Good backstage atmosphere, but too much soap opera
In her day Belle Baker was a top star, a singer of bluesy ballads who was a featured attraction in musical comedies and vaudeville. In 1926 she played the title role in the Broadway show 'Betsy' in which she introduced a song Irving Berlin wrote especially for her, a little ditty called "Blue Skies." Unfortunately, however, Baker belonged to that category of performer who failed to make a successful transition from the stage to the screen. She was short, plump, and not especially photogenic, and already matronly-looking in her mid-30s when talkies arrived. Belle's contemporaries Fanny Brice and Sophie Tucker weren't very successful in the movies either, but Brice went on to become one of radio's biggest stars while Tucker continued to headline in nightclubs and, eventually, television; meanwhile Baker's career lost momentum in the '30s and gradually petered out.
Song of Love, produced during the first wave of screen musicals in 1929, marked Belle Baker's only starring role in a feature film. She and Ralph Graves play a pair of married vaudevillians, Anna and Tom Gibson, who tour with a singing act that also features their young son Buddy. The central conflict in the story is introduced almost immediately: Anna comes to feel that their son is being deprived of a normal childhood and wants to send him to a regular school, while breezy Tom sees nothing wrong with Buddy growing up in show business. The conflict causes a split in the marriage. Anna buys a house, puts Buddy in school, and launches a solo career at a nightclub, while Tom forms a new partnership, on stage and off, with an attractive young woman named Maisie. Tom continues to travel the vaudeville circuit with his new partner. (Maisie is played by 21 year-old Eve Arden in her movie debut, billed under her real name of Eunice Quedens. Gee, no wonder she became Eve Arden!) Tom starts hitting the bottle and quickly hits the skids, but eventually, a crisis brings him back to his wife and son.
Theatre history buffs will find the backstage scenes of interest, but, sorry to say, the maudlin tone of the story will make Song of Love heavy going for most viewers. It made sense to cast Belle Baker as a mother, given her mom-like appearance, but the script doesn't give her much to work with beyond sentimental platitudes: Anna Gibson is the kind of idealized figure celebrated in the most flowery Mother's Day cards. Happily, there's one sequence that allows Belle to cut loose and demonstrate an unexpected gift for comedy. It arrives when Anna, now a solo performer, auditions for a nightclub gig. The club is co-owned by two men, one Jewish and the other Italian, and she has to sing for each of them separately. When she sings for Mr. Goldman she assumes a thick Yiddish dialect, but when her listener is Mr. Giuseppe she switches deftly to an Italian accent. (At another point she even throws in a Scottish burr!) This routine gives us a nice little taste of vaudeville and is quite funny, and would have made a good Vitaphone comedy short just by itself. Unfortunately, the bulk of the film lacks this sequence's energy and verve.
One minor footnote about Song of Love qualifies as something of an inside joke for movie buffs: the supporting role of acrobat Joe Sweeney is played by Arthur Housman, a silent comedy veteran best remembered as Hollywood's perennial comic drunk, staggering his way through dozens of bit roles, most notably with Laurel & Hardy. In this film Housman appears in the backstage scenes looking uncharacteristically clean-cut and clear-eyed, with a running gag of always borrowing the Gibsons' cold cream and never returning it. (It's not much of a gag, but it's all he's got.) Later on, when Tom Gibson hits the skids and is sitting blotto in a saloon, it's Joe Sweeney who tells him he must stop drinking and pull himself together.
So, if you're ever playing the movie edition of Trivial Pursuit, and you're asked to name the film in which perennial drunk Arthur Housman delivers a temperance lecture, remember Song of Love!
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