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FLYING HIGH (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1931), directed by Charles Reisner, marked the motion picture debut of comedian Bert Lahr (1892-1967), best known today for his memorable performance as the Cowardly Lion in the musical fantasy, THE WIZARD OF OZ (MGM, 1939). Reprising his theatrical role of Rusty from George White's 1930 Broadway musical, the screen version is very much a showcase for Lahr, with co-star Charlotte Greenwood, who can always be counted on to deliver a hilarious performance, coming a close second as a man-chasing spinster whom Lahr's character describes as a woman who "makes love like an alley cat." Greenwood's role parallels what she'd previously done with another Broadway gone Hollywood entertainer, Eddie Cantor, in PALMY DAYS (Samuel Goldwyn, 1931). While Cantor continued to perform steadily in films through most of the 1930s, FLYING HIGH was to be Lahr's sole venture into the new medium until his return to the screen by 1937 in secondary roles. What PALMY DAYS and FLYING HIGH have in common is not so much having Broadway comics in the lead and Greenwood as their foil, but the benefit of dance director Busby Berkeley, in his pre-Warner Brothers days, whose two production numbers benefits FLYING HIGH more than the plot itself.
Bert Lahr stars as Emil "Rusty" Krause, a hack-eyed inventor of the "aerocopter" who's unable to find a backer for his product. He becomes partners with "Sport" Wordell (Pat O'Brien), who doesn't have any money either. Sport acquires an investor named Fred Smith (Guy Kibbee), who's just as broke as he is. After falling in love with Smith's daughter, Eileen (Kathryn Crawford), Sport works out an angle acquiring the much needed $500 through Pansy Potts (Charlotte Greenwood), a tall, homely waitress having just inherited $1600 from her late uncle, by promising her a would-be husband in that of Rusty (by using a photo of Clark Gable!!). With additional tunes by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields, the motion picture soundtrack is as follows: "Happy Landing" (sung by Kathryn Crawford); "It Will be the First Time for Me" (sung by Charlotte Greenwood and Bert Lahr); "Examination" (recited by Charles Winninger and female patients); "Dance Until the Dawn" (sung by Kathryn Crawford) and "Happy Landing" (reprise/cast).
Kathryn Crawford, no relation to Joan, (though slightly resembling vocalist Kitty Carlisle), sings two songs choreographed by Berkeley. "Happy Landing" contains some of the best Berkeley ingredients, including overhead camera shots of the chorus resembling airplanes and spelling out the names of great aviators of Byrd, Hawks, Lindy in formation. "Dance Until the Dawn," which comes a half hour later, is another Berkeley highlight, with chorus in dance formations with airplane propellers. Portions of this sequence were used in the theatrical documentary of THAT'S DANCING (1986), with the commentator concluding that, "Flying High never really got off the ground." Although portions of this 80 minute feature tends to drag, it's brought to life by its lively tunes, for the most part are as forgotten as the film itself.
Notable comedy highlights belong to Bert Lahr. Aside from he being chased around by Greenwood (having some experience going through the motions with Eddie Cantor), and his unusual medical examination by the doctor (played by a young looking Charles Winninger), he gets his chance to demonstrate his "aerocopter" at the air show by flying high enough to be out of this world. Other participants in the cast include Hedda Hopper; Gus Arnheim and his Orchestra; Clarence Wilson and Tom Kennedy (as the bully who picks on Rusty).
Rarely seen on commercial television since the 1960s, and never distributed on video or DVD, look for FLYING HIGH the next time it tail spins on Turner Classic Movies cable station. (** landing gears)
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