Archive for Ralph Murphy

Sparring Filchers

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on July 2, 2021 by dcairns

THE NOTORIOUS SOPHIE LANG is only just a pre-code, but it’s a pre-code to the core, dealing as it does with a couple of competing jewel thieves. The title character is played by Gertrude Michael with a good deal of skill and charisma — the plot requires her to assume fake identities and GM is fully up to the task of putting on a Garbo voice and so on. Her romantic partner / competitor, Paul Cavanagh, is blander, but still capable. Best of all, Sophie has a long-suffering sidekick played by Alison Skipworth, who is always good value.

Co-directed by Ralph Murphy and William Cameron Menzies under what circumstances I know not — need to get the Menzies bio! — this looks cheap but is crammed with improbable twists and moves at a good lick. When circumstances force our heroine to flee across rooftops in just her undies, she drops through a skylight and lands in the dressing room of a fashion show, surrounded by other women in their undies. The coincidence is ridiculous but the movie wins points for coming up with some kind of a solution, and for showing us lots of women in their undies (apparently Ann Sheridan is in there somewhere, paying the bills while losing her Texas accent).

We don’t get any of Menzies’ more vertiginous compositions: the main stylistic device is a quick pan in wide shot from one half of the set to the other, a way of adding verve while saving time.

I realise I’ve seen the star in multiple films but she was always in the background of someone like Mae West, whom you can’t look away from and who didn’t give anyone else good lines. Away from that kind of gravitational pull, she’s zesty and appealing.

There was an attempt to spin Sophie into a series, but the code had kicked in so she couldn’t steal any jewels, which must have taken some of the fun out. Also, they couldn’t tempt Skipworth back.

THE NOTORIOUS SOPHIE LANG stars Calpurnia; Lord Penrose; Sir Joseph Whemple; Miss Mabel Jellyman; Lord Basil Epping; Apartment Thug (uncredited); Mr. Throstle; Prof. Summerlee; and Randy Monaghan.

On “Top of the Town”

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 26, 2021 by dcairns

Devoted Shadowplayer Chris Schneider contributes an appreciation of obscure (to me, anyway) thirties musical TOP OF THE TOWN. You can watch the whole film on YouTube (bottom).

Someone was just saying, in connection with the writing of director Jacques Rivette, that the crazier your choice of “best” is, the more you’ve proved your (cinematic) love. This was extrapolation, mind you. Perhaps, then, I should prove my love of Thirties musicals by choosing the decidedly odd TOP OF THE TOWN (1937).

TOP OF THE TOWN is a dog’s-dinner of a picture, let’s be clear, but it’s not without interest. For one thing, it can be cited as the first Universal picture to employ the “twirling stars” studio logo. Secondly, it has a score by a very decent pair of songwriters — Jimmy McHugh (music), Harold Adamson (words) — which contains a genuine, soon-to-be “standard,” “Where Are You?” See recordings by Frank Sinatra and Chris Connor and Mildred Bailey.

Also of note is the historical oddity that TOP OF THE TOWN is one of that handful of pre-WW2 films, films like the Barbara Stanwyck/Robert Young comedy RED SALUTE, using interest in the Soviet Union as a source for comedy. What that means, here, is a flighty heiress (Doris Nolan) who has returned from the USSR with a tendency to call people “comrade” and now wants the nightclub on top of the family-owned skyscraper, the famed Moonbeam Club, to produce Important Art. This places her in conflict with the boyish musician (George Murphy) who simply wants to lead the club’s band and put on a good show. 

You might know Doris Nolan as Katherine Hepburn’s sister in HOLIDAY. She gets no songs here, only attitude. George Murphy, a talented yet not especially appealing dancer, was Astaire’s rival in BROADWAY MELODY OF 1940. He only gets one chance to dance, toward the end. Since nothing much happens between Nolan and Murphy, the strategy is to distract the audience with character performers like Hugh Herbert (as Murphy’s friend) and Gregory Ratoff (as his manager) and Ella Logan (as a diminutive song-belter) and Peggy Ryan (as a child doing an Eleanor Powell dance impersonation). Gertrude Niesen, as the band’s torch-singer, goes missing, but manages to sing “Where Are You?” And did we mention the trio of contortionists in sailor suits who do animal imitations?

Coherence is, shall we say, not one of the strengths of TOP OF THE TOWN. The director is Ralph Murphy, whose one notable film might be THE NOTORIOUS SOPHIE LANG. The script, allegedly, has uncredited contributions by Robert Benchley and Morrie Ryskind.

Another famous name, Mischa Auer, does put in an appearance. As part of the Moonbeam Club’s new Significant Entertainment, Auer shows up and does the “To be or not to be …” in full Hamlet drag — tn the accompaniment of a moaning choir in blackface. This is, um, problematic, as is a dance number involving salt-mine laborers being whipped. Luckily, the show is saved and the club patrons satisfied when a spontaneous jazz “jamboree” breaks out. Sorta like the number at the end of La Cava’s HALF-NAKED TRUTH.

TOP OF THE TOWN has its good points, to go with its silly or offensive ones. Notable among the plusses are the film’s gleaming look, in accord with its *moderne* title lettering, and Glasgow’s own Ella Logan scat-singing and dancing. This is the woman, let us remember, who later created the female lead in FINIAN’S RAINBOW.

And how can you say no to a film, I ask you, featuring Mischa Auer in his Hamlet Drag doing a conga-style pelvic thrust?

Surely Jacques Rivette would understand.