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Thursday, 11 February 2010

Crooner (1932)

Director: Lloyd Bacon
Star: David Manners and Ann Dvorak
Here's another David Manners movie but it's one with another edge that I haven't seen before: he sings. At least I think he does: IMDb credits him as singing the songs that pepper the soundtrack, and it seems believable as the voice is good but not great and we only get a very limited selection of songs, a few of them repeated. However an Englishman by the name of Donald Novis is also credited as his singing voice, so I'm guessing that Novis takes over late in the film when the style gets a little more operatic. Regardless, it isn't the singing that really proves important here, it's how Manners carries the singer not the songs.

After a brief and highly surreal shot of a man walking out of a building carrying a double bass, a couple of thousand pound weights and a brace of dachschunds, we're thrown straight into the story, given that we only have 68 minutes to let it unfold. Manners is Teddy Taylor, the saxophonist and leader of Teddy Taylor's Collegians, a vaguely decent college orchestra comprised of a set of actors who really can't do whatever the musical equivalent of lip synching is. Even the drummer isn't remotely close to being in time. They don't impress us too much and they don't impress the man they're auditioning for either, so they decide to call it quits. Only the fact that one of them has two weeks more rent already paid makes them decide to keep it going that long.

The turning point comes entirely by accident. They audition at the Golden Slipper, a nightclub run by a savvy businessman called Nick Meyer, savvy enough to be played by J Carrol Naish and savvy enough to save money by not telling the audience that the bands they're dancing to aren't actually hired. It doesn't go well initially. The band's singer has a throat problem so they try to make it through instrumentally but Meyer wants a voice. Teddy starts singing but he has a soft crooning voice, as you might expect from the title, and nobody can hear him. And then Guy Kibbee, playing an unnamed drunkard on the dance floor, credited as Mike the Drunk, hands him a megaphone as a lark. Anyone who knows anything about Rudy Vallée will know what's going to happen next: he sings through it and all the girls are drawn magnetically to his singing while the men leave in disgust.

Vallée was also a saxophonist who began singing with his band, Rudy Vallée and the Connecticut Yankees, even though many friends and band members discouraged the idea. He was a crooner, unsuited to the sort of jazz that band leaders had sung in the past but great at the sort of soft ballads that the girls loved. Without the need for a set of pipes to project to a hall, he was perfect for radio too and began broadcasting in 1928. He made it into movies a year later with The Vagabond Lover in which he was frankly awful, but he got better over the years. He's the prototype for Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Perry Como and all the rest, and yes, he had a megaphone.

So Manners plays Vallée, at least up to a point. This was a First National Picture, made for and distributed by Warner Brothers, so it's going to have a bit more depth than that, and that's where Manners really begins to shine. For half the film, he's the young bandleader who doesn't even believe he's anything but an ordinary singer but suddenly finds himself mobbed by the ladies. The band stays intact and they play a month at the Golden Slipper for $350 a week but want a hefty raise to stay on afterwards, one they know they'll get. While Meyer initially offers $300 a week for six months, Manners bumps him up to a grand. But then we meet Peter Sturgis, the hottest promoter in New York, who Taylor's girlfriend has brought to see him.

Sturgis breezes in, gets Meyer up to $1,750 a week but then tears up the whole thing. After seeing how the women go for him, he explains to Taylor that he'll have him an unprecedented $7,500 a week within six months for 25% or he won't owe him a dime. A few hiccups here and there excepted, he lives up to his word, putting Taylor on the radio and making him a star. Before long when he sings at the Golden Slipper the maid in the ladies' restroom, played by an uncredited Hattie McDaniel, tells the girls when he's on so they can leave to see him; but her equivalent in the gents is swamped because the men don't want to know.

Manners is good thus far but he keeps pretty quiet in a down home kind of modest way. It's the far more dynamic and quick witted Ken Murray we're watching at this point. 'Marconi's gift to the morons,' Sturgis calls Taylor, 'the hairdresser's delight.' Taylor can't keep up. Where Manners really kicks in is when the success starts to go to his head, hardly surprising given that he's swamped with fan mail and deluged with autograph requests, but there are ways to deal with this and ways not to deal with it. Taylor starts lunching at the Ritz and moving to the Waldorf. He hires a Japanese houseboy called Neto to answer his bedside phone for him because he's too important to reach out for it himself. Most tellingly he's not a member of the band any more, because the band is supporting him. When Mike the Drunk notices him again he turns his back.

So of course it all goes south and it does so with power. This was a precode, if you didn't work that out from the more risqué scenes. There's one great one early on where the original man the Collegians audition for starts bobbing up and down instinctively backstage because he's watching a delightful female butt do the same. Of course the girl doing her exercises turns round and he's more than a little scared at the unexpected other end of this young lady. You wouldn't get that a few years later. You wouldn't get the star of the show cheating on his girlfriend with a married woman on a yacht when he's supposed to be resting his voice at a mountain sanitarium either, but that's what we get here. Clocking a one legged war veteran is just the icing on the cake.

I should point out here that I'm not spoiling everything and what I have mentioned really doesn't count either. It's how this all comes to pass that's so much fun to watch rather than the details themselves. The story is nothing particularly special, just a cheap and cheerful B movie, but Manners does a great job in what might just be his first leading role, even though nobody's name precedes the title card. Ken Murray proves to be great support, even though I hadn't heard of him. It turns out I've seen him before, but only in a much smaller role in another precode, From Headquarters, and in a couple of movies thirty years later. He was Doc Willoughby in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and cropped up shortly after in Son of Flubber. Ann Dvorak is capable as the romantic lead for both, Judy Mason, but Claire Dodd outshines her as that married woman on the side.

This is another interesting, if not particularly great, David Manners movie. I'm gradually working through them all and this makes fifteen for me, seven of them in 1932 alone. All told, he made no less than 39 movies in a busy eight years so I'm not even halfway yet, and surely I've done the best ones, not least Dracula, The Mummy and The Black Cat for Universal, backing up Lugosi, Karloff or both. The Last Flight was a wonderful film and so was The Millionaire, an obscure George Arliss comedy that came out of nowhere for me. It was The Miracle Woman that really highlighted his talent for me, playing a blind ventriloquist and keeping up with a blistering Barbara Stanwyck. Now I'm fascinated to see if there are any more odd gems to be found lurking in that deceptively short career. Watch this space.

1 comment:

JD Doyle said...

Nice post, Hal. Please tell me, have you run into any verification that any recordings were released by David Manners, or if the "Crooner" soundtrack was released. Thanks!