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THE SHOW OF SHOWS (Warner Brothers, 1929), directed by John G. Adolfi,
originally presented in early two-strip Technicolor, became Warner
Brothers' answer to MGM's earlier all-star musical, "The Hollywood
Revue of 1929," which brings almost all of its contract players, former
stars of the silent screen, and recent recruits from Broadway, to show
off their musical talents, or their lack of. The master of ceremonies
in this vaudeville-type production is Frank Fay, who spends the first
half of this revue trying to have the spotlight all to himself and to
sing a song or two, even a few times trying to sing "Dear Little Pup"
to his dogie, but is always interrupted by comedy acts or singers who
feel they could do better, and they usually can. For a musical revue
that goes on for almost two hours, one can only say that this is a
mixed bag of production numbers that either entertains or doesn't. What
can be said about "The Show of Shows" when seeing it today is that it
plays to 1929 audiences, in other words, there are many performers in
this revue who appear without any introduction, such as the legendary
John Barrymore (who still needs no introduction in my book), Monte Blue
leading a West Point military march, or the then popular French
prizefighter, Georges Carpentier, singing "If I Could Learn to Love" in
front of a curtain backdrop of the Eiffel Tower, accompanied by Patsy
Ruth Miller and Alice White, among others, assuming that viewers of
1929 watching this review automatically know who these people are, but
for the first-time viewer, this individual will start asking himself,
"Who is that?" Nostalgic buffs and star searchers can otherwise sit
back and enjoy spotting some of their favorite movie stars then just
starting out in the business, including the better-known faces of Myrna
Loy, Loretta Young, Harriette Lake (who became Ann Sothern) and/or
Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
In brief, THE SHOW OF SHOWS musical program features: PROLOGUE UNIQUE: Hobart Bosworth as an executioner and HB Warner as the victim in a brief skit set during the French Revolution; THE MILITARY PARADE: lead by Monte Blue and marching and drum playing West Point cadets; FLORADORA GIRLS: Myrna Loy, Marian Nixon, Ben Turpin, Lupino Lane, and many others in 1890s costumes; THE PIRATE NUMBER: featuring Ted Lewis with motion picture pirates including Noah Beery, Tully Marshall, etc.; EIFFEL TOWER: Georges Carpentier; RECITATIONS: Beatrice Lillie, Louise Fazenda, Lloyd Hamilton and Frank Fay, later going into their song, "Your Mother and Mine"; EIGHT SISTER ACT: Hosted by Richard Barthelmess, followed by sisters including Dolores and Helene Costello singing "Meet My Sister," along with Loretta Young and Sally Blane, Sally O'Neil and Molly O'Day, Alice and Marceline Day; Marion Byron and Harriett Lake; and others. Following this number comes a title card that reads INTERMISSION: TEN MINUTES (which is usually eliminated from most TV prints); SINGING IN THE BATHTUB: Winnie Lightner, which concludes with Lightner and Bull Montana singing "You Were Meant for Me"; IRENE BORDONI HERSELF: Bordoni singing "Just an Hour of Love"; Chinese FANTASY: Introduced by Rin-Tin Tin; with Nick Lucas singing "Li-Po-Li" and Myrna Loy dancing (this number now can be seen in its restored two-strip Technicolor); FAY AND SILVERS: Amusing skit with Sid Silvers stepping in and auditioning for a solo spot, showing Frank Fay his own imitation of Al Jolson by singing "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody"; BICYCLE BUILT FOR TWO: Chester Conklin, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Chester Morris; Gertrude Olmstead, Sally Eilers, among others; BLACK AND WHITE: Introduced by Sid Silvers, danced by chorus girls dressed up in black and white dresses; YOUR LOVE IS ALL THAT I CRAVE: Sung by Frank Fay (he finally got to do his solo); KING RICHARD III: Introduced and recited by John Barrymore; Mexican MOONSHINE: Comedy sketch with Monte Blue as a condemned man, and Frank Fay as his executioner, accompanied by Lloyd Hamilton, Albert Gran and others as soldiers; LADY LUCK FINALE: Sung by Alexander Gray with Betty Compson briefly seen as Lady Luck; and STARS: with the entire cast appearing with their heads poked through holes in canvas singing "Lady Luck", especially John Barrymore making facial gestures while he pretends to be singing along with the others.
