Not the Product as Advertised: the Hollywood Musical Adaptation

downloadNot the Product as Advertised: the Hollywood Musical Adaptation

Having once written a diatribe against “revivals” that are no such thing, I began to  consider how Hollywood treated some of our Broadway musicals in the past. Here the early record is even more lamentable.

When Hollywood found it could speak in the late 1920s, it seemed natural to turn out musicals. And musicals came in two varieties: those that already existed as stage plays and those that had to be created entirely for the films. When it came to the former, the title the audience saw flashed on the screen often bore little resemblance to the show they might or might not have seen on the stage.

download (8)Among the first musicals to be “adapted” for the screen was the 1926 “The Desert Song” with a book and lyrics by Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II and music by Sigmund Romberg. Only three years later it became a film with John Boles, Carlotta King and Myrna Loy and kept almost all the great songs from that score. It appeared again in 1944, updated to bring in Nazis; but I cannot find any record of what songs were retained. A more familiar version appeared in 1953 with Gordon MacRae and Kathryn Grayson and again kept most of the score. So “The Desert Song” did not do too badly at least two out of three times.

On the other hand, “Rose-Marie” certainly underwent several changes. The 1924 production had book and lyrics by the same two who gave us “Desert Song,” while the score was shared between Rudolf Friml and Herbert Stothart. In 1928, it showed up as a vehicle for Joan Crawford (!) with background music but no singing. It is the 1936 film with Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald that is THE “Rose-Marie” for thousands. Casting MacDonald led to changing the title character from a backwoods singer to a Canadian opera star, while the plot was twisted to make Eddy the Mounty her love interest. A few songs were kept, others by different composers were added, and some Puccini and Gounod were jammed in for Jeanette to show off. And in non-singing roles are James Stewart as the brother and David Niven (you will have to keep from blinking to catch him).

downloadIn 1954, this musical appeared yet again, in Cinemascope no less, with Howard Keel, Fernando Lamas, Ann Blyth, and Burt Lahr. Again only a few songs were kept, but Friml himself was called upon to write some new melodies to lyrics by Paul Francis Webster; while two others supplied Lahr with an hilarious lament called “The Mounty Who Never Got His Man.” (And let us not forget that fabulous spoof of this musical and all the others like it, “Little Mary Sunshine”!)

So with three musical films of “Rose-Marie,” we still do not have the version that lasted 557 performances in its original run. “The product as advertised” strikes again!

51P17QNDXEL._AA160_Of course there were times when no one really expected to see what the title promises. When “The Bohemian Girl” came out in 1936 with a certain comic team, we all knew that the Balfe original would rest on its Laurels nor would any one be so Hardy as to complain. Two songs and one chorus were kept (one being, of course, “I Dreamed I Dwelt in Marble Halls”) and the plot bore only the most fleeting resemblance to the original. (With Ollie married to Mae Bush, how could it be otherwise?)

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“Babes in Toyland” was given the alternate title of “March of the Wooden Soldiers”

The same goes for the Laurel & Hardy vehicle “Babes in Toyland,” which managed to keep several of the songs to be warbled by Felix Knight and Charlotte Henry in the 1934 vocal style. The unfortunate Disney remake in 1961 was pronounced “dismal” by the critics, even with such high-toned singers as Tommy Sands and Annette Funicello! But by that date, how many in the audience really knew the original score?

Typical Hollywood disdain was shed upon the Rodgers and Hart “On Your Toes.” When it opened in 1936 on Broadway, it stunned audiences with its two integrated ballets, the second of which is the immortal “Slaughter on 10th Avenue,” and the hit song “There’s a Small Hotel.” Its stars included Ray Bolger, Tamara Geva and 31MsGdteLeL._AA160_Monty Wooly. Ironically, this show had been offered as a film for Fred Astaire, who waltzed out because he would not have had the chance to wear his top hat and tails! When the 1939 film came out, audiences saw a different plot, heard snatches from one of the ballets that was dropped from the film, enjoyed only three of the many songs, and the rest was pretty dull. Eddie Albert was no Astaire.

51KHnklpSTL._PI_PJStripe-HD-Only-500px,TopLeft,0,0_AA160_Soon things got a bit better with fairly faithful screen adaptations of “Oklahoma,” “Carousel,” “My Fair Lady,” “How to Succeed in Business,” and too many others to list here. More recent is “Chicago,” which presents other problems but certainly remains fairly close to what people saw on Broadway.

