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Soft Drinks and Sweet Music

Soft Drinks and Sweet Music(1934)

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teaser Soft Drinks and Sweet Music (1934)

The 1934 comedy King for a Day is a reminder that the history of early talkies intersects in fascinating ways with the history of so-called race movies, the large body of films made and distributed between the two world wars with African-American audiences in mind. Produced by black and white filmmakers alike, race movies were shown primarily in segregated theaters and nontheatrical venues like churches, lodges, and meeting halls. In its early decades Warner Bros. was known as the Hollywood studio most oriented to working-class audiences, and shorts released under the banner of its Vitaphone subsidiary were very much in the motion-picture mainstream. This enabled certain films with African-American stars and subjects to reach a wider range of spectators than would otherwise have been the case.

In the two-reel King for a Day, directed by Roy Mack, the best and worst race-movie characteristics are on display side by side. Negative stereotypes of African-Americans abound throughout the story, in which pretty much every male character spends as much time as possible shooting craps, and black comedians perform in blackface, an entertainment custom that was common on the vaudeville circuit and in race movies at the time. On the positive side, many members of cast are hugely talented, and when the legendary tap dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson does his act, his virtuosity may make you rub your eyes in amazement.

In plot and structure, King for a Day is a backstage musical in the vein of Lloyd Bacon's 42nd Street and Mervyn LeRoy's Gold Diggers of 1933, both released the previous year. Robinson plays Bill Green, a dancer who barges into a Harlem rehearsal hall, approaches an impresario named Mr. Brown, and insists on auditioning for an upcoming show. Brown turns him down, but Green lures him into settling the matter with a dice game, winning the audition and then half ownership of Brown's whole enterprise. As usual in backstage pictures, the show provides the story's climax. Along with Robinson's phenomenal dancing, accompanied by popular tunes like "Old Black Joe" and "Swanee River," the extravaganza showcases the singers Babe Matthews and Muriel Rahn, three baggy-pants comedians - Eddie Matthews, Dusty Fletcher, and Limehouse Brown - and a terrific production number recalling the somber mood of the "Forgotten Man" number in Gold Diggers of 1933, complete with German Expressionist sets, offbeat choreography, and a song called "Got the Jitters," originally written for the Ziegfield Follies of 1934 on Broadway.

As a blogger for weirdwildrealm.com points out, King for a Day is partly set in the Abe Lincoln Theatre, a celebrated Harlem Renaissance jazz center. The same writer notes that King for a Day is splashier than most Vitaphone shorts because it was meant as a screen test for Robinson, who danced in a basically conservative style and started appearing in Shirley Temple pictures a year later. His approach to tap was superseded by a more athletic style soon thereafter, but his dancing sure looks athletic to me. That aside, King for a Day is a top-quality cultural and entertainment time capsule.

Mack's Private Lessons is another 1934 mini-musical, populated with white characters this time. The tale begins when Hal Le Roy enters Dawn O'Day's dancing school via the fire escape, getting tagged as a peeping tom until he reveals his profession by handing out taps to the students and displaying his abilities to show how much fun this kind of hoofing can be. When rumors start about his amorous proclivities, he loses his job and opens his own school in the same building. A fringe benefit of his new venture is proximity to Dawn, with whom he becomes romantically entangled.

Three of the musical numbers in Private Lessons were penned by regular Vitaphone tunesmith Cliff Hess, and two of these are sung by Dorothy Dare in a gala party scene where the perky lyrics of "Red Headed and Blue" seems quite at home. Dare also sings "Snow Song" and dances with Le Roy and Barbara MacDonald at the party. O'Day performs "Follow Me" with her students, and Le Roy gives his feet more than one workout before the movie ends.

Mack's evocatively titled Soft Drinks and Sweet Music (1934) focuses, fittingly enough, on a New York City soft-drink server who aspires to fame as a Broadway songwriter. Played by Georgie Price, his name is George Harris, and when he's fired from his job for chitchatting with Sally Ray, a vaudeville singer who's about to appear in a new Broadway show, she and a dancer friend listen to his latest song, instantly recognize its excellence, and approach the show's director about using his material.

George's music gets into the show, and better yet, he also scores a hit as a performer, playing the mustachioed villain of a melodrama parody and doing impressions of well-known stars including Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson, with whom Price has often been compared. The film's other big set piece is a tribute to Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin and the stage adaptations that were hugely popular in bygone days, with dancers decked out as Uncle Tom and other characters. It's a triumph for George, or so it seems until he realizes it's all been - literally! - a dream, and he remains a humble soda jerk after all. Oh well.

