Thursday, December 4, 2014

Babes on Swing Street, and Bowery to Broadway - 1944

Babes on Swing Street and Bowery to Broadway, both released in 1944, are examples of the old studio system as both an incubator for talent, and a factory assembly line devoted sometimes more to quantity than quality. They were the last two musicals Ann Blyth would appear in for many years as her career took a sharp dramatic turn with far more challenging roles. It is astounding to think after Bowery to Broadway, in which she appeared only a few minutes at the end of the film, that her next project would be Mildred Pierce for Warner Bros., and an Academy Award nomination.

We covered her first two films under her new Universal contract, Chip off the Old Block and The Merry Monahans, also released in 1944, here. Lightweight musical comedies featuring teen stars, they were a good start for the young Ann Blyth, new to pictures, though she was coming to Hollywood with the impressive pedigree of a prestigious Broadway show under her belt, Watch on the Rhine. It was likely this reputation as a serious child dramatic stage actress, the prestige of that show, her own prettiness and demure demeanor that caused the casting directors to launch her film career in the persona of a sophisticate, a rich girl, a nice girl, or all three. Another factor to her being cast as the all-American girl everyone wanted as a friend or daughter was her soprano singing voice.

Jack Ano, in his introduction to Hollywood Players: The Forties aptly puts it:

The Hollywood definition of “class” knew no boundaries and there was nothing ritzier at the time than a soprano. Gloria Jean, Mary Lee, Ann Blyth, Susanna Foster, Kathryn Grayson, and Gloria Warren, at various times, served as the junior league Deanna Durbins…

As mentioned in a previous post, though MGM grabbed the “lion’s” share of attention when it came to so-called “backyard musicals,” it was really Universal that produced more teenage talent. When Deanna Durbin abandoned ship, the void was filled not by a single replacement, but by a cadre of young adults. The ritzy sopranos listed above were joined by Grace MacDonald, Donald O’Connor, and Peggy Ryan, and The Jivin’ Jacks and Jills. We’ve noted in the post on Chip off the Old Block and The Merry Monahans that the dance/comedy team of O’Connor and Ryan was something special and couldn’t be beat.

By the time Ann Blyth arrived at Universal to make the duo a trio, several movies were put into production at once to use Donald O’Connor as much as possible before he entered the army. It was a quick splash into movie making for the newcomer, but Ann felt, “It was an incredible and enriching experience.”

Babes on Swing Street (a cheeky coincidence but no relation to MGM’s Babes in Arms, Babes on Broadway, etc.), starred Peggy Ryan and Ann (sans Donald). Except for the old one-reeler comedies with Zasu Pitts and Thelma Todd (or others), I can’t think of a female team given top billing together. To be sure, this was more B movie than A list, and the predominantly youthful cast and focus on ambitious teens “making good” (are young people encouraged to “make good” anymore or just make money?), the critics who bothered to review the film dismissed it as “one of those minor league musical affairs…”

Directed by Edward C. Lilley, the movie lasts just over an hour, and though brief, is stuffed with songs, gags, and a plot somewhere in there if you look hard enough. Peggy Ryan is the president of kids’ club at the local settlement house where teens meet to play ping pong and get off the streets.

They are also all very talented singers, musicians, and tap dancers, and want to “make good.” A music academy (headed by our old pal Ian Wolfe) will give ten of them partial scholarships if they can come up with the rest of the tuition.

Ann hangs out at the settlement house, too, but she’s a rich girl who lives with a domineering aunt, played by Alma Kruger, and befuddled uncle, played by Leon Erroll. Her attempts to help the kids are constantly rebuffed by the resident heartthrob played by Billy Dunn, who resents her for her wealth. Why she’s stuck on this unpleasant boy, and why he suddenly turns around and falls for her at the end is never really clear. He just does. Probably because she’s the soprano.

Ann uses the word, “solid” as a compliment to prove she is hep, as do others in the movie to remind us these teens are in the groove. They’re not groovy; they’re just in the groove.

The gang decides to open a nightclub for teens to raise the funds. Ann donates her aunt’s empty rental property, a hall, and the kids scramble getting tables, food, aided by swell grownups Kirby Grant, Ann Gwynne, and Andy Devine, who plays Peggy Ryan’s father. We mentioned in this previous post on Ann’s stage career that Mr. Devine played her pop, Cap’n Andy, in Showboat on tour in the 1970s.

