Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Clarke Staffer Pens Film History Volume

By Ed Bradley
The photograph on the cover of my newly published movie history book is from It’s Great to Be Alive, a 1933 mix of music, comedy, romance, science fiction, and gender-role reversal – all set amid a global pandemic.
Ripped from the headlines? No, the image on the front of Hollywood Musicals You Missed: 70 Noteworthy Films from the 1930s (McFarland & Co.) was selected well before Covid-19. Much stranger than the real-life menace is the malady in It’s Great to Be Alive, which leads to the demise of the Earth’s entire male populace … save for one conveniently golden-voiced swain portrayed by Brazilian heartthrob Raul Roulien.
Even if It’s Great to Be Alive doesn’t seem quite as frivolous now as when I viewed it during my research, I love it, and its ilk, no less. This is my fourth book about Depression era American musical films. There have been decades of movie musicals with more patriotism, bigger bands, splashier color, pricier budgets, and rock ’n’ roll. But it is easy to dive into ’30s tune fests – and the talents of Fred Astaire, Busby Berkeley, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and others, with Tin Pan Alley and the advent of swing music – and not want to come up for air.
The more obscure, the better. Stellar figures such as Astaire, Berkeley, and Judy Garland deserve appreciation, but historians have discussed them and their pictures to death. That is why the new book includes entries on The Way to Love (1933), in which star Maurice Chevalier gets upstaged by a dog, and The Girl Said No (1937), a wonderful tribute to Gilbert and Sullivan that was a jukebox musical before there were jukeboxes.
Then there are the little-seen pictures starring Herbert Jeffries, the Detroit-born actor billed as the first African American singing cowboy; Dorothy Page, the first female Western singing actor; and Lou Gehrig, the New York Yankees star whose emoting in Rawhide (1938) makes you wish he would have spent some time away from playing first base to take acting lessons.
Screen musicals aren’t very popular in 2020. The thought of actors bursting into song unprompted is somehow too fanciful for the audiences who thrill at Star Wars or the Marvel Universe, although the success of La La Land and recent Queen and Elton John biopics provide some hope for the genre. As time passes, the sounds of the early films seem to grow fainter, more remote.
For my first book, The First Hollywood Musicals (1996), Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Maureen O’Sullivan, George Burns, Dorothy Lee, and other stars were alive for me to interview about their forays into song. They are gone now, but their vintage tune films should not be allowed to disappear. They won’t, as long as there are caretakers to make sure they are seen, heard, and preserved.