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"Melody Cruise" is a breezy RKO musical made just before the beginning of the Astaire-Rogers series. Directed by Mark Sandrich (who directed five of the Astaire-Rogers films), it is still easy viewing today because of its innovative editing style and its pre-Code sensibility.
I believe this is one of the films that established the use of the playback system for musical numbers, giving filmmakers more freedom for visual creativity. Only one of its songs is presented in a traditional way of having a performer sing while another listens, and even this progresses into a sequence of invention. Other songs are often spoken by various members of the chorus, each saying one line -- at one point, just a single word -- as the musical narrative proceeds. The song, "He's Not the Marrying Kind," perfectly illustrates this.
The musical numbers play energetically with the editing and seem to enjoy their own inventiveness. The opening sequence shows how movies can create an engaging musical number out of such non-musical elements like someone pushing a broom, a man blowing at his hands to keep warm, a shop sign swinging in the wind. Only the ice skating ballet disappoints as a limp Busby Berkeley imitation.
Many transitions are done by using a wipe, a popular editing device of the period. The film editors and effects team seem to have had fun creating wipes that visually comment on the story. (The great Linwood Dunn was one of the special effects artists.) A shot of the cruise ship in rough sea with high waves wipes to a shot of Charles Ruggles feeling seasick in his stateroom by using the visual effect of water washing down the screen. A flower vase falls and "breaks" onto a cymbal in the ship's dance band just as the drummer hits it. A love dialogue between Phil Harris and Helen Mack is protracted over a number of scenic California locations, first through diagonal wipes and then jump cuts.
Naughty pre-Code elements are embodied, literally, in the presence of Vera and Zoe (Shirley Chambers and June Brewster), two party girls who pass out in Ruggles' cabin after the bon voyage party instead of leaving the ship. When told their clothes have been thrown overboard, Vera reminds Zoe: "It's possible, Zoe. You know whenever you get a few drinks in you, you always want to take your clothes off."
The film offers an early version of the driver's license/marriage license scene the ended George Cukor's version of "Born Yesterday".
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