Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Cult Flops - They Learned About Women

MGM, 1930
Starring Gus Van, Joe Schenck, Bessie Love, and Mary Doran
Directed by Jack Conway & Sam Wood
Music by Milton Ager; Lyrics by Jack Yellen

This week, we say "play ball" and hit the baseball diamond with two musicals revolving around America's national pastime. This one mixes up sports antics with vaudeville numbers to give us two singing ballplayers for the price of one. Van and Schenck were a wildly popular comedy team in vaudeville, the Ziegfeld Follies, and on early radio. After a few shorts they did for MGM went over well, the studio decided they were ready for a full-fledged feature. Were these two variety headliners ready for the big time, or should they be thrown back to the minor leagues? Let's start with Jerry Burke (Van) and Jack Glennon (Schenck) on the train to spring training with the Blue Sox and find out...

The Story: The duo are thrilled to be back with the Sox and with Jack's fiancĂ©e Mary Collins (Love). The team's glad to have them back too, especially Sam Goldberg (Benny Rubin) and his stuttering best buddy Tim O'Connor (Tom Dugan) who want to start up their own act. Cunning flapper Daisy Gebheart (Doran) sets her sights on Jack, convincing him to dump Mary and Jerry and stay in vaudeville. When they turn up married, Mary starts seeing Jerry instead...but she still loves Jack. Even after Jack realizes he still loves her and baseball, will it be enough to win the girl and the World Series? 

The Song and Dance: This one is all about the songs and comedy. When it focuses on Van, Schneck, Love, and their numbers and wisecracks, it's not that bad other than what nowadays would be considered to be Italian slurs in a few routines. We even get some authentic baseball footage from the real Yankees Stadium in 1929 that adds flavor to a mostly dull story. Doran has the most fun of the supporting cast as the gold-digger who smells easy prey in Jack. 

Favorite Number: The drunken Jerry kicks us off with "Ain't You, Baby?" sung to a bevy of pretty girls on the train. Van and Schenck get their first number together, "Does My Baby Love," when they're doing their vaudeville act with the team and Mary in the audience. They lead into the sole large-scale number "Harlem Madness." Originally in Technicolor, even in black and white it's still something else. Nina Mae McKinney leads a black chorus through the jazzy routine, which is unfortunately marred when Van and Schenck show up in blackface towards the end. It's quite a ride before that, especially when little girls in ruffled bathing suits and tap shoes break out some pretty incredible moves. Bessie 

Love has an adorable song on the ukulele as she sings about how happy she is to have "A Man of My Own." The most unique number in the film - and in the annals of musical film history - is "Ten Sweet Mamas." This one takes place in the showers as the players sing about their families and we see how they get ready for their regular activities, from showering to massages. 

Trivia: Alas, this would prove to be Van and Schenck's swan song. Schenck died of heart disease six months after the movie's release.

MGM returned to this story over 20 years later in Take Me Out to the Ball Game, this time with the far more musical team of Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly.

What I Don't Like: Let's start with "An Old-Fashioned Guy." Some of the language Van and Schenck use in this song - not to mention a few jokes - are considered in very poor taste today, especially the Italian dialect jokes. Jokes abound about pretty much every ethnicity possible, up to and including their blackface in "Harlem Madness." It may offend those of more delicate sensibilities today

Unfortunately, the story degenerates into standard sticky melodrama by the second half. The idea of pretty and smart Love trading off between two pudgy middle-aged comedians/ballplayers is absurd. It's not helped by the stilted dialogue, or Van and Schenck's forlorn attempts at drama. Doran is so obvious, even  Jerry can figure out what she's up to ages before his partner does. And  Nine Mae McKinney has such a blast shaking and shimmying in "Harlem Madness," I wish she had more to do, or at least appeared in a second number. 

The Big Finale: Reviews on Amazon and IMDb seem to indicate that the first baseball movie with sound is hit or miss with audiences today. Some find it to be unique and fun and enjoy the "Harlem Madness" number; others think it's an annoying and silly relic from a bygone era. I'm going to call this a bunt to first plate and mainly recommend it for fans of Love, vaudeville, or early sound film.

Home Media: DVD only from the Warner Archives.

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