Friday, November 13, 2009

Film Review: Chasing Rainbows

"Chasing Rainbows" *** (out of ****)

Watching a film like "Chasing Rainbows" (1930) makes me angry that most people don't take film preservation more serious. Movies deserve to be preserved. When we lose movies we are losing a part of history. It makes me sad to think how many films are considered lost. How many film masterpieces have audiences been robbed of? How many great performances will we never see?

"Chasing Rainbows" is an MGM musical which was made on the heels of "The Broadway Melody of 1929" (1929) which won a "Best Picture" Oscar and "The Hollywood Revue of 1929" (1929). It stars quite a few of the same people and was MGM's latest effort to cash in on the success of the movie musical. The film became part of American history because it was the film which featured the song "Happy Days Are Here Again". That song has become the stuff of legend. Written in 1929 it has been debated when the song was actually written. Many have claimed the song was written after the stock market crash of 29. That it was suppose to represent hope. But the song was actually written before the market crashed. The song was recorded by Leo Resiman & his Orchestra back in November of 1929, a month before the Great Depression began. And even with that economic downturn the song somehow became a symbol of the times. It enjoyed immense popularity during the 30s. It even took on a political life during the 1932 Presidential Election when the Democrat candidate, Franklin Roosevelt chose it as his theme song.

And that is what makes me sad about "Chasing Rainbows". Portions of the film are lost. The film's finale where Charles King sings "Happy Days Are Here Again" is gone forever. We will never be able to see that iconic moment. Luckily there is audio available and we can here King sing the song but the visual is lost. And that's not the only missing footage in "Chasing Rainbows". A few other musical numbers are gone. The film was originally released as a two-strip Technicolor film but that print is gone. What is available is a black & white version.

"Chasing Rainbows" also signaled the decline of the movie musical. Musicals were extremely popular when the movies began to talk. One of the most successful films of the early sound era was "The Gold Diggers of Broadway" (1929), which is also considered lost except for a few surviving moments. With that Hollywood went into a frenzy releasing one musical after another. It got so that audiences simply grew weary of them. This caused studios to actually re-edit films which were intended to be released as musical and eliminate all the songs. This was the case with "50 Million Frenchmen" (1931), a Cole Porter musical which I have reviewed. It was released as a straight comedy starring the team of Olsen & Johnson. There was also "Top Speed" (1930) a Joe E. Brown comedy. The musical score was scratched there too. So "Chasing Rainbows" came at a time of transition. The film was completed in 1929 in fact, but, was withheld until 1930 because of the public's feelings towards musicals.

As it stands now the film is primarily a sappy romance melodrama with a plot that resembles "The Broadway Melody" which starred Charles King and Bessie Love, both appear in "Chasing Rainbows" too and are playing characters facing similar problems.

Here King and Love play a song and dance team; Carlie (Love) and Terry (King). They have been together for years but secretly Carlie is in love with Terry. She has become his second mother figure. She prepares his costumes, folds his clothes and makes sure he eats. Without her Terry would be lost. But he doesn't seem to appreciate all she does for him. Meanwhile the theatrical troupe they are traveling with, headed by Eddie (Jack Benny), feels Carlie is too good for Terry.

What is most disturbing to Carlie is Terry's love life. He always falls for the leading lady of the show and eventually has his heart broken. And then hints at suicide, mostly to gain sympathy. And he tells his problems to Carlie who must sit and wait patiently for Terry to come to his senses.

This leads Eddie to select a new leading lady for the company, Daphne Wayne (Mita Martan) who once dated one of the other actors, Don Cordova (Eddie Phillips). But Terry once again falls for the leading lady. But Daphne has a plan. Why not date Terry to advance her career and see Don on the side? When Carlie over hears this plan and tells Terry it is interpreted as jealousy.

You can pretty much guess what will happen. The film doesn't have anything surprising in store for us. Everything goes according to plan. Still there are some flaws. Terry does have a sudden change of heart concerning Carlie. He realizes that he does love Carlie but the change happens all of a sudden. There is no lead up to it. Usually a film will offer us some subtle hints. We will gradually see a change in the character. Here it just happens at the start of the next scene.

And then there is all those missing scenes. This is not the fault of the actors or director but it does make "Chasing Rainbows" a somewhat disappointing experience. It offered a challenge for me on how to rate the movie. The film isn't even really a musical. Two songs have survived. Terry singing "Lucky Me, Loveable You" to Carlie and Daphne singing "Do I Know What I'm Doing?". The songs that are lost are "Everybody Tap" performed by Carlie, "Love Aint Nuthin' But the Blues" sung by Terry and "My Dynamite Personality" by Bonnie (Marie Dressler) a comedienne traveling with the show.

For me the most enjoyable person to watch was Jack Benny. Benny is best known for his work on radio and his long running television. He is one of my favorite comedians and in my opinion the king of comedy timing. Shamefully I have never reviewed any of his film work. I promise to do so in the future. So I won't go into a bio of who he was. Benny's primary role in the film appears to be to tell jokes. He almost plays the same kind of character he played in "The Hollywood Revue of 1929", where he played "himself", as a Master of Ceremonies. That is sort of what he is doing here. He is just giving us his routines. Sometimes his character he suppose to be talking to the troupe but the camera just stays on him as Benny practically looks into the camera telling jokes. As for as the story goes Benny's character isn't essential. If someone else had played it, it probably wouldn't have made an impression on me. But it is fun to see such as early role for Benny before he became the cheap, vain penny pincher.

Charles King and Bessie Love are enjoyable as well. I honestly prefer Love this time around. She was a good actress. She was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in "The Broadway Melody of 1929". She was able to bring the viewer in and care about her character. I suppose on one level we can relate to her situation, being in love with someone who doesn't notice her. King isn't as sympathetic. We wonder what is wrong with him? Why doesn't he realize how wonderful Carlie is?
I suppose I should say a word about Marie Dressler too. I've reviewed some films in which she was in. The most recent would be "The Patsy" (1928). She was at one time a top box-office draw. She made her film debut in 1914 appearing in the Mack Sennett comedy "Tillie's Punctured Romance" (1914) with Charlie Chaplin. Today she is best known to film buffs for her role in "Dinner at Eight" (1933), a sparkling all-star MGM comedy with Jean Harlow, Lionel Barrymore and Wallace Berry. Here she along with Benny supply the comedy relief.

"Chasing Rainbows" is a bit of a tough sell in my opinion. The only reason I wanted to watch the film was to see the "Happy Days Are Here Again" number. When I realize all the musical numbers were lost I became very disappointed. But at the end of the day I'm telling you to see it. Why? The film has a historical significance. Film buffs will be interested in watching it. And those starting to develop a more serious interest in cinema will want to see it as well. "Chasing Rainbows" is no masterpiece. It is not even a great musical. It is a decent, by the numbers, melodrama. The films works because of the charm of the actors. It is fun watching Benny and Bessie Love and it is nice seeing King sing his one remaining song. If that sounds good enough for you than I'd say see "Chasing Rainbows".