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Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Chasing Rainbows (1930)

Director: Charles F Riesler
Stars: Charles King, Bessie Love, Jack Benny, Marie Dressler and Polly Moran
'Happy days are here again,' they sing on stage, as Chasing Rainbows begins. They could have been talking about The Broadway Melody, the 1929 musical that was both MGM's first all-talking picture and the first movie with sound to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. This follow up, made in 1929 but not released until 1930, reunites its stars, Bessie Love and Charles King, in another theatrical story. This time it's the trials and tribulations of the travelling Broadway show called Good-bye Broadway, which calls itself a musical extravaganza with a whirlwind of dancing girls, touring for 42 weeks as far out as the frozen wilds of Nebraska during the tail end of World War I.

What's more the pair of them effectively reprise the same parts they had in The Broadway Melody, good in that it gives us another opportunity to watch Bessie Love shine but bad in that we've seen it all before. King is Terry Fay, the leading man of the show, and he has eyes for the show's leading lady, Peggy, even though she isn't interested in him in the slightest. When he drives Peggy away and Daphne Wayne is hired in her place, he promptly shifts his affection to her, yet another in long string of leading ladies. Of course all along he is utterly blind to the fact that his partner in the show, Carlie Semour, is head over heels in love with him and has been for years, suffering through every one of his inopportune actions and unthoughtful comments.

As in The Broadway Melody, Bessie Love is by far the best thing about Chasing Rainbows. Every time Fay comes out with an unintended but highly unfortunate comment, which is pretty much all the time, she cringes just a little. 'You don't know what real love is,' he tells her without ever having a clue. She's already realised that there's no hope, but every time some seems like it's going to materialise she comes alive. When she plays out a romantic number with him to show the new leading lady how it's done, she starts off in heaven at the very concept and ends in quiet but unmistakable disappointment at how one sided it all is. From surreptitiously wiping away tears to giggling like a schoolgirl, she's a true joy to watch, breaking our hearts even as we admire her guts and strength.

King was disappointing in The Broadway Melody, utterly outshone by Anita Page and Bessie Love. He's better here though still very much in Love's shadow, overacting as if he were a vaudeville entertainer, which of course he was. Fortunately there are at least some stellar supporting actors to prop him up. The stage manager Eddie Rock is Jack Benny, in his feature debut after being one of the masters of ceremonies of The Hollywood Revue of 1929. He's fine though the editing doesn't do him justice, much better than Nita Martan as the newest leading lady, Daphne Wayne, or her annoying boyfriend Don Cordova, played by Eddie Phillips. Gwen Lee doesn't get enough time as Daphne's predecessor Peggy to do much of any of anything.

Best of all there's the stunning double act of Polly Moran and Marie Dressler, who worked together in a string of early sound movies, beginning in the silent era in 1927 with the lost film The Callahan and the Murphys and ending with Prosperity in 1932. As was often the case, both are utterly down-to-earth but Dressler puts on airs that cause unending conflict between the two, and the dialogue plays that up. 'Why don't you go back to Shakespeare?' asks Moran. 'We quarrelled,' answers Dressler, and we can believe it given that she quarrels with everyone, including herself. 'I was kissed by a Spaniard once. Now look at me.' They make up in the end, of course, and their drunk routine is hilarious, perfectly done slapstick.

Given that Dressler only made 29 films over a couple of decades, the nine she made opposite Moran constitute a pretty sizeable chunk. They were both consummate comedians with perfect timing and plenty of experience working for Mack Sennett, thus explaining that expertise in slapstick. Dressler was the title character (above Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand) in the first ever feature length comedy, 1914's Tillie's Punctured Romance, and Moran beat her to the screen by a year as one of Sennett's reliable supporting actors, frequently cast in his shorts and features, along with other recognisable faces like Louise Fazenda, Mack Swain and Chester Conklin. It's only surprising that it took so long for them to team up.

Chasing Rainbows was originally shot in black and white, as you'd expect for 1929, but with some musical numbers filmed in two strip technicolor, all of which are now lost. That includes a song for Bessie Love called Everybody Tap, one for Charles King called Love Ain't Nothing But the Blues and the finale, which reprises the song Happy Days are Here Again in full as the Armistice is being signed. This song was written in 1929 and used for the first time here, but was an instant hit, turning up on the soundtracks of four more films in 1930, five the year after and nine the year after that, which was when it also became Franklin D Roosevelt's winning campaign theme.

This would appear to be a gift for me, given that it's a musical mostly shorn of its musical element, and sure enough while I'd have liked to have seen the missing songs, especially for their early use of colour in musical scenes, what's left merely highlights the acting even more. That's not good for Martan or King, but it's great for the Moran/Dressler double act and for Bessie Love. I think I need to revisit the original 1925 version of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, which is probably the first time I saw her in her heyday (smaller parts much later on in films like Children of the Damned, On Her Majesty's Secret Service or The Hunger don't really count). However I watched The Lost World because it was a Prof Challenger story with pioneering use of stop motion animation courtesy of the great Willis O'Brien. Perhaps it's time I watched it for Bessie Love.

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