Saturday, April 13, 2019

On with the Show!

Another movie I watched recently is the early musical On with the Show!, which is available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive Collection.

There's a title card at the beginning telling us that tonight is a key night for the musical The Phantom Sweetheart, which has been playing test showings in various small towns on the way to a possible run on Broadway. Except, of course, that the production is financially strapped, with things being so bad that they may not even be able to get the show off tonight: it's Broadway or Bust.

As for the actual show, we only see bits and pieces of it so that we don't quite get a true sense of what it's about, much like the movie-within-a-movie Meet Pamela from François Truffaut's Day for Night. There's something about the lead actor, Harold (Arthur Lake) on an estate in the south falling in love with the lead actress Nita (Betty Compson), who goes around in a veil. There's also comic support from the second man Joe (Joe E. Brown looking the same as he would in Some Like It Hot 30 years later), and musical interludes (more on those later).

More of the movie deals with the back story. The production has been struggling to the point that the backer who provided the funds for the sets wants his money, or he's going to take the backdrops. Nita wants her back pay, and at a key point refuses to go on with the show if she doesn't get paid. Meanwhile, the usher Jimmy (William Bakewell) is in love with the coat-check girl Kitty (Sally O'Neil). She's convinced she'll be a big star if only she can get her break. (Too bad Nita can't twist an ankle like Bebe Daniels in 42nd Street.) And then somebody holds up the box office, with the police suspecting Jimmy.

The movie is interesting and energetic, if also wildly uneven. I wonder if this movie had the original stock footage of an audience clapping, which it intersperesed at several points. It was originally filmed in two-strip Technicolor, but as far as is known all the Technicolor prints have been lost. As for the print remaining, it looks like a later print from after Warner Bros. abandoned Vitaphone's sound-on-disc system. Post-Vitaphone movies had the sound on a track on the film, and here part of the left-hand side of the print has clearly been cut off: it's most obvious in credits that have a few letters missing, but a lot of scenes look off center.

The large musical numbers are all filmed in the pre-42nd Street stile, mostly from the back of the theatre although you get some closeups of the leads. More interesting are the interlude songs, specifically the premiere of "Am I Blue". This one is sung by Ethel Waters, who here and in one other song with a very leggy dancer, John Bubbles, provide the highlights. The two songs seem to serve no purpose in advancing the plot of either The Phantom Sweetheart or the movie On with the Show!, however, as Ethel doesn't get any other scenes.

On with the Show! is definitely worth a watch for historical reasons, but don't expect a movie that will set the world on fire.

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