MOONLIGHT AND PRETZELS was a somewhat tacky attempt by Universal Pictures to cash in on the Busby Berkeley craze that was making mountains of money for Warners in 1933. The backstage plot flagrantly imitates the Warners formula: songwriters and performers desperately want to put on their show but are having trouble raising the money; they hook up with an eccentric investor, go through dramatic ups and downs and eventually pull off the production with flying colors. Along the way we get lots of slangy wisecracks delivered by colorful characters. In this case, the musical numbers are dispersed through the narrative, whereas in the Warners musicals they tended to be stacked at the end. This film boasts an eminently hummable collection of pop songs, chief among which are, from EY Harburg and Jay Gorney, "Ah, But Is It Love" (performed by chorus girls dressed like bleached out clones of Ruby Keeler in "42nd Street" mode), the daffy but catchy "Moonlight and Pretzels" (think, "I Love Louisa" from Schwartz and Dietz in THE BANDWAGON); and "Dusty Shoes," a more optimistic variation on the team's earlier "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" crossed with "My Forgotten Man" from the Warners hit GOLDDIGGERS OF 1933). From Herman Hupfeld we get "Are You Makin' Any Money?" and "I've Gotta Get Up and Go to Work," two jaunty numbers which both suggest the Harry Warren sound. And a beautiful ballad by Harburg and Sammy Fain, "There's a Little Bit of You in Every Love Song." One interesting lost opportunity occurs about half way through the film when hero Roger Pryor (think, a slightly more rough-hewn Dick Powell) tells heroine Mary Brian (think, Ruby Keeler's almost-twin sister) that the prop moon hanging over their heads would be real if she truly loved him. The song that should have followed, "It's Only a Paper Moon," isn't even in this film. This EY Harburg-Harold Arlen song, in fact, ended up in the film version of the Broadway musical TAKE A CHANCE, released later the same year.
The cast is uniformly excellent, with Lillian Miles, a slender platinum blonde with a great set of pipes, as the "star of the show" particularly fetching. The supporting cast includes Leo Carrillo (very funny as a Greek gambler who finances the show and constantly mispronounces words); Bobby Watson as a catty gum-chewing production assistant; William Frawley in typical gruff form.
Karl Freund (cinematographer for Murnau's 1924 THE LAST LAUGH and the 1931 version of FRANKENSTEIN) directed this work and in the "Dusty Shoes" finale, which finds Lillian Miles warbling her heart out behind a phalanx of upstretched hands, one is reminded of a famous scene from Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS. Quite a striking image. One wonders if Freund was deliberately drawing on his German expressionist background or if it was just a coincidence.
Bobby Connolly, who went on to choreograph THE WIZARD OF OZ and other major films, seems off kilter here. The moves of the dancers in the "Ah, But Is It Love" number are noticeably halting and awkward.
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