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Monday, July 04, 2016

Universal Does More Boogie-Woogie Bugling

What's Cookin' (1942) Is A Juke Jamboree

Typical Combo Placement
I call these Universal musicals a lost chapter of filmdom past. None are seen anywhere but booted discs or You Tube clips. They were teen fests when that age group was offspring of vaudeville, where kids aspired to jalopies, jazz, or show biz. If Mickey and Judy could breech walls at Metro, so too could the Jivin' Jacks and Jills at Universal, to be enjoyed then, if forgot and invisible since. Reunions of the JJ&J's was annual Hollywood event for over twenty years, from 70's into 90's, until most danced no more, but what opportunity this was for attendees to mingle among names mostly off Uni payroll of the Classic Era. Swirling amongst rug-cutters in modest musicals like What's Cookin' were singers, bands, comics and character folk we recall better, too many to enumerate if you're talking all the series, of which I'm unsure how many there actually were (lots ... and all B's by definition, though many ran top-of-bills at high-seating urban palaces). Best, then, to address but one and avoid confusion, to-wit What's Cookin', a firecracker exploding with talent, even as budget confines all to handful of sets and what amounts to expansion of a band short from two reels to seven.

It's as easy to confuse U songbooks as westerns that came off assembly with titles nearly identical. So what is difference between What's Cookin' and What's Buzzin', Cousin? My head gets to buzzin' trying to keep these obscurities apart (for the record, What's Buzzin', Cousin? was made by Columbia, came out a year later, and has Ann Miller). B musicals were a most needed commodity in wartime, as swing was at apogee and everyone could use a happy pill. Cousins to this were juke boxes and bands that fed them, so what better than to revolve most around juke joints and feature lead groups of the day, in this instance Woody Herman and ensemble, them realizing all the more live dates for appearing in this and whatever other pics could use swing hypo. Small musicals were also tied closely to radio. What's Cookin' has teens crowded into a broadcast for Herman, all chewing gum in unison (movies kidded the kid army, but never ridiculed them). Studio ushers have to calm  exuberance, as who can help dancing in aisles when Woody cuts loose? (theatres had given up on crowd control where bands played live).

In terms of Universal talent, What's Cookin' is strictly All-Star, at least on that company's terms. Gloria Jean and Donald O'Connor are here, along with Peggy Ryan (soon to be an O'Connor teammate in a series of films), plus the white-hot Andrews Sisters, who virtually scored WWII popular culture with their innumerable hits. First-billed here, the sisters were grown-up lure on marquees otherwise dominated by youth, though for comedy, there'd be faces around since dawn of sound --- Charles Butterworth, Billie Burke, Franklin Pangborn, Leo Carrillo, a happily prominent Charles Lane. The kids appear to more or less live together, at first skipping a board house rather than pay rent by lowering grips out a window. We're given to understand this was common practice among vaude vagabonds, so now I know why innkeepers refused "actors and dogs." What's Cookin' is non-pause in tune terms; when there's not that, we get silly on terms sure to have rocked auditoria that seated thousands (C. Butterworth about to cleave Charles Lane in half with what looks/sounds like a real buzz saw). We won't see likes of What's Cookin' again --- in fact, it's doubtful we'll see What's Cookin' again, as in ever, so long as Universal maintains lockdown of such obscure inventory.


Blogger Mike Cline said...

I have never seen What's Cookin', but did attend a personal appearance of Woody Herman & His Orchestra during my freshman year in college. This was 1968, and I was probably one of the few who knew who Woody was. The show was fantastic!

10:14 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

There was a time back in the mid sixties when these Universal vest pocket musicals were in TV syndication. Donald O'Connor and Peggy Ryan seemed to pop up every weekend when the game rained out. And Duluth's own Jane Frazee (Okay, really born in Saint Paul, but still!) The closest you can get these days to the equivocally titled WHAT'S COOKIN' is to snag the even more generic sounding Castle Films 16mm cut-down SONG FESTIVAL on ebay.

4:19 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Jane Frazee did an episode of the ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN in 1953.

10:11 AM  
Blogger Rich said...

Very sad these aren't in circulation as a DVD package. "Cinecon" in Los Angeles showed an Andrews Sister musical (usually featuring Shemp Howard) for years, and it always scored big time. Very energetic and tons of fun.

3:06 PM  
Blogger Donald Benson said...

If you like variety movies that barely pretend to be movies:

-- Warner Archive recently released a triple-feature of RKO variety films, with on-camera hosts (Jack Parr in two and Ray Bolger in one), new and recycled music and vaudeville; and silent clips with snarky narration. All three include a goodly chunk of a Leon Erroll two-reeler (one adds an Edgar Kennedy short for good measure).

-- VCI has a box called Showtime USA, with a bunch of micro-budgeted Lippert musicals. A few are framed as hosted stage shows with a bunch of unrelated acts; others have framing stories about a country music broadcast or old minstrel performers reminiscing.

All were produced when television was already offering near-identical fare. Over at "In the Balcony", somebody asserted that even in the early 50s a lot of Americans didn't live within any channel's range. so stuff that plays exactly like old TV variety shows could still find a cinema audience.

5:16 PM  
Blogger kenneth Von Gunden said...

To add to the "boarding house" sensibility, one film has W.C. Fields sneaking his large trunk down two flights of stairs with the help of a buddy. When the landlady catches him on the landing, he pretends they are MOVING IN the friend--who wants to live in the paradise that Fields has supposedly suggested the place to be. "Oh, no you don't," the landlady insists and notes that one nonpaying bum was enough. "You just take that trunk right on out of here!" she insists, falling for his scam.

12:45 PM  

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