Wednesday, November 17, 2010

At the (old) movies: 'Thanks a Million'

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

Perhaps the best way to describe “Thanks a Million” is to say that it’s the best Warner Bros. musical ever made by Fox.

The 1935 film borrows a number of ingredients from Warners films: singer (and later tough-guy actor) Dick Powell, leading lady Ann Dvorak, director Roy Del Ruth and producer Darryl F. Zanuck, who had been the production chief at Warners (in charge of such films as “42nd Street” and “The Public Enemy”) before jumping ship and co-founding a new company, Twentieth Century Pictures, which soon merged with the financially challenged Fox Film Co.

(Please don’t write in to tell me you’ve seen those two movies and gone over them with a fine-toothed laser but can’t find Zanuck’s name. He simply didn’t get screen credit, which I suspect, just suspect, is one reason he set up his own shop, as Hal Wallis, who did get screen credit, did years later after Jack Warner grabbed the credit – and the Oscar – for “Casablanca.”)

The songs, one or two of which I wouldn’t mind hearing again, are by Gus Kahn and Arthur Johnston instead of Warners’ Harry Warren and Al Dubin.

One character Fox borrowed – and improved on – is the smartass press agent or sidekick, a role that Ned Sparks had a lock on at Warners.

Nothing against Sparks (well, not that much against him), but in “Thanks a Million” the press agent is played by Fred Allen, who belongs in my very limited pantheon of Entertainers Who Can Do No Wrong.

This was Allen’s first feature film appearance after years of stage and radio work, and it’s obvious that he furnished some of his own lines; when a blowhard proclaims himself to be a self-made man, Allen says that points up the perils of unskilled labor. (A Google search I just did indicates that Allen wasn’t the first to say this, but I’m willing to bet that if he did “borrow” it, he would have gotten around to thinking of it on his own.)

One major difference between this movie and the Warners output is the quality and sophistication of the screenplay, which is about a traveling show whose star (Mr. Powell) is stranded in a small town. The star, through a series of developments that are indigenous only to 1930s musicals, winds up running for governor.

The main scriptwriter was Nunnally Johnson, whose name on almost any screenplay is the cinematic equivalent of “USDA Approved.” (Matter of fact, if you have one of those ebook thingies and search for his name, you might find and be able to download the text of a long interview he gave near the end of his life. Even with the multiple – to put it mildly -- transcription errors, it’s fascinating stuff for Hollywood-history buffs.)

“Thanks a Million” doesn’t appear to be available on video, which is too bad. Though it’s not a must-see film, if you have a taste for this sort of thing, your time wouldn’t be wasted.