June Moon is a mildly amusing, lightweight comedy about the music business that fans of Pre-Code era talkies may well enjoy, but it's not the movie it might have been. This was a project that began on a high note but, unfortunately, rolled steadily downhill thereafter. It started life as a first rate short story, which was adapted to the stage and became a successful Broadway show, which, in turn, became this pleasant but middling film. It's kind of like that impressive kid from your junior high school class who won all the honors but wound up clerking at a drug store.
It all started in 1921 when the prominent author, journalist, and would-be songwriter Ring Lardner published a short story called "Some Like Them Cold." This is the tale of a young man named Charles Lewis, who meets a young lady named Mabelle Gillespie in the Chicago train station just before he is to leave for New York City. Lewis is an aspiring songwriter with boundless (if groundless) faith in his abilities and a keen determination to conquer Tin Pan Alley. The story unfolds in a series of letters between the two: he writes excitedly of his first days in the city, and sends Mabelle a sample of one of his (terrible) songs; her eager replies make it clear that she considers this correspondence a courtship, at least at first. As time passes, however, the letter-writing tempo slows, and the passions cool. Eventually, Lewis reveals that he is engaged to marry the sister of his songwriting partner, prompting a chilly note of congratulations from Miss Gillespie in which she also announces that the correspondence is at an end.
A few years after this piece was published, Lardner -- who was a frustrated dramatist as well as a frustrated songwriter -- teamed up with playwright George S. Kaufman to collaborate on a play adapted from the story, newly titled "June Moon." Now our aspiring songwriter is a lyricist named Fred Stevens, and we first meet him on a train taking him from his hometown of Schenectady to the big city. During the trip Fred meets Edna Baker, a city girl on her way home, and their extended flirtation plays like the early letters exchanged by their predecessors in "Some Like Them Cold." Once Fred reaches the city he meets his new songwriting partner, Paul Sears, Paul's cynical wife Lucille, and her hard-boiled sister Eileen. Fred is remarkably naive, in sharp contrast with worldly "song-plugger" Maxie Schwartz, who has a ready quip for every situation. Eileen, meanwhile, spots Fred as an easy mark (and potential meal ticket) and sets about turning his head. By the final curtain things have turned out pretty much the way you expected for these characters.
For all the interpersonal dynamics, the real strength of the play lies in its witty digs at the music business. The desperate, oddball characters, hokey hackwork, and questionable ethics of Tin Pan Alley are mercilessly mocked in the later scenes, especially when Fred's cliché-riddled song "June Moon" becomes a hit almost accidentally -- a twist that must have represented both a satirical jab and a touch of wish-fulfillment for Lardner, whose own songs never achieved any real success. His collaboration with Kaufman was another matter, however. Their play opened at the Broadhurst Theatre in October of 1929, received glowing reviews, and ran well into the following year; and to top it off, the motion picture rights were purchased by Paramount.
The play was one of many snapped up by the movie industry in the early days of the talkies. Some of these plays were filmed virtually unchanged or with only minor trims, but unfortunately the Powers That Be at Paramount decided that the Lardner/Kaufman play needed extensive revamping. The opening scene on the train between Fred (Jack Oakie) and Edna (Frances Dee) and the subsequent scene when Fred meets his new associates are close in content and spirit to the play, but after that the screenplay strays from the source material, and not to anyone's advantage. For example, the amusing put-downs of George Gershwin and Irving Berlin delivered in the play by Paul were all cut, despite the fact that his bitter wisecracks were obviously prompted by envy. Perhaps it was felt that these quips about the music business were too "inside" (or perhaps Paramount didn't want to offend the two most successful songwriters in America!), but in any case much of that material went by the wayside, while new scenes emphasizing the Fred/Edna/Eileen triangle were concocted. Worst of all, in the movie Fred's song "June Moon" never becomes a hit, thus undercutting the whole point of the satire. Oh well, as Mr. Kaufman said, I guess satire is what closes Saturday night.
It was said that neither Lardner nor Kaufman were pleased with this version of their work, and surely neither would be unhappy to learn that the film has practically disappeared from view, and is very rarely screened anymore. Still, all things considered, Paramount's version of June Moon is of some interest to movie buffs fond of early talkies, especially those with an interest in the music of the period, and it remains a fairly pleasant diversion for viewers with no high expectations. Sadly, it was the only collaboration between Ring Lardner and George S. Kaufman. There was talk of a follow-up, this time a more serious play on the theme of alcoholism, but in 1933 Lardner's own alcoholism caught up with him, and he died at the age of 48.
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