Queen High (1930)
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This was made around the same time that Rogers got a big Broadway break in "Girl Crazy", but like that show, she was second fiddle (even as the leading lady) thanks to a newcomer named Ethel Merman. Rogers isn't at fault here. She is directed as if in Helen Kane's shoes (who was also at Paramount and a bigger star), but unfortunately, what works for one poop-poop-de-doop song stylist doesn't work with Rogers. Even as one of the biggest gold diggers of 1933, she didn't make your skin crawl, but that is exactly what happens here, making it obvious that her future success in movie musicals wasn't instantly assured.
Some old movies do score highly with Gracie Allen type dumbbells being smarter than their leading men, but Rogers is over the top and unbelievable in her idiocy. A few musical numbers thrown in for good measure prove to be bad inches. After only 35 minutes, I was ready to cash it in. A huge fan of Rogers, Morgan and Ruggles, I found this totally tedious. Wheeler and Woolsey did much better with virtually the same plot in one of their lesser movies ("On Again, Off Again") than the Morgan/Ruggles feud here. Ruggles did better as a boss with a dumbbell secretary, asking Jane Wyman in "The Doughgirls" (of all people) if she took dictation verbatim, only to have her respond, "No I do it word for word!".
According to her autobiography, Ginger Rogers once reached out to Judy Garland in an effort to help her get through some hard times, but sadly in this movie, even the future "Wizard of Oz" couldn't help this turkey.
Ruggles stars as T. Boggs Johns who is in partnership with George Nettleton (Morgan) in a garter and novelty business and their heated bickering sees them agree to a winner take all poker game - the winner gaining control of the business for a year, the loser having to become a butler in the winner's household!! In the meantime Ginger (who because of the film's being made at Paramount's New York Astoria Studio allowed her to continue her stage role in "Top Speed") - she plays Polly Nettleton and is in a secret romance (was there any other kind in a 1930 movie??) with Johns' nephew Dick (Stanley Smith who more than earned his salary at Paramount in 1930 !!) Polly is given the job of stenographer in her uncle's firm. Dick also has a job there and at first they think none too highly of each other - "flirty, half baked flapper" is how she is described by Dick!! Of course that is before they meet and when they do, in a crowded subway, it is love at first sight!!
There is a terrific number to start things off - "Brother Just Laugh It Off" - there's Ginger in her cute "baby talk" voice, a harmony group and plenty of dancers demonstrating the Charleston!! The poker game is played, with Johns the loser but definitely not in the comedy stakes as Ruggles milks the demeaning demotion of butler for all the comedy it is worth. He also gets to perform "I Love a Girl in My Own Peculiar Way", hoping to discourage a very amorous parlour maid!!
Meanwhile Polly and Dick continue their romance. "I'm Afraid of You" is sung as a duet at a restaurant but unfortunately, the hit song of the film "Seems to Me" was only given to Smith, it looked like Rogers was going to have a chorus but - nothing happened!! The real stars are Morgan and Ruggles - Johns' decides to try to romance Nettleton's nervous wife then realizes that Nettleton is making a shambles of the business. Then they both realize the bet isn't legal - it was all thought up by their lawyer to teach them a lesson!!
Ginger was such a cutie in this but with two over the top comedy stars vying for top honours she would have to wait a couple more years for roles that would put her in the spotlight!!
With Ruggles, Morgan, and Rogers in the central roles you can't go far wrong. And indeed, Queen High is quite enjoyable over all, but prospective viewers should be advised it's very much a filmed play, not unlike the first two Marx Brothers movies produced at the same studio around this time. Aside from one brief sequence on a subway platform and in a train (presumably written for the film), it all looks very much like a stage performance. But seeing as how the material generally holds up well, and the lead players are so charming, what's wrong with watching a filmed play? Anyone who misses seeing the great outdoors on screen will find plenty of Westerns available.
Most of the early scenes take place in the offices of the Eureka Novelty Co., the garter firm co-managed by T. Boggs Johns (Ruggles) and George Nettleton (Morgan). Art Deco buffs will get a kick out of the office's ultra-sleek design, while viewers who appreciate the sight of cute young lingerie models should be ready to hit the Pause button. One of the film's best sequences unfolds in Nettleton's office, a sprightly, seemingly spontaneous musical number called "Brother, Laugh It Off." Ginger introduces the song, then turns it over to several young workers who harmonize while one of the girls goes into a dance. Towards the end of the number, a second girl with a Louise Brooks bob dances on a small table. Watch her closely: that's 17 year-old Eleanor Powell, making her movie debut. And then, in a surprise finale, Morgan and Ruggles finish the song. This delightful scene is worth the price of admission by itself.