THE SHOW OF SHOWS is fortunate to have survived almost intact after all these years, considering how many movies of 1929 are no longer available for viewing. The most memorable performer besides John Barrymore (whom I wished could have been the master of ceremonies instead of Fay), is Winnie Lightner, whose energetic and unique comedic style, in the persona of of future vibrant singers as Martha Raye or Betty Hutton combined, who not only sings in the bathtub, but lightens up the rough spots by singing "Ping Pongo," And then there's Nick Lucas singing "Lady Luck" and "That's the Only Song I Know" with his guitar.
A predecessor to the once popular fad of TV variety shows of the 1950s and '60s, THE SHOW OF SHOWS which is one from the time capsule, is worthy entertainment that should be viewed at least once, and to get the feel of the bygone days of vaudeville, here captured on film Hollywood style. WPHL, Channel 17, in Philadelphia, was one of the very few known commercial television stations to frequently play THE SHOW OF SHOWS in the early 1970s (final air date: December 31, 1974). In later years when brought over on cable, it was shown on Turner Network Television (TNT) from 1988 to 1993, and later on Turner Classic Movies (frequently prior to 1997). (***)
It is very hard to rate this film. As entertainment value for 21st
century viewers, it fails miserably. However, for the student of early
sound films and history, it is a jewel. "Show of Shows" was a revue
filmed to compete with MGM's successful "Hollywood Revue of 1929",
which still survives intact complete with its Technicolor scenes.
The purpose of the all-star revue was to showcase a particular studio's silent stars in speaking roles, and show that they could make the transition. However, Warner Bros. seems to have forgotten this and employs many acts and stars that they didn't even have under long-term contract such as Ben Turpin, Lloyd Hamilton, Beatrice Lillie, and even a marching band. Meanwhile, their biggest talent - Al Jolson - is noticeably absent. Even at a high salary he could not be compelled to join in. Almost every act is overly long and the film plays like a dozen or so Vitaphone shorts strung together with no continuity. The finale is also overly long, but it is really enjoyable with all of its dance numbers.
The highlights of the film are two numbers from Winnie Lightner - "Pingo Pongo" and "Singin in the Bathtub", a couple of numbers with Nick Lucas, John Barrymore performing Shakespeare, and the Chinese Fantasy "Li Po Li" with Nick Lucas and Myrna Loy. This last number is the only part of the film that survives in Technicolor, and it really is quite attractive. Reasonably enough, the players in these good acts were long-term Warner Bros. stars so perhaps the director knew how to play to their strengths since he was familiar with them.
This film acts as a snapshot at an odd point in film history - the year 1929, which was the bridge year between two eras - the silent and sound eras, and the roaring 20's and the Great Depression. Just two years later this same film would have had an entirely different cast, as Warner Bros. would abandon its silent era stars and the stars they hired just to produce the early musicals in favor of those stars that gave Warner Bros. its distinctive urban look and feel - James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Edward G. Robinson, and others.
One of a handful of "revue" films from the early sound era, this film mixes
musical numbers and comedy routines, a la vaudeville. Some items don't
really work, in particular Frank Fay's role as emcee, and the finale, which
is rather loosely structured. On the other hand, Winnie Lightner does two
terrific turns, especially with "Singin' in the Bathtub," which is put over
with punch. Some versions have the "Li-Po-Li" segment in 2-strip
Technicolor, which gives the routine unusual sheen and polish, playing off
the strengths of the system, especially in the use of turquoises and reds.
