Musical Oddities From the Warner Archive

Two forgotten musicals, a neglected homage, and The Cars, too.
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While Friedrich Nietzsche is perhaps best known today by underread Facebook users as the guy who said "Without music, life would be a mistake," the general idea of such an idiom makes a great deal of sense. That said, however, the combination of music and film has resulted in a venerable slew of items - ranging from movie musicals for the big screen to music videos for television - being produced and quickly forgotten about throughout the better part of an entire century. Prior to television becoming the norm for entertainment, wherein variety shows (another casualty of the passing of tastes and the times) reigned supreme, and the advent of the Internet (wherein complete and utter crap took over), movie musicals big and small were produced to entertain the well-dressed masses. Well-dressed masses who, apparently, were much easier to entertain then than the scantily-dressed, inebriated individuals who spend their wasted lives grinding away in the deafening clubs of today's garish nighttime world. But I digress.

And it is with two such items that we begin this journey through an assortment of music-related releases from the Warner Archive Collection: a double feature of RKO Radio Picture productions from the 1940s, The Mayor of 44th Street / Radio Stars on Parade.

Based (and presumably loosely, at that) on a magazine article from the time, The Mayor of 44th Street - a 1942 B musical offering from veteran director Alfred E. Green (The Jolson Story) - is one of several vehicles to star George Murphy, one of many Republican performers who decided to become a politician later in life. Here, however, Murphy is presented as a genuinely-likeable fellow. Though Joe Jonathan (Murphy) graduated with honors from Thug University (and holds a bachelor's degree in tap dancing, which he rarely recognizes in his own starring vehicle here, oddly enough), he has gone on to build a successful entertainment enterprise in the city consisting of several nightclubs that range from two-bit joints to high-class lakeside establishments. Everyone loves Joe, from the public to his staff, and from the cop who helped set him straight (William Gargan) and Joe's faithful, madly-in-love-with-him assistant (Anne Shirley).

When a recent wave of musical protection racketeers (really) led by a young upstart named Bitz (an impressively-tone Rex Downing, whose workout scenes with Murphy not only expect you to wonder when these two will slide down the Batpoles behind the bookcase, but can cause great speculation amongst celluloid closet conspirators) threatens Joe's business, he does what any good guy would do: he hires the kid as an assistant - seeing a bit of his younger self in the lad, and hoping to guide him in the right direction before it's too late. Alas, "too late" comes far too soon when Joe's old gangster partner Ed Kirby (veteran heavy Richard Barthelmess, in his final film) comes up for parole and Joe, being the swell guy with a heart of gold he truly is, is dumb enough to give the former Mayor of 44th Street a job, too, just so the rotten hood can have a second chance (wait, this guy later became a Republican senator?!). It isn't long before Kirby is up to his old tricks, naturally, taking the impressionable Bitz under his wing in the process. Will things work out for the best?

Well, when you stop to take into consideration that this is a lighthearted musical, you can pretty much guarantee it will. In fact, you might even be able to set your watch to the pace of the film, which is as routine as can be, and amazingly enough was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song (and which they lost to thanks to some ditty called "White Christmas"). Singer Joan Merrill pops up every now and again to gently belt out a tune, Freddy Martin appears as himself (big deal today, right?), and funnyfolk Millard Mitchell and Mary Wickes play the intended comic relief in this now-anonymous entry into the genre, which the Warner Archive knew probably wouldn't fare well as a solo title, so they wisely paired it up with an equally forgotten musical feature, 1945's Radio Stars on Parade.

First off, kids, if you see the words "On Parade" in any photoplay from this period in time - whether it be a short or a feature-length film - you can rest assure that any attempt at a plot contained within the title was only added as an afterthought, and that the basic premise for such a project was to highlight some performers that either were popular at the time, or that the backing studio hoped would become popular as a result of appearing therein. In this instance, it's the latter - and our starring roles here are filled by RKO's budget Abbott and Costello, the oh-so-interesting pairing of Wally Brown and Alan Carney (who are best remembered today by B horror movie buffs for appearing in Zombies on Broadway with Bela Lugosi). Here, the pair play a couple of general nobodies who wind up filling in for a fleeing talent agent (who bails to Mexico on account of excessive gambling debts) and land themselves a new starlet in the process, as played by Frances Langford.

But these ever-bantering hapless heroes also wind up getting in some hot water, too - as Frances' old mobster boss (Sheldon Leonard, who started out as a heavy on film, but later produced some of TV's biggest hits throughout the '50s and '60s) follows her out to California from Chicago to reclaim what he believes is his property. Our heroine, naturally, has other ideas, and has promised her hand (and the rest of her) to a young Army guy, who is played by none other than a young Hideous Sun Demon himself, Mr. Robert Clarke. Ironically enough, most of the radio stars on parade here were best known for their film and television work, including Ralph Edwards, Skinnay Ennis (an early John Hannah prototype, who choked to death on a bone whilst dining in the early '60s - something I thought you should know for some reason), and the great Don Wilson (whose name is immediately followed by Jack Benny's voice saying "Oh, Don!" every time I see or hear it).

