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A true backstage musical (like MURDER AT THE VANITIES) that weaves the
onstage and backstage action into one plot. ON WITH THE SHOW is a tad
creaky but bad sound and hammy performances aside it was a total
A fascinating look at what 20s musicals were really like: the stage crammed with performers, long numbers, reprises of the main tunes, etc. The show within a show, THE PHANTOM SWEETHEART is a loony plantation musical that looks like a cheap rip-off of SHOW BOAT but that's of little consequence since the "real story" occurs backstage. It's a plot we've seen before and seemingly borrows from every contemporary musical yo ever saw.
But several of the performers are total standouts. Betty Compson plays the temperamental star but has little to do until the last section of the film. She has a great face, a good voice, and for some reason is a fave of mine. She's a good old "broad" with a heart of gold and is excellent in her final scenes. Joe E. Brown is also very good, although I think his eccentric dance was repeated in BRIGHT LIGHTS a few years later. Both have star quality.
Louise Fazenda has an odd role (she laughs) but is always likable. Ethel Waters is terrific singing "Am I Blue?" and "Birmingham Bertha" but is not involved in the backstage plot.
The rest of the cast doesn't come off so well. Arthur Lake is the juvenile lead, William Bakewell and Sally O'Neill are the "innocents," Sam Hardy is the producer, Wheeler Oakman is the nefarious Mr. Wallace, Lee Moran (related to Ray Bolger?) is the stage manager, and the Fairbanks Twins dance and cause trouble.
Compson has a great entrance line when heading onstage someone says something like "there's Nita French!" She turns and says, "In the flesh, baby, in the flesh!" while clutching her shear robe around her......
OK, so it's the old story about what goes on backstage in the production
Broadway musical----even to the cliché of the star getting sick and the
taking her place and becoming a big star. Many critics see this as the
42nd STREET, but this film has the period charm that only the transitional
musicals could have. Part of it is quite stagebound-----including
you probably would have seen them on the Broadway stage in the 1920's, so
don't care for very early musicals, you'd better pass on this one.
This was the film that introduced the song "Am I Blue" sung by a very young Ethel Waters, and followed by the even better "Birmingham Bertha" with black dancer John Bubbles. You should be warned that there are black dancers in the cast who wear some outrageous politically incorrect costumes---including one number where their costumes have watermelon stripes on them! And seeing Joe E. Brown as a mean comedian who constantly argues with Arthur Lake (better known as Dagwood Bumstead in the BLONDIE Series) will be something of a revelation to his fans. The film was made in the early two-strip Technicolor process, which unfortunately has yet to be found, but is still quite enjoyable in B & W. Remember, although this is a very charming transitional talkie musical, modern audiences will only see it as a horribly dated antique.
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
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. (***)
When I saw "On With the Show" on Turner Classic Movies, I was very
disappointed in the poor quality of the picture and the sound, but was
very pleased by some clever dialog, although realizing some of it was
not so clever, and I was absolutely in awe of the performance of Betty
She was not only lovely just to look at, in her big scene near the end, she stole the show.
She was more than charming -- she was adorable.
Joe E. Brown's presence in a movie is usually enough to make me skip it but here he is toned down considerably, is not so silly, and he performs an eccentric dance with a surprising athleticism. I actually liked him in "On With the Show."
Sally O'Neil was surprising. She sounded at first like some precocious child, with little-girlish voice, but when this caterpillar bursts out of her cocoon, she is a star.
One other aspect of this film is almost unique for its time: The cast is integrated. Right there on stage are black dancers with white dancers, although to be accurate there is not interaction between white and black. Still, it was a start.
Ethel Waters made what was apparently her film debut, and surely was an immediate hit since she was already a star in other media.
A 21st century viewer of "On With the Show" must consider context, remember the times in which it was made, during the changeover from silents to talkies, to be able to appreciate it fully.
There were lots of great individual talents involved, and a viewer should try to ignore the poor framing of the scenes and the poor quality of the sound, at least some of which might be because of the age or even generation of the print.
But appreciate the historicity as well as the talent, and you will enjoy "On With the Show" as much as I did.
Desperate for Broadway, the traveling troupe of The Phantom Sweetheart
must always go ON WITH THE SHOW!
Here is another very early talkie musical, full of excitement for the new medium, but bloated by too much talk, unexciting songs sung by the chorus with mostly unintelligible lyrics and an overlong running time. The plot deals with the usual frustrations & jealousies that most backstage musicals seem to find requisite.
The cast includes William Bakewell as the head usher eager to get his sweetheart, box-office girl Sally O'Neill, her chance at the Great White Way. Betty Compson plays the temperamental star and Arthur Lake the whiny young male lead. Louise Fazenda is the company's eccentric comedienne, who is given little to do but laugh at inappropriate moments.
