Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Singing in the Bathtub

Three weeks ago, a little thrift store around the corner from my house had a huge sidewalk sale. In order to clear out merchandise that wasn't moving, they were selling cassettes, LPs, and VHS tapes by the bag. Twenty-five cents a bag! Among the discarded copies of Home Alone II and National Lampoon's European Vacation were dozens and dozens of VHS tapes with Brother P-Touch labels. Each was meticulously numbered (at least up to 543!) and housed in a translucent clamshell case, and a cursory glance at the titles told me immediately that these were from the collection of a TCM/AMC addict: Varsity Show, A Song to Remember, Nancy Goes to Rio, Glorifying the American Girl, The Bamboo Blonde, Ali Baba Goes to Town, Maytime, Look for the Silver Lining, and on and on. Needless to say, I loaded the trunk of my car with these tapes. One title in particular caught my eye immediately. The Show of Shows (1929) was Warner Brothers' entry in the revue cycle of the late 20s/early 30s that also included MGM's The Hollywood Revue of 1929 and The Fox Movietone Follies of 1929 (and 1930). While the Fox and MGM revues place a decided emphasis on Broadway imports (and giving silent stars their last shots at salvaging their careers), The Show of Shows takes particular pleasure in forcing Broadway and silent stars into close quarters with one another regardless of the results. And certainly no other revue picture features so many silent comedians in their first speaking roles: Lloyd Hamilton, Chester Conklin, Heine Conklin, Lupino Lane, Ben Turpin, Bert Roach, and others. Unfortunately, the tape I purchased only has half of the film on it, cutting off in the middle of the two-strip Technicolor "Chinese Fantasy" number, so I have yet to see John Barrymore's talking debut, the "Bicycle Built for Two" number with Lloyd Hamilton and Chester Conklin, two skits with Frank Fay and Sid Silvers, and other cool stuff (sob). But I can bring you a couple of things this week. First, the incredible "Singing in the Bathtub" number featuring Broadway favorite Winnie Lightner. Winnie was, like Bobby Clark, another stage import whose personality was perhaps a little too outsized for film. She's just as raucous in Gold Dust Gertie (1931) as she is here... and when your performance style makes Olsen and Johnson seem sedate, you really may have crossed a line. Still, when it comes to belting out songs, Lightner is pretty damn incredible (she was known as the "Song-A-Minute Girl") and it's strange that after her Hollywood career fizzled in 1934, she never returned to the stage (to my knowledge). As if the "Singing in the Bathtub" number wasn't peculiar enough what with all the chubby guys in bathing suits and men in drag and the enormous bathtub, out steps silent heavy BULL MONTANA at the end to serenade Winnie! He's dreadful beyond belief, but the novelty of seeing the guy in a tux and singing must have knocked them out of their seats in 1929.

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Blogger East Side said...

These coinicidences are getting creepy. I just burned my copy of "Show of Shows" to DVD a couple of weeks ago. I taped it off of TNT in the '80s. It's complete, but all the color scenes are in black & white. Rin Tin Tin introduces the Chinese Fantasy number (you read that right). Barrymore's great; gives you an idea what he was like on Broadway. The rest of the movie... comme-ci, comme-ca. Emcee Frank Fay is a little annoying; I guess he's another of those "you had to see him in person" guys. On the other hand, I used to feel that way about Ted Healye, so maybe I should watch it again.

7:25 AM  
Blogger Bill said...

Wow, that Bull Montana finale is somp'n alright!

10:55 AM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

Kevin- Any possibility of working out a tape or DVD trade? I gots to see Barrymore's sequence! .. and I hear that the finale has to be seen to be believed.

9:31 AM  

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