Sunday 3 July 2011

Sing and Like It (1934)

Director: William A Seiter
Stars: Zasu Pitts, Pert Kelton, Edward Everett Horton, Nat Pendleton and Ned Sparks

Sing and Like It is a great example of just why Hollywood had a golden age. People mistakenly assume that the golden age meant an abundance of classic films that people can still watch and admire today. Such pictures do exist but the golden age was much more. It came at a time when everyone went to the movies and they didn't just see one film, they saw an A picture, a B movie, a cartoon, a newsreel, a whole bunch of stuff all on the same bill. The industry was dominated by the major studios who cranked out pictures in vast numbers to fill these slots, some only taking a week to make. The point is that many of these routine programmers, like Sing and Like It, that had no expectations beyond persuading a few more punters into a few more theatres, should really suck. The realisation that they rarely did begins a real understanding of the golden age.

The reason Sing and Like It doesn't suck is because the people who made it, both in front of and behind the camera, were talented people and there were many more talented people waiting in the wings to take over if they faltered. It's the consistent depth of that talent across such a huge volume of pictures that made the golden age. There weren't actually as many truly great movies as people remember, but the routine stuff was so much better than the routine stuff of today. In many instances, the routine stuff is actually better than the good stuff of today. As produced by Merian C Cooper, a year after King Kong, and shot by reliable comedy director William A Seiter, this one focuses on five actors, four of which are favourites of mine: the delightfully ditzy Zasu Pitts; the grand ditherer, Edward Everett Horton; the gloriously dry Ned Sparks; and, in a bigger part than usual, ever lovable Nat Pendleton. The fifth is sardonic vaudevillian Pert Kelton.

Pendleton, so frequently just one of the gang backing up Cagney, Robinson, Bogart or whoever, finally gets a gang of his own. He's T Fenimore 'Fenny' Sylvester, a name that surely destined him to either run the show or have it run him. Here he's very much in charge, aiming to expand his kidnapping racket to cracking safes, but he's still a big kid at heart with a strong attachment to his mother. This leads him to finance a musical show, of all things, because he hears Annie Snodgrass singing about her mother and he's instantly and memorably smitten. She's practicing with the Union Bank Little Theatre Players, while he's robbing her employer, but he has to take a break to discover who the angel was whose voice is drifting upstairs to him. He makes her sing Your Mother again, in front of his rogues gallery of hoods and there are no dry eyes in the house. The catch is that only his are tears of joy; his men are notably suffering.
In the precode era, a few genres dominated the screen and musicals and gangster flicks were two of the key ones, so it's only natural that RKO would merge the two together in a comedy that sends up the whole thing. Pendleton was a natural to head up the gangster half and Zasu Pitts is an inspired choice to lampoon the musicals. She plays Annie Snodgrass with delightful snobbery, a bank employee in Drafts and Collections who 'doesn't think of anything but her art any more.' I have no idea which keys she sings in but I know it's more than one and her lyrics couldn't be any more schmaltzy. 'Who taught you wrong from right,' she trills in a quavery voice, 'while holding you so tight? Who misses you tonight? Your mother!' It's an awful performance in the best ways and having Pendleton all doe eyed over it is comedy gold. Never mind that his moll, Ruby, aches to be back on stage and he doesn't like the idea, he has to gift Annie Snodgrass to the world.

This is fluff, pure and simple, but it's elevated by the cast. Zasu Pitts made a number of serious films in the silent era, especially for Erich von Stroheim, but she was always a comedienne and talkies gave her opportunities to use her memorable voice that silent pictures never could. Nat Pendleton was an Olympic wrestler who played as many dumb oxen in the thirties as Karl Dane did in the twenties, but he did so in a quintessentially American way, playing cops, gangsters or wrestlers who could always be relied on to be taken advantage of, from the very best films to the very worst (think The Thin Man at one end and Swing Your Lady at the other). Pendleton gets more opportunity here than Pitts, because for the most part if she's on screen she's singing Your Mother yet again, a song that's hilarious to hear once but painful to hear again. Sylvester failing to understand that is a running joke but the joke is on us.

There are no star turns here, as each member of the ensemble cast gets their moment in the spotlight, even down to the bit part players. The thing to realise is that the cast were all known as character actors for a reason. None of them dominate the story, not only because the script doesn't aim for them to but because that isn't who they are. They're the folks who we watch in other people's movies and want to see more of, only to find that when they get their own movies they can't carry them on their own. So here, none of them are tasked with more than what they do best: building characters out of scraps of situation, then bouncing dialogue off each other with panache. That works right down to John Qualen's brief spot as Annie's boyfriend, Oswald, who with few lines and little screen time paints a complex portrait of their relationship. He'll obviously be there for her whatever, though she sees him and her as secondary to her art.
Best of all is Ned Sparks as Fenny's right hand man, Toots McGuire, whose dry wit takes full advantage of the script but goes far beyond it. His talent was to wring the highest comedic value out of the shortest lines. 'Let it go,' he says to his boss and it's genius. 'Goody,' he mutters and it carries blistering depth. Often he doesn't even have to open his mouth to be funny. On the other hand, Edward Everett Horton always made the most of his lines and the more words the better. He's perfect for the role of Adam Frink, the best show producer in town. 'Did you ever hear such a voice?' Fenny asks him about Annie. 'Not emanating from a human throat,' he replies. His futile attempts to say no to the gangster are glorious. Inevitably, Frink is caught up as helplessly in the plot as Annie, with Sylvester's love of his mother driving the whole thing and with Oswald and Toots hanging in there to pick up the inevitable pieces.

It's Ruby who shakes it up. Unhappy that she isn't the star of the show, she persuades Fenny to make her Annie's understudy, with the firm intention of stealing the lead through any nefarious means necessary. When Fenny decides to stage a publicity stunt by kidnapping Annie, Ruby has her kidnapped from the kidnappers, and by that point the story is rolling along with a life of its own. Like the rest, she's gifted with clever dialogue. 'From now on we're sisters under the skin,' she informs Annie, 'and you're already under mine.' In fact every combination of the five leads works delightfully. Toots translates everyone else's dialogue to Fenny who can only understand underworld slang. Fenny effortlessly and constantly annoys Frink. Ruby plays Fenny and plays up to Annie. Frink attempts in vain to give stage directions to his leading lady who doesn't have a clue but believes she's a consummate professional.

And I can't keep away from the writing. Adapted from a story by Aben Kandel by Marion Dix and Laird Doyle, just another couple of Hollywood scriptwriters, this was never meant to be anything special, just another routine programmer aimed to fill a scheduling slot. Yet it contains sparkling dialogue that makes the running time a swift 72 minutes; and it includes subtle commentary like the characters who write their reviews based on the reaction of the esteemed critic Abercrombie Hancock rather than the show itself, a neat take on The Emperor's New Clothes. Sure, there are flaws. There are far too many renditions of Your Mother and far too little else for Zasu Pitts to do. With so many cast members to focus on, we end up focusing on none of them. But if made today this would be an Annie Snodgrass of a picture, a clunker that expected a $50m budget. In 1934 it was a Toots McGuire, without any expectations at all but with all the talent in the world.

1 comment:

Ron Fountaine said...

I saw it the other morning on early am television. I loved it.It contained more genuine comedy writing than a score of todays feeble efforts. I loved all the cast, but, if any else saw it, did they see how John Quelan was amazingly like a human meercat? Today he would make a fortune.
Ron Fountaine.