Archive for The Half-Naked Truth

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.

For the woman, the kiss! For the man, the sword!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 13, 2017 by dcairns

THE AFFAIRS OF CELLINI is a very odd affair. It’s a Gregory La Cava pre-code, or thereabouts (1934, so on the cusp). The opening titles give us the sense it’s going to be a rip-roaring historical melodrama, but it’s much stranger than that — it’s a broad farce whose main jokes are about torture, murder and mutilation or the threat thereof. It stars two actors who worked well for La Cava in more conducive material, arch-ditherer Frank Morgan (THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH) and Constance Bennett (BED OF ROSES) plus a third, Fredric March, who one doesn’t associate with this sort of material at all. Wait, WHAT sort of material? The murder, torture and mutilation farce genre?

It’s a Fox picture, under Zanuck, and it makes sense to consider it as a similar kind of thing to that indefensible, stomach-turning “romp” THE BOWERY, only projected further back into the past. Portraying terrible historical events “light-heartedly” — with no moral attitude whatsoever, no matter how ghastly things get. As when Morgan, wooing artist’s model Fay Wray, tells her not to worry about the servants overhearing as he’s had them all deafened so he can enjoy privacy and service at the same time.

La Cava certainly had a dark sense of humour and willingness to disquieten his audience — the horrible ending of THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH proves that (Lee Tracy slowly makes a fist at a terrified Lupe Velez as the Wedding March plays us out). But Zanuck may be more relevant here, his output at Warners having shown a similarly carnivalesque attitude to social horrors. We can attribute the rambunctious tone of THE BOWERY to director Raoul Walsh (“Walsh’s idea of light comedy is to burn down a whorehouse”) but Zanuck oversaw that one too (and Fay Wray was in both, come to think of it).

Jessie Ralph (DOUBLE WEDDING) plays Wray’s mother, mocked for having whiskers. Louis “the walking fontanelle” Calhern looks suave and saturnine in whiskers of his own. The only sense of the Code coming into effect, amid all the talk of men having hot eggs placed in their armpits, is that nobody ever actually gets laid, not even during the darkened lull betwixt fade-out and fade-in: March and Morgan both chase Wray, Bennett chases March, nobody is sympathetic and there’s no reason to care. But Morgan gets laughs just by breaking off his sentences, and it’s amusing to see Fay play dumb (and brunette!).

Also: ugly at heart, it’s bee-yoo-tee-ful on the surface.