Confession: I have a man crush on 1930s crooner Dick Powell.
Although he was pushing 30 when he made his film debut for Warner Bros., Powell seemed perpetually boyish and unspoiled by the harsh realities of Depression Era adulthood. In a series of peppy movie musicals beginning with 42nd Street (1933), the Arkansas native was the face of New Deal optimism – the sunny side alternative to the Warner tough guys who roamed the Lot with a cynical sneer and a smoking gun (before the Motion Picture Production Code disarmed them in a manner apparently unimaginable to today’s politicians).
I particularly love the delightfully trippy, “backstage” musicals Powell made with legendary choreographer Busby Berkeley during this period. In a span of 24 months between March of 1933 and March of 1935, Warner Bros. released six Powell/Berkeley collaborations, four featuring tap dancer Ruby Keeler – the real life Mrs. Al Jolson – as leading lady. While many of these films have become iconic, their redundant storytelling structures and supporting cast members make them difficult to keep straight in my movie-addled brain. If I have that problem today, I can only imagine how Powell must have felt. So it may have been a relief when Jack Warner lent his popular leading man to Darryl F. Zanuck’s Twentieth Century Pictures for a very different type of musical comedy: Thanks A Million.
Like a cross between Berkeley’s Gold Diggers of 1933 and Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, zested with a dash of Sturges’ Hail the Conquering Hero, Roy Del Ruth’s Thanks A Million (1935) is a perfectly paced political satire that doubles as a rollicking, “show within a show” musical comedy revue. And this rarely seen gem is finally making its DVD debut, courtesy of the Fox Cinema Archives manufacture-on-demand service.
An early release of the newly formed 20th Century-Fox Film Corporation (founded after Twentieth and Fox officially merged in May of 1935), Thanks A Million is a product of four creative artists who had previously been known for their work at Warner’s: Powell; Zanuck, who wrote the story upon which the film is based, and was formerly head of production at WB; Del Ruth, director of two dozen WB/First National releases between 1929 and 1934; and Three on a Match bad girl Ann Dvorak, demonstrating here that she was also a talented trouper, with cutely croon-y vocals and more-than-competent tap dancer.
While it is, in many ways, like a Warner Bros. film released by Fox, Thanks A Million is also a delightfully sharp-tongued alternative to Powell’s past efforts. Much of the credit for that goes to screenwriter Nunnally Johnson, a future Oscar nominee for The Grapes of Wrath (1940). After just a handful of F.D.R.’s Fireside Chats, Johnson’s prescient script already foresaw the growing power of broadcast media in the political process, with all sides gaming the airwaves to achieve their goals.
In Thanks A Million, Eric Land (Powell) is a young Broadway wannabe traveling with a musical troupe managed by the cigar-chomping Ned Lyman (Fred Allen in the Ned Sparks role). Credited as “Radio’s Fred Allen,” the acerbic comedian does a surprisingly good job of transposing his fast-talking huckster on-air persona to the screen in his first major film role. Dvorak plays hoofer Sally Mason (the Ruby Keeler part) and Patsy Kelly, a Vaudeville performer who got her break in a series of Hal Roach-produced short comedies, plays Phoebe Mason, the other half of the sister act (think Joan Blondell sass with Aline MacMahon deadpan).
When the band’s bus stops in a small, upstate New York town during a rainstorm, Ned the manager seeks shelter in a political rally for eternally inebriated gubernatorial candidate Judge A. Darius Culliman (Raymond Walburn). After the judge sedates the crowd with his windy stump speech, Ned offers his musical troupe as warm-up entertainment. The political bosses love the idea, Ned tears up the bus tickets to the Big Apple, and Eric, Sally, Phoebe and the other band members become part of what the papers dub “The Jazz Campaign.”
Almost immediately there’s a catch: audiences at the rallies want more of the handsome singer and less of the portly politician. The bosses agree and soon Eric is “the Singing Candidate,” charming audiences around the state with his four-plank platform: honesty, integrity, no long speeches, and a song at every campaign stop. It’s a recipe designed to win an election, and the powerbrokers – desperate for a puppet they can control – know it. But so does Eric, who plots to parlay his counterfeit candidacy into a contract on the radio.
Along the way, Eric catches the eye of Kay (Margaret Irving), the bored wife of Mr. Kruger (Alan Dinehart), the blustery chairman of the Commonwealth Party. In a sequence that feels very Pre-Code for 1935, Mrs. Kruger lures Eric to her home and unapologetically propositions him while her husband is away on business. Eric rejects her with dismissive, smirking sarcasm in a scene that demonstrates one of the key differences between Thanks A Million and a typical Warner Bros. musical of the era. Powell usually portrays the wide-eyed, guileless naïf, just trying to sing his songs and get his girl. Here, he’s more pragmatic and nuanced, with some decidedly non-youthful regret.
“I swore I’d never come back to this berg until I had the world by the tail,” he tells Sally early in the film. “(But now I’m) no better off than I was and probably a little worse.”
Powell’s persona is also sharpened by his performance of “The Square Deal Party,” a raucously staged, smartly satirical musical number sung to the tune of “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Powell in a top hat and bushy, Raymond Walburn-esque mustache takes the lead, supported by a quartet called the Yacht Club Boys (as the other band members). Patsy Kelly adds some vocals and Ann Dvorak beats a marching band drum as most of the cast parades hilariously around a hotel room singing in unison.
“Join the Square Deal Party and if you are a smarty you’ll find out that life begins when we’re elected! We’ll absorb your last year’s loses and get better odds on horses and we’ll push the market up twice a day!” they chant. “Happy days are here again to stay! If you elect us on Election Day!”
This song, with lyrics by Gus Kahn and hilarious staging by Del Ruth, holds its own with the best Groucho Marx anti-establishment anthems, like “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It” from Horse Feathers and “The Country’s Going to War” from Duck Soup, both by Burt Kalmar and Harry Ruby. Like Groucho, Thanks A Million is an equally opportunity offender. Johnson’s script takes no sides in the political debate; both (fictional) parties – the Commonwealth and the People’s Party – are targets for derision, with no Capra-style mea culpa from the bad guys at the end. The party bosses are crooks, the candidates are opportunists, and the voters have more interest in style than substance. Some things never change.
Powell here reminds me of a young Ronald Reagan with his “aw shucks, I’m not a politician” approach, charming the voters with what seems like straight talk but is really just another gimmick. This makes Eric’s Jefferson Smith-style takedown of the political machine at the end so startling. It’s an unforgiving rebuke to machine politics, and it presages the cold-as-ice toughness Powell would demonstrate in his noir films of the late 1940s and early ‘50s.
There’s a lot to like in Thanks A Million. The six original songs by Arthur Johnson and Gus Kahn are infectious, particularly the title track, which became a popular standard. As in innumerable “backstage” musicals, director Del Ruth manages a large supporting cast, interwoven plots, and multiple song and dance numbers. But unlike in the Berkeley musicals, the songs here are integrated throughout the 87-minute running time, rather than bunched up at the end in a final “putting on a show” sequence. Here, the musical sequences propel the plot, rather then halt it. That’s a nice change.
Another nice change is that Fox has finally let this revelation out of the vaults. I have no doubt that Thanks A Million, had it been produced by Warner Bros. and the beneficiary of multiple home video releases and TCM airings, would be much loved today by classic film fans. Thankfully, the transfer released by Fox Cinema Archives looks and sounds great, and the film is primed for rediscovery.
Even if you’re not harboring a secret crush for Dick Powell, Thanks A Million is worth your vote.