Thursday, May 24, 2012

Big Boy and Born to Sing

By Ed Garea

Editors' note: This is a column that will run from time to time, dedicated to movies that are so bad we feel compelled to watch them. They are not a new phenomena; indeed they reach back to the beginnings of the movies. When they come on, we first say to ourselves, "What the heck is this thing?" and later we look at our watches, surprised to see that time has flown by and we're still glued to the set. 

But before I begin, this columnn is open to all film fans who love those so-bad-they're-good films. If you want to post a review, send it to us, or if you have a Top 10 bad films list, send that on as well. Now, for your enjoyment: The first installment of Train Wreck Cinema.

BIG BOY (WB, 1930): The premise for this Al Jolson movie (adapted from his play on Broadway) is simple – a black jockey overcomes obstacles galore to ride his boss’s horse to victory in the Kentucky Derby. But that’s only half the story: Jolson’s the jockey and he plays the entire movie in blackface, as a black man. No, I’m not making this up. It really has to be seen to be believed, and even then you’ll be rubbing your eyes to make sure you’re seeing it right.

Of course, Jolie plays it in a lighthearted manner, sort of a tongue-in-cheek happy “darkie,” even throwing in a song or two. (Without the songs there is nothing to break up what is quickly developing into monotony.) Okay, okay, I know it was made in 1930 and times have changed, but it’s not in the least funny; the jokes simply fall flat.

There’s even a scene where Jolson’s character is threatened KKK style. At the end, as was the case with this production on Broadway, Jolson removes his blackface and sings us a song. A few years ago, TCM covered African-American in their annual compilation of Hollywood films called “Race and Hollywood,” and which is concerned with how other races were seen portrayed in movies. How this film ever missed that year’s compilation amazes me, but I’m extremely glad they finally got around to showing it, even if it was at the ungodly hour of 6 a.m. – after all, that’s what TiVos are for. When I was a little kid, I always thought Jolson was black. When I watch films such as this, I can see where I got my mistaken belief.

BORN TO SING (MGM, 1942): This movie is a train wreck of a different sort. When I originally saw the synopsis and noticed that Leo Gorcey was billed third in the line-up of a musical, I assumed that Monogram produced it. But no! MGM, of all studios, is to blame for foisting this upon unsuspecting moviegoers – and giving bad movie buffs another reason to rejoice.

Why? Because – now get this – Gorcey actually sings! You gotta hear it to believe it, but yes, that’s him warbling out a forgotten tune in a style that could only be called his because no one else would want to take credit for it. Jimmy Stewart sang unaided in Born to Dance, and that was bad enough, but Gorcey makes Stewart seem like Sinatra in comparison. It’s straight out of the “Hey Kids, Let’s Get Together And Put On A Show” school of film.

The plot revolves around Patsy Eastman (Virginia Weidler) and her father, a songwriter who wrote a show while in prison. Dad’s only problem, besides being in jail, is that a greedy promoter steals the material. But, luckily for Patsy, her best friend is “Snap” Gordon (Gorcey). Snap and his friends try to pressure the promoter but are charged with extortion for their effort. They realize the only way for them to succeed is to put on a show themselves. Unfortunately, they have no money or prospects.

Fortunately, though, they meet a sympathetic gangster named Pete Detroit (Sheldon Leonard). Pete helps them open their show before the promoter can premiere his; even going so far as to use his fleet of taxicabs to ferry unsuspecting drama critics from the promoter's show to the kid's show. The musical highlight is a number entitled “Ballad For Americans”, which originally premiered in the 1939 WPA Theater project, “Sing For Your Supper.” Luckily for Gorcey, he didn’t have to sing for his supper. Otherwise he would have starved.

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