MUSIC IN THE AIR (1934) is the last film of the first phase of Gloria Swanson’s career — she would return to the screen for one movie in the early 40s, then make a more decisive, immortalizing comeback in SUNSET BLVD. Already here she’s playing an egotistical diva, a sort of light comedy sketch for the Norma Desmond to come. And one of her writers is one “Billie Wilder.”
But that isn’t even the most interesting aspect of this film, a Bavarian-set operetta-film which tries hard for charm but just misses. Joe May’s direction is solid, and maybe “solid” isn’t the word you’d want to describe a soufflé, but it’s apt here. Movie also features Douglass Montgomery (AKA Kent Douglass, in a baffling mid-career name switch), unjustly forgotten star, looking very fetching in lederhosen (literally, singing-trousers), June Lang, real-life gangster’s moll, more of less convincing as an innocent small-town gal, and John Boles as Gloria’s ham beau. Montgomery and Lang’s singing is dubbed, apparently, but the full-throated work of Swanson and Boles is their own. But that’s not the most interesting aspect of the film either.
No, what’s most interesting about the film is the way its plot intersects with that of Wilder’s KISS ME, STUPID, mad twenty years later. Just as in the later film, the hero is a smalltown teacher and aspiring songwriter with an ambitious partner. Success seems to depend on winning the favour of a music biz bigshot, but romantic entanglements threaten the stability of the hero’s home life. Intriguingly, the 30s version stems from a musical play by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, whereas Wilder credited the inspiration for the 60s iteration as Anna Bonacci’s L’Ora Della Fantasia, by way of the 1952 Lollobrigida epic WIFE FOR A NIGHT.
I’m stressing the similarities, but there are substantial differences. The showbiz star played by Dino in KMS is split in two here, with John Boles and Gloria as singing stars and partners. And it’s the pair of them who are neurotically jealous, as well as obsessively philandering, so that in a sense both of them are playing Dean Martin and Ray Walston at the same time. And rather than staying in a small Bavarian village/Climax, Nevada, the movie relocates to Vienna for its second act.
If the movie isn’t too funny, and only gestures towards the endearing, featherweight charm it wants to own, it nevertheless is put together with skill and a dash of wit, and certainly doesn’t get anywhere near the hinterland of discomfort and revulsion that makes KISS ME, STUPID so… memorable. If we look at KMS as a kind of unofficial semi-remake, it puts it in line with Wilder’s demusicalisation of IRMA LA DOUCE, as well as his refusal to make CABARET and his discomfort with THE EMPEROR WALTZ — something in Wilder’s character made him reject the musical.
This is an interesting specimen, by the way — since the characters are mostly songwriters and musical stars, pretty well all the songs emerge from the action in a more naturalistic way than we associate with the form: Boles introduces a song of seduction by telling June Lang that it’s a number from his upcoming show, but he’s changing the lyrics to suit her. To call it “meta-textual” might be overdoing things, but it sort of is…