Unexpected Pleasures --- Colleen
The older I get, the more I’m enjoying harebrained movies. Last week, I watched Colleen twice. Most will tell you that seeing it once amounts to gross lack of discrimination. It was actually the first (and second) time for me. Colleen appeared till then to be a stale cookie off WB’s assembly cutter that I might have passed a lifetime not seeing, so Thank You to Warner Archives for including it among Dick Powell/Ruby Keeler value pics offered a month back. There are dance/song/farces so nitwitted as to achieve a state of grace. Colleen might have caught me in a receptive mood of the moment (though there was no alcohol involved), which was partly why I revisited a couple days later. Turns out I’m not entirely alone for liking Colleen, as Maltin’s review assigns three stars and calls it neglected. For all of comedy from the thirties that’s funny, there’s far more of it that isn’t. The ones that try hardest are generally the most trying. It’s fun just observing the mechanics of Warner musicals gone loonier than their own cartunes. Too many were being made for the company’s better talents to sustain. Novelty and inspiration gave way to noise and clowning minus pre-Code peppering that seasoned Busby Berkeley ones. Names you’d not hear of again were tried and discarded. Choreographers not so good as Berkeley (who could be?) gave of their not-quite-good-enough best. Bobby Connolly’s routines would look fine were it not for memories of Golddiggers Of 1933 and Footlight Parade. Colleen used pretty much all of Warner’s musical stock company. By release date of March 1936, they were street cleaning behind the elephant that was RKO’s Astaire/Rogers series (Colleen took $834,000 in domestic rentals to Swing Time’s $1.6 million). For maybe knowing they could never approach such levels of sophistication, the WB’s headed an opposite direction and gave in to mass-friendly zaniness.
Each performer sings his/her introduction over close-up credits, a likeable touch I wish had been applied oftener. Powell and Keeler’s fuel was running low by 1936. Colleen would be their last together. There was intense fan following for the two. Perhaps it had diminished, or could be ideas were all used up. Profits declined in any case. Co-star Joan Blondell was the one Powell married off-screen, despite a public’s having chosen Ruby for his bride. Blondell was still amused about that decades later when John Kobal interviewed her, saying that people took all that love stuff so literally. Filmgoers were emotionally invested in their favorite players, a response to movies that has clearly worn off since (just this weekend I read of bottoms falling out of contemporary star salaries). Colleen’s Ruby Keeler couldn’t sing worth a hoot and her footwork was joked about lo the years to come, but customers thought her personality sweet, and for a while, that was enough. Warners brought in a Broadway dancer named Paul Draper to maybe sprinkle Astaire/Rogers fairy dust on Burbank stages. He and Keeler teamed for tap extravaganzas that are highlights of Colleen, but anxiety over dialogue found him stepping on her lines during scenes played off polished floors. Well, what RKO rival didn’t want their own Astaire on payroll, but as with Berkeley, what were chances such talent could be duplicated, let alone manufactured? The comics were easier bets. Laughter was at least contagious in theatres seating thousands, and maybe if Warners told you enough times that Hugh Herbert’s funny, you’d eventually wear down and agree he was. That woo-woo man was force-fed upon countless audiences, or was he? Suppose folks actually found him amusing? What does that say about our forebears? Anthropologists might profitably look into Hugh Herbert and the people who laughed at him. Kids latterly raised on Warner cartoons at least knew his caricatures if not Herbert. He was easy to mimic and instantly recognizable. Insiders must have enjoyed him too, for HH is everywhere in those Warner Breakdown reels that were compiled and shown at studio Christmas revels. Colleen was further awash in clowns dating back to Keystone days. Louise Fazenda was familiar as old slippers, and got laughs as much for happy recollection of how funny she’d been in silents. Jack Oakie had risen like a phoenix at Paramount and was assurance of a million laughs for another thirty years after Colleen. The more I watch the guy, the more he appeals to me. Oakie has a pas de deux with Joan Blondell to the tune of a ditty called The Boulvardier From the Bronx that made me appreciate just why pros like them stayed in harness from virtual cradles to grave. Could be I like musicals of a Colleen sort simply for the glimpse it affords of biz artists working full tilt at something notches beneath their best, but giving it all as if such a vehicle were their best. The DVD from Warner Archive ended up costing $10 as part of the Powell/Keeler package, and though quality’s not of a burnished sheen like Berkeley classics out on disc, it still more than passes muster and looked fine on my screen.