Wednesday 12 April 2023

What’s Buzzin’, Cousin? (1943)

Director: Charles Barton
Writer: Harry Sauber, based on a play by Aben Kandel with altered dialogue by John P. Medbury
Stars: Ann Miller, Rochester, John Hubbard and Freddy Martin and His Orchestra

Index: 2023 Centennials.

This is not a good movie. Let’s get that right out there from the get go. I’m also watching a copy of horrific quality, because it hasn’t been officially released in any form that I can find and I don’t want to splash out ten bucks for a bootleg, which may or may not be a better copy than the one I downloaded from the Internet Archive for free. It’s so blurred that I can’t see the mouths moving but it’s so far out of sync that it really doesn’t matter. As bad as it is, though, it’s interesting and there’s much to say about it. For a start, it says that it’s based on a “play” by Aben Kandel, which may have never been produced, a play that I presume was named for a song, which isn’t in this movie. It was in a different movie a year earlier, Song of the Islands, which was shot in 1941 before the U.S. joined World War II but released afterwards, so its tropical paradise musical comedy feud romance story was painfully out of date before a single cinemagoer had a chance to see it. Hawaii had a very different tone indeed after Pearl Harbor.

This film is wildly out of date now but wasn’t when it was released, which makes it such a bizarre window into a bygone time that’s not as long ago as it immediately seems. The star is Ann Miller, who would have been a hundred years old today, but it takes a while for her to show up. Initially, we’re kept busy watching Freddy Martin and His Orchestra, who were big stars at the time. Martin had got his break when his friend Guy Lombardo couldn’t play a particular date so asked him to step in as a saxophonist. He formed his big band in 1931 and tapped into the newest trend in pop music. To quote John Gilliland’s Pop Chronicles, “swing or jive was on the wane and sweet music on the rise.” You may not have heard of sweet music, but Martin was the Ed Sheeran of his day, especially in 1941 after releasing Tonight We Love. It’s an arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with lyrics by Ray Austin and it sold a million copies. No wonder they play Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 here. Sweetening classical music was his m.o.

It actually sounds pretty good to me, so I may need to check out Dingbat the Singing Cat, adapted from Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf in 1946. I was less impressed with the next song, Mister President, featuring the dulcet tones of guest vocalist Jimmy Ross. This song is so old that the president was still someone who everyone could get behind. Then again, it was wartime and patriotic duty was an important thing. Just to underline that it’s wartime, the next song in this opening set of three is Short, Fat and 4F, the latter meaning “unfit for military service”. It’s performed by Eddie Anderson, under his persona of Rochester, and he has a gloriously rough voice, the result of rupturing his vocal cords while selling newspapers on the streets of San Francisco. He was a huge star in 1943, with six years behind him on The Jack Benny Program on NBC. That’s NBC radio, of course, not television, and, as Benny’s valet, Rochester, he was the first African American in a regular role on a nationwide radio show. His run was from 1937 to the show’s end in 1965.

If you’re wondering why a movie only an hour and fifteen minutes long should start out with three songs, all performed by Freddy Martin and His Orchestra on a static stage, even if they had different vocalists, it’s because they’re not just a musical backdrop here; they’re also playing themselves as characters. Rochester is a character too, sans Jack Benny because it’s off season, and Jimmy Ross is a new creation here, played by John Hubbard, who built quite a career substituting for established stars after they’d signed up to serve in the armed forces. He had a good run before he joined them in 1944. Now, Martin’s orchestra won’t be opening in New York for five weeks, so there’s plenty of opportunity for a movie. Ross is their new lead singer, so he travels with them, and Rochester is talked into joining them because times are hard and rationing is in place. Tyres were the first rationed item, in January 1942, only a month after Pearl Harbor, with petrol and a bunch of food items, starting with sugar, in May 1942.

Rations were so fundamental to American life in 1943 that Rochester is given a telling line that I can’t quite transcribe. He’s talking about his girlfriend Blossom to whom he’s “practically as good as married”. Why? Well, “we’ve merged our sugar books, combined our coffee tickets, pooled our shoe coupons and consolidated our canned goods.” That's a pretty clear point and so is the next one. With nothing to do until his radio show starts back up in September and no pay when he’s not on air, Martin and Ross offer him a job. So, take a guess what would be appropriate for a major African American radio star to do? Oh, “you could drive the car and take care of the boys’ musical instruments and baggage”. How about Blossom? She chimes in with her own suggestion. “I could keep the trailer clean and do the laundry for the boys.” To suggest that this felt acutely uncomfortable in 2023 is an understatement.

