Since I gave them a mention this morning in a previous post, and I’m way overdue to do so, today I thought I’d do a post on Paramount’s series of Big Broadcast films (and one closely related movie). The Big Broadcast series comes under the category of revue films, usually with very flimsy excuses for a plot (in this case, generally, “we’ve got to save this radio station”). But because of the broadcasting setting, it becomes a very efficient showcase for variety acts, much like a vaudeville show. And THIS of course is the reason why I need to blog about it. In some cases, it’s the only chance you can get to see some performers do their old vaudeville material. In almost every case the Big Broadcast movies are terrible movies….but with terrific patches, much like a vaudeville show. There were many other revue films in the 30s and 40s of course. I’ve blogged about some, and I’ll undoubtedly blog about others. But because of their branding these all go together in a nice, organic clump.
The Big Broadcast (1932)
The first in the series was actually based on a play, entitled Wild Waves, by William Ford Manley. As a consequence, it hangs together as more of a “real” movie than the later excursions. In this one Bing Crosby is a nonchalant, irresponsible radio crooner; George Burns the station owner (with Gracie Allen as his scatter-brained secretary), Stuart Erwin as a potential backer, and Leila Hyams (of Freaks) as the love interest. Radio acts include The Mills Brothers, the Boswell Sisters, Cab Calloway, Kate Smith, Vincent Lopez and His Orchestra, and Arthur Tracy. Do an inventory. That is a LOT of singers.
International House (1933)
Technically, this is not part of the Big Broadcast series. Paramount hadn’t yet stumbled on the idea of branding it as an annual revue. But….really this is a Big Broadcast movie in every way but the name. It has Stuart Erwin, Cab Calloway and Burns and Allen from the previous film. Burns and Allen would return in the next two Big Broadcast films; and W.C. Fields would return in the final one. Most importantly, The Big Broadcast of 1936 takes from International House the central premise of a prototypical television device as a pretext for presenting the vaudeville acts. This film also includes Bela Lugosi (as the villain of course), Rose Marie, Peggy Hopkins Joyce, Franklin Pangborn, Rudy Vallee and Stoopnagle and Budd. Read more about International House in my earlier post here.
The Big Broadcast of 1936
This one, the first to be presented as a declared annual revue, was directed by Norman Taurog. Here, Jack Oakie is the beleaguered station manager, with Lyda Roberti as a rich, eccentric radio fan who may be persuaded to back him and the fictional romantic poet/crooner he presents. Burns and Allen return as people hawking a new television device per International House. The Nicholas Brothers, in addition to their usual jaw-dropping dancing, actually have good comic roles, woven throughout the picture. Some of the acts presented include Bing Crosby (here just performing a number as opposed to being the star, as in the first Big Broadcast picture), Mary Boland and Charlie Ruggles (in a comedy sketch), Ethel Merman, and the terrific knockabout team of Willie, West and McGinty (whose turn suffers a little by being cut up into smaller segments)
The Big Broadcast of 1937
Great talent abounds, but without a doubt this is the weakest in the series. Jack Benny plays the station manager, one “Jack Carson” (ha, but don’t let that confuse you). Burns and Allen return, Ray Milland plays his usual big stiff (he got better as a middle aged man, a time in life when you’re supposed to be a big stiff), and there’s also Bob Burns a.k.a The Arkansas Traveler, Bennie Fields (without Blossom Seeley — she had quit the act a year before and it’s a drag because she was the one with the electricity), Martha Raye, and Bennie Goodman and his Orchestra, featuring Gene Krupa.
The Big Broadcast of 1938
The series rebounded a little here, and it features many added bonuses. One is that takes place on a racing ocean liner, not just another radio station. Two is that W.C. Fields is in it and plays a pair of twins. This would be Fields’ last film for Paramount. He was in very bad shape at the time, and truly people at the time feared that it would be his last film, period. Still he is quite funny in it and even manages to squeeze in some of his popular routines. Three, the film features Bob Hope in one of his first roles, and he sings for the first time the song with which he would there ever after be identified: “Thanks for the Memory”. Martha Raye returns as an unlucky gal (she and Hope were always very funny together), and the movie also stars Dorothy Lamour (previous to any of the Road pictures), and Ben Blue.
One crucial missing element: Burns and Allen. The Big Broadcast series can be said to have been the closest thing to a series of Burns and Allen pictures (despite the fact that they were always in the ensemble). After Honolulu the following year, they moved away from film, concentrating on radio and television. And there’s something telling about that. Broadcasting is a medium with immediacy, a perfect platform for variety acts. Ironically, film — even a film story about radio — isn’t. There’s something mechanical and dinosaur-like about presenting variety acts in film. I can’t say I’m not grateful for it – -it’s often the only record we have of many performers. But radio and tv (and now the web)…they’re much closer to the in-your-face, exciting experience of live performance. Who needs a Big Broadcast movie when you have radio itself?