The film does have some compensations. Rubber faced Joe E. Brown is cast as the company's brash comic and, as always, he is funny simply to look at. Best of all, the incomparable Ethel Waters is brought in to sing a couple of songs, including 'Am I Blue?' Miss Waters has no connection with the rest of the story whatsoever, but just enjoying her for a few minutes is pure pleasure.
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.
Sally O'Neil couldn't sing or dance but that didn't stop Warner's
giving her a leading role in this Technicolored song and dance fest. It
was the very first all talking, all singing, all dancing, all
Technicolored movie produced at Warners, who had dazzled audiences with
"The Jazz Singer" in 1927. All color movies were never going to work in
those early sound days, apart from the fact that colours didn't
photograph true (blues tended to turn green and people's faces
photographed pink), Technicolor needed lighting ten times as bright as
black and white photography, so the heat in the studio was always
intense. "On With the Show" was going to be the first of many Warner's
films filmed in colour but aside from the problems mentioned, by the
end of 1930 musicals were on their way out so only a few films were
made. Now only Technicolor fragments remain - the finale from "Gold
Diggers of Broadway" and "Wild Rose" from "Sally" etc.
For years "On With the Show" was famous for being the film that "42nd Street" (1933) took it's plot from but it is clear that the only thing they have in common is the "eager newcomer saves show" cliché. Still in May of 1929 audiences would have been dazzled not only by the singing and dancing but by the glorious colour as well. The plot revolves around the off stage dramas and the musical numbers of "The Phantom Sweetheart", a play beset by financial worries and stuck in a one horse town - tonight it is Broadway or bust!!!
Kitty (Sally O'Neil) a ticket seller, believes she could be "Broadway Bound" if only she was given a chance to prove herself. Jimmy (William Bakewell) the Head Usher and her sweetheart agrees. Meanwhile the cast are more concerned about their unpaid wages than "putting on a show" - most vocal is Harold (Arthur Lake) the whiney voiced juvenile, whose offstage bickering with his partner Joe (Joe E. Brown) is a running gag throughout the movie.
The musical show starts out with a rousing ensemble number "Welcome Home" -highlight is a group of spirited tap dancers. Next temperamental star Nita French (Betty Compson) "in the flesh, baby, in the flesh" sings "Let Me Have My Dreams" - it is sang constantly throughout the film. Ethel Waters is then announced by Sarah (Louise Fazenda is a standout with her wicked laugh) and Ethel's performance is timeless. She sings the magnificent "Am I Blue" and later on the wonderfully saucy "Birmingham Bertha" ("I'm a real Simple Simon, wouldn't you know - I gave him a diamond and all of my dough"!!!). The wonderful John W. Bubbles from Buck and Bubbles is the cheeky dancer. He originated the role of Sportin' Life in the 1935 production of "Porgy and Bess" and even gave tap lessons to Fred Astaire. But those two timeless classics are interspersed with some not-so-great ones - like "Lift Your Juleps to Your Two Lips", another hearty ensemble piece in which Harold as the "leading juvenile" doesn't sing or dance but stands around posturing while Joe E. Brown, who is not very funny in this film, does an eccentric dance. Jimmy suggest that maybe he can rob the box-office, that way the cast will get their wages - later on there is a real robbery and of course Jimmy is the chief suspect. The big production number is "In The Land of Let's Pretend" - it would have looked spectacular in Technicolor. It's an extremely "talkie" film and seems quite long. It is densely plotted and there are so many speeches in the last third of the film - everything has to be explained - obviously they didn't think the audience could figure it out for themselves.
When the studios found out Betty Compson was an accomplished musician her career was given a new lease of life in these singy, dancey days. Arthur Lake had the most irritating voice in films - it's hard to believe that he lasted long enough to be given his dream role of "Dagwood" at the end of the thirties. The Fairbanks Twins also provide some humour as a pair of high stepping chorus girls.
Highly Recommended for Ethel Waters.
Released in 1929, On With the Show was filmed during the transitional
period when silent films became talkies. Some films seemed little more
than a collection of vaudeville acts strung together (a tradition that
lasted, to some extent, even through the forties). Much of the acting
is over the top and overly broad, because silent film stars were
directed that way and vaudeville/stage performers have to play to the
last seat in the theater. It is precisely the fact that OWTS captures
that transitional period that makes it so interesting and so
The film is basically a presentation of a stage musical, similar to Showboat, with some backstage scenes involving characters in the stage show. In its attempt at authenticity, the camera often films too broadly, sometimes including the entire proscenium arch.
The sets for the play with the film are beautiful, even when viewed in B&W. The play is a lavish production, sometimes reminiscent of a Busby Berkley production. The action includes a motorcycle, mounted horsemen and dogs running across the stage.
In the dance numbers, we see plenty of minstrel-like troupers dancing in rows. The actual dances they perform are rather amateurish by today's standards. Only the black tap dancers display superior talents and demonstrate that tap dancing has not changed so much, fundamentally, over the years. It was already a mature art form.
