Monday, April 19, 2010

Like a gate

When we think of musicals of Classical Hollywood, we go right to Meet Me In St. Louis, Singin' In The Rain and others now recognized as classics. For moviegoers of the 30s, 40s and 50s, a "musical" was as likely to be a melange of vaudeville like Swing Parade (1946). (Side note: All sources, including the Internet Movie Database and the Maltin Guide refer to this film as Swing Parade of 1946, but the onscreen title is simply Swing Parade.) The video above contains what is probably the highlight, Louis Jordan and the Tympany Five performing their hit "Caledonia."

Forget movies a minute, let me talk about the amazing Louis Jordan. This man is the missing link between big-band swing and early rock-and-roll. Where most small jazz groups of the era such as the John Kirby Sextet or the Nat King Cole Trio embraced their "smallness" and offered tight, intimate and very hip swing to their nightclub audiences, Jordan took all the energy and swagger of a 16-piece ballroom orchestra and somehow distilled all that into groups of 6 to 8 players. (He always called his group "The Tympany Five" no matter how many were in it.) And where others were sophisticated, Louis swung like a demon. One of the keys to this was focusing almost exclusively on the blues and blues-related bop. There were blues-oriented big bands. Count Basie, Chick Webb, Charlie Barnett and Woody Herman all had a solid base in the blues (and never discount Duke Ellington's band, which could play anything, but really knew their blues).

Over time, he developed a way of playing the blues with a shuffle beat under the vocal, which turns into a fierce backbeat in the instrumental, dance-0riented part of the song. The result is the roots of rhythm-and-blues, stemming from a fusion of big band and blues. The only thing Chuck Berry had to do was lose some of the horns (he occasionally retained the saxophone), drop the shuffle beat in favor of the backbeat and put his guitar work front and center. Big band to rock and roll in two quick steps and Louis Jordan is that middle step.

You can see Louis at the top of Swing Parade singing and playing "Don't You Worry About My Mule" and at about the 47-minute mark singing "Caledonia" (as in the clip above). Neither he nor singer Connee Boswell have any role in the movie other than to show up and perform a couple of tunes. The story is as follows: Phil Regan wants to open a nightclub in a property owned by his rich industrialist father. His father wants to serve a notice of eviction. That's it, that's the plot. The nightclub provides an excuse for a lot of numbers by Regan and Will Osborne's orchestra and about eight dancers who pop in and out. Actually, none of the tunes (which are a mixture of old and new) are bad, which is more than you can say for most musicals. There's a bit of dancing, including a bizarre moment in which star Gale Storm (yes, that's her name and she had two TV series of her own in the 1950s) pulls a random bespectacled audience member from his seat and they proceed to do a huge complex dance number together. There is no reason for this, but it's really fun.

Groovy as all this is, the only reason such a strange thing is likely to be unearthed at all (other than for the clip above) is the presence of the Three Stooges, who are moonlighting from their cheap Columbia shorts to this even cheaper Monogram feature. (Monogram was known for making features for less than $50,000 at a time when the average picture cost about $400,000.) I sought out this film because of seeing Dancing Lady a little while back, and it led me to wonder what they were like in other feature films. (Until the 1960s, when they were old and over-the-hill, the Stooges never starred in a feature of their own, but appeared strictly as comedy relief for others.) Unlike many raucous comics, the Stooges are rather good as supporting characters who do what they can to help the young lovers get together. In their salad days, MGM made the Marx Brothers do the same thing, and they always looked uncomfortable, as did Laurel & Hardy in their terrible 40s films for Fox. But the Stooges always seem to welcome a chance to stop hitting each other and be nice to other people. Moe was always excessively ingratiating to outside parties, and Curly and Larry's characters seemed genuinely nice.

So if you want to watch this movie just for Stooges, here's where you'll find them:
At approximately 3 minutes in, they're introduced, and return at about 10 minutes. There follows an incredible sequence in which Gail Storm, who has been tossed out by her landlady and is being allowed to stay in a spare room in the nightclub thinks that Phil Regan is preparing to join her in bed. She reluctantly gets into the pajamas being loaned to her, and then (at 24 minutes) in, passes out when the Three Stooges enter, all in nightshirts. I can't believe this gag got by the censors! (They were not the first comics to attempt a group sex joke--at the end of Horse Feathers, all four Marx Brothers marry Thelma Todd. That would have been the tiredest woman in the world!).

At 35 minutes in, Moe and Ed Brophy engage in a variation of the burlesque chestnut "Mustard"--this time with Roast Beef. At 51 minutes they begin a sequence of plumbing hi-jinks, with a pale echo of "A Plumbin' We Will Go." At 1:10 the Stooges appear in top hats and tails to join the company in a big finale.

The intricate plot described above is resolved in the space of about 45 seconds at around 1:05. Then, for no good reason, a kid called Windy Cook makes his one and only film appearance (according to the Internet Movie Database) as a busboy who can do Michael Winslow's sound-effects act from the Police Academy movies.

That's it. Compelling, no. Coherent, no. But you've spent an hour-and-a-quarter a lot worse ways in your life than sitting through Swing Parade.

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