June Preisser has a flashy role as the eye-rolling junior vamp (which was her stock in trade, no matter what studio she roamed or what teen couple she tried to break up), and demonstrates astounding skill, as usual, in her ability as an acrobat and contortionist, with rolling flops on stage that seem to indicate she was without vertebrae. June was actually older than the other kids, something like 23, already a wife and mother when she made this film, some eight years older than Ann Blyth, but with her cute looks and cherubic grin, she played young. Her junior Mae West number: “I’ve Got a Way with the Boys.”

She is Ann’s rival for Billy Dunn’s affections, but, interestingly, nobody is paired with Peggy Ryan, despite her being the lead. A comedienne hardly catches a romantic break, though she could do much more than comedy. (I like her handling of the line, “Lay off the sarcastics.”

“You mean sarcasm.”

“I like sarcastics. It sounds more…sarcastic.”)

Peggy, with three dance numbers, is showcased more than the other kids. Her routines here are not quite as athletic as her slam-dunk partnerships with Donald O’Connor, but demonstrate her really fine versatility in balletic, tap and comic novelty dancing.

One number she sings and dances is a parody of a Russian folk dance, in deference perhaps to our wartime allies. Why critics seemed to write off this prodigious talent as mere clowning, or why Universal didn’t widen her range of roles, I don’t know, but Peggy Ryan was one of the most talented performers of the era.

Ann sings “Peg O’ My Heart” backed by a male chorus, demonstrating a pretty voice, but nowhere near the range or power she developed down the road. We don’t see much of the other acts, which are filler, except for Sidney Miller as a wise guy emcee who does imitations of Hollywood stars, including Katharine Hepburn, complete with calla lily.

The movie ends with the finale and everybody on a stage much too large to accommodate this rented hall, and this must mean the kids have “made good.”

You can see the entire movie free on the Vimeo site here. Below, the trailer.

Bowery to Broadway turns the reins over to the grownups, though Susanna Foster, Peggy Ryan, Donald O’Connor, and Ann Blyth all have brief roles in specialty acts. Jack Oakie and Donald Cook are the stars. They are competitors and later partners in producing shows from…the Bowery to Broadway. You’ll remember Donald Cook as Ann’s father in Our Very Own (1950), covered here.

It’s a passing parade of years story of vaudevillians and impresarios stealing acts from each other, spanning from about 1900 to about 1930. Everybody on the Universal lot showed up for a scene or two in this one: Maria Montez, Leo Carrillo, Andy Devine, Evelyn Ankers, Thomas Gomez (our old favorite, who appeared with Ann in Swell Guy here and who squires around Louise Allbritton as Lillian Russell), Snub Pollard, Walter Tetley—who, like Ann, performed on the Coast to Coast on a Bus radio show as achild in New York, see our intro post.

Most reviews were disparaging. Syndicated columnist Harold V. Cohen:

Universal has put a lot of people into Bowery to Broadway and virtually nothing else. In talent, or at least in the abundance of talent, it goes sky-high. In originality and imagination, it hits rock-bottom.

Buck Herzog of the Milwaukee Sentinel thought the movie:

…is a rambling musical…there can be little in the story that can termed refreshing, much of it being a rehash of shopworn cinema situations. But there is music, glittering production scenes…

It is a hodgepodge, and the material is familiar, but I think that is what makes the movie enjoyable. These are the good old days, even the sad times, and nostalgia works when parody is teasing, but not mean or condescending. Most of these theatrical show movies are really valentines to the art and era, and especially poignant when you know that many of the actors in such movies began in vaudeville. Or even, like Ann, had hit “the big time” on the legitimate Broadway stage. They are, in a sense, paying homage to their own roots.

A charming scene were Lillian Russell leads an impromptu sing-a-long with “Under the Bamboo Tree,” and another bright spot in the film is the comic patter between Ben Carter and Mantan Moreland, whose fortunes rise to become owners of a Harlem night club. In a really funny routine, their old vaudeville act really, they finish each other’s sentences with impeccable timing. At one point when Donald Cook and Jack Oakie are down and out, and Mr. Carter and Mr. Moreland offer to loan them money, flush with success and driving their own big convertible, a rare scene for African American performers in a movie from this era.

Susannah Foster was riding a crest of popularity from her best role as Christine opposite Claude Rains in the 1943 Phantom of the Opera, but her film career would be brief, and after taking time to study in Europe to improve her operatic voice, an expected and desired comeback never happened.

We get a little bit of everything here: the footlights, the neon, the headlines from Variety and Billboard, the Lambs Club, the star treatment, the bum’s rush, a tossed garter, a tragedy. Frank McHugh and Rosemary DeCamp are a pair of hoofers, who struggle for years to make “the big time.” They never make it. In one of the most poignant scenes, they overhear a producer for whom they’ve auditioned call them “old hat—they don’t belong here.” Dejectedly, they ponder the lights of Broadway out a window in an empty hallway, when an elevator operator asks them,

“Going up?”