A few performances had little to do with the stage play, if anything. But that seems true to the times. Most notable is Ethel Waters. who performs two enjoyable numbers that highlight her vocal talents.
Joe E. Brown is a lot of fun to watch. His comedic timing is precise in this film. He also performs a specialty dance that shows him to be a real athlete.
Three actresses play significant parts in the story. It is interesting to note their backgrounds.
Betty Compson plays Nita, the actress who portrays the Phantom Girl in the musical. Betty had a strong background in Vaudeville, where she started out as a teen violinist. She appeared in 9 films release in 1929.
Sally O'Neill plays the part of Kitty, the coat check girl who saves the play by going on stage. Sally also had a solid vaudeville background and appeared in 8 films released in 1929.
Louise Fazenda plays an actress whose sole contribution to the play is a wild, offstage laugh. Louise had a background in silent films, but made the transition to talkies. She appeared in 10 films released in 1929.
I found much of the music enjoyable. Some had silly lyrics, which was common. Consider the lyrics "Drink your julep with your two lips"--fun to hear.
In the end, OWTS is very dated and that is why it is such a hoot to watch. It captures many bits of the era's humor and preserves actual pieces of vaudeville.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"On With The Show!" is a very typical musical of its period. It
features lots of stage-bound singing and dancing--like you'd see in
films like "The Broadway Melody", "42nd Street" and "Footlight
Parade"--but even more stagy in style. And, as for the plot, again it's
pretty familiar. The show is in financial trouble and it always seems
on the verge of being shut down. And then, out of the blue, someone
robs the box office! Can these troopers manage to find the crook and
become big stars?! Well, I assume the odds are DEFINITELY in their
Historically speaking, "On With The Show!" was a pretty important film. It was the first sound film made entirely in color. BUT, there are two important caveats. First, the color was Two-Color Technicolor and even when restored to its original look, it isn't true color but tends to have red-orange and blue-green tints. Colors like yellow and tertiary colors simply aren't possible with this early process. Second, and most importantly, the only surviving print is black & white (though a minute of color was recently discovered)! How I would love to have a time machine to go back and see it in its original form (and so I could invest a few bucks in Microsoft around 1980).
The film features Arthur Lake (who gained fame in the Blondie and Dagwood films), Joe E. Brown and Betty Compson. And, although it's a small role, you get to see and hear Ethel Waters as well (and, not surprisingly, she sings her standard "Am I Blue"). Some other highlights would include Brown's really athletic and exciting dancing (I never knew he could do that!), the costumes beginning at the minute marks (and I felt sorry for the guys dressed as guards), Interesting film techniques such as rack of clothes at about 9 minutes into the film, 3/4 angles of performers (and it looks like you are in the audience watching a revue) and lots of backstage shots make it seem like you are there at the show instead of just watching a film. As for sound, it GENERALLY is very good for an early talkie. When the actors speak, they are easy to understand and clear--and not as stiff and obviously standing very near microphones like in many early sound films. But, the singing is seriously tinny and poor. It's a shame the film doesn't have captions--it would help to understand what they are singing, as I was clueless.
As for the film's watchability today, I would agree with most of the other reviewers who feel that most would probably be turned off by the film's antiquated style. Compared to musicals made just a few years later, it's VERY dated and I'd never show this film to someone who isn't familiar with the genre and who isn't open-minded. However, if like me and most of these other reviewers you DO like transitional films (early talkies), then by all means watch it. Just understand the technical problems with the film and put them in a historical context. In other words, don't blame "On With The Show!" for not being more than it is because it's among the film musicals and so much we later came to expect just hadn't been developed yet. The only thing I can't forgive is the INCREDIBLY talky ending. Wow...she just won't shut up and I couldn't wait for the film to end! It's a shame, as up until then I was rather impressed by the movie.
By the way, get a load of Calvinnme's review and his comments about Sally O'Neill! I couldn't agree more--and I'll buy the arrows! Lake wasn't great either and I am glad he found his niche as Dagwood--he certainly hadn't found it here in "On With The Show!"!
Early Warner Bros. musical, stagy, slow, and mostly of historical interest. The poor quality film available for viewing doesn't help. It's interesting to see how much the movie musical improved between this movie and, for instance, "42nd Street" (also a Warner Bros production) just a few years later. The dialog portions are very static, presumably due to the requirements of early sound pick up systems. However, the result is to bring the action to a halt. The overacting is almost unintentionally laughable. Betty Compson finally has a decent scene near the end of the movie. Arthur Lake is just plain irritating, and I couldn't even warm up to Joe E. Brown. Some of the singers seems to be recorded live, and others poorly dubbed. By far, the most interesting scenes are Ethel Waters singing "Am I Blue", and the quartet of black tap dancers who are unidentified.
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