February 24, 2015
Johnny Mercer is one of the finest lyricists the United States has ever produced, contributing “Moon River”, “Fools Rush In” and “Days of Wine and Roses” to the Great American Songbook. Before he wrote that string of immortal hits, he tried (and folded) his hand at movie stardom, appearing in some sprightly B musicals for RKO starting in 1935. In the early 1930s Johnny Mercer was just another hard working lyricist, with his steadiest paycheck coming from the Paul Whiteman Orchestra as both writer and singer. He had made a name for himself in 1933 with “Lazybones”, written with Hoagy Carmichael, which attracted the attention of the aging but still popular “Pops” Whiteman. The hope was that Mercer could replace the recently departed Bing Crosby in his touring road show. The Savannah-born Mercer was paired with legendary Texas trombonist Jack Teagarden, and they formed a kind of Southern comedy duo, interpreting Fats Waller and “Harlemania” for the white masses. Their routines were enough to get the attention of Hollywood, and RKO lured him West. Mercer had dreams of contributing songs to major musicals, but he had to prove his mettle in the Bs first. The Warner Archive recently released a DVD of Mercer’s first two silver screen forays, the irresistible college comedy Old Man Rhythm (’35) and morbid farce To Beat the Band (’35). These cheap B pictures are enlivened by the spectacular talents RKO had at its disposal, including choreographer Hermes Pan, production designer Van Nest Polglase and director of photography Nicholas Musuraca (Cat People, Out of the Past). They are Bs that look like As, and though none of Mercer’s tunes in these films became standards, there were no duds. Billie Holiday agreed, and would record “Eeny Meeny Miney Mo” and “If You Were Mine” from To Beat the Band later in ’35.
Johnny Mercer had previously worked with RKO composer Lewis E. Gensler, who was the connection that got Mercer hired at the studio. Mercer was ignominiously assigned to Zion Myers’ production unit, which was the cheapest setup on the lot. Old Man Rhythm was Myers’ first feature as a producer, having just graduated from overseeing the parodic “Dogville” shorts, in which live canines parodied the top box office draws of the day (sample title: The Dogway Melody). The experienced Edward Ludwig directed, and though he would later make fascinating films with John Wayne at Republic Pictures (like Wake of the Red Witch), there just wasn’t time to do more than shoot as quickly as possible, though he allows his talented collaborators to to go wild (the Hermes Pan dance numbers are uniformly a delight). Eight writers got their hands on the project as it went from treatment to story to script, but the plot couldn’t be simpler. Baby doll magnate John Roberts, Sr. (George Barbier) is concerned about his son Johnny’s (Charles Buddy Rogers) declining grades at University. He’s convinced Johnny’s latest girlfriend Marion (Grace Bradley) is distracting him from his studies, so the senior citizen decides to enroll at his son’s school as a freshman in order to meddle. He wants to break up Johnny and Marion, and re-direct his son’s gaze towards the “good” girl Edith (Barbara Kent).
Interspersed are six songs with music by Gensler and lyrics by Mercer. Mercer also appears in the film as “Colonel”, a Southern layabout who memorably performs a soft shoe to “Comes the Revolution, Baby” with Evelyn Poe, followed by the then unknown Betty Grable doing a remarkable en pointe tap routine (Lucille Ball is also credited as “College Girl”, but I didn’t spot her). The movie is an excuse for the musical sequences, and they are effervescent fun. Choreographer Hermes Pan was developing the gliding, naturalistic style he would perfect in the Astaire-Rogers films, and here you can see his preference for displaying the dancers’ full bodies – as opposed to the mechanical breakdown of body parts in Busby Berkeley sequences. Pan biographer John Franceschina (Hermes Pan: The Man who Danced with Fred Astaire) elaborates on anti-Berkeley bias:
On 6 June, Hermes struck another blow against the Busby Berkeley method of staging when he was quoted in Robin Coons’ syndicated column Hollywood Sights and Sounds saying that the showgirl as glamorized by Ziegfeld was virtually useless in a Hollywood chorus. Pan added that he would rather have a homely girl that could dance than a beautiful girl who cannot. “For close-ups, the beautiful dancer gets the call, but beauty without rhythm can spoil a routine more quickly than the one bad apple spoils the barrel.
The final dance sequence is a complicated number set on the quad, in which paired off dancers wind their way through the fantastical set while sewing up the madcap plot. The Polglase sets imagine college as an isolated resort town, with dorm rooms as massive loft spaces that emerge atop winding staircases. The main quad is an artificial, fantastical bit of twisting turf that could have come from Oz. The kids spend their time roasting weenies and serenading each other under the moonlight, with the only lecture coming from administrator/butler Eric Blore on fleas. After a tremendous bit of slow-motion jitter demonstrating a dog’s reaction to a infestation, and an impassioned plea for understanding their role in the circle of dog life, Blore deadpans, “I’ve been waiting to say this to someone for fifteen years.” Blore is hilariously, defiantly odd throughout the entire film, every scene destabilized by his jowly sarcasm. But when he cuts loose and sings in the opening number, a joyful smile creeps across his face, the kind of fugitive moment the movies are made for.
To Beat the Band is far less memorable, with Hermes Pan no longer on board, and a tiresome Hugh Herbert taking the lead role. Without Pan, the inventive dance routines are replaced with simple nightclub sequences of band performances. And though funny in short bursts as a character actor, Herbert’s shtick as a star, a panoply of neighing exhalations, quickly becomes grating. Herbert plays Hugo Twist, an undesirable bachelor pursuing the lovely young blonde Rowena (Phyllis Brooks). His rich aunt passes away, but in order for him to earn the inheritance, he has to marry a widow. His plan is to convince a suicidal friend of his to marry Rowena and then kill himself. Then Hugo will waltz in, marry the newly widowed Rowena, and get his millions. It is an astonishingly morbid plot for a farce, and would seemingly be impossible to render boring, but this project found a way. Neither director Ben Stoloff or any of the cast can seem to care much for the material, and they just went through the motions to get this B material into theaters on time. Mercer, however, was still intent on carving out a career as a Hollywood lyricist, and he wrote five more songs for the production. The film wrapped in August, but Mercer kept shopping his tunes. In October, Billie Holiday recorded “If You Were Mine” and “Eeny Meeny Miney Mo”, thereby justifying the existence of To Beat the Band.