Thursday, November 12, 2009

Film Review: Ready, Willing and Able

"Ready, Willing and Able" *** (out of ****)

With "Ready, Willing and Able" (1937) I get the opportunity to discuss a very talented song and dance lady, Miss Ruby Keeler. Her name might not be as well remembered to casual film fans as perhaps Ginger Rogers, but, Ms. Keeler made quite an impact on audiences in her Warner Brothers musicals where she was frequently paired with crooner Dick Powell.

"Ready, Willing and Able" sadly isn't one of her collaborations with Powell but it is nonetheless an entertaining, sweet, old-fashion musical with one great American standard as part of the score, which was written by the brilliant Johnny Mercer.

This film is not as fondly remembered as some of Ruby Keeler's other films such as "42nd Street" (1933), her first major role, after a short named in 1929 titled after her name, or even "The Gold Diggers of 1933" (1933). In those films Ms. Keeler shared the spotlight with a variety of other talents such as Powell, Joan Blondell and a very young (and may I add beautiful) Ginger Rogers. In "Ready, Willing and Able" all the weight is on Ms. Keeler's shoulders. She does a good job, but, that might be why the film isn't more of a knockout. There simply isn't any great outstanding talent here. There isn't anyone in the cast that really has star making ability. There are some good character actors, like Allen Jenkins, who was in "42nd Street", but whenever a film gives top billing to a slightly known character actor you know something fishy is going on.

But that may seem harsh and imply I don't think "Ready, Willing and Able" is a good movie. It is a good movie with a decent storyline which to be honest could have succeeded perfectly fine as a pure comedy without all the song and dance. Though if that were the case then we would miss out on hearing Mercer's song "Too Marvelous for Words" and the absolutely charming and highly inventive set-piece built around it. It is one of the major reasons to watch this film. It is something which could have come from the mind of Busby Berkeley. I was so surprised when I found out it didn't. I thought all these years that it actually did come from his mind. I hadn't seen this film for a couple of years. In fact, when I decided to devote this month to the movie musical, this was one of the films which instantly came to mind that I had to review.

In the film "Pinky" Blair (Lee Dixon) and Barry Granville (Ross Alexander) are a couple of struggling, starving artist. They have written a screenplay which they hope to get produced. A musical comedy entitled "Fair Lady", which will also have music written by them. They find a backer but with one hitch. The play will be produced and Barry can even star in it, but, because he is not a well known name it is felt a "name" actress will be needed for the lead. If Barry can get a new singing sensation from Britain, Jane Clarke (Wini Shaw) to appear in the play, the backer will put up $50,000. But, Ms. Clarke has never performed in the U.S. no producer has been able to persuade her. But "Pinky" and Barry are determined to try.

As this is going on an agent, Katzmeyer (Allen Jenkins) finds out about this, and her proposed salary, $1,500 a week, and decides he wants to represent her. But first he has to meet her. The problem is no one has ever seen what Ms. Clarke looks like. And because of this a case of mistaken identity ensues.

A young wanna be singer and dancer also named Jane Clarke (Ruby Keeler) is travelling with her school's musical group headed by Clara Heineman (Louise Fazenda) a one time dramatic actress. Clarke has big dreams one day about making it on Broadway. If she doesn't however she will have to marry Truman Hardy (Hugh O' Connell) a wealthy, stuffy, older gentlemen who has had his eye on Jane for years. But Jane doesn't love Truman and would jump at the chance to get rid of him.

You can probably guess where a lot of this is going to go. Katzmeyer signs the American Clarke to a contract who then agree to star in Barry's musical, which is now considered to be a sure-fire hit as everyone await Ms. Clarke's American stage debut. Jane never wanted to deceive anyone but her best friend, Angie (Carol Hughes) talked her into it telling her this is her big chance to become a star and dump Truman. The two ladies immediately realize they are in over their heads. But when Jane sees Barry it is love at first sight for the both of them.

The film has some fun with the mistaken identity angle but I felt didn't really explore all the possibilities it could have. Still there are some very funny moments like when Jane meets some fellow countrymen who claims to know some of Jane's friends. Of course she has no clue what these people are talking about and makes the situation worst. At the stage rehearsals she is reluctant to sing, saying she caught a cold on the trip to America and plays some of the English Ms. Clarke's records in her dressing room to be the illusion she is singing.

Also for humor there is Jenkins whose agent character is a sneaky con-man, always looking for a way to make a buck and Fazenda's pompous Ms. Heineman with her grand tales of her successful stage career, which we suspect was never all that impressive to begin with. She also performs an old comedy routine concerning her trying to sing a song while asking one of the stage hands for their opinion. The stage hand though is preoccupied and is giving orders to someone else about the set, shouting things out like "lower", "higher", "to the right". Ms. Heineman thinks the directions are for her. If you are a fan of comedy you might know Abbott & Costello for performing this routine. But this movie came out first.

"Ready, Willing and Able" is perhaps the only film I can think of where the two top billed stars are not the romantic interest. Lee Dixon, who didn't have a long lasting career. Is given second billing but is not the love interest. Strangely Ross Alexander is the love interest and is given a much lower billing but he has just as much screen time as Dixon, who was a tap dancer. Plus it is Alexander who sings "Too Marvelous for Words".

Warner Brothers must have thought they had something great in Wini Shaw. I never really thought too highly about her. She sings the big finale in "The Gold Diggers of 1935" (1935) which is the song "Lullaby of Broadway". She was an adequate singer, admittedly probably better than Keeler, but, didn't have a star's personality. She never became a big star.

As for Ruby Keeler she was hardly a great actress but there was something inviting about her. She had a sort of girl next door look to her which would make an audience warm up to her. Her dancing was good but to me wasn't as good as Ginger Rogers or Eleanor Powell. Still she is fun to watch. As I said already, because she wasn't a better actress it kind of hurts the film. There are no great actors here helping Keeler out. Some movie fans might be interested to know she was married to Al Jolson for 12 years between 1929-1940. After the two divorced Keeler quite show business but did return to the stage in the 1970s.

The movie was directed by Ray Enright who had directed several comedies and musicals. Of the comedies he directed I saw the ones with Joe E. Brown; "The Tenderfoot" (1932) and "The Circus Clown" (1934) among them. But it directed some decent musicals as well, which were also with Ruby Keeler like "Dames" (1934) where Dick Powell sings "I Only Have Eyes For You" to Keeler and "Gold Diggers in Paris" (1938), the final film in the "Gold Diggers" series.

"Too Marvelous for Words" is the best song in the movie though Keeler sings a catchy piece in the beginning called "Handy with Your Feet". Here Keeler can demonstrate her dancing skills. Alexander also gets to sing another song "Just A Quiet Evening" which is not memorable.

"Ready, Willing and Able" is a lot of fun to watch. It has some good comedy and a really impressive musical number at the finale to "Too Marvelous for Words" plus Ruby Keeler gets in some good dancer routines. The downside is she doesn't have the right personality to head a movie and isn't surrounded by better actors. Still, fans of musicals and of classic movies will get some pleasure out of this movie. It is no "42nd Street" but it still has its moments.