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Thursday, October 17, 2019

MacDonald Sings In The Here and Now

Broadway Serenade (1939) Another Metro Heart-Throb

'39 was time for Jeanette MacDonald to "go modern," this in deference to patron demand and need for product differentiation at Metro. You couldn't, after all, maintain stars by letting them do identical act over and again (even if it seemed at times like they did). MacDonald had worn period dress since linkage with Nelson Eddy, and maybe there was fear that operettas were getting stale. Anyway, she was re-routed to this, and fresh lead man Lew Ayres, who'd come off more believably as her kid brother rather than husband, as he's posited here. The two begin as a vaudeville team, tensions a result of JMc rocketing to legit stardom. Must husbands of overnight stars always behave so badly? And yet their mates stay loyal, despite luxury and better offers poured over them that certainly would be opted were this real life. As with most super-A's from MGM of this period, Broadway Serenade is over-dressed. Producer committees on the lot saw to that. A single or even handful of voices were no longer enough to see expensive projects through, not unlike movie business done today. Curiosity was there for MacDonald gone modern, as first-run ads attest. Note emphasis on Modern, Hotcha, Hi-De-Ho, each with own exclamation point.

MacDonald's character soars in plays that don't look much good, until Busby Berkeley takes over for a final blow-out that dwarfs the rest. Good writing always sniffed around edges of even top-heaviest MGM, thus pungent exchanges among B'way cynics clearly standing in for same-disposed scribes lost in a crowd of credited (or not) scenarists. Big spending was a distraction from much that was wrong at Leo, starriest vehicles left to suffer for too many cooks in too thick broth. Still, there is much to satisfy in Broadway Serenade, and moments plenty where it jumps to (our) attention. Vaude background can’t help but engage. See it for that if nothing else. Did not know till recent that MacDonald kept a detailed diary through her peak career. Might someone publish it, or have they already? Crowds supported a Broadway Serenade because she sang lots in it, and that’s all they needed to know. Is there a performer left that could claim a same? Again these ads, Shea’s pushing Metro shorts, “Pete’s New Hit” for a latest Pete Smith, Weather Wizards, and a “Science Unit,” The Story of Alfred Nobel, one of the John Nesbitt Passing Parades. Then the RKO Orpheum using an MGM “B,” Society Lawyer, for support. Latter is actually a good one, provided expectation is modest. Warner Instant streamed Broadway Serenade in HD before curtain dropped on that enterprise, so know that a transfer has been done, and maybe TCM will get back round to it.


Blogger John McElwee said...

Griff e-mails some fascinating detail on shorts run with BROADWAY SERENADE at the Shea's Theatre:

Dear John:

No co-feature at Shea's -- but what a panoply of shorts: Pete Smith's "Weather Wizards," John Nesbitt's presumably explosive "The Story of Alfred Nobel"... but it's hard to determine whether the Lew Lehr, Lowell Thomas, "Sport on Parade" and "Fashions Today" offerings are separate featurettes or are simply part of a single edition of Movietone News.

I give the Orpheum a certain amount of ballyhoo credit (or gall) for citing "For Auld Lang Syne" in its ad. At first glance at the ad, it looks like a co-feature starring Tracy, Durbin and Massey! However, it was a fundraising short for the Will Rogers Hospital, and was certainly supplied to the house for free. [That said, the theatre did have to send ushers around the auditorium to collect audience donations.] In this short, Tracy and Deanna speak directly to the audience, asking for contributions; Massey's appearance is a little more interesting. Playwright and screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood appears at the beginning of the film, talking about the late Rogers, and comparing him to Abraham Lincoln. Massey is then shown in brief scenes from Sherwood's Broadway hit, Abe Lincoln in Illinois. I've never seen "For Auld Lang Syne," but I would imagine that these scenes were shot especially for this short. [The play was still running when the short was released; RKO's film version of ABE LINCOLN didn't open until a year later.]

-- Griff

11:06 AM  
Blogger Glenn Erickson said...

The thing I remember about this is the song HIGH FLYIN, which for alcohol is the equivalent of Cheech n Chong in the late '70s. Booze is great! Let's all drink more! It makes you glamorous and fun ... I believe the swing chorus calls it 'liquid heaven'. It's a jaw dropper and was when I first saw it around 1992.

3:28 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Ha! Just got rid of a 16mm trailer for this one not that long ago. Had it hanging around for a while. Speaking of over-dressed, even the Metro coming attractions were over produced. Lots of crazy optical wipes and those shimmery letters superimposed over everything. Sometimes more is more!

4:06 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Speaking strictly for myself, I'd have taken the notice of a new Pete Smith (any Pete Smith) as advance warning to stay away.

7:25 PM  
Blogger djwein said...

Jeannette had already gone modern in 1938's SWEETHEARTS with Nelson and Technicolor to boot. Modern costumes Dorothy Parker contributing to the witty script. Only the music was still operetta.

8:56 PM  
Blogger Marc J. Hampton said...

That disturbing Busby Berkeley finale with everyone in masks: the stuff of horror films. I can't quite decide if it's brilliant and a precursor for Stanley Kubrick's orgy scene in "Eyes Wide Shut"....or one of the worst musical numbers ever.

2:13 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

8:58 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...


3:17 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Got and watched the Pete Smith Specialties set. "Weather Wizards" is a little documentary about weather forecasting, ending with a semi-dramatized story of a farmer and his family struggling to save their orchard from a cold snap. As always, the only voice you hear is Smith's.

These single reels are by and large parsley on a dinner plate. Comedy ranges from cute to painful; "straight" documentary material is usually interesting (although Smith's nasal voice sounds snarky even when he's trying to be somber). Then you have flat-out oddities. A few rival "Crime Doesn't Pay" for downer endings.

The only Technicolor titles star Penny Wisdom, a newspaper columnist whose specialty was rescuing desperate housewives with "easy to make" feasts. Even in a more domestic era, did any housewife try whipping out these "simple" recipes? The football highlights were the only way fans could see the action unless they were physically at the game; otherwise it was radio and still pictures in the newspaper. Smith juices up the clips with sound effects, music cues and optical printer foolery.

I'm still hoping for more shorts, like John Nesbitt's Passing Parade and more of those two-reel mini-movies. Maybe they've already released the best of the latter -- How do you top "Good Morning Eve"? -- but I crave more. And there are more that haven't been released in collections, sometimes showing up on TCM or as bonus features on feature film DVDs.

These days, TCM includes vintage shorts in its Saturday morning lineup and elsewhere runs episodes of "MGM Parade", which sometimes spliced in a Passing Parade short.

4:51 PM  
Blogger Maggie McCormick said...

My book I'll See You Again: The Bittersweet Love Story and Wartime Letters of Jeanette MacDonald and Gene Raymond, published in three volumes by BearManor Media, includes transcriptions and quotes from many of MacDonald and Raymond's personal letters, to each other, friends, and colleagues. Although an outline for her unpublished autobiography refers to a diary she kept under conditions she described as "trying," all that I've heard about surviving are desk diaries/datebooks from 1948 and 1963. Both were auctioned on eBay a few years ago after the passing of her last fan club president. If real diaries exist, it would be fascinating to read them. The Raymonds apparently saved everything, but I was told that many things were destroyed by water damage after years of storage in Palm Springs (where Raymond had a home) and Kansas (where the fan club president lived).

Most of the fans I've spoken to find the Berkeley finale very creepy. Jeanette disliked the movie and it influenced her asking for script approval in future contract negotiations with MGM.

5:26 PM  

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