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It seems many other contributing members are hypercritical of older
films. Most films made in the 1930s and 1940s weren't meant to be
memorable, just enjoyed for a brief time and then to be forgotten. Now
television has resurrected them so people can look at them again.
This film is typical of the era in which it was made. I did notice that it has some plot devices which re-appear in later 20th Century-Fox films (some of which also featured Alice Faye): The low-class man aspiring to high society and "a dame with class" repeated in "Hello Frisco Hello" and "Nob Hill", and Faye's getting passed up for another woman, then going off to London to be a big success on the stage there. Never let it be said that Darryl Zanuck didn't get mileage out of his story lines.
Here we see Faye early in her career as a Jean Harlow knock-off, with platinum blonde hair and pencil-thin eyebrows. Not too long after this film, her appearance was normalized and she began singing in a lower key which made her voice so much richer. I think she was responsible for a whole new trend for female singers. Gone was the high-pitched, nasal sound, popular in the 1920s and early 30s.
For fans of tap dancing, you can watch Dixie Dunbar, whose career never amounted to much, and also there is a nice performance by juvenile Gareth Joplin, on a level equal to that of any adult performer, but who evidently did not have much of a film career either.
Fox tries to imitate Warner Bros. in this slow-moving backstage romp that
stars Alice Faye, Jack Oakie, and Warner Baxter, and directed by Sidney
Lanfield. Baxter is the "King of Burlesque" who moves from a burlesque to a
legitimate theatre and marries a socialite played by Mona Barrie. Alice
Faye, in the typical role of an aspiring actress, looks appropriate for her
part, though her presence struck me as cold and unmemorable, compared to her
other Fox musicals. The film comes into full view in the last twenty minutes
where we see a dazzling display of production numbers that recall those of
Busby Berkeley. The film's choreography and songs were nominated for an
Oscar. There is fun and frolic and the best songs/numbers are "Shooting
High", "Too Good To Be True", "Whose Big Baby Are You" and "Lovely Lady".
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The title role in King of Burlesque is played by Warner Baxter who is
the impresario of burlesque down on East 14 Street and Irving Place.
But he aspires to higher things and won't be satisfied until he's a
monarch on Broadway.
For that he's willing to marry up with Mona Barrie an impoverished society girl and leave the faithful Alice Faye behind. Of course this is not a permanent situation.
Probably the biggest fault with King of Burlesque is that Warner Baxter does not come over like the hero/heel that Tyrone Power and later John Payne would be in dealing with Alice Faye. He's just too nice for the role.
But the film is a real treat for Alice Faye's legion of fans. She gets to sing I'm Shooting High and Spreading Rhythm Around. And I really did like the number she did with British comic actor Herbert Mundin, I Love To Ride The Horses On The Merry Go Round.
Radio singer Kenny Baker gets into this film with Lovely Lady for which I have a Bing Crosby recording. Baker had a nice pleasing tenor voice who made his best mark on radio. Around this time he was a regular on Jack Benny's radio program.
And King of Burlesque gives fans of Dixieland jazz a real treat in one of the few film appearances of the legendary pianist Fats Waller. Waller plays an elevator operator who Baxter finally gives a break to in his new show and he plays and sings I've Got My Fingers Crossed.
Jimmy McHugh and Ted Koehler did the score for King of Burlesque and the numbers are fine. Elements of the plot were done in Alice Faye's later film, Hello Frisco Hello. That one was better, but this one is not bad other than Baxter's miscasting.
This is a routine backstage story. Warner Baxter is a producer of burlesque shows on NYC's 14th street - he is known as the King of Burlesque - but his sites are set higher. He wants to conquer Broadway with legit shows and marry a classy dame. Well, he achieves it all, including a marriage to cold Mona Barrie (who uses him to provide her with the luxury her dead spouse took with him while seeing her current boyfriend). Long-suffering "pal" Alice Faye must look on while Baxter indulges himself in this nonsense, then she heads for London and a successful career, only to return at the eleventh hour to save the now divorced and bankrupt Baxter with the bucks to stage a new show. The fun is all in the three final production numbers, two of which (LOVELY LADY and TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE) were nominated for Choreography Oscars, although the former consists of girls in swings high above the audience doing nothing but swinging. Tiny Dixie Dunbar sings and dances the latter number with Fats Waller on piano and a male dancing chorus - the best sequence in the film. The hit song, Shooting High, was not nominated for an Oscar. There are six songs: Shooting High; Lovely Lady; Spreading Rhythm Around; Too Good To Be True; Whose Big Baby Are You?; and I Love To Ride The Horses. All in all pleasant and enjoyable but don't go out of your way to see it.