Generally superior, I think, to MGM's "Hollywood Revue of 1929," and worth watching if you can
It is difficult to evaluate this or any other comparable film of the early sound era in terms that one might use for ordinary film commentary. At times there is almost a desperation, as many film personalities of the silent era try their wings at sound, surely fearing that they will be left by the wayside (as did happen to some), Rin-Tin-Tin. however, was pertfectly natural. In such a vaudeville of unrelated sequences, some were sure to stand out John Barrymore's soliloquy from Richard II is a moment certainly worth preserving. By and large, only those with earlier stage training exuded confidence. However, this is over all reasonably entertaining, and a must for "film buffs" especially interested in the silent to sound transition
This is a deliriously colossal vulgar silly all star extravaganza revue of all the early talkie stars that Warner Bros could afford. ...and like most other rarely seen films actually made during the late 20s, an unforgettable opportunity to see and hear the genuine roaring twenties' exuberance and youthfulness put to song and dance. THE SHOW OF SHOWS is pretty gigantic. Vaudeville act after soliloquy after tap dance after acrobat after comedian after fan-dance after ukulele lunacy after Rin Tin Tin who introduces 'an oriental number'...(!)... and on and on it lumbers, grinning and squeaking away in fabulous gramophone quality Vitaphone sound. It is far too long, but among it's delirious delights are the awesome "Singin in the Bathtub" number created on a scale of which The QE2 architects would be proud...Beatrice Lillie lounging by a grand piano with some happiness boys amusingly warbling a witty ditty, Nick Lucas, and the never-ending grand finale in two color color...which is all set to the song LADY LUCK. . So keen are the tubby chorus line and leaping teenagers to en-ter-tain us that they almost kick themselves repeatedly in their own faces with glee and effort. Row after row of "Doll" characters hop past and some even emerge from the floor. I kid you not, there are even girls strapped to the crystal chandeliers, mummified with shiny gauze and chained up with pearl ropes, unable to move (for days, I imagine, during production) whilst this katzenjammer of toy-box athleticism twitch and spasm below to the Ukulele orchestra. Of course I loved it and had to watch this color finale over and over and then invite friends and family to the screen for weeks on end just to horrify and terrify them each separately and to roll about on the lounge in shrieking in delight at each and every exclamation of their startled reactions. And so should you...and rejoice that there was an era when this was created simply to entertain and thrill. It is all so demented.
Thanks to Warner Archive, I can once again see this mammoth variety show which throws in everything but the kitchen sink. (The bathtub, however is present.) This film gives screen time to every person who was under contract to Warners at the time. If some of the artists seem unfamiliar to some, it is because they were big in the silent days, and most faded with the popularity of the talkies. There are some truly remarkable artists from the vaudeville era as well. You will be most impressed with Winnie Lightner, who performs two numbers. Also there is that French star, Irene Bordoni who croons a love song in a sexy manner. Perhaps one of the biggest highlights is the two-strip Technicolor "Chinese Fantasy," which has been restored for this version. It is truly beautiful and it stars Myrna Loy and Nick Lucas. Finally, there is the massive "Lady Luck" finale which goes on for nearly a quarter of an hour. If you have seen Ken Russell's 1971 cult-musical The Boy Friend, you will see that Mr. Russell must have been influenced by some of the numbers in The Show of Shows. The costumes as well as some of the choreography reflect this. The Technicolor segment has been perfectly edited into the black-and-white print in a way that is superior to the similarly restored color footage in films like Sally or Mammy. Opening and closing with a red curtain, the number looks like it always belonged there, even in the black-and-white print. In addition, the color is extremely vibrant, and gives one an idea of the tremendous impact the color must have had on 1929 audiences. The lavishness and elaborateness of this film, to me, trumps Hollywood Revue (although I enjoy that film as well) in spectacle and the Lady Luck finale, featuring pretty young things attached to chandeliers and curtain pulls, certainly gets my vote for the most outrageously lavish production number of 1929. The Warner Brothers wanted something really big to close out the year, and they actually beat MGM here. It would come in the years that followed that MGM would snatch the lavishness crown away from every other studio and retain it until Hollywood's golden age came to a close.
This is hardly a movie at all, but rather a real vaudeville show, filmed for the most part "in proscenium", and starring some of the greatest stage stars of the day. "Singing in the Bathtub" is an absolutely amazing production number that must be seen-- be sure to wear your shower cap!
Wouldn't it be nice to be able to peep through the (heavy) curtains of
Time and physically drop into any previous year to properly sample the
air, the people, the entertainment, the booze - or the lack of it. I'm
afraid that's what we need to be able to do to fully understand this
now, because watching often blurry incomprehensible 2D images through
gauze requires some patience.
