Monday, May 18, 2009

At the (old) movies: 'Rose Marie'

Notes from a recent gathering of the local cinephile society:

Some years ago I attended a wedding reception on the second floor of a movie theater in my town. It’s not just any movie theater – it was built in the late 1920s by the folks who owned MGM, and it’s one of the last great movie palaces.

A younger co-worker, sitting across the table, looked at our surroundings and said something along the lines of, “Geez, this seems like a really fancy place to go to just to see a movie!”

Upon which I very nearly said something along the lines of “You *%#%#* moron!”

Instead, I patiently explained that way back when, people didn’t go to this place “just to see a movie” – there were live acts, possibly an orchestra, and newsreels, cartoons and maybe other short subjects. People who were down on their luck could spend a few cents and be transported to another world, if just for a little while.

I thought of this as I was watching MGM’s “Rose Marie” (1936), which doubtless played that very same theater when it hit our town during its original run.

I especially thought of how the movie’s production values matched the theater’s opulence. MGM was the preeminent studio of the time, and after the execs previewed a film with a test audience, they thought nothing of ordering retakes or shooting other footage to improve it. MGM put a lot of money into its movies, and it showed. Even its B movies seemed at least a step up from other studios’ B pictures; it was almost as if, when it came to making B movies, the studio wasn’t really trying.

This philosophy of “make it better (and perfect, if possible), no matter the cost” paid off big time 70 years ago. And, for that matter, so did MGM exec Irving Thalberg’s theory that the Marx Brothers’ careers could be saved if their movies included a romantic subplot with two contract players. Problem is, these ideas haven’t traveled well into the 21st century; just as no one rents “A Night at the Opera” to satisfy a craving for Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle (charming as they are), the spend-all-you-need-to-spend production values of “Rose Marie” make the movie seem rather overstuffed, almost too well put together – unless you imagine yourself back in the ‘30s, watching it in one of those fabled movie palaces. Then it works perfectly.

On the other hand, 1930s films from the less prosperous studios often have a seeming offhandedness that travels much better. This seems especially true if the studio in question (I’m thinking Paramount, for example) was teetering on the edge of receivership or bankruptcy or some other financial catastrophe.


“Rose Marie” is the Quintessential Mountie Musical – “Indian Love Call” and all – featuring, of course, Jeannette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, with an up-and-coming contract player named James Stewart as MacDonald’s brother, who is on the run after killing a mountie.

At this point, you might expect me to make fun of MacDonald and Eddy. And heaven knows it would be easy enough to do that, as so many people, over the years, already have.

But although the two are not my favorite performers, making fun of them would, well, be too easy, and they do have their fans, even today. There must be some reason for that.

So, to give them their due, the two of them certainly know how to sing, though it’s not my favorite kind of music. And they do have a certain chemistry. They know what their fans want, and they give it to them, without pretending to be anything else than exactly what they were. It also helps that the script of "Rose Marie," by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (two of the best screenwriters of their day) and Alice Duer Miller has enough wit to amuse those of us who feel that even the merest snippet of “Indian Love Call” goes a long, long way.

In addition, Stewart makes more than do with the little screen time that he has. As Eddy is taking him away to be tried and hanged, he’s so likable, and even moving, that you almost forget he’s a cop killer.

Finally, the cast also includes a pretty much forgotten performer named Gilda Gray, who became famous in the 1920s for popularizing a dance called “the shimmy.” She isn’t given much to do here, and I suspect a lot of her performance is still shimmying on the cutting-room floor.

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