Thursday, June 26, 2014

Glorifying the American Girl (1929)

Director: Millard Webb                                    Writer: Robert Dillon
Music: Irving Berlin                                        Cinematography: George J. Falsey
Starring: Mary Eaton, Dan Healy, Edward Crandall and Gloria Shea

The Ziegfeld Follies had their heyday in the late teens and early twenties. The brainchild of Florenz Ziegfeld, his shows were one of the most popular tickets on Broadway at the turn of the twentieth century and continued up until his death in 1932. Glorifying the American Girl is not an actual Follies production, but instead a few numbers inserted into a film of that name to capitalize on Ziegfeld’s popularity at the time. He had recently built his own theater in 1927 and put on productions of Rio Rita and Show Boat, both of which were made into films in 1929. Essentially the film is a simple backstage drama, like the 1929 Academy Award winner for best picture, The Broadway Melody, and so many of the Warner Brothers musicals from the thirties. It follows the story of a would-be singer and dancer and her round about route to the Follies. Not only did it make use of early sound technology, portions of the Follies section were filmed in Technicolor. The film is a weak one and primarily remembered today for the first screen appearance of Johnny Weissmuller, the Olympic swimmer who would go on to screen fame as Tarzan in the MGM series based on that character, and pales in comparison to review films like Universal's Technicolor King of Jazz from the following year.

The film begins with some special effect shots, people walking across the United States to get to New York, and the clock being turned back to 1919 and moving up to the present. With wheels of cars rushing by in the street and people walking down the sidewalks, beautiful women with regular occupations are superimposed over the scene and transformed with ornate gowns and backgrounds. The first hour of the film is a lengthy prologue called “No Foolin’” that begins in the sheet music counter of a drugstore where Mary Eaton sings songs for customers and Edward Crandall plays the piano. At the company picnic there are a series of acts, beginning with Dan Healy and Kaye Renard as a comedic song and dance team. When Healy sees her dancing to the music he offers to get her into show business, much to the consternation of boyfriend Crandall, and soon she heads out West with a vaudeville troupe. All of this leads to her been seen by one of Ziegfeld’s scouts, getting an audition back in New York, and performing in the follies. Though it tries to be dramatic at times, the actors are of decidedly low quality, which makes for a tedious time.

Once the review begins, the film is surprisingly not much more entertaining. After the chorus line performs a tableaux of a fantasy seaside scene is shown, complete with mermaid. The camera takes a slow pan back and forth, but no one on stage moves. The same could be said for Rudy Vallee who walks out and sings the song “Vagabond Lover” like a department store mannequin. Next is a tune from Show Boat sung by Helen Morgan, which is followed by a production dance number featuring Mary Eaton. Eddie Cantor’s comedy routing is next, and though the conceit of the film is that it is being performed in front of an audience, it feels a bit odd with no laughter. The finale features Johnny Weissmuller and a nude woman representing Adam and Eve figures. This is one of those unfortunate situations where the complete film itself has never been released commercially and thus the only available prints have been compromised in two ways. First of all they have been censored to eliminate the nudity that was part of the Follies, cutting almost nine minutes of that part of the show. Weissmuller’s part is cut out almost entirely except for a long shot at the very end of the film. Second, the Technicolor footage is shown in black and white. There are portions of it, approximately two minutes worth, on YouTube, but it is only bits and pieces of the color sections. Glorifying the American Girl may be the closest thing to a real Ziegfeld Follies performance but, saddled with the backstage drama, it’s not a very entertaining film.

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