Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Let That Be a Lesson To You: Ted Healy in Hollywood Hotel

Ted Healy blew the bulk of his film career at a studio with no feel for comedy, finally found his niche on a loan-out, and then was killed less than a month before his greatest screen appearance had reached the public. It's not as though MGM didn't have its perks. Although he was generally handled as a utility comic, from the beginning the studio was willing to cast Healy in dramatic and semi-dramatic roles that helped boost his stock as a flexible character actor (and kept him extremely busy). Although Ted's dramatics are quite good in Stage Mother (1933) and Death On the Diamond (1934), his real strength was comedy, and MGM rarely delivered on that front. Warners, on the other hand, certainly did, and Ted's rough, streetwise persona was a neat fit for the Warners house style. So in 1937, Ted found himself at Warner Brothers, teamed with Dick Powell for a pair of major musical comedies; Varsity Show, directed by William Keighley, and Hollywood Hotel, directed by Busby Berkeley. It's a whole new world for Ted, and you can tell from the renewed gusto in his performances that he knew it. Warners was also clearly happy to have Ted on board. He's second-billed in Varsity Show, and while he's fourth-billed in Hollywood Hotel, he has even more screentime; so much, in fact, that the film is essentially a Powell/Lane/Healy vehicle. Varsity Show is terrific (and better than anything he appeared in at MGM) but Hollywood Hotel is far and away Ted's finest hour. He sings, he clowns, he shares the film's centerpiece musical number, "Let That Be A Lesson to You", with Dick Powell and Rosemary Lane, and Ted even "gets the girl" at the end (in this case the wonderfully weird Mabel Todd). Contrary to what you may have heard, by 1937, Ted was far from washed-up and adrift. He was a genuine box office draw appearing in huge roles in major musicals for one of Hollywood's Big Three. Any reassessment of his career should begin exactly here.

Ted meets Louella Parsons (no, she can't act worth a damn) in an elevator. SLAP! "Hey, Parsons!"

"... I like you on account-a ya got such a nice swollen face!" Ted's first scene with Mabel Todd, a stooge with a difference. In a just world, Todd and Healy would have made a dozen films together. Ted's throwaway lines and comebacks are priceless.

My favorite musical number of all time! Drive-ins!! Benny Goodman!!! Hamburgers! Poodles doing tricks!! Johnnie 'Scat' Davis!!! Richard Whiting and Johnny Mercer!! TED HEALY TORMENTING EDGAR KENNEDY!!!!! Powell and Healy imitating the Kennedy slow-burn!!!! MGM could never have made a number like this.

It would be a sin not to include the scene that follows. Ted so often played semi-straightman to other comics that it's incredible to see none other than Edgar Kennedy do the same for him! A whole new world, indeed!

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Blogger East Side said...

Healey's really good here. I never thought of Warners being much on comedy, but this was definitely the place for him to be. His delivery in the Louella Parsons scene is great; I like how he shoots a look at the audience when he says, "That's Parsons, alright" -- like he was trying to get the truth about her across.

2:09 PM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

Warners was the home of the Runyonesque comic wiseass... folk like Allen Jenkins and Allyn Joslyn, who were always good for some quick laughs in musical comedies. Ted fits right into that mold, but given his range (his performance in San Francisco got a lot of attention), it looks as though Warners was grooming him for more. I wonder where it would have led. What Warners wasn't known for were comedies built around star comedians. They tried with Olsen and Johnson during the early 30s, but the only other "star" comedy that springs to mind is 1937's "Sh! The Octopus" which teams Hugh Herbert with Allen Jenkins.

7:29 PM  

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