Friday, November 30, 2007

Musings on Obscure Vintage Musicals

Jeanette MacDonald about the time of BROADWAY SERENADE.

The first in a (possible) series of blog musings on obscure movie musicals…..


I had always thought the Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy I MARRIED AND ANGEL (1942) was one of the most bizarre MGM musicals ever made (and it is), but BROADWAY SERENADE, at least its bizarrely spectacular finale, runs a close second.

Essentially the plot of this odd film is a routine triangle among a talented but temperamental composer (Lew Ayres), his diva of a wife (Jeanette MacDonald), and a suave and romantically inclined backer (Ian Hunter) of a hit Broadway revue in which her musical star swiftly rises. But the score, supervised by MGM musical stalwart, Herbert Stothart, is an anything-but-routine, if emphatically uneasy mix of high brow classics, operetta, and pop-swing, and takes the MGM musical trend of providing a musical something for everyone one step beyond.

This catchall score includes two Tyrolean men-in-lederhosen operetta tunes, “High Flyin'” and a lyrical European waltz, both of which are reprised in an on-stage performance that partially includes MacDonald and her young baritone co-star on skies. (The schmaltzy arrangements are frequently livened up with some incongruous swing interludes). Overall music is credited to Stothart and Edward Ward, with lyrics by Gus Kahn, and Bob Wright and Chet Forrest, the latter two the team which eventually adapted Broadway’s KISMET. The song, “Time Changes Everything,” is credited to Kahn and Walter Donaldson.

Jeanette also does an operatic aria, MADAME BUTTERFLY’s “Un Bel Di,” in her endearingly off-kilter warble. But it’s ambitiously staged with the diva making a precarious but graceful descent from a huge Japanese bridge onto a set embellished with living mannequins and which looks like a BxW dry run for the “Limehouse Blues” number in ZEIGFELD FOLLIES.

However, the piece de resistance is the film’s finale, composed by her musical partner/husband who has been estranged until he can come up with his own blockbuster success. He of course does, but his breakthrough composition turns out to be what? A surreal avant-garde opera, a symphonic jazz cantata, a precursor to a Sondheim musical? Whatever, it’s based on Tchaikovsky’s “None But the Lonely Heart” which is fragmented, reassembled, sliced and diced, and intercut with more swing interludes in a pioneering manifestation of shocking early postmodernism. (It of course was really all stitched together by the brilliant Stothart, MGM’s resident maestro of the ’30s, who frequently raided the classics for his many MGM scores of the era, and Ward who apparently did the swing sequences).

It’s then performed by Jeanette and a cast of thousands, all playing musical instruments and wearing masks that look like a cross between Kabuki theater and an Amicus horror film. At the center of it all is Jeanette, unmasked, of course. Dressed in pristine Grecian garb and perched on a pedestal only a few stories lower than the one in THE GREAT ZEIGFELD, she is manically and at length serenaded by legions of the monstrous orchestral furies. (BROADWAY SERENADE indeed!) It’s all staged by Busby Berkeley, by the way, and probably ranks as both his least-known and most excessively grotesque production number.

The young Lew Aryes (who makes a final appearance at the grand piano at the climax of the finale) is one of the most freshly handsome of MGM’s rather stodgy 1930s leading men. When not having violent outbursts of temperament when their husband/wife musical act is heckled by distracters, he delivers his mostly hokey lines with soothingly masculine sensitivity. Ayes is best-known for his lauded performance in Universal’s ALL QUIET ON THE WESTRN FRONT, but he was rather ill-used by MGM, starring in a series of eclectic MGM ‘30s films (including ICE FOLLIES OF 1939 with Joan Crawford and James Stewart). His work at the studio concluded with the hit series based on the Doctor Kildare stories, and his interesting career was interrupted (but not ended) by his status as a conscientious objector during WWII. Ironically, he later appeared as the reluctant vice-president in Preminger’s ADVISE AND CONSENT in 1962.

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