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Monday, August 24, 2009

Unexpected Pleasures --- Colleen

The older I get, the more I’m enjoying harebrained movies. Last week, I watched Colleen twice. 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.


Anonymous Jim Lane said...

Thanks for the plug, John; my own copy of the Warner Archive Dick & Ruby package is on order, and now I think Colleen will be the first one into the tray.

Ruby Keeler seems never to have lost that sweet likeability. I remember when No No Nanette swept the Tonys in the 1970s, every single winner, without exception, thanked "our dear Ruby." Around the same time, she endeared herself permanently to me when I read a quote from one of her tribute appearances (I quote from memory, but confidently so): "You know, I can't really explain my career. I couldn't act, I wasn't much of a singer, and now that I look at it, I see I wasn't the greatest dancer in the world either."

And I share your respect for Jack Oakie; an amazing career, especially with what he was up against. (Do your readers know that he was deaf?)

3:30 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

awww...I wanna see this now..
Jack Oakie..deaf?

11:02 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

It's true. Jack Oakie wasn't stone deaf, exactly, but he came down with scarlet fever at the age of nine. I read an interview with him once when he described the memory of it: he distinctly remembered, as the fever raged, the pop! pop! of his eardrums bursting -- "...and that was the last thing I ever heard."

In that same interview, he said the toughest scene he ever had to play was one with Doris Day in Lover Come Back, because he had to do it with his eyes closed while plucking on a bass fiddle, and he couldn't watch Doris's lips to "hear" his cues. He also mentioned a dinner party where Herbert Marshall said, "Jack, I feel pretty pleased about the career I've made for myself after getting this," tapping his artificial leg, "but what you've done absolutely amazes me." Me too.

12:30 AM  
Anonymous East Side said...

I haven't seen "Colleen" but I can postively say that Jack Oakie is the absolute highlight of "The Great Dictator." He was still doing his Mussolini bit on a Johnny Carson special on the late

PS: Has anyone noticed that a bunch of leading men -- Dick Powell, James Cagney, even Bogart -- briefly wore pencil-thin moustaches around 1935?

8:10 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Jim, I never knew any of this about Jack Oakie being deaf. Thanks a lot for passing the info along. I'd really like to read that interview you mentioned. It must have appeared in a film magazine from around the seventies, but I just don't recall seeing it ...

9:33 AM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

John, I only wish I could remember half of where I read various information over the years; that Jack Oakie interview is a case in point. You're right, it was sometime in the early '70s (Jack died in 1978), but my recollection is that it wasn't in a film magazine. Rather, I seem to recall it was in some Sunday newspaper supplement mag -- Parade, This Week, something like that.

1:06 PM  
Blogger Kevin Deany said...

"Colleen" sounds great, I'm going to have to check it out.

I may be one of the few people in the world who like Hugh Herbert. I think he's a riot. For me, the definitive Hugh Herbert performance is his teetotaler Uncle Ezra in "Dames" and his search for Dr. Silver's Golden Elixir, which, of course, turns out to be, you guessed it, alcohol. I love his hiccups in this.

2:17 PM  
Anonymous Samantha said...

I would love to hear your opinions about Dick Powell's performance in the film, good or bad, for my website. It is always nice to hear from real people about their reactions to the obscure films.

I think the movie is enjoyable, but certainly gets better after repeated viewings. I most enjoy Jack Oakie's song with Joan Blondell; her talk-singing works well in it.

And I absolutely didn't know Jack was deaf! That is amazing!

1:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found Hugh Herbert amusing when I was in my teens!(This was in the 70s).No wonder Oakie retired after the early 60s-his vision began going as well!

1:15 PM  
Anonymous r.j. said...


Lovely tribute today to the late Edward Kennedy. May he Rest in Peace. As always, your innate class shows!

P.S.: did you know that Stan Laurel had a framed autographed photo of John Kennedy above his desk? It was the first thing we noticed. "It just arrived in the mail one day", Stan told us. "I understand he's a fan of mine". That was it. All he said.

Again, this is a great post (We still get payments on "Colleen"!)


8:54 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

I wish I'd known this when I watched Million Dollar Legs the other night..Next time I see Oakie,I'll see if the actors speak a little more directly to him...

2:30 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Wow, R.J. Your family still gets residuals on "Colleen"? That is really neat.

It's incredible how much music your grandfather wrote for movies. I'm constantly seeing his name in credits.

5:56 AM  
Anonymous r.j. said...


We still get royalities on EVERYTHING going back to the 1929"Show of Shows". And going all the way up to "O Brother Where Art Thou", which utilizes a clip from the '33 "Myrt and Marge". The big ones of course are "Casablanca", "Yankee Doodle", "Hollywood Canteen", "Christmas In Conneticut", and several others. I was de-lighted when Congress extended the copyright laws for another 25! (Imagine what Cole Porters' and The Gershwins' must look like!)

11:11 PM  
Blogger Muirmaiden said...

Since Ruby Keeler was married to Al Jolson from 1928 to 1940, Dick Powell couldn't have married her then even if he had wanted to. The Dick Powell/Joan Blondell marriage was in trouble after the first few years and they both had affairs. In her autobiography, Powell's third wife June Allyson stated that Powell and Keeler had a brief affair once she was separated from Al Jolson. They were careful not to be seen together but the press got wind of the fact that Keeler had moved into a house that was close to Powell's bachelor pad, right around the time his marriage to Blondell was starting to erode. Coincidence? Powell's father kept a scrapbook in which he saved many clippings about his son's career and his romantic entanglements in Hollywood. It's also possible that Powell and Keeler would have made more films together if Jolson hadn't insisted that she break her contract with Warner Brothers in 1937. Powell even stated in an interview that he missed working with Keeler.

I do like "Colleen" but I think both Keeler and Powell should have gotten more screen time.

6:06 PM  

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