Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Movie: Garden of the Moon (1938)

To begin: Happy New Year!

Then a housekeeping note. 2012 saw the fewest amount of posts in this blog’s history, and over a third of them were of the Cocktail of the Week variety, which I started this year on a whim. I’ll endeavor to update more frequently on a broader range of subjects in 2013, but I make no guarantees. A lot’s going on around here.

As a good faith gesture, here’s a New Year’s Day post on the last movie I watched in 2012. My contribution to the Tuesday’s Overlooked Movies series. I’ve mentioned Garden of the Moon before, but it deserves a post all its own. I’m tempted to call it a noir musical given the principals, but it’s too fizzy for that. It’s a veritable champagne cocktail of a movie, and thus it made ideal New Year’s Eve viewing. I sense a tradition coming on.

Pat O’Brien (Crack-Up) machine guns through his dialogue as the manager of the title nightclub, the most swellegant spot in Los Angeles. He finds himself in a bind when his latest star attraction is waylaid in a motoring accident; it’s an indication of where Garden fell in the Warner Brothers hierarchy that it didn’t rate an appearance from Rudy Vallee, but landed a cameo by his bus. O’Brien books a replacement orchestra led by unknown John Payne (99 River Street, Kansas City Confidential) without telling him he’s merely a placeholder meant to serve two weeks. Payne teams up with the Garden’s publicist Margaret Lindsay in a battle of wits to extend his run.

The script by Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay (They Drive By Night) brims with wisecracks, which O’Brien delivers at top volume. Vaudevillian Ray Mayer (High Wall) is one of the members of Payne’s band, along with Johnnie ‘Scat’ Davis and Bob Hope regular Jerry Colonna. Colonna may have been a one-note performer, but what a note!

Dick Powell was originally slated to take Payne’s role, and Bette Davis chose to remain on suspension rather than appear in what she dismissed as a trifle. The film is most notable for being director Busby Berkeley’s last assignment at Warner Brothers. Berkeley has no bevy of showgirls here, no breakout hits. What he does have is a clutch of sharp songs with music by Harry Warren and lyrics by Al Dubin and Johnny Mercer, the best of them two novelty numbers performed by a dozen or so guys on a bandstand. Faced with these constraints, Berkeley responds with some of the most inventive staging of his career.

Garden may be silly nonsense from start to finish, but I have tremendous affection for it. It’s one of my favorite movies of the 1930s, and you can buy it from the Warner Archive. To give you a taste, here’s the demented and inspired ‘The Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish,’ which would become a Looney Tunes staple whenever a touch of the exotic was required.