A highlight for me was a number performed by a forgotten foursome called The Town Criers (who are even more obscure now than the Australian group from the '60s of the same name), which featured two of the most remarkably beautiful sisters ever committed to film. (And this act went where, exactly?) Both of these movies are presented on the barebones Warner Archive Double Feature disc unrestored, and show a bit of print damage here and there. Radio Stars on Parade suffers the most damage overall, but it's nice to actually see these neglected oddities from a bygone age presented in any way, shape, or form, so there's no complaining to be had from me here. And speaking of oddities that have been neglected over time, this leads me to the next release here, 1981's Pennies from Heaven.

Adapted by Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective) from his earlier BBC series of the same name, Pennies from Heaven is, essentially, two hours of solidly-constructed, well-choreographed misery. Set in the 1930s, when the Great Depression was still upon us, this odd take on the classic movie musical casts a still green Steve Martin (in his first dramatic role in this, his second film) as Arthur, a sheet music salesman (such entities used to exist) in Chicago who dreams of a life that's more like the lyrics to the popular songs he sells. He also dreams of sex a lot, which is something he is unable to get from his wife (Jessica Harper) at home, so when Fate sends along a young temptress school teacher (Bernadette Peters) with an as-yet-to-be-discovered wild side, Arthur finally gets his chance to make at least one dream come true.

Abundant with spectacular dance numbers and classic songs from the era (which our performers lip-synch to), Pennies from Heaven ultimately failed to make a lasting, favorable impression on 99% of audiences and critics when was first released in 1981, wherein the bulk of moviegoers were expecting another comedy from Steve Martin (little known factoid: Martin declined a chance to star in Raiders of the Lost Ark to do this project instead), and were truly not ready for a tale as artistic and emotional as this. (Bill Murray and Robin Williams also had similar problems with their respective dramatic debuts in The Razor's Edge and Seize the Day in the mid '80s.) Alas, the movie bombed, but has gone on to become a cult classic among less-cult-like film enthusiasts. Highlights of the production include gorgeous photography by the late great Gordon Willis, set design by Ken Adam, solid direction by Herbert Ross, an amazing tribute to Astaire and Rogers by Martin and Peters, and a jaw-dropping striptease by a young Christopher Walken set to Cole Porter's "Let's Misbehave".

Previously released on DVD by Warner Brothers, Pennies from Heaven gets a Manufactured On Demand re-issue(the previous disc is now out of print) from the Warner Archive, which ports over the same audio/video options as before (an anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer, 2.0 English audio, subtitles in English, French, and Spanish) as well as special features. The first extra is an audio commentary with film critic Peter Rainer (one of two critics who liked the film upon its release). The second finds Rainer as MC of a cast/crew reunion from a 20th Anniversary presentation of the film (presumably in LA: someone could have added some captions here when they first made this disc), with Martin, Harper, and assorted crew folk attending. Strangely enough,no one so much as even says Bernadette Peters' name during the entire edited-down 35-minute featurette that was recorded by an audience member.

Lastly here, we move forward just a few years to a time when a relatively new cable channel calling itself Music Television hit airwaves. Some of you may remember this time, as it was not only when MTV played music videos, but actually played music that didn't totally in every way suck. During that time, it seemed that everyone, from that still-played debut video from The Buggles to that (rightfully) forgotten thing from Dog Police, received airplay. And many of the better-known artists would separate themselves from the others by being fortunate enough to get entire music albums released on the illustrious home video formats of the time: VHS, Betamax, and Laserdisc. One such release was The Cars: Heartbreak City, which featured eight of the iconic '80s band's most famous videos, end-capped with a behind-the-scenes look at the first entry in the lot.

That first entry is "Hello Again", which was not only co-designed, co-produced, and co-directed by Andy Warhol himself, but also co-starred as the bartender of the establishment most of the short's action takes place in, wherein we meet several Warhol Factory inmates, such as Dianne Brill and a guy named John Sex, who dances with a pet snake. A young, still-undiscovered Gina Gershon is featured in the video too, which not only features topless nudity from some of its female performers, but gave The Cars' own Benjamin Orr a chance to recreate Warhol's film, "The Kiss" with one lucky lass. Additional highlights from this video album include "Magic", the powerful Orr solo "Drive" (one of my favorite karaoke songs - something else I thought you should know for some reason), "Shake It Up", "You Might Think" - which pays tribute to the ultra-crappy 1953 Z-grade sci-fi cult classic Robot Monster, and "Why Can't I Have You".

Several other videos, "Panorama" and "Heartbeat City", are pretty dull all the way around, and the MTV behind-the-scenes featurette for "Hello Again" - which interviews Warhol, co-director Don Munroe, Cars' members Ric Ocasek and Greg Hawkes, as well as several of the crazy individuals featured in the final product - concludes the 48-minute presentation. Frankly, it's great to see an old time capsule of A/V stimulation like The Cars: Heartbreak City pressed onto DVD-R for the sake of posterity if nothing else. Now if we could only get the Warner Archive Collection to give us MOD DVD-Rs of Depeche Mode's Some Great Videos, The World We Live In and Live in Hamburg, as well as The Cure's Staring at the Sea: The Images, I could finally upgrade the ever-deteriorating VHS copies I've had since the '80s. (Hint, hint, guys.)

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