This one will probably be of interest only to fans of the early talkies. Because it is made so early in the talking picture era, it suffers from dialogue overload, which results in an over-long run time of 103 minutes that could have easily shed 30 minutes without anyone objecting or even noticing. The main thing that harms this film is that it was originally shot completely in two-strip Technicolor, but only the black and white prints made for television remain. As a result you have lots of chorus girls parading around in elaborate gowns, pausing for the audience to get an eyeful, and then moving on. In black and white these scenes are just dull and stagnant, but if you've ever seen the same thing in the remaining color reels of "Gold Diggers of Broadway" from the same year, you realize how truly spectacular this must have looked to 1929 audiences. Also, Alan Crosland's sharp visual style includes lots of cross-cutting so that you don't have the claustrophobic static effect that you normally get from Vitaphoned films whose camera booths could not move an inch.
It is a show within a show, the film being the story of one make-or-break night in the life of "The Phantom Sweetheart" and its cast, as it lumbers towards Broadway. You get to see "The Phantom Sweetheart" play out in its long-winded entirety, which actually contains the high-points of the film. These include two numbers by Ethel Waters as herself performing "Birmingham Bertha" and "Am I Blue" as well as the eccentric dancing and acrobatics of Joe E. Brown. Ms. Waters has no dialogue in the film, and for that matter her excellent numbers have absolutely nothing to do with the plot of "The Phantom Sweetheart", which is an inane tale of a young man who comes home from a long trip to marry his girl, but falls for a mysterious nymph of the woods and has to decide whether to go with this surreal and beckoning creature, or stay with the girl to whom he is betrothed. Harold (Arthur Lake), the double-minded young star of the Phantom Sweetheart, is as annoying and whiny on stage as he is backstage.
Backstage, the center of attention is Kitty (Sally O'Neill), an usher with the show who is in love with the other usher and whose father has invested everything he has in the world with the show. Betty Compson, the most overworked actress of 1929, is the "phantom sweetheart" and star of the show who threatens not to go on if she isn't paid her back wages. This film is full of performers who are either the victims of the transition to sound or the product of failed Warner Brothers experiments with stage performers. Thus, you'll likely not recognize 80% of the cast. For example, Sally O'Neill had been making a good career in films in the late silent era. Unfortunately, in reality she was saddled with a heavy New Jersey accent that is compensated for in this film by making her overly-sweet. A little bit of cute sweetness would be a good thing, but since she is basically the female lead here, I was ready to shoot an arrow through her forehead at the film's half-way point just to put an end to her bubbly babble.
So watch it for the wonderful Ethel Waters as herself, for Joe E. Brown and his well delivered smart comments and acrobatics, and for the infancy of the urban working-class banter that will become Warner Brothers stock and trade during the early 30's.
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