Entertaining Fox musical, reminiscent of the great Warners backstage musicals of the early 30's. It even features Warner Baxter in the title role. He, of course, played the production manager in "42nd Street," probably the best known of those Warners musicals. Some favorite moments: Alice Faye singing a brief "Whose Big Baby Are You?" in a rather brief outfit; The "Shooting High" number, with the group around a piano, has a pleasingly impromptu feel about it; Cute little Dixie Dunbar's great tap dancing, in a number featuring Fats Waller. Alice Faye was a wonderful performer who isn't as well known today as many stars from the golden age of Hollywood. You can catch this and other Alice Faye musicals if you have Fox Movie Channel.
It's interesting how different roles played by the same actor can form
a continuum. The master showman played by Warner Baxter here in 'King
of Burlesque' could arguably be the same master showman played by
Baxter in 'Stand Up and Cheer' and (so memorably) in '42nd Street', if
only they all had the same name. If the three films depict the same
character at three stages in his life, then 'King of Burlesque' would
have to be chronologically first ... because here we see Baxter's
showman in his early scuffling days as a burlesque impresario, working
his way up to Broadway with laughable ease in an impressive montage.
I wish that the money which 20th Century-Fox had spent on that montage had been spent on some better scriptwriters. The story here is deepest cliché. Alice Faye is secretly in love with Baxter, but he's only got eyes for the posh society dame played by ice-cold Mona Barrie. Will Baxter come to his senses before the projectionist starts the second feature?
Fortunately, 'King of Burlesque' doesn't have to rely on its plot to be enjoyable. There are some goodish musical performances here, notably the great Fats Waller warbling my favourite of his standards: "I've Got My Fingers Crossed". Waller also has a good comedy scene with Baxter, playing the black servant who forgets to 'yassuh' de massah. Less impressive is Dixie Dunbar, a pint-sized tap dancer whose style seems to be midway between Ruby Keeler and Eleanor Powell, but without Powell's virtuoso skill and sex appeal.
I've always found Alice Faye very sexy, and she's sexier than usual here in two extremely kinky costumes: playing a (not very convincing) underage girl in a burlesque blackout, and then later performing a novelty number in full riding habit ... but with tights instead of jodhpurs! Faye is joined for this number by Herbert Mundin, who could have become one of the great Hollywood character actors if not for his untimely accidental death. Elsewhere, Gregory Ratoff brings genuine poignancy to a comedy role as a cod millionaire.
There's also some weird adagio dancing from Nick Long Jnr (who?), jumping over some chorus girls, and some rapid buck-and-winging from boy dancer Gareth Joplin (again, who?). Joplin's dance number here is an excellent showcase for him, and I'm sure that he thought this film would be his big break ... but, from here his next stop was oblivion.
I was surprised to learn that this film was Oscar-nominated for its dance direction. Frankly, none of the musical numbers (except Waller's) are staged especially well. Early on, while the characters played by Baxter and Faye are still in burlesque, I was impressed by one dance number which is staged badly on purpose: Faye and the Paxton Sisters attempt a dance in unison, but they're only vaguely dancing the same steps ... a very appropriate staging for a number that takes place in a working-class burlesque theatre.
'King of Burlesque' doesn't stand up to analysis. Even its title is sucker bait, as very little of this film takes place in burlesque. For all its faults, this is an excellent example of the sort of B-budget musical that was routinely ground out during Hollywood's golden era; I wish that modern Hollywood could routinely grind out musicals as "bad" as this one (meaning, as GOOD as this one) nowadays. My rating: 7 out of 10, mostly for Waller's number and Faye's incredibly sexy performance. Skip the plot, and fast-forward to the musical numbers.
Kerry Bolton (Baxter) decides to take his vaudeville revue to Broadway
and succeeds with one hit show after another. Helping him along are
blonde singer Pat Doran (Alice Faye) who helps arrange the musical
numbers and Joe Cooney (Jack Oakie) who ... well I could never figure
out how he was being helpful - to Bolton or the plot. Oakie is used to
much better comic effect in later Fox films such as "Tin Pan Alley".
Somewhat formulaicly, Bolton overlooks the adoring girl right under his nose (Pat) and falls for a society woman, Mrs. Rosalind Cleve, who is flat broke. She plays hard to get, mainly because she thinks Bolton is vulgar, but she eventually lets him catch her because his money helps her overlook what she considers his rougher points. Pretty soon she's changing Bolton both personally and professionally. She convinces him his shows are low-brow and persuades him to alter his style. The new shows may have class but what they lack are paying customers. Meanwhile, a heartbroken Pat has left for England to try and forget Bolton when she gets the news that Pat's career, money, and of course his fair weather wife are gone. How will all of this work out with Bolton's exuberance and self-confidence crushed by his recent bad judgment in both women and his work? Watch and find out.
