What if I told you there was a musical comedy film starring Jack Benny, Laurel and Hardy, and Buster Keaton PLUS the original version of “Singing in the Rain”, performed by Cliff Edwards a.k.a Ukulele Ike (best known as Jiminy Cricket), PLUS Joan Crawford doing a song and dance number, PLUS Marion Davies, Marie Dressler, Polly Moran and Bessie Love, plus the Brox Sisters, PLUS Gus Edwards (an important man in vaudeville) plus the aforementioned Albertina Rasch Dancers plus Norma Shearer and John Gilbert doing scenes from Romeo and Juliet, plus numerous others I haven’t mentioned yet. On and on. Lionel Barrymore, Anita Page, Conrad Nagel, etc etc. This exists!
While modeled on the Broadway revues of the time, the film is as close as you can get I think to experiencing a big time vaudeville show of the day as well (vaudeville still had a few years left at this stage.). This was MGM’s 2nd musical, and a clear attempt to show off its talent roster and their vocal abilities. It is much more entertaining (and less strange) than Warner Brothers similar The Show of Shows, released later that year. The art deco sets and costumes are amazing; and several of the scenes are in two strip technicolor. There is a full chorus throughout the show, with several numbers staged with the huge ensemble, including a historically interesting minstrel number**.
Other cool aspects:
* the young Jack Benny as m.c. hasn’t yet discovered the persona he began to be loved for on radio in the ’30s. Here, he is a more or less conventional comic (though funny nonetheless).
* And it is glorious to see Keaton cutting up in this revue, still in the full blaze of his confidence as a star. MGM employed him correctly here and he picked up the ball and ran with it. Within a few short months, that fire would be gone from his eyes. His turn here also gives a pretty good idea of the sort of thing he might have pulled in The Passing Show of 1917, the Broadway show he was booked for before being recruited by Fatty Arbuckle for the movies.
* Laurel and Hardy do a hilariously inept magic act.
This is on our DVR but I really need to own it. I want to watch it again and again and again.
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. And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.