Anyway, the offer is made and the offer is accepted and off they all go to wherever next but get stuck in a ghost town by the name of Waverhill. They stop there to fill up the tour bus but the gas station has no gas, just a lyrical gas station attendant who points out that his two hundred gallons of gas evaporated, along with the population of the town, because nobody’s been through there in six months. With a setup like that, you just know that Ann Miller, the movie’s star, has to breeze into town the next morning and you’d be spot on. She’s Ann Crawford here and she drives in with three other beautiful young ladies. She’s very happy to see the tour bus because it must be a happening town if Freddy Martin’s playing there! Hilarity naturally ensues as Martin and his band, staying for free overnight in the deserted Palace Hotel, promptly discover that Ann Crawford owns it. She inherited it from her grandfather so these four girls pooled their money to pay the tax lien. They simply made the mistake of not visiting first.

I like Ann Crawford. She’s a confident young go getter with charm and, while there’s no depth to her character here at all, she’s the real heart of the film. There’s a cheesy subplot about her grandfather’s crooked lawyer trying to screw her out of the good parts of the inheritance and, of course, there’s a cheesy romantic angle between her and Jimmy Ross. Most importantly, the part gives her a solid opportunity to sing and dance and allow Miller to showcase her many stage skills, especially tap dancing, which I now know is particularly surreal with unsynchronised sound. I like Billie even more, her comic relief friend played by the delightful Jeff Donnell, well known at the time for playing tomboyish sidekicks to more glamorous stars. I don’t dislike Leslie Brooks and Carol Hughes, but they get very little to do as Josie and May, given that all their scenes are about Ann whenever Billie isn’t stealing them with a goofy misinterpretation or a deceptively clever malapropism.

I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to like Freddy Martin and Jimmy Ross, but I don’t. The latter is a nonentity of a romantic lead, the sort of blandly handsome singer that Allan Jones played in Marx Brothers movies. The former’s just annoying, so many scenes with him demonstrating what we’d call privilege today, not just white privilege but male privilege. He simply assumes that he’s in charge of everything and never even considers that he’s overstepping his bounds. There’s one scene where he realises that the girls still have a little gas in their car, so orders Rochester to drive it over to the next town to get some food. Wow. I don’t believe that was notable in 1943, when it probably just made sense, but, seventy years later, it feels like he’s OK with appropriating the property of the little ladies and having the black guy do his bidding. Dude, you may have had a bestseller in Tonight We Love but Anderson was so famous that he even got kidnapped, by MIT students pretending to be on the Harvard committee that was expecting him, prompting a riot.

There’s not much to talk about plotwise, beyond Jimmy falling for Ann so chipping in money of his own to make the Palace Hotel a going concern and Freddy helping out his lead vocalist. So let’s fast forward through headlines, as the film does, so this ghost town can come magically back to life, just like that. Theoretically, it’s all about the music and we get plenty of songs to underline that, an eclectic array of them, starting with Three Little Mosquitos (Hitler, Tojo and Benito), just in case you’d forgotten that the war was on. It isn’t a good song by any stretch of the imagination but I’m sure that the audience of the time got a kick out of its lyrics. “This one’s Adolf. He’ll soon be sprayed off.” Poetry it isn’t but it was appropriately disrespectful to the leaders of the enemy. For something a little more likely to stand up today, check out Knocked-Out Nocturne, a tap dance that thinks about being a striptease too, that gives Ann Miller opportunity to do all the above and sing at the same time, which she does impeccably.

She was a dance prodigy as a child, not that many realised that she wasn’t an adult. She was born Johnnie Lucille Collier in Chireno, Texas, to a deaf mother who was half Cherokee and a lawyer father who represented Baby Face Nelson and Machine Gun Kelly. She suffered from rickets as an infant, so her mother signed her up for dancing classes to strengthen her legs. It worked a treat so, after her parents divorced and she moved to Los Angeles with her mother at age nine, it gave her an income, dancing in nightclubs as an important means of support for them both. She took the stage name Ann Miller at this point, although the fake birth certificate her dad conjured up to get her a contract with RKO in 1936 read Lucy Ann Collier. She was thirteen pretending to be eighteen, and she ironically hadn’t grown that old by the time she left, with pictures as important as Stage Door, dancing opposite Ginger Rogers, and Frank Capra’s Academy Award-winning Best Picture You Can’t Take It with You highlights on her young resume.