Frank McHugh shakes his head, “Going down.”

We see them next struggling to run a children’s dance school in their apartment. One little girl is particularly terrible. She has no rhythm and does everything opposite to what the other kids do. She’s about as coordinated as an elephant. She’s their daughter.

You have to laugh. The one thing they want more than being on Broadway is seeing their kid succeed, but a pirate with a peg leg is a better dancer. But the husband-and-wife team of McHugh and DeCamp is really the spirit of the movie, the joy of performing and the broken hearts that result from rejection. At one point Jack Oakie, on the outs with his partner, is fed up with producing shows because he has been shoved into the position of bean counter, and the gloss of the modern shows has no heart like the old time variety. Rosemary DeCamp puts his misery succinctly, “It’s just business, not show business. Not the part that gets under your skin. The all-night rehearsal, the put it together, pull it apart.”

But the years pass, and finally Oakie and Cook decide to reunite and stage a new show, nothing high falutin’ or artsy, just good old fashioned entertainment, (I love the line, “It’ll make Blossom Time look like a one-night stand.” The Sigmund Romberg hit ran a year and a half in the early twenties.) They have a new singer they found in some theater amateur hour and give her a chance. She turns out to be McHugh and DeCamp’s ungainly daughter, now grown up and pretty as a picture—and not a dancer at all, but a singer. She is Ann Blyth.

Mom and Pop are fit to bust with pride to see their kid’s name in lights, even if still chagrined that she can’t dance. You’ll remember, by the way, that Rosemary DeCamp also played her mother in The Merry Monahans.
Also appearing in their great new show are Donald O’Connor and Peggy Ryan performing the parody of a Gay Nineties cad and the tragically duped woman lured by his promise of wealth, “He Took Her For a Sleigh Ride in the Good Old Summertime.” It’s a funny and fun number, but the dancing is merely just a gentle soft shoe here. O’Connor is especially humorous with his careful rolling R diction as a “mellerdramer” villain, complete with waxed handlebar mustache.

Ann is given the spotlight in the finale with the frothy production number, “Sing What’s in Your Heart.” She enters on a throne, with a chorus of springtime nymphs around her.

An interesting scene shows Jack Oakie and Donald Cook in the plush lobby of the Broadway theater in which their big show is going on, and as they head up a grand staircase, we see large portrait paintings of whom we might assume to be great theatrical headliners of the past.

Look closely. One is of Donald O’Connor, and one is Ann Blyth, which looks like a version of one of her publicity stills of the time.

Bowery to Broadway had been on YouTube for a time, and a possibly gray market DVD might be found, otherwise you’re out of luck.

Interestingly, Ann is billed with the stars and ahead of others in the cast with larger roles (she’s really only in this movie for a matter of minutes), which I think signals the fact that Universal, in disbanding their Jivin’ Jacks and Jills youth unit, were putting all their chips on Ann as someone who could grow beyond a teen performer. Three movies were released one after another in successive months: The Merry Monahans in September 1944, followed immediately by Babes on Swing Street in October, and the last, Bowery to Broadway in November.

Then she had a screen test over at Warner’s for a new Joan Crawford movie: Mildred Pierce. The leap from teen nice girl soprano to the glossy Noir and one of the screen’s most nasty characters is astounding, and we can attribute it to Ann’s tenacious and insightful agent named Al Rockett who got her a screen test; an indulgent star who offered to make the test with her: Joan Crawford; and that screen test.

According to an article in Photoplay, January 1956, Mr. Rockett fought for the test and told Warner’s “Throw the toughest scene you have at her.” It was the confrontation scene where Ann slaps Joan.

The director, Michael Curtiz, was convinced. Ann won an Academy Award nomination for the role of Veda Pierce, at seventeen years old, the youngest person to receive the honor up until that time.

Twelve years later, Ann did another screen test for Michael Curtiz, also for Warner Bros. She was not considered a likely candidate for this role, either, perceived as being too sweet, but agent Al Rockett came through again, and she was allowed to test. Lightning struck twice, and Ann blew everybody away with her screen test. She won the lead in The Helen Morgan Story. It would be her last movie.

We’ll talk about it next Thursday.

©Jacqueline T. Lynch, 2007-2014. All rights reserved. If you're reading this on a site other than Another Old Movie Blog, please be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

Ano, Jack, introduction to Hollywood Players: The Forties by James Robert Parish and Leonnard DeCarl (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1976), p. 14.

