Tuesday, November 10, 2009

At the (old) movies: 'Tin Pan Alley'

Some notes from a recent gathering of the local cinephile society….

Remember the “Twilight Zone” episode where Dennis Weaver has the same dream each night – he’s on trial for murder, convicted, condemned to death and sent to the electric chair, but just as the switch is pulled, he wakes up, terrified?

And each time he has the dream, the cast of characters is jumbled – the guy who’s the judge now, for instance, was a death row inmate last time?

The 20th Century Fox musicals from the late 1930s and early 1940s are a little like that, though the casting doesn’t change that dramatically, and as far as I can recall, Don Ameche never went to the electric chair. (Of course, he did have the foresight to invent the telephone so the governor could call and commute his sentence.)

The Fox musicals of that era seem like permutations of each other, as if a casting director, informed that a new film needed X number of stars, donned a blindfold and tossed darts at a wall containing pictures of Betty Grable, Alice Faye, Cesar Romero, Don Ameche, Tyrone Power, John Payne, Carmen Miranda and Sonja Henie, among others, and when the requisite number of darts had been thrown, you had your cast.

Which is why I have a hard time telling these films apart. (And, to be honest, I haven’t seen many of them.)

Anyway, for “Tin Pan Alley” (1940), the casting director’s mini-missiles scored direct hits on Alice Faye, John Payne, Betty Grable and Jack Oakie.

And it’s a pleasant enough film, even if you’ve seen the plot before. (Heck, I’ll bet the audiences who saw it the first time had seen the plot at least a few times before. And they probably would see it at least a few times again.)

Alice Faye and Betty Grable are sisters who have a singing act. Alice loves composer John Payne, who might well love her back, but for most of the film he seems to love himself a lot more as he does his best to get the attention of the Powers That Be of the early-century music world. Unfortunately, he’s such a heel that he’s more likely to get mash notes from Dr. Scholl.

Payne’s partner is Jack Oakie, a comedian whose name isn’t well known these days, which is too bad because he’s quite good – kind of like that annoying colleague or neighbor who thinks he’s funny, except that Oakie really is funny, and he knows how far he can push things without becoming annoying.

The music is a pleasant mix of vintage tunes and newer material, especially “You Say the Sweetest Things, Baby,” by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon. It’s a really catchy tune, and it’s performed so many times that in order not to catch it, you’d have to be the butterfingers of all time. (I can hear the studio execs now: “We paid good money for that tune, and the audience is going to hear it! And hear it! And hear it…..”)

One nice surprise: Elisha Cook Jr., pre-“Maltese Falcon” and the other psychopaths he specialized in, playing a composer and showing a subtle flair for comedy. (Which is ironic, I suppose, because it might have done a world of good for John Payne’s egotistical composer to have a roscoe shoved up his nostrils. Or elsewhere.)

Before the film: “Hollywood Rhythm,” a Paramount short subject from 1934, featuring Jack Oakie and songwriters Harry Revel and Mack Gordon – yes, the same Mack Gordon who co-wrote “You Say the Sweetest Things, Baby.”

Gordon and Revel’s songs include “Have You Ever Seen a Dream Walking?” and “Stay as Sweet as You Are.” Chances are that if you grew up in a TV market that showed a lot of Paramount’s Popeye cartoons from the 1930s (in my youth, one station’s slogan might as well have been “All Popeye All the Time”), you’ve heard these and other Gordon-Revel songs as background music.

The featurette shows the two as they are supposedly composing a new song, “Take a Number from One to Ten.” They seem like OK guys, but as I watched the short I once again wondered why so many of the composers of this country’s classic romantic tunes in person seem about as romantic as your average shoe salesman. (“Would you like to see something in B flat, three-quarter time?”)

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