Knocked-Out Nocturne is a heck of a lot of fun, far more so than the blander earlier numbers, and it’s a fantastic showcase for Miller’s talents, even if it’s criminally underseen because of the obscurity of this film. Fortunately, the songs get quirkier. Blossom gets one, while Rochester drives Jimmy and Ann, called Ain’t That Just Like a Man. Given how much Theresa Harris railed against being stuck as an annoying variety of maids in Hollywood movies, she must have found some appreciation for landing at least a brief moment in the spotlight in this film and the earlier Buck Benny Rides Again, also alongside Anderson. She was very talented but it took a rebel like Val Lewton to give her real roles in some of his RKO horror titles in the forties. This song’s fun because Rochester has a strange harmonica extender built into the car so he can play along with her while driving. Things wrap with Eighteen Seventy-five, another patriotic number pushing viewers to buy war bonds at precisely that cost to help finance the American government’s war effort.

In between those two are a couple of songs performed by Dub Taylor and Betsy Gay, uncredited as a pair of hillbillies called Jed and Saree who join the picture after the leads get lost on their drive, singing the unfortunately titled In Grandpa’s Bed. This was another trend at the time, one that led to casting choices as unbelievable as Katharine Hepburn playing a backwoods hillbilly faith healer in 1934’s Spitfire and almost unexplainable pictures like Swing Your Lady, a 1938 hillbilly wrestling comedy starring Humphrey Bogart. Taylor, best known at the time as Cannonball, a comic relief sidekick to Wild Bill Elliott in thirteen feature films, was thirty-six, but Gay was merely fourteen and still wrapping up her film career. She started out singing and dancing in short films at seven but she retired after this one, with thirteen titles to her name, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the Marx Brothers’ At the Circus. In yet another glimpse into an unrecognisable past, she went on to win a California yodelling competition two years running.

It’s easy to see how this aged out of favour and wasn’t brought back to the public’s attention. It’s a throwaway B-movie trapped in its time. However, I’d suggest that, if a decent copy of the film ever surfaces, it’s well worth checking out, not for any semblance of quality but as a sort of time capsule, a glimpse into a world that simply doesn’t exist any more in almost any way. I’m over fifty and have ten grandkids, but I didn’t grow up with sweet music from big bands, ration books and war bonds, hillbilly comedies and wild tap dance numbers, ghost towns and gold rushes. Yes, there’s one of those here too, kinda sorta. It’ll make sense if you care enough to seek the film out. About all we still have today is pervasive racism and war, but nobody’s conjuring up big band numbers that poke fun at Putin. I’m calling out an opportunity right there, folks. Go for it! Outside of all this fascinating historical context, What’s Buzzin’, Cousin? is most notable for the performance of its star, Ann Miller, who went on to quite the career, even ignoring movies.

She was a famous pin-up girl in Yank magazine, dressed in a bathing suit, though it was a little late in July 1945 to have much effect overseas. Her tap dancing skills were legendary, with claims by studio publicists that she could tap five hundred times per minute, a bloated figure enhanced in post-production. In reality, the stage floors on which she danced were waxed and too slick for regular tap shoes, so she would dance in shoes with rubber soles with the sound dubbed in later after she matched her steps on a tap board in a recording studio. While she surely wasn’t as fast as the studios claimed, she was very fast indeed. Another claim to fame that is open to debate is her invention of pantyhose. The story goes that dancers frequently tore stockings filming dance numbers, which they tended to sew to briefs. Miller claimed that she asked a hosiery manufacturer to produce a single combination garment. Later in life, she wrote a book about her psychic experiences, exploring techniques for meditation and mind training.

What’s not debatable is how much of an impact she had on Hollywood, especially once she joined MGM in the late forties, knocking out memorable performances in memorable musicals like Easter Parade, On the Town and Kiss Me Kate. While none of these musicals had much to speak of in the way of story—though far more than What’s Buzzin’, Cousin? and, no doubt, the many other B-movies she made for Columbia—these three sparkled with their musical scores and dance routines during what could well be called the heyday of Hollywood’s Technicolor musicals. All three were Oscar nominated for their music and Easter Parade won. As these pictures went out of fashion, she moved away from film. She impressed on stage, where dancers only get one take, in Broadway productions such as Mame, and even tap danced her way onto the small screen in a spectacular 1970 commercial for Great American Soups. Her final role was in an uncharacteristic film, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, three years before she passed from lung cancer in 2004.

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