Saturday, January 15, 2011

Film Review: Tin Pan Alley

"Tin Pan Alley" ** (out of ****)

I grew up in a household where Betty Grable and Alice Faye were considered major stars. To this very day I will talk about their movies with my grandparents. I always make sure to tell them when one of their movies will be played on TV.

I've never hidden my appreciation for the musical. A lot of great musicals were made in the 1930s. I find watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to be movie Heaven. I can honestly sit and watch them for hours. I also love the Warner Brothers musicals with Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler. And finally, I adore the 20th Century Fox musicals with Faye and Grable.

Both Alice Faye and Betty Grable were considered to be the "queens" of the Fox musicals. Faye reigned supreme on the Fox lot in the 1930s in musicals such as "George White's 1935 Scandals" (1935), "King of Burlesque" (1936), "Hollywood Cavalcade" (1939) and "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1938). She was all set to star in another Fox musical, "Down Argentine Way" (1940) but was replaced, last minute, by Betty Grable. That was the movie that turned Grable into a star (I have reviewed it) and made her a box-office champ. Her films were either number one or near the top spot for a decade. Many of you know during WW2 she was considered perhaps the most popular pin-up girl during the era.

I mention all of this because "Tin Pan Alley" (1940) is the only movie these two lovely ladies made together. I haven't seen the movie in years (I'd say around 20) and greatly looked forward to watching it again when it aired on TV recently. Sadly I was extremely disappointed.

In "Tin Pan Alley" Harry Calhoun (Jack Oakie) and "Skeets" Harrigan (John Panye) are a couple of struggling music publishers. In order to make some extra money Harrigan actually boxes and is considered to be pretty good. Maybe even championship material. Calhoun is a gambler and skirt-chaser. The two men consider closing down shop but when Calhoun notices a sister act, the Blane sisters, are in town, he thinks he can get them to plug one of their songs, since he knew them back in his vaudeville days. The sisters are Katie (Faye) and Lily (Grable).

The normal romantic set-up is used as Harrigan instantly falls for Katie and she for him. Harrigan thinks she is a great singer and wants to use her to plug all of his material. Meanwhile, sister Lily wants to find a nice sugar daddy in the music business to give her a break.

The complications become rather predictable. Harrigan is displayed as being power driven. He doesn't show Katie enough attention. All he thinks about is music and how to become famous. Katie would secretly like to quit the entertain game and settle down and start a family. She wants to fall in love.

This was quite a popular sentiment in movies. The majority of audiences who watched these movies back then probably weren't going to become famous, so Hollywood gives us a bit of the "Prince & the Pauper" story. Hollywood people secretly envy us as we long to be like them. Fame and money aren't everything. Better to lead a good life, fall in love and raise a family. Notice in movies when the women has to choose between the wealthy man, whom she really doesn't love, or the poor man, whom she does love, she always chooses the poor man. It is the same principle.

Though this story-line was also done before in another Alice Faye movie, "Hollywood Cavalcade" with Don Ameche (some suggest the film is based on comedy producer Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand). That film had the same set-up of a young man preoccupied with becoming famous and not paying enough attention to the woman who loves him. And in my opinion "Hollywood Cavalcade" does a better job. "Tin Pan Alley" doesn't go anywhere with the story. We don't believe these two people are really in love. Surprisingly Faye and Panye have little chemistry together, they fare much better in "Week-End in Havana" (1941) which I have also reviewed.

One interesting thing about "Tin Pan Alley" is the way Betty Grable is treated in this movie. By the time this film was made Grable had appeared in "Down Argentine Way", which was a hit. Here Grable has nothing to work with. She is really a supporting character, despite getting second billing behind Faye (!). Huge chunks of the film have nothing to do with her. She is not given a romantic interest and has only one song which showcases her properly. Alice Faye on the other hand is given much more screen time. The movie really wants to be a love story between her character and John Panye's. This is very telling about 20th Century Fox. It would appear, at this point in time, if they had to choose between Faye or Grable, they would have slided with Faye. I have to believe if this movie were made lets just say a year later Grable would have been given a love interest, possibly the Jack Oakie character and been allowed to sing more songs.

I also have a problem with the characters in this film. No one is really fleshed out. These characters are not real people, merely stereotypes and cliches. The film also doesn't have any feeling for the times, pre-WW1. It has neither a romantic sentiment towards the era or a celebratory one. I felt every performance comes off as bland. I'm not use to feeling that way about these actors. Alice Faye and Betty Grable had great star appeal. Other films took advantage of their beauty and their girl-next-door persona. They were beautiful but approachable. This time around I didn't feel that way.

Jack Oakie, whom was a popular comedian during the 30s and 40s, he is probably best known for his role in Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" (1940) for which he received his only Academy Award nomination (it was in the supporting actor category), isn't even funny in this movie. There is very little for him to do as well.

The film was directed by Walter Lang, a Fox studio director who made a career merely out of directing Betty Grable and Alice Faye musicals. His credits include "Moon Over Miami" (1941), "Song of the Islands" (1942), "Coney Island" (1943), "Greenwich Village" (1944) and "Week-End in Havana". I find all of those films slightly more entertaining than this film. They all do much more with their stars and have better writing.

That last remark is kind of an odd one because the writers were Robert Ellis and Helen Logan, who also wrote a good many Fox musicals such as "Sun Valley Serenade" (1941) which I have also reviewed and starred another popular Fox studio musical star; Sonja Henie. They were behind "Pin-Up Girl" (1944, which I have also reviewed), "Hello Frisco, Hello" (1943) and several Charlie Chan mysteries.

The film has a good supporting cast; Allen Jenkins, best known for his roles in Warner Brother musicals, the Nicholas Brothers, who appeared in several Fox musicals, Elisha Cook Jr., whom usually played thugs and gangsters and Billy Gilbert, who any fan of 1930s comedy will recognize.

The music on the other hand is so-so. Heard are "Moonlight Bay", "Goodbye Broadway, Hello France", "K-K-K-Katy" and two songs which historically don't belong in the movie, because they weren't written in the time period when the movie takes place, "Honeysuckle Rose" (Grable's only decent dance piece) and "The Sheik of Araby", which was written after Rudolph Valentino appeared in the film "The Sheik" (1921, which I have reviewed).

I'm usually a sucker for these type of films. I love Grable and Faye, honest I do. I have reviewed several of their films in the past and there is a good chance I will review more in the future but "Tin Pan Alley" just strikes me as a bit of a let down. Too bad. There was so much potential here with these two ladies in a film together.