You know that damp, drizzly November of the soul that settles in when you’ve finished writing reviews for all the great black-and-white Fred & Gingers from the thirties? Okay, maybe you don’t know, but trust me, it’s a bear.
Fortunately, there’s a palliative, one that doesn’t involve either methodically knocking people’s hats off or spending three years of your life taking orders from a one-legged monomaniac with a thing about albino cetaceans. I’m referring to Hollywood Rhythms, Vol. 2, a new DVD from Kino featuring a collection of musical shorts from the thirties that range from the disastrous to the sublime.
The highlight of Hollywood Rhythms, Vol. 2 is “Office Girl,” a ten-minute short from 1930 that is nothing but Ginger, and she’s nothing but adorable, a 19-year-old brunette with a little curl right in the middle of her forehead. Ginger’s a stenographer1 cum flapper, pining for TD&H boss Clairborne Bryson (who, it must be said, looks like a Clairborne Bryson), who somehow never takes the hint. “I am cynical, he’s rabbinical,” she sighs, lamenting her inability to catch his eye. As she types up one of his letters, beginning “Dear sir, I am writing you,” she begins singing a love letter (“please inspect our new spring line, locked up in this heart of mine”) that carries her into a wonderfully naïve dream sequence. She’s in an evening gown in front of a chorus line of stenos, who have letters on their smock-like dresses and carry steno pads and pencils. She’s joined by her boss in a tux, reprising her song as “Dear miss, I just received your note.” When they kiss, the stenos hide their blushing faces behind their steno pads.
Ginger pops up again in a very brief three-minute skit, a gender-bending trifle called “The Girl Who Used To Be You,” with Jack Oakie in dubious drag. It’s one of a series of “Studio Snapshots” presentations, which were often shot on the set of a picture in front of a blank screen. A young Maurice Chevalier shows up, belting out “Louise,” and in a more elaborate bit we see Jeanette McDonald in her boudoir, giving us a nice glimpse of uncorseted bliss before launching into “Love Me Tonight.” The best and briefest of these clips is a wonderful two minutes with the Boswell Sisters, a close-harmony trio whose take on “The Heebie Jeebies” is simply too marvelous for words.2 You have to see it to believe it.
The rest of Hollywood Rhythms is a very mixed bag indeed, unearthing popular entertainment so dated and obscure you don’t believe it even after you’ve seen it. If you’re a Cary Grant obsessive, you can catch him in his very first film appearance, “Singapore Sue,” a brutally racist, sexist short that features Cary as a libidinous sailor in pursuit of Anna Chang (who fortunately rejects him for a shy Chinese boy).3 Bing Crosby appears in a pair of two-reelers he made for Mack Sennett in the early thirties, which combine his singing with rowdy slapstick.4 In a very brief bit, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys sing “Sittin’ on Top of the World.” The Playboys,5 who have a devoted cult following today, put together a strange mixture of country and western, swing, and blues — part of the primordial brew that eventually spat forth the rough beast known as rock and roll.6 Despite the rodeo outfits and violins, Wills drew heavily on black blues singers for his lyrics and vocal style, with more than just a touch of Fats Waller, and clearly liked to think of himself as a very bad boy.7
Ginger appears briefly as “Any Time Annie” in 42nd Street (1932), probably the ultimate backstage musical, which I guess is not much of a compliment, because I found this flick a dog. 42nd Street is available on DVD in a beautiful restoration, but unless you’re a Busby Berkeley addict, and I ain’t, there isn’t much to like.8
Ginger has a better part, but still only a supporting role, in Gold Diggers of 1933, available only on VHS. This is one where she sings “We’re in the Money” in pig Latin. In Stage Door, also available on VHS, Ginger has to endure Katherine Hepburn as a roommate. She dances a tap duet with Ann Miller that isn’t bad. The release of Chicago has stirred interest in Ginger’s 1942 version, Roxie Hart, out on VHS only. Roxie isn’t exactly a great film, but it definitely has its moments, particularly when Ginger fires a long-range pelvic thrust at a young admirer (George Montgomery).9
Ginger also starred in some very early musical shorts and one major early musical, Sitting Pretty, that are not available in any format. In this era of smart bombs and stupid people, such deprivation grows increasingly hard to endure. Passage on the Pequod, anyone?
- “Stenographer” is Greek for “she who takes shorthand.” In the good old days, before men could type, businesses employed thousands of women who took shorthand dictation from high-powered executives. The development of portable tape recorders more or less destroyed the steno business. [↩]
- The number is a loving recreation of Louis Armstrong’s 1925 recording with his Hot Five. The Boswells, led by sister Connee, flourished in the early thirties. For more information, go here. [↩]
- . Anna is accompanied by “Pickard’s Chinese Syncopators,” a vaudeville group who presumably toured the U.S. in the twenties and thirties. Talk about hard traveling! [↩]
- Sample gag: Bing’s mountainous prospective mother-in-law gets in a cab that contains a lion. In a long shot, we see the cab rock wildly and then an obviously cartoon lion comes flying out the window. “What a woman!” gasps an exhausted Leo. [↩]
- If you’re not already a member of the Bob Wills Discussion Group, check this out. [↩]
- Not to mention Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys. [↩]
- Wills admitted he didn’t have exact numbers, but insisted that, though not a model of stability, he’d had more horses than wives. [↩]
- The disc also contains three bonus shorts, and they’re all bad too! [↩]
- Ginger also has several serious catfights in the beginning of the film, and we definitely see more leg than in the pictures she did with Fred. We also see Nigel Bruce (“Dr. Watson” in the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes series) kissing Ginger’s foot. [↩]