Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Film Review: Step Lively

"Step Lively" *** (out of ****)

"Step Lively" (1944) was the first film in which Frank Sinatra received top billing, after making cameos in previous films. His first "significant" role came a year earlier in "Higher and Higher" (1943). Here ol' blues eyes seems like a natural. Though he is not playing the kind of character he would play in the Gene Kelly musicals, which I have reviewed, like "Anchors Aweigh" (1945) and "On the Town" (1949). He is mostly playing a variation of his public persona. A kind of heartthrob with a voice that can make the ladies melt. As you might recall in his films with Kelly, it was he that was the ladies man. Sinatra was the insecure kid afraid of the opposite sex. In "Step Lively" Sinatra knows exactly what he wants.

A lot of people damn "Step Lively" because they like to compare it to other sources. The film is based on a Broadway play entitled "Room Service" which was filmed once before in a Marx Brothers' comedy in 1938. It was the first film the Brothers did which wasn't written exclusively for them. However Marx Brothers fans will say this movie is not as good as that one. But they are missing the point. "Step Lively" isn't trying to compete with "Room Service". These are two different movies with two different agendas.

In this musical adaptation George Murphy plays Gordon Miller (in the role Groucho played) as a Broadway producer a bit down on his luck. He has been struggling to find a backer for his latest musical comedy. Meanwhile he has been living at a hotel, at the expense of his brother-in-law, Mr. Gribble (Walter Slezak) who is the hotel manager. Miller currently owes $1,200 to the hotel. He has even allowed the cast of the production (22 actors) to live in the hotel as well. This allows for some funny jokes about their eating habits. There is an old joke that actors eat like animals. Here whenever Gribble hears the actors are in the dinning room eating, he starts to cry, complaining "they're eating again".

But Miller thinks his luck is about to change because a new backer is suppose to come in town, Mr. Jenkins (Eugene Pallette). If he can only get Gribble to leave him alone and fight off the financial examiner, Wagner (Adolphe Menjou) for a few days until Jenkins hands over a check for $50,000.

As happens in most musical comedies though, more mayhem is added. Glenn Russell (Sinatra) also wants to see Miller. Russell wrote a play, "God's Speed", which he wanted Miller to produce. He also sent Miller $1,500 for a percentage of the play's profits, which Miller accepted. Problem is Miller had no intention of ever producing Russell's play and only said he would for the money. But now Russell wants to know what he going on with his play or else he wants his money back. But there is a light at the end of this tunnel. Russell, it turns out, is a great singer and Miller thinks if he can get Russell to act in his play, it will turn out to be a big hit. But Russell doesn't want to act in a musical comedy. All he is interested in his producing his drama.

I suppose reading all of this it sounds like "Step Lively" has a lot going on but it all moves smoothly. The script movies very briskly, the whole running time, is 88 minutes, and that includes musical numbers.

The movie was directed by Tim Whelan. He got his start working in comedy, mostly for Harold Lloyd, he wrote two of Lloyd's best known films, "The Freshman" (1925) and "Safety Last" (1923). He also wrote scripts for Wheeler & Woolsey; "Peach O' Reno" (1931) and "Hook, Line and Sinker" (1930), both of which I have reviewed as well as "Safety Last". As far as his directing credits go he directed the comedy "The Divorce of Lady X" (1938) with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberson as well as "Higher and Higher".

Fans of comedy teams may get a little mad at me for not mentioning Wally Brown and Alan Carney are in this film. They play Harry (Carney) and Binion (Brown) best friends of Miller. I have written once before about Brown & Carney when I reviewed their most popular comedy "Zombies on Broadway" (1945). They were considered RKO's answer to Abbott & Costello. Between the years 1943 - 1946 they appeared in 12 comedies. Though I like to bring attention to the great forgotten comics, like Harry Langdon and Wheeler & Woolsey, I never really liked Brown & Carney. They weren't "really" a comedy team in the traditional sense. They didn't have set routines and defined characters. Here however they are quite amusing and a pleasure to see on-screen. The reason for this is because they are supporting players. The stars of the film are Murphy, Sinatra and Gloria DeHaven as Christine Marlowe, Miller's girlfriend whom Russell has set his eyes on.

The script only allows Brown & Carney to speak when they have something funny to say. They don't do any routines here and aren't presented as a "team", they are really just two individuals. But it all works to their advantage. Those not familiar with them probably wouldn't think much of their appearance here, at least in terms of thinking of them as a team, but they might make an impression on you. And I'd say it is one of the best movies they appeared in together.

The rest of the cast is filled with great actors. The film is really Murphy's show. He was a great song and dance man. I wrote about him when I reviewed "For Me and My Gal" (1942). Here though he has more to do musically. But it is his acting and humor which is on display here. Surprisingly the studio didn't get a comic for the role but Murphy is very charming in the role and pulls it off. I just wish there was a little more singing and dancing for him. We have to wait until the end of the film.

Eugene Pallette is a famous character actor. He was never a leading man but you'll recognize him. He was also in Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939), Ernst Lubitsch's "Heaven Can Wait" (1943) and Preston Sturges' "The Lady Eve" (1941). Walter Slezak might be best known for his performance in Alfred Hitchcock's "Lifeboat" (1944) a truly great film which is often overlooked in Hitchcock's cannon of films. If you want to see him do more comedy check him out in the Bob Hope comedy, "The Princess and the Pirate" (1944). And finally Adolphe Menjou was at one time a very big star known for his looks and dressing style. He was often voted one of the best dressed men in Hollywood. He use to be playboy types, watch him in the highly controversial and extremely entertaining "Morocco" (1930) with Marlene Dietrich. But as the years went on he did do more comedy, like the Harold Lloyd picture "The Milky Way" (1936) and the Gershwin musical "The Goldwyn Follies" (1938).

"Step Lively" does a lot of things right but the reason I mostly like it is because of the humor not the songs, which were written by Sammy Cahn and Jules Styne. But none of the songs are really memorable. None of Sinatra's hit songs are presented in the film. One interesting musical sequence is at the end of the film but it has nothing to do with he song. It is the technical qualities of it which make it interesting with a lot of trick photography.

I wouldn't say "Step Lively" is as much fun to watch as "Anchors Aweigh" is for example but "Step Lively" is a good old-fashion Hollywood musical with a lot of charm. Sinatra and Murphy make the film fun to watch.