Dick, Bernard F. City of Dreams – The Making and Remaking of Universal Pictures (University Press of Kentucky, c. 1997) pp. x, 129

Milwaukee Sentinel, December 23, 1944, review by Buck Herzog, p. 6; February 16, 1945 review by Buck Herzog, p. 6.

Photoplay, January 1956, “Her Guardian Angel Kissed Her” by Maxine Arnold, p. 82.

Pittsburgh Post Gazette, December 25, 1944, review by Harold V. Cohen.

THANK the following folks whose aid in gathering material for this series has been invaluable:  EBH; Kevin Deany of Kevin's Movie Corner; Gerry Szymski of Westmont Movie Classics, Westmont, Illinois; Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear; and actor/singer/author Bill Hayes.  And thanks to all those who signed on as backers to my recent Kickstarter campaign.  The effort failed to raise the funding needed, but I'll always remember your kind support.
UPDATE:  This series on Ann Blyth is now a book - ANN BLYTH: ACTRESS. SINGER. STAR. -
The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon, CreateSpace, and my Etsy shop: LynchTwinsPublishing.

 "Lynch’s book is organized and well-written – and has plenty of amusing observations – but when it comes to describing Blyth’s movies, Lynch’s writing sparkles." - Ruth Kerr, Silver Screenings

"Jacqueline T. Lynch creates a poignant and thoroughly-researched mosaic of memories of a fine, upstanding human being who also happens to be a legendary entertainer." - Deborah Thomas, Java's Journey

"One of the great strengths of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is that Lynch not only gives an excellent overview of Blyth's career -- she offers detailed analyses of each of Blyth's roles -- but she puts them in the context of the larger issues of the day."- Amanda Garrett, Old Hollywood Films

"Jacqueline's book will hopefully cause many more people to take a look at this multitalented woman whose career encompassed just about every possible aspect of 20th Century entertainment." - Laura Grieve, Laura's Miscellaneous Musings''

"Jacqueline T. Lynch’s Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is an extremely well researched undertaking that is a must for all Blyth fans." - Annette Bochenek, Hometowns to Hollywood

Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. 
by Jacqueline T. Lynch

The first book on the career of actress Ann Blyth. Multitalented and remarkably versatile, Blyth began on radio as a child, appeared on Broadway at the age of twelve in Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine, and enjoyed a long and diverse career in films, theatre, television, and concerts. A sensitive dramatic actress, the youngest at the time to be nominated for her role in Mildred Pierce (1945), she also displayed a gift for comedy, and was especially endeared to fans for her expressive and exquisite lyric soprano, which was showcased in many film and stage musicals. Still a popular guest at film festivals, lovely Ms. Blyth remains a treasure of the Hollywood's golden age.

A new collection of essays, some old, some new, from this blog titled Movies in Our Time: Hollywood Mimics and Mirrors the 20th Century is now out in eBook, and in paperback here.


Kevin Deany said...

I've never seen any of these Universal musicals, but they sound really entertaining.

I love Mantan Moreland and Ben Carter together. They do their vaudeville routine in a couple of the Monogram Charlie Chan movies, and they're hilarious together. Impeccable timing.

Thanks for highlighting these rarities.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Kevin, I agree Moreland and Carter are hysterical, that routine is still great. Frankly, I think they're better than anything Abbott and Costello ever did together.

grandoldmovies said...

"He Took Her for a Sleigh Ride in the Good Old Summertime"? Oh, I do wish they still wrote songs like that. What ever happened to Peggy Ryan? She was a real firecracker. I wonder had she had been at a studio like MGM, which really went all out to glamorize such unclassically beautiful stars as Judy Garland and Eleanor Powell, if she would have had a longer career and maybe have made her mark in better musicals.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

It's a cute song, GOM, and the performance is silly and charming. Peggy Ryan's career was fairly brief, and I think she went on to teaching dance to children. I don't know if she would have fared better at MGM, maybe so. I think, like Garland, she had a dramatic ability as well, but did not get much of a chance to show it. She has a very brief spot as a starving kid in the transient camp in GRAPES OF WRATH (1939) that shows great promise. Terrifically talented.

Caftan Woman said...

Those nostalgic old show biz movies have a lot to answer for in forming my view of life!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

They're great, aren't they? A genre unto itself.

ClassicBecky said...

I have to go with Kevin and CW -- I adore Mantan and Ben doing their interrupted sentences routine -- I've seen them in Charlie Chan movies. I too have these kind of movies responsible for a lot of my view of life, not always a good thing, but I love 'em! I have not seen these 2, and your reviews are wonderful. Good one, Jacqueline!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, Becky. So pleased to see more Moreland and Carter fans. I need to go back and take a look at those Charlie Chan movies.

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