Later, at the behest of their lawyer, the feuding partners decide to settle their disagreements with a card game, in the fashion described above. This is another good scene, suspenseful and funny. The second half of the film takes place at Nettleton's estate, where "Boggs" is now unhappily installed as butler. I confess I have mixed feelings about the film's second half; for me, some elements work better than others. On the plus side, there is Ruggles' rendition of a bizarre, outlandish number called "I Love the Girls in My Own Peculiar Way," in which he endeavors to frighten the other servants by boasting in song that he's a serial killer. (Think Sweeney Todd, played for laughs.) On the debit side, there's a low comedy maid played VERY broadly by an actress named Nina Olivette, whose style suggests Martha Raye, but without the finesse. To be charitable, her material isn't the greatest, but nonetheless Olivette's man-hungry shtick wears thin almost immediately. However, she does provide an interesting, real-life trivia note: Olivette's two sons both became actors in later years, Guy and Dean Stockwell. So for those who care, here's a rare look at their mom!
In any case, and despite a very abrupt ending, Queen High is an amusing, novel treat for fans of early talkie musicals. I'd say the good sequences make up for the aspects that don't hold up so well. And for fans of Charles Ruggles, Frank Morgan, and Ginger Rogers, it's an absolute must.
Frank Morgan and Charles Ruggles play the feuding captains of industry and play off of one another like a high-class version of Edmund Lowe and Victor McLaglen in their buddy movies. Paramount always cast Ruggles as the drunk in his early films, but here they let him play it sober and it suits him. The fact that the business is a garter manufacturer gives an excuse for lots of scantily clad young ladies to wander in and out of scenes modeling the concern's latest products.
Complicating matters for the feuding business partners is that Ruggles' character's nephew (Stanley Smith) and Morgan's character's niece (Ginger Rogers) have fallen in love. They mainly handle the musical scenes which are quite charming. Ginger Rogers was still going through her flapper persona phase in 1930 and her singing is pretty good and adds to the fun.
The plot resolution is rather abrupt and not very satisfying, but the journey getting there is lots of fun. Highly recommended.
Also, this should be labeled one of the earliest screwball comedies. Ruggels and Morgan are great in their roles, and a VERY young Ginger Rogers is great as a cute flapper. You can also catch Elanor Powell dancing in one scene very briefly.
It is a shame that this movie is not widely available, as I enjoyed it more than most musicals of the 1929-1930 cycle.
The actual lead roles are performed by Charles Ruggles (reprising his part from the 1926 musical) and Frank Morgan as equal partners in a firm that makes only one product: ladies' garters. (What we Brits would call "suspenders".) This premise offers huge potential for musical numbers (I kept expecting "Garter sing, garter dance!") but is ultimately wasted. Ruggles went through most of his film career with an annoying little moustache; midway through 'Queen High', he trades it for some annoying sideburns. For once, Ruggles isn't typecast as a meek husband; here, he earnestly courts Betty Garde and shows some backbone. He's also pursued by Nina Olivette, who's quite pretty but she's lumbered with a hideous hairstyle and even worse dialogue ... which is written in some horribly phony bad grammar that's vaguely prole American and vaguely prole British but really from Movie Cliché-Land. In one scene Ruggles cries her 'Australian', but she's definitely no Ozzie sheila, too right. (Another IMDb reviewer is mistaken; it's Olivette, not Garde, who plays the 'harassed maid'.)
The two best songs here were written for the movie, both with lyrics by Yip Harburg: "Brother, Just Laugh It Off" (tune by Ralph Rainger) and "I Love the Girls in My Own Peculiar Way" (Henry Souvaine). The latter is a bizarre ditty in which Ruggles claims to be a serial killer of women. He's not much of a singer; he gets one of Yip Harburg's trademark wordplays -- "When you get pneumonia, I'll 'phone ya" -- but Ruggles clearly enunciates "phone YOU", queering the rhyme. He also mistreats a black laundress.
In the opening shot, William Steiner's camera trundles forward lugubriously, twiddles its casters awhile, then trundles back again. The rest of the camera-work is merely adequate, except for one impressive set-up with Ruggles in a doorway. There's an attempt to give Stanley Smith an "entrance" by staging his first scene with his head hidden, gradually revealing his face. William Saulter's set designs throughout are excellent, especially a very convincing sequence on a New York subway platform and aboard the rush-hour train. Frank Morgan's tycoon character and his wife have a huge mansion, with twin beds about twelve feet apart.
Modern viewers get the usual old-movie reminders that money's not what it used to be: in 'Queen High', Mrs Rockwell has an annual income of $6,000 yet serves her guests caviare.
Most of the dialogue (from the original play) is quite witty, though we get a few clunkers. An orchestra musician plays "second bass", so we know this is the set-up for a baseball joke. Still, any movie that ends with a lawyer getting chucked into a pond can't be all bad.
There's an acetate print of "Queen High" in the Library of Congress, duped from a bad nitrate print; the soundtrack pops, and many scenes are dark. In one dialogue sequence, Smith calls himself "red-headed", yet throughout the movie (this LoC print, at least) his hair looks jet-black. "Queen High" really isn't good enough to rank high on the list of films wanting restoration. This movie was released while Lon Chaney was on his deathbed, but I'll bet he wasn't dying to see it. The original 1914 play was titled 'A Pair of Sixes': I'll add one more six and rate this movie 6 out of 10.