It's 1929, Warner Brothers wanted to produce a revue talking picture starring most of its contracted players, a collection of comedy items, singing and dancing numbers linked by Frank Fay, who for the most part was rather Fey. The hodge-podge he introduced ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, however all worthy of watching now to us archaeologists when his turn eventually came to sing he was unsurprisingly cringeworthy too. There's almost endless impenetrable comic patter to get through but many good songs lie within, and for the most part with excellent orchestrations from Louis Silvers conducting the always sharp Vitaphone Orchestra. Winnie Lightner, fresh from Goldiggers Of Broadway belted out Ping Pongo and Singing In The Bathtub and these are definitely the highlights she was allowed to be a highlight, sadly everyone else is shadowy and now of the shadows. The Technicolor section for Li-Po-Li sung by Nick Lucas and danced to by the not so inscrutable Myrna Loy was lost, found, restored it's completely charming for the supposedly Oriental set as well as for the idiotic song lyrics. The big finale goes on for too long, but as with everything else in here is absolutely fascinating, even in the surviving black & white prints. John Barrymore played Richard III from a scene from Shakespeare's Henry VI, apparently this was well received in 1929
The film itself was not so well received in 1929 in that it only recovered less than twice its cost it was expected to do better. It has me glued to the TV every time I put it on, but do you enjoy time travel as much as I do?
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The early all star musicals were designed to show audiences that even
the most dramatic of stars could sparkle and captivate with their
singing and dancing talent and also was a way to introduce new talent
to an unknowing public ("if you like Irene Bordoni's song in "Show of
Shows", you will just love her in her new movie "Paris"). They also
served as screen tests where silent favourites were thrust in front of
the cameras, often with no guidance or help (Clara Bow, who was a real
hit in "Paramount on Parade" had to arrange her own hair), then
struggled to entertain or wisecrack. Every studio had one in the
pipeline, even lowly little Pathe, but they were the first type of
musicals to find disfavour with the public. With the success of "The
Hollywood Revue of 1929" Warner Bros. decided it, too, must have an all
star revue but of the initial lineup only John Barrymore ended up in
the movie. Al Jolson was a conspicuous no show, having demanded too
much money (besides his last movie "Say It With Songs" was a huge
flop). Master of Ceremonies was Frank Fay (at the time married to
Barbara Stanwyck) a huge name in vaudeville but in movies his arrogance
shone through. There is a running gag about him trying to convince the
studio that he can sing - and three quarters of the way through he gets
his chance but he has now picked up a side kick in Sid Silvers who does
get to do an imitation of Al Jolson and a really awful song about bad
breath (I'm not joking) called "If Your Best Friend Won't Tell You".
Why, in my opinion, this revue fell flat, as opposed to "Paramount on Parade". Paramount knew the value of it's stars and each of it's numbers had the focus directed on one person (Clara Bow, Helen Kane, Nancy Carroll). "Show of Shows" seemed just a jumble of sketches designed to put as many of it's stars in as the stage would allow. That's why my favourite was Winnie Lightner. She had been a huge hit in "Gold Diggers of Broadway" and at the time probably seemed Warner's best bet for stardom (of course musicals were never going to go out of fashion were they?). She belted her way through "Pingo Pongo" and whether you liked that style or not she carried you through this zany song about cannibals, she looked like she was enjoying herself and actually loved to sing. She was back for another number, a funny parody of "Singin' in the Rain" called "Singin' in the Bathtub", performed in an over-sized bathroom with a male chorus dressed in old fashioned women's bathers.
John Barrymore was also a standout and gave audiences a thrill with his Duke of Gloucester soliloquy from "Henry VI" and also a chance to see "the greatest Hamlet of his generation".
A most bizarre opening - a nobleman is beheaded while a peasant shouts "On With the Show of Shows" - there follows an amazing precision military formation dance headed by Monte Blue. Next is the amusing "What Became of the Flora Dora Boys" (Myrna Loy, Sally O'Neil are among the girls , the boys are old comedians including Ben Turpin) which would have you believe that while the girls stayed young and beautiful, the boys hit hard times. There was a pirate number where Ted Lewis jazzed the blues away (was he really a popular band leader !!!) Richard Barthelemess introduced "Sisters" in which pairs of famous sisters (there were a few ring ins including Harriette Lake, soon to be Ann Sothern)did little dances in national costumes. I thought the problem with these numbers was even though the stars were introduced there was no individualizing - and it was often hard to pick out who was who.
