Part of a series by David Cairns on forgotten pre-Code films.
Trawling through Hollywood musicals before Gold Diggers of 1933 is a fascinating job. Asides from Lubitsch and the operetta-film, the most salient feature of films like Sunnyside Up (1929) and Follow Thru (1930) is the slenderness of their plots, which are willowy and attenuated in the extreme. Of course one expects musicals to have rather lightweight, simplistic storylines, but these movies extend rudimentary narrative conceits farther than one would think possible, coasting on pure charm.
In today's cinematic world, the art of the musical looks hopelessly difficult: how do you maintain enough story tension to keep the audience hooked, while suspending plot for minutes at a time to indulge in musical numbers which tend to capture the mood of a moment, extending it well past any narrative requirement? In the 30s, they not only did it regularly and effortlessly, they didn't appear to even worry about it.
Take a Chance (1933) comes from the directing team of Brice & Schwab (no, me neither) and stars James Dunn and Cliff Edwards (no, me neither) as carnies...but wait, Cliff E. was better known as Ukulele Ike, and better known yet as Jiminy Cricket in Disney's Pinocchio—I want to say "the voice of," but hell, he's the face too, with his huge, limpid, over-easy eyes straining to pop from his face. My new favorite vocalist, and yours too—
Dunn, for his part, is a kind of cut-price Pat O'Brien, which is fine as long as you don't mind looking at the walls and furniture, but fortunately there's the agreeable Charles "Buddy" Rogers and a veritable bevy of beauties on hand to draw the eye where it'd rather go, beginning with Lillian Roth as a hooch dancer (replacing Ethel Merman, who played the role on stage).
The rest of the cast is a veritable "Who's That?" of pre-Code history: there's Lona Andre with dimples that can kill, here's the evocatively-named June Knight, there's London's own Lilian Bond, and last but not least, direct from vaudeville, Dorothy Lee, regular sidekick to Wheeler & Woolsey.
If I'm spending my time on cast and songs it's because there's little of anything else. Like Gregory La Cava's superior The Half Naked Truth, released the previous year, the "story" concerns an incursion into legitimate Broadway musical theater by some bums from the world of the traveling carnivals. Money is owed to a gangster; the show must go on; there are romantic entanglements...but it's the kind of film where a character mentions a charity event so that the next scene can take place at a charity event, where nothing of consequence happens except that somebody mentions the location of the next scene, so that we can go there.
The show-within-the-show is a revue, and the movie practically is too: it feels like it needs either no plot or a hell of a lot more. Dunn and Edwards don't form a compelling double-act, proving you can't manufacture chemistry, but there's pre-Code content galore (most of the actresses have moments that seem conceived as masturbation fuel) and a "comic" climax involving a carny hurling a switchblade into the fleshy part of a man's lower back. Lillian Roth makes it seem like a proper movie whenever she sings—
All this and "Paper Moon" too: Buddy Rogers in very tight tights fencing in a chipboard Venice with camera angles borrowed from the Barrymore Don Juan. It may not be much of a film but it's a beautiful thing. Or series of things.
Now: assemble the images in this post into your own story. It will be more coherent than Take a Chance. You have seven seconds, starting NOW.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.