To end with a trivia question, can you name a Cole Porter Broadway hit that retained only one song in the film version?

The Rooney and Garland Musicals: Great Casts, Weak Plots

The Rooney and Garland MusicalsIMG_20150615_0001: Great Casts, Weak Plots

“Great cast, lousy plot.”  (A criticism of the phone directory.)

When sound came to Hollywood, Warner Bros. staked a lot of money and most of their reputation on a system called Vitaphone. It consisted of a large disc on which were recorded songs and musical numbers. This disc was hooked up to the projector of a theatre so that the singers on the screen would be in perfect synchronization with the sound on the recording.

Of course, everything that could go wrong—and there were lots that could—did go wrong. The wrong discs were sent to the theatres, the discs skipped or got stuck so that the entire rest of the film would be out of synchronization. (Remember that happening in the film “Singin’ in the Rain”?)

download (1)However, “The Jazz Singer” convinced the public that talkies, especially musicals, were here to stay; and the other studios had to go along but with a new sound system that had the sound on the film itself. After several years of horrible musicals, theatres had to put up signs that the featured film was NOT a musical to draw customers back into the dark.

Still, musicals continued to be made and among the most popular of them were those starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. Four of their most popular efforts can now be seen in a Warner Bros. DVD boxed set of the “Mickey Rooney & Judy Garland Collection.” For starters, there are four discs: “Babes in Arms” (1939), “Strike Up the Band” (1940), “Babes on Broadway” (1941), and “Girl Crazy” (1943). The first three were directed by Busby Berkeley, the fourth partly directed by him.

These four films are perfect examples of everything that was bad about most musicals made since the coming of sound.

download (2)“Babes in Arms” boasts only two Rodgers and Hart songs from the original, while the music to a third is heard only as an ironic comment on one of the characters. It follows the original concept, if not the entire plot, of a group of youngsters wanting to put on a show to prove their worth. “Where or when” is the best song in the score and the contributions of other composers and lyricists are adequate to good. (MGM thought the Hart lyrics to the other songs were “too sophisticated” for American audiences. Sigh.)

download (3)“Strike Up the Band” retains only the title and title song of the Gershwin original. It is concerned with—surprise!—a group of youngsters wanting to make their school band good enough to win a competition set up by Paul Whiteman. A memorable sequence has an animated tableful of fruits playing band music. The rest is predicatable.

I never liked Rooney in these two films. He was undoubtedly multi-talented but his delivery was too manic for my tastes. He plays, however, the obligatory sentimental scenes with conviction, no small feat given the soapy dialogue. Garland is like Myrna Loy to the overacting William Powell. She plays the “plain” girl in these first two films, finding a rival in the blonde dancer/contortionist June Preisser.

download (4)“Babes on Broadway” gives Garland no female rival in a plot that has—(can you guess?)—a group of youngsters wanting to put on a show. (MGM really had a very low opinion of the public’s taste. As long as they gave it Rooney and Garland with impossibly overblown production numbers, who cared about plots?)

“Girl Crazy” is leaps better. It actually keeps seven songs from the original play; and where other songs are interpolated, they are all by Gershwin. The plot is sketchily that of the original: a New York playboy goes west and has to—sorry—put on a show to help out the local college. Garland is gorgeous in the role originally played on stage by a teenaged Ginger Rogers, and the songs (though seldom sung in their original context) are fabulous. (Look for a download (5)brief appearance by June Allyson as a nightclub singer.)

MGM has done its best to make these four films attractive by adding extra items. Each of the four films is followed by several bonus features. The first and last films have excellent, highly informative optional narrations by John Fricke. They all have vintage cartoon and shorts to give that Saturday Afternoon at the Movies feel.

There is a hard cover booklet giving a history of the films, along with the casts and trackings. With the book is yet a fifth DVD which holds an interview with Mickey Rooney, a compilation of 22 Garland songs from several of her films, and 10 trailers for Rooney and Garland films. There is even a boxed collection of stills taken at off-moments during the shooting of the four films.

What a glorious packaging for the same plot being used four times! Yet, in a way, the studio was correct. If the public accepted predictable plots, why bother to give them better ones? You pays your money and … so on.