No vaudeville birthdays or shows I wanna plug today, so I thought I’d share some reportage on our Film Forum outing the other night. The Vitaphones were of course incredible, real windows into another era. This batch was part of a group of 50 or so “new” ones now being preserved, mostly of more obscure artists, although Harry Fox (inventor of the Fox Trot), and Jimmy Conlin (who appeared in many Preston Sturges films) were among them. The other acts included two unintentionally hilarious melodramas, “Retribution” and “Niagara Falls” (not the burlesque sketch by the same name); Carlena Diamond, the tap dancing harpist; Frank Whitman, the Surprising Fiddler (who plays the violin in every possible way you can think of, including with a tiny bow no bigger than match stick); a hillbilly yodeler who definitely seemed to be feeling up his “daughter” at one point during the act; and several funny comedians and toe-tapping musicians.
Of Moonlight and Pretzels, what can be said? The explanation for the preposterous title is that it is the name (and the title song) of the requisite “musical within the musical” that was the style of the times (1933). (Prohibition had just been overturned and so the producers marked the occasion with a big “beer garden” number, complete with lederhosen and “Dutch” accents).
The picture is absolutely in the mold of 42nd Street, the Gold Diggers series, et al, but a tad more low rent, despite having several top notch folks connected with the project. The script is a typical paint-by-numbers, so much so that I and the rest of the audience were in hysterics as the various plot points, unvarying in dozens of such pictures, ticked off like clockwork. It was directed by Karl Freund, a major cinematographer of the era, and director of such horror classics as Mad Love, The Mummy and the Spanish version of Dracula (which many people prefer to Tod Browning’s version).
Of the film’s main creative team, I was most interested in the presence of Y.I.P. Harburg, one of my favorite song lyricists, who did all the songs for The Wizard of Oz, as well as other classics like “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” (sung by Groucho in At the Circus), “It’s Only a Paper Moon” and “Brother, Can you Spare a Dime”. Y.I.P. is definitely still riffing on the themes of the latter song in Moonlight and Pretzel’s climactic production number “Dusty Shoes”, a veritable mini-opera with more than a little in common with “Remember My Forgotten Man” from Gold Diggers of 1933. The main character in the story, played by Roger Pryor, is our dream of the Tin Pan Alley songwriter, carrying around a suitcase full 600 song sheets. “Ya want a song about crocodiles? I got a song about crocodiles!” he shouts to a couple of producers named the Hobarts, obviously meant to be the Shuberts, and one of whom is played by Louis Sorin (Rosco W. Chandler from Animal Crackers). And because the songwriter is YIP Harburg, the singer pulls out a great song about crocodiles, because Harburg was one of those professionals who could write a song about anything. Incidentally, over the years I’ve gotten to know YIP’s daughter-in-law Deena and grandson Ben, first through the American Musicals Project (Deena was on the board, and I was p.r. director at the New-York Historical Society, where it is based), and then at Theater for the New City, where I also worked, and where Deena and Ben are very much involved. For a link to the YIP Harburg Foundation, run by Deena and her husband, YIP’s son Ernie, go here.
A couple of other interesting cast members: Leo Carillo, as a loveable Greek gambler, and William Frawley, as the guy who stands near the stage door with a cigar in his mouth and says, “Hey! You can’t go in there!” (Because you always need one of those. ) Frawley and director Freund would meet years later on the set of I Love Lucy, Frawley of course as Fred Mertz, and Freund as the show’s director. (Freund is the man who invented the three-camera set-up for studio television. He did so at Desi Arnaz’s request for I Love Lucy). Others in the cast include Mary Brian, Bobby Watson, Phil Regan, Bernice Claire, Alexander Gray, Donald MacBride and the Britton Band.
Now for name dropping: I was accompanied by the Artist Sometimes Known as Caviglia and we met up with performing dynamo Lorinne Lampert and her pal Francis. Directly in front of us were comedians Michael Townsend Wright and Bob Greenberg (and a third gent), and…wait for it…when I was coming out of the john I bumped into…Woody Allen. It’s a small cult, but a classy one.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.