Monday, November 23, 2009

Movies: The Quality of Mercer

Amidst multiple deadlines I’ve been making my way through some of the films in Turner Classic Movies’ month-long salute to the centenary of the birth of Johnny Mercer, singer and songwriter extraordinaire.

1937’s Ready, Willing and Able introduced “Too Marvelous for Words,” as well as some lesser tunes. (“Handy With Your Feet,” anyone?) “Marvelous” is featured several times, most memorably in the stupendous closing number. When it was excerpted in TCM’s Mercer documentary, Rosemarie began waving her hands in front of her face like a giddy six year old. Ruby Keeler and Lee Dixon, a second-rate Cagney impersonator trapped in Conan O’Brien’s body, dance on a gigantic typewriter with the legs of a bevy of chorines serving as typebars. Based on the words that appear on the equally enormous sheet of paper behind them, it’s a non-QWERTY keyboard.

I just looked down to spell QWERTY. How sad is that?

Hollywood Hotel (1937) gave the world “Hooray for Hollywood,” the tongue-in-cheek anthem that Tinseltown took at face value, belted out by Johnnie ‘Scat’ Davis. The real reason to watch is the Benny Goodman Orchestra performing “Sing, Sing, Sing,” followed by a tight session with Benny, Gene Krupa and Lionel Hampton.

Garden of the Moon (1938) is the least regarded of the three films that we saw, so naturally I liked it the most. Lots of novelty songs here performed by a band that includes Davis, John Payne and Jerry Colonna, among them “The Lady on the Two-Cent Stamp.” The closest thing to a standard on the soundtrack is “The Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish,” and when I heard it I got a touch giddy myself. Whenever Warner Brothers needed a hint of Arabian Nights mystery in a cartoon, they’d play an instrumental version of this song. Which is unfortunate, because the lyrics show off Mercer’s wordplay at its best.

She’s got her nervish
Throwing him a curvish
Which, of course, he doesn’t deservish

Astute readers will have noticed I haven’t bothered with plot synopses. All three movies are trifles, showbiz farces with mistaken or bogus identities. There’s just enough story to keep things humming ‘til the next tune starts. Warner Brothers’ musicals owe something to the studio’s signature crime dramas; they’re earthy and sharp, with a kick of bourbon in the meringue. It’s worth noting that these three films, in addition to the handiwork of Johnny Mercer, also share writing by Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay. They would later pen They Drive by Night and Manpower together, while as a producer Wald would make Mildred Pierce, Dark Passage and one of my favorite backstage dramas, The Hard Way.

TCM has one more night of Johnny Mercer fare airing on Wednesday – after their showing of The Money Trap at 4:15PM EST, 1:15PM PST. I told you there’d be other reminders.

UPDATE: Here’s “The Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish,” which grows progressively unhinged. It’s still odd to see John Payne singing, considering that I think of him as the lead in noirs like Kansas City Confidential and Slightly Scarlet. Oddly the original choice to star in Garden of the Moon was Dick Powell, who preceded Payne down the boy-singer-to-tough-guy path.