Just when you despaired, along came Rin Tin Tin who introduced "Li Po Li". It is the only Technicolor segment that has survived and it was dazzling - the turquoises, golds and reds were so sharp and striking. Myrna Loy is the Oriental dancing girl and Nick Lucas is the singer, there is a gigantic genie and chorus girls pop out of huge jars. It is all kitsch but wonderful.
Irene Bordoni was just a bit too "different" - she sang sensuously "Just an Hour With You" but she was photographed too unflatteringly. Bea Lillie, to me, looked as though she could have been witty and funny in a modern way, was only given a few lines. Another skit in the "different" category - former middleweight fighter Georges Carpentier puts chorus girls through their exercising paces, finishing up climbing ladders where they do their formations on wall niches. The heavily promoted song of the show is "Lady Luck" and the finale, while long, is spectacular. Girls are revealed as human chandeliers as Alexander Gray tries to give the song ("don't give my hopes the razz") a touch of class. Then there come out every conceivable variety act - the floppy girl, the boy who can somersault one way and land the other and beautiful Armida who runs down the steps for a cute hip swinging dance.
"The Advent of a New Event in Pictures" was the slogan Warners used and at $800,000 it was their most expensive film (excepting "Noah's Ark"). It had everything, even a bathtub, but originality and proved that there was no place for revues as films it they didn't have style and class.
As other posters have noted, this is really a difficult film to rate.
Judging it by modern standards it's awful--overblown, creaky, flat and
primitive--but judging it by 1929 standards I can see where audiences
must have bowled over by it. They could see their favorite
stars--mostly from the silent days--like they had never seen them
before, playing themselves and, in many cases, doing things they had
never done, such as singing, dancing and comedy routines. Overall,
though, it's poorly staged by director John G. Adolfi, who was not one
of Warners' top-rank directors and was known for making "serious"
melodramas; why Warners picked him to direct this big, splashy, musical
comedy revue is incomprehensible. Whatever the reason, he seems to have
functioned more as a traffic cop than a director.
Some of the musical numbers are fair to middling, but others are just flat-out embarrassing. Probably the worst routine in the picture is the "Rifle Execution" skit. It's supposed to be funny, but it doesn't even rise to the level of a bad Benny Hill routine. It's utterly, completely and totally unfunny, with nary a laugh, chuckle, smirk or even a titter and is further hampered by the irritating Frank Fay trying to upstage everybody, and failing miserably. It's also in incredibly bad taste; there's nothing funny about a man placed in front of a wall with his hands tied behind his back about to be executed by a firing squad--and at the end of the "skit" he actually is! Unbelievable.
The opening number, with 100 or so showgirls doing precision dancing on a huge staircase a la Busby Berkeley, is actually impressive, however; the very intricate routine is shot in one long take and comes off without a hitch. It's pretty much downhill after that, though, except for Winnie Lightner's two musical numbers, which are infectious and enjoyable. Most of the "comedy" routines performed by stars not known for comedy--and even some who are--come across as forced, flat and, even worse, unfunny. Probably the worst "performance", however, is by emcee Frank Fay, a Broadway star of the era. He comes across as an obnoxious ham, his feeble attempts at singing and comic patter are annoying, and his introductions to each of the featured numbers are clumsy, inept and overlong. As an emcee, he is an abysmal flop. Why he was considered a star isn't readily apparent at all.
This film is much more valuable as an historical document than as entertainment, which it barely achieves. Many of the stars--70+ of them--I had heard of before but had never seen them in anything (e.g., Lloyd Hamilton, Winnie Lightner, Bea Lillie and Alice Day), so it was at least interesting to finally see them in action, as it were. A young but recognizable Loretta Young and her sister Sally Blane perform in a very strange number that features teams of well-known sisters dressed as "Dutch maids" singing and dancing in a "Ziegfeld Girls" type of big splashy routine. The number also features a young and unrecognizable Ann Sothern, when she was using her real name of Harriet Lake, with her sister Bonnie Lake.
The film is a very mixed bag--everybody from John Barrymore to Rin-Tin-Tin puts in an appearance--and difficult to slog through at times, only occasionally rising above mediocrity. Worth a look once for its historical significance, but that's about it.
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