entertaining Monogram "backstage" comedy-musical from Katzman-Beaudine, featuring Frank Fay and Billy Gilbert
From Sam Katzman's "Banner Productions" (of Bela Lugosi and East Side Kids fame--in one scene the movie poster from Katzman's Lugosi film "Bowery At Midnight" is seen in a theatre lobby) comes this vaudeville "review" which mixes up on-stage comedy and music with backstage antics (featuring, among others, the dynamic comedienne Iris Adrian, and in one of his final roles the great Harry Langdon as a stage director) and a plot about the rise and success of an ill-matched vaudeville duo, Frank Fay and Billy Gilbert. The film begins with Fay sneaking out of a hotel without paying, but getting caught. He goes to get a haircut from barber Billy Gilbert, and after trying to cheat Gilbert out of money, Fay and Gilbert become friends when Fay visits his home and hears him sing. They create an act together, and the film charts the gradual success of their act. As they play various venues, we see various little-remembered music and comedy acts (The Three Radio Rogues, who do impressions, Wee Bonnie Baker ("the tiny little girl with the tiny little voice"), Henry King's swing band, etc.) doing their acts. While Gilbert and Fay (who play versions of themselves) are very talented people, their "act" is not that good and it's hard to believe they'd get the offers that they do (one comes from Wheeler Oakman, not listed in the cast list). Still, the film is a nice window into an age long-gone, and it's interesting to see Frank Fay playing himself in the latter stages of his career. He had been a successful Broadway and vaudeville star in earlier days, but was on the way down at this time (why else would he be in a Monogram film!) and his legendary unpleasant personality (depicted here in the film by his conceited view of himself, his attempts to cheat others, and his two-faced character)probably didn't help him get work. As he is considered an influence on Jack Benny and other important comedians of that era, getting to see him while he was still somewhat in his prime is a treat. We also get to see his legendary routine of mercilessly picking apart the lyrics of songs sung by the vocalists who had the misfortune of appearing on the same bill with him. The few references I've seen to this film are because of Harry Langdon's presence, but unfortunately Langdon is not in the film that much (although his scenes are spread throughout the film)and he is not given an opportunity to engage in any extended comedy or to develop his character much. The pairing of Langdon and Iris Adrian could have been amazing, but they mostly play second banana to OTHER characters and don't get much interplay between themselves...unfortunately. Adrian gets more screen time than Langdon, as there is a subplot involving her and Fay (including an incredible scene on an apartment balcony that completely changes the course of the film, sending it into melodrama!!), and she's at her shrewish best. Had this been an MGM film, it would probably be slick and unwatchable, but the Monogram cheapness and slapdash production quality actually make the film far more watchable today. One scene worthy of praise is where Billy Gilbert suggests to Fay that they break up the act, for reasons that Fay does not know at the time. This is beautifully played by both of these old pros and actually brought a tear to my eye. Also, the film ends somewhat abruptly, but it's an ending that is moving and emotionally satisfying (I won't give it away)and works far better than any "traditional" ending I could imagine. Not a film that you need to track down (unless you are a Harry Langdon or Iris Adrian completist, or you are a student of Broadway who wants to see Frank Fay "playing himself"), but if you have a chance to see it, there are worse ways of killing 80 minutes (for instance, 15 of the 16 films playing at your local multi-plex!).
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