go out with her, which becomes easier after he is able to make her laugh and loosen up. Swana sees all this going on, and jealously takes advantage of Ninotchka when Ninotchka comes back to her hotel room drunk and leaves the safe containing the jewels open. Swana agrees to relinquish her rights to the jewelry if Ninotchka would immediately return to Russia, which she reluctantly agrees to do.

Going into production for Ninotchka, Greta Garbo was trying to shift gears in her career, as she was mainly known for doing a lot of tragic romantic dramas (and was coming off a rare box-office failure with the 1937 film Conquest). The tagline “Garbo laughs!” was apparently the big idea going into the movie, even before the screenplay itself was written! While she was unsure about trying to do a comedy, it resonated with audiences and with critics, resulting in her fourth Oscar nomination and allowing her a new potential career path. Sadly, it was short-lived, as her next film, Two-Faced Woman from 1941, failed. For a variety of reasons, that film’s failure was enough to convince her to retire from the movies.

For me, this movie is the only Greta Garbo movie I have seen at this time. I enjoyed it very much! The comedy worked very well for her and the rest of the cast as well! It’s fun seeing Sig Rumann again (since I mainly know him from some of the Marx Brothers films), along with George Tobias (best known as Abner Kravitz from Bewitched). It’s slightly disappointing to see how little Bela Lugosi is in the movie, considering he was billed fourth, but only really makes a relatively short appearance near the end of the movie. Still, it’s a nice, fun movie, and one I would quite heartily recommend!

The movie is available from Warner Home Video on Blu-ray, both individually and as part of the 5-film Golden Year Collection, and on DVD from Warner Archive Collection, and is one hour, fifty-one minutes in length.

My Rating: 9/10

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What’s Old Is A New Release Again (2019) with… Footlight Parade (1933)

“By a waterfall, I’m calling you-hoo-hoo-hoo” so we can get into the classic 1933 Busby Berkeley musical Footlight Parade starring James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell!

Chester Kent (James Cagney) has been producing musical shows on the stage, but with the advent of talking pictures, he finds audiences don’t want to see them. After his producing partners show him a prologue (short little stage shows shown in between movies) and he stops at a chain drugstore for some aspirin, he gets the idea that producing prologues for many theaters would be cheaper than producing for one, and his partners like the idea. Their studio becomes a success, but Chester’s partners have no trouble cheating him out of the profits while he is continually trying to come up with ideas for prologues, especially when the competition is stealing his ideas through spies in the company. His secretary, Nan Prescott (Joan Blondell), is secretly in love with him, and does what she can to help get him out of trouble. They are given the opportunity to sign with Appolinaris (Paul Porcasi), who would use the prologues in many of his theatres, but they have to come up with three different prologues to test on audiences before he will sign.

Following the success of both 42nd Street and Gold Diggers Of 1933, Footlight Parade was put into production. James Cagney, who had been a song-and-dance man on the stage but had quickly become typecast as a gangster in the movies after his role in The Public Enemy, campaigned hard to get a role in this movie after seeing the success of the previous films. Obviously, he got the part, and he was teamed up with his then-frequent co-star Joan Blondell, a pairing that had worked since they both came to Hollywood a few years earlier to do Sinner’s Holiday (which they had done on Broadway). Of course, continuing on from the previous two films onscreen were Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell and Guy Kibbee, with 42nd Street director Lloyd Bacon returning. And, of course, Busby Berkeley, trying to figure out what to do next after his work on the previous films.

Personally, I consider this movie the best of the Busby Berkeley movies from the thirties for two reasons: James Cagney and the song “By A Waterfall.” “By A Waterfall” was Berkeley’s big number for this film, making use of an 80-by-40 foot swimming pool, and lighting that helps emphasize some of the various formations that the swimmers do. Of course, the song itself is a lot of fun and quite catchy, too! And getting to see another James Cagney musical is just as fun! Here, we get to see his style of dancing, as opposed to when he was trying to dance like the real George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Honestly, my biggest complaint with this movie is that we don’t get to see enough of him dancing! He mainly does most of his dancing to demonstrate what he wants with the different prologues, and his only musical number is the final “Shanghai Lil” (which I would say is probably the second best song in the movie), in which he dances with Ruby Keeler for about a minute and is otherwise doing some of the formations choreographed by Busby Berkeley (word of warning, though, as Ruby Keeler is made up to look a bit more Chinese for “Shanghai Lil”). For the most part, the movie is mostly a comedy more than a musical, as there is maybe one song before the final half hour (which is almost entirely comprised of three big musical numbers). Overall, a very fun movie and highly recommended!! (of course, as a pre-Code, there are enough elements in this movie that there is a little room for debate about how kid-friendly it is, but adults should definitely be able to enjoy this movie)!

This movie is available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive Collection. Regarding the transfer for this new release, it looks FANTASTIC!! Seriously, I don’t know what else to say, as the team at WAC has done their usual phenomenal work here, and I only hope it sells well enough for them to work on the rest of the Busby Berkeley films (not to mention some of their other 30s musicals)! The movie is one hour, forty-three minutes in length.

My Rating: 10/10

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