The winner in Mack's The Winnah! will be decided by a big tournament between State College and Dale College, its perennial rival. Florence and her brother Arthur are students at State, where what really matters is which school will triumph in the competition - the events range from basketball to checkers to tap dancing - and how the siblings will smooth out their love lives. Since this 1934 two-reeler is a Broadway Brevity from Vitaphone, singing seems to count more than scholarship in collegiate circles. Numbers by Cliff Hess pepper the soundtrack, and when the lovers played by Arthur Lake and Dorothy Dare sing a sprightly song like "Just That Kind of a Day" you know why the students at State care more about music and dancing than classes and books.

The winnah for 1933's most surprising Vitaphone title might be 20,000 Cheers for the Chain Gang, and the picture's content is pretty surprising too. It begins with members of a chain gang swinging their sledgehammers as an African-American convict sings "Only Thirty Years More" in mournful tones. Then they plan and execute a daring escape, doing it so cleverly that even the warden's pack of dogs - not bloodhounds but fluffy little lapdogs and a longhaired Lassie lookalike - fails to track them down.

Back at the prison, word has arrived that the governor is sending a committee to investigate conditions there; wondering why, a guard can only conjecture that "somebody read a book or somethin'." Taking a close look at the shackles and crude furnishings of the place, the warden decides "a few slight changes" might earn him higher marks from the investigators. Next thing you know, the convicts have comfy beds, the warden addresses them in honeyed tones, steak is served so often that the inmates get sick of it - one inmate demands a plate of beans for a change! - and there's entertainment at dinnertime, complete with high-kicking chorus girls and appropriately themed songs like "Ballin' the Chain" and "The Sing Sing Serenade." The climax of the story arrives when the escaped prisoners hear about the prison's new conditions and try to break back in. But alas, they misbehaved, and the warden won't take them back.

The movie's talent includes comic actor Jerry Bergen, whose hair sticks up as if his finger were permanently lodged in an electric socket, and an actress billed as Novia, whose only screen credits are two Vitaphone shorts. Others on view are the Pickens Sisters, the Rollickers, and the Vitaphone Boys and Girls, and Harry Shannon is just right as the warden. The title pokes fun at Michael Curtiz's 20,000 Years in Sing Sing and Mervyn LeRoy's brilliant I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, both released in 1932, a great year for prison pictures. 20,000 Cheers for the Chain Gang isn't good enough to merit that much cheering, but it's reasonably amusing in its own oddball way.

King for a DayDirector: Roy Mack
Screenplay: A. Dorian Otvos, Eddie Moran
Cinematographer: E.B. DuPar
Music: Cliff Hess
With: Bill Robinson (Bill Green), Ernest Whitman (Mr. Brown), Dusty Fletcher (Dusty Fletcher), Babe Matthews (Babe Matthews), Muriel Rahn (Muriel Rahn), Hattie Noel (bride), Limehouse Brown (Limehouse Brown), Eddie Matthews (Eddie Matthews )
BW-21m.

Private LessonsDirector: Roy Mack
Screenplay: Cyrus Wood, Eddie Moran, A. Dorian Otvos
Cinematographer: E.B. DuPar
Music: Cliff Hess
Choreography: Paul Florenz

With: Hal Le Roy (Hal Le Roy), Dawn O'Day (Dawn O'Day), Dorothy Dare (Babs Henderson), Barbara MacDonald (Barbara), Jack Fago (John Humphries)
BW-22m.

Soft Drinks and Sweet MusicDirector: Roy Mack
Screenplay: Eddie Moran
Cinematographer: E.B. DuPar
Music: Sanford Green, Cliff Hess
Choreography: Allan K. Foster

With: Georgie Price (George Harris), Sylvia Froos (Sally Ray), Billie Leonard (Elsie), Buddy Doyle (Claude), George Lewis (Mr. Hayburn)
BW-22m.

The Winnah!Director: Roy Mack
Screenplay: Cyrus Wood, Eddie Moran, A. Dorian Otvos
Cinematographer: E.B. DuPar
Music: Cliff Hess
Choreography: Paul Florenz

With: Arthur Lake (Arthur), Florence Lake (Florence), Dorothy Dare (Dorothy), Weldon Heyburn (Weldon Egan), Don Tomkins (Jack McGrew)
BW-20m.

20,000 Cheers for the Chain GangDirector: Roy Mack
Screenplay: Cyrus Wood, A. Dorian Otvos
Cinematographer: E.B. Du Par
Songs: Cliff Hess
Dances: Harry CrosleyWith: Jerry Bergen (Jerry), The Rollickers, Novia (Jerry's wife), the Pickens Sisters, the Vitaphone Boys and Girls, Harry Shannon (warden)
BW-20m.

The lineup of shorts:

Soft Drinks and Sweet Music (1934)
King for a Day (1934)
Private Lessons (1933)
20,000 Cheers for a Chain Gang (1933)
The Winnah! (1934)

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