There are really some catchy songs and good numbers in this one, and with Alice Faye singing how can you really go wrong? There's also some fine tap dancing with Fats Waller on piano as an elevator operator who finally gets his big break. There are also some numbers that are reminiscent of Busby Berkeley's work over at Warner Brothers about this time. Gregory Ratoff has a very small but quite funny role as a Depression era forgotten man posing as a millionaire. You'll see the plot coming at you from a mile away, but the point is musical escapism, and at that it succeeds quite well.
Contains a cast of veteran (by then) actors and actresses, whose combined presence would normally be counted on to produce a top notch musical, but is somehow lacking the punch to put it completely over the top. The writing isn't really crisp, either; Jack Oakie could have phoned this one in. Neither is the music itself memorable, although the closer, "Who's Big Baby are You?" might have had you humming on the way out of the theater. Bright spots were few, but a Fats Waller number is something to look for, and Mona Barrie is fine as the calculating Broadway socialite. Perhaps this is one that would really benefit from being seen on the big screen. Television doesn't do it justice, maybe.
People forget that "King of Burlesque" was made BEFORE those other
movies that used the same plot which other reviewers have referred to.
So what was becoming "run of the mill" by 1938 or 1943 was still
reasonably "original" in 1935/1936. Also, the plot isn't as hokey (for
me at least) when it's a musical COMEDY rather than musical
DRAMA/MELODRAMA as it was in those later movies. Hey, it's not to be
taken too seriously ... and I still enjoyed watching Mona Barrie
"giving it to" that upstart social climber Warner Baxter.
Actually, I searched for this movie because I vaguely remembered seeing Fats Waller in it when it was shown on TV decades ago. So I was surprised how much I enjoyed Dixie Dunbar's tap dancing routine when I finally got to see it.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The hijinks of 14th Street move to mid-town in this delightful musical
which takes "42nd Street's" Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) to Broadway
and into society after his easy money off of Union Square gives him the
means to tackle Times Square. Only the first ten minutes of this movie
shows him actually working in Burlesque; His girly-show revues with
low-down comedy (a la "Sugar Babies" and "The Nance") become more
elaborate and mainstream on Broadway, and very soon, he's the most
prominent producer of musical revues on the "Gay White Way". His
attendance at the auction of broke socialite Mona Barrie gives him an
introduction to society even though their initial meetings does not
leave her with a good impression of him. But a broke socialite needs a
rich man to keep her in furs, and when he suggests a marriage of
convenience to her to get his name in the society columns, she jumps at
the chance, even though she's in love with a boorish opera singer.
Standing in the background is the tough but love-lorn Alice Faye whom
he considers to be "one of the boys", not realizing the extent of her
affections. Of course, the relationship between Baxter and Barrie comes
to a sudden end, and it is up to Faye & Baxter's assistant (Jack Oakie)
to come to his aid to bring him back to the top of Broadway once again.
There are so many great moments in this film that it is difficult to single out individual scenes, but I have to give a special thumbs up to the inclusion of "Fats" Waller as the elevator man who gets to do his specialty in the finale of the finger-snapping "I've got my Fingers Crossed", making you wish all the more that he had another big number. The glorious "I'm Shooting High" is the other big production number, performed with gusto by Miss Faye and later repeated on Broadway in the burlesque musical "Sugar Babies" with equal aplomb by the legendary Ann Miller. With her Jean Harlow like platinum blonde hair and husky voice, Alice has a natural screen presence, a combination of sweet and sassy, and at times, she really just comes across so easy-going that the fact that she doesn't seem to be even acting makes her all the more likable. Dixie Dunbar is adorable as Baxter's secretary.
All the archetypes of the Broadway scene are present, with a few gay references thrown in that the Hays code didn't pick up on. I wanted to see more of the comic burlesque routines that sometimes really cut close to the border of good taste, but then again, good taste was something that burlesque never tried to emulate. As Baxter himself learns after taking wife Barrie's advice and producing something more sophisticated, he falls flat on his face and must return to the tried and true method of entertainment: scantily clad females singing and dancing, low down comic routines, and those fun little blackouts that usually ended with the orchestra playing the quick little "tah-dah" notes that indicated to the audience that they could laugh and applaud with the usually corny but often funny punch line.
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