On Why You Should “Pick a Star” (1937)

I don’t often do posts about individual films, as they tend not to be the most popular with readers, but I saw a picture recently that I am strongly motivated to recommend for those with similar tastes. TCM played Pick a Star (1937) recently and it proved a delightful surprise. It’s a Hal Roach-MGM co-production; MGM was Roach’s distributor normally, but in this film Roach seems to have drawn from their talent pool to augment his stock company, so that it’s like a perfect blending of a Hal Roach classic comedy and a lesser MGM musical.

The title of Pick a Star, though accurate, is unfortunate and I suppose that’s why I’d overlooked it heretofore. One encounters it in lists of Laurel and Hardy comedies, but may tend to pass over it when informed that they’re not the stars and they appear as themselves in certain scene at a fictional film studio. Based on that knowledge, I had made the assumption that it was just one of those promotional films like The Stolen Jools, and that Laurel and Hardy might just walk on for cameo in a single scene, thus making it not worth a special effort to seek it out. Au contraire! Laurel and Hardy have several scenes and many funny original bits throughout the movie. Pick a Star is well worth watching for the L&H completionist on this account, and the fact that it is relatively late in their Roach career, doubly so. It was like found money to come across their business in this film.

If that were all Pick a Star had to offer, I would already tout it strictly on that basis. But there’s MUCH more. From the Roach-iverse, the cast also includes Patsy Kelly, Rosina Lawrence (the schoolteacher in Our Gang during this period), Jimmy Finlayson, Walter Long, Johnny Arthur (Our Gang‘s “Mr. Hood”), Felix Knight (Tom-Tom from March of the Wooden Soldiers), Charlie Hall, Otto Fries, and (in a walk-on) Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer. The ringers from the wider studio talent pool include Jack Haley, Mischa Auer, Lyda Roberti, Russell Hicks, Charles Halton, Tom Dugan (who had also early been in Roach shorts), Jack Norton, Wilbur Mack, James C. Morton, Syd Saylor, Wesley Barry. Cully Richards and the vaudeville team of Hyams and McIntyre. And numerous others I am sure I am missing.

Furthermore, all of this screen talent is not wasted. It’s helmed by the great comedy director Eddie Sedgwick, who’d directed many a comedy classic starring the greatest of the greats.  The comedy scenes are the strongest elements of this movie (Mischa Auer and Patsy Kelly in particular are among those who get many chances to shine). The songs, most of them performed by Rosina Lawrence, are less memorable. And there are some big production numbers with Busby Berkley style costumed dance choruses, which are somewhat behind the curve at this late date and not photographed with a choreographer’s eye, but are still enjoyable.

But overall, I was impressed to see a Hal Roach production this ambitious. The plot? Haha, it’s the sort of story most of these musicals had during this period — some small town people go to Hollywood to try to make it big and have all sorts of humorous encounters with the people of tinsel-town. Though it contains plenty of funny lines, I’d watch it above all for the cast, not the script. On that basis, I will be picking Pick a Star any chance I get!

For more on vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.