Revisiting Fox Musicals
Among Langs who directed, there is Fritz who we know well, and Walter who’s near forgotten. The latter was a greater success in his lifetime though. He made singing hits with Betty Grable and Alice Faye and was well liked in the bargain. Both Walter and Fritz spent time at Fox. Staff there nixed Fritz and revered Walter. Were posterity to act in accordance, we’d fuss more over Mother Wore Tights and less about Metropolis. Nice guys often finish last on director pantheons. Maybe the Walter Langs were taken up more with cultivating friendships than carving out personal visions on film. Compromise enabled comfort and Walter enjoyed his beside a swimming pool in retirement. Did historian indifference matter to him? One that remembered was Joel Greenberg, apparently the sole writer to look up Walter Lang and interview him in depth before the helmsman died in October 1971. That profile appeared in Focus On Film in 1974 and again in a 1976 collection edited by Jon Tuska, The Contract Director. Greenberg appreciated studio work Lang guided and spoke glowingly of Moon Over Miami, Tin Pan Alley, and others the critical establishment ignored. I wonder if he grew up seeing these in theatres, since afterward it was tough finding them properly presented. Musicals at Fox were mostly about Technicolor. Otherwise, they were resolutely formula. I could write about one today, another tomorrow, and say basically the same things. That’s not to claim they’re bad. Last week, I got out three Lang signed --- Moon Over Miami, Weekend In Havana, and Greenwich Village (above is Walter directing Shirley Temple in The Little Princess). All are on DVD and back to at least suggesting candy-box basics they’re known (if at all) for. Older folks remember Fox musicals with singular fondness. Grable and Faye kept turnstiles rotating all night then. You’d get off swing shift and make 3 AM shows along with a couple thousand night owls in similar wartime circumstance. It has always been my belief that the reason we have made a successful series of musical comedies over a number of years is because we have used several formulas effectively, said Darryl F. Zanuck with not a trace of irony over his company’s treading and retreading upon story moulds poured years before (he's seated below with signature cigar). A pinch of Three Blind Mice sprinkled with Café Metropole and Second Honeymoon would disgorge the eighty minutes needed. Fox musicals have at least that brevity to recommend them (Sweet Rosie O’Grady a scant 74 minutes), plus refreshing lack of ambition, which was ruination of sometimes pretentious and overreaching Metro output.
Even at reduced length, some of these run just ahead of patience. Stories were three parts misunderstanding and two parts deception. Everyone’s about keeping secrets and withholding information. It falls upon likeable performers to salve our annoyance with foolish behavior imposed by scripters. Fox liked comics as punctuation on every straight line. Jack Oakie and Phil Silvers are tireless sidekicks to interchangeable leading men John Payne and George Montgomery, among many such combinations, and clowning cameos of a Billy Gilbert, Leonid Kinsky, Jack Haley sort were factored into each with mathematical precision. Vaudeville would not die so long as Fox did musicals. Neither would songs of an age otherwise vanished. Zanuck might as well have titled all of them Tin Pan Alley for negligible difference in tune and content. Why be experimental when product was paying like this? DFZ knew the value of travel folders in motion during a war. He’d dispatch second units to exotic climes for three-color vistas of places travel-restricted viewers couldn’t see for themselves. Ration watchdogs asking Is This Trip Necessary? were answered a resounding Yes by patrons taking vicarious pleasure in vacations enjoyed by Alice Faye and Betty Grable. Combining said wish fulfillment with Technicolor’s novelty and song/dance stimulation was foolproof siege upon a public’s disposable change for as long as that perfect storm of a world conflict lasted. Conclusion of it made everyone wonder what had made Fox musicals click in the first place, so changed were conditions and a postwar audience’s taste in movies.
Novelist John O’Hara tried writing a Fox musical. It was beyond him. Zanuck said O’Hara’s work was too modern and sophisticated … When this occurs, we are apt to befuddle out audience. DFZ wanted plots clean-cut and no ambiguity over what characters said and did. Indeed, what you saw in a Fox musical was exactly what you got. That’s OK amidst distraction of glittery nightclub sets and stunningly realized Gay 90’s backgrounds (a particular Fox specialty), but story wheels barely sustain hour-and-a-half trips these take, leaving stars and supporting laugh-makers heavy loads to tote. Company zeal for democratic musicals restricted most to low common denominators. A Vincente Minnelli would have fled this place in a day. Betty Grable famously said that her appeal was to truck drivers. Maybe she was thinking more of pictures Fox cast her in. Their musicals aimed for the mass in audiences. Lead characters tended to fly on borrowed wings, managing trips to Havana and Miami on the last dollars they have. Alice Faye scrimps on Macy’s paychecks for a cruise we’re told comes once in her lifetime (Weekend In Havana), while Grable, Carole Landis, and Charlotte Greenwood stake the bankroll to pose as swells in Florida and land rich husbands (Moon Over Miami). We wait out time it takes for schemes to unravel and simple confusions to clear up as big bands, dance specialties, and conga lines immerse us in swingtime that is essence and most enduring appeal of these shows. Among talent exclusive to Fox was Carmen Miranda, and her numbers were unlike anyone else’s of the decade. They couldn’t build pictures around Miranda for being maybe too novel for conventions Fox observed, but she may well have been the stock company’s most valuable continuing asset, both singing and getting laughs, plus guarantor that every color in Fox’s spectrum would be displayed. Latter-day Fox Video acknowledged as much last year when they released a Carmen Miranda DVD box set. I’d love to know how many units that sold …
There’s not a Singin’ In The Rain or Meet Me In St. Louis among 40's Fox musicals. They were ephemerae least likely to be revived after the war. A few came back for reasons other than those that drew audiences in the first place. Sun Valley Serenade and Orchestra Wives supped from wells Universal nourished with 1954 hit The Glenn Miller Story (he’s in both), while Rita Hayworth’s stardom enabled reissue of My Gal Sal (and $167,000 in added domestic rentals). There was a 1974 try at duplicating MGM’s That’s Entertainment franchise, Fred Astaire Salutes the Fox Musicals, which played television outlets using the company’s episodic mimicry, That’s Hollywood, a short-lived series featuring clips from TCF’s backlog. Astaire seemed almost embarrassed putting a hard sell on also-ran musicals trying to compete with those he’d made at Metro, leaning most on a single one done at Fox, Daddy Long Legs, from 1955. The biggest latter-day noise any Fox musical made was in 1972 when independent distributor Eric Spilker leased rights to 1943's The Gang’s All Here and made it an unexpected sensation among New York aesthetes and those pretending to be so elsewhere. It’s about the only vintage Fox musical people talk about anymore. Those who remembered Spilker’s 35mm three-strip Technicolor prints offered loud protest to washed-out DVD’s Fox offered as part of an Alice Faye set. Some improvement was achieved via later remastering for the Carmen Miranda box, but how can proper color be restored with original separation negatives long since discarded? DVD musicals from Fox have consequently been mixed bags. Where good elements survive, they can at least simulate color first-run crowds enjoyed, but too many have run Eastman reprint gauntlets and will never look again as they did on three-strip. A Technicolor moment etched deepest in my memory dates from 1974 when I threaded a 35mm nitrate Coney Island trailer on a chain-driven DeVry military surplus projector (which by sheer chance didn’t burn my parent’s house down). The color I witnessed that day was almost supernatural. Nothing has approached it since. The trailer’s long gone (well, so’s the projector), so I can’t duplicate the moment, but it did give me at least an idea of (part of) what attracted audiences to Fox musicals. The fact we can no longer duplicate their experience makes analysis, let alone criticism, a pretty futile (and unfair?) proposition.