British actress Naomie Harris has been nominated for an Oscar for her role as a crack-addicted mother in the 2016 indie drama Moonlight. "No Small Parts" takes a look at some other roles she's played in her career.
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ON WITH THE SHOW (Warner Brothers, 1929), directed by Alan Crosland, is the studio's contribution to MGM's box office hit, THE Broadway MELODY. Unlike other backstage musicals from that era, this one consists of no dress rehearsals nor pre-show preparations. It skips all that in favor of what's presented on opening night at the Wallace Theater somewhere in New Jersey. The opening title card sums it up best, "For weeks, 'The Phantom Sweetheart' troupe has staggered through the rough tank towns toward distant Broadway It's pathway strewn with unpaid bills. Tonight would tell the tale, Broadway or Bust." And Broadway or Bust it is. In fact, an odd mixture of two stories for the price of one. The first being the behind the scenes plot development revolving around the theatrical troupe and staff. Instead of the usual unrelated musical numbers most commonly found in Hollywood back-stagers, the second story titled "The Phantom Sweetheart," is set to song and dance on a Southern plantation where a young man (Arthur Lake) falls in love with a veiled goddess (Betty Compson) prior to his wedding day. Not seen in its entirety, the stage production is interrupted with inter-cuts of the backstage story.
In spite of Lake and Compson heading the cast, their scenes, along with others, are secondary. There are no characters who actually dominate the story from start to finish, but an assortment of those coming in and out whenever their scenes allow. The center of attention really belongs to the least likely pair of Jimmy (William Bakewell), the head usher, and his girlfriend, Kitty (Sally O'Neil), a coat room girl, whom Jimmy feels has the "stuff" to make it on Broadway After the rise of the curtain where the actors perform to a full house, situations occur, all involving money. Jerry (Sam Hardy), the producer, owes Sam Bloom (Purnell B. Pratt) unpaid bills and keeps him from taking back his scenery or taking what's owed him from the box office cash receipts; Willie Durant (Wheelar Oakman), the show's backer, refuses to guarantee capital income and later forces himself on Kitty; Harold Astor (Lake), the juvenile leading man in need of cash to give to his mother, constantly bickering about scene stealing with fellow comedian Joe Beaton (Joe E. Brown); and leading lady Nita French (Compson), refusing to continue her performance unless she receives the $400 due her. The very moment of her strike, the box office gets held up by a mysterious figure holding a gun. All this, and opening night, too, but the show must go on, Broadway or bust.
With score composed by Harry Akst and Grant Clarke, the musical program is as follows: "Welcome Home" (sung by Henry Fink); "Let Me Have My Dreams" (sung by Betty Compson); "Am I Blue?" (sung by Ethel Waters); "Lift the Tulips in Your Two Lips" (sung by Fink and Josephine Houston, danced by the Four Covans); "Let Me Have My Dreams" (reprise by Compson); specialty dance solo number (Joe E. Brown); "In The Land of Let's Pretend" (sung by chorus); "Don't It Mean a Thing to You" (sung by Josephine Houston and Arthur Lake); "Let Me Have My Dreams" (sung by Sally O'Neil); "Birmingham Bertha" (sung by Ethel Waters); "Wedding Day" (sung by Fink, Lake and Houston); and Finale (entire cast).
Other members of the cast consist of Louise Fazenda as Sarah Fogerty, an eccentric comedienne who supplies offstage laughter; Thomas Jefferson (not the third U.S.President) as "Dad", the stage doorman; Lee Moran and Harry Gribbon as stage hands, Pete and Ike, along with specialty acts by the Fairbanks Twins and an assortment of black entertainers highlighted by a Ethel Waters, in her movie debut, taking center stage with her fine rendition of the film's most notable song, "Am I Blue?" Her solo effort, along with "Birmingham Bertha" opposite Charlie Bubbles, both unrelated to the theatrical story, are highlights, along with a lively but unmemorable score to make up for its dull stretches at the midway point. The staging by Larry Ceballos is adequate, not spectacular, yet steps towards the right direction compared to 1929 stage musicals consisting of cart wheel dancing and acrobatics.
Crosland, who made history directing THE JAZZ SINGER (1927), the "first talkie," improves with techniques revolving around camera movement with angles taken from different parts of the stage, above and beyond spiral staircases as chorus girls rush down to meet their curtain call, and silhouette image of musical conductor in orchestra pit waving his stick in front of the rising curtain or stage performance. What's lacking is further use of close-ups of principal players and dancers, something that would be common place in future musicals to come. It's also fun going back in time watching antiques like this and listening to catch phrases of the day of "Go sit on a tack," or corny dialog recited by Sam Hardy, "There are only a few of you sweet kids left," or "Go out and give them everything you got." For 1929, ON WITH THE SHOW made cinema history for being the first musical filmed entirely in color. Current prints that have circulated either in revival theaters of the 1970s and 80s, later on cable television (TNT in February 1991 as part of a tribute to Black History Month) and on Turner Classic Movies, are currently in black and white. To date, color prints are presumed lost. Fortunately the movie survives, considering how many early talkies have been lost due to neglect or decay.
Its length of 103 minutes might be a bit long, but I cannot help but feel its initial theatrical showing was a bit longer considering a slight interruption of the underscoring after the opening cast credits. And now, on with the show. (***)
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