By Ed Garea
Hot Rhythm (Monogram, 1944) – Director: William Beaudine. Writers: Tim Ryan & Charles R. Marion. Cast: Dona Drake, Robert Lowery, Tim Ryan, Irene Ryan, Sidney Miller, Jerry Cooper, Harry Langdon, Robert Kent, Lloyd Ingraham, Cyril Ring, Joan Curtis, Paul Porcasi. B&W, 79 minutes.
Imagine, a film – and a musical, yet – starring both Irene Ryan and former silent comic Harry Langdon. Only on Poverty Row.
Jimmy O’Brien (Lowery) and Sammy Rubin (Miller) work for the Beacon Recording Company. They write jingles for radio commercials, but would like to graduate to songwriting and the raise that comes with the position.
Jimmy literally runs into Mary Adams (Drake) in the hallway. She has just finished singing one of his jingles in a commercial. Head over heels, he poses as a songwriter and tells her he can introduce her to Herman Strohbach (Kent), the manager of the Tommy Taylor band. Strohbach is looking for a girl singer to audition. However, complications arise because Strohbach and Taylor (Cooper) are locked in a dispute over a new contract with Beacon boss J.P. O’Hara (Tim Ryan).
Jimmy has an idea: he’ll make a demo record of Mary so O’Hara can hear it the following day. Lacking a band, he records Mary singing along with Taylor’s band on a live radio broadcast. Afterward, he gives the demo to Sammy, who leaves it for pressing.
Meanwhile, Mr. Whiffle (Langdon), O’Hara’s assistant, informs his boss that his secretary just quit. O’Hara tells him to hire another. He hires the scatterbrained Polly Kane (Irene Ryan). No sooner does she start work than she hears that a girl singer in a quartette singing radio jingles falls sick and she convinces Whiffle to let her take the sick girl’s place in the quartette.
O’Hara hears Mary’s demo and likes what he hears, though he doesn’t know who the singer is. Later, to his horror he discovers that the boys in the pressing room thought the demo was a regular Tommy Taylor disc and pressed and distributed 10,000 copies of the record. This leaves O’Hara open to legal action from Strohbach and Taylor.
While Jimmy, Sammy and Mary wait for O’Hara to tell them about his reaction, the boss and Polly are busy going all over the city, buying every copy they can find and smashing it. Their strange behavior is noticed by the police, who arrest them, leaving them to be bailed out by Jimmy and his friends.
O’Hara is determined to find the girl who sang on the Tommy Taylor record. When he mentions this new girl singer to Polly, she thinks he is talking about the jingle she recorded and tells O’Hara it was her. His reaction is to offer her a contract so she can make more records. Meanwhile, Mary discovers Jimmy is not really a songwriter and breaks up with him because he deceived her. When Strohbach and Taylor hear Mary’s demo, Taylor decides to hire her, but Strohbach, by mistake, has already offered a deal to Polly.
In the meantime, Mary returns to her old job singing at a cafe. When Jimmy and Sammy go to see her and straighten everything out, the resulting chaos gets Mary fired. The next day, Mary tells Jimmy that he should confess everything to O'Hara but he refuses, for Strohbach is suing O'Hara for $250,000 for distributing the illegal record.
Polly tells O'Hara that she is quitting in order to sing with Taylor's band, which leads him to believe she is the girl on Mary's demo. As she has not yet formally signed with Strohbach, he signs her up and tells Jimmy and Sammy to make a recording of Polly with a house band, where they have her perform one of their songs.
O'Hara is shocked when he hears that Polly's voice is nothing like Mary’s, O’Hara is taken aback and realizes he’s signed the wrong person. He then convinces Polly to sign with Strohbach. However, after Polly signs with Strohbach, her record is suddenly in demand, causing O'Hara and Sammy to go on another record smashing spree, which again lands them in jail.
After Jimmy and Mary bail them out, Jimmy and Sammy finally confess all to O’Hara, who fires them. Sammy then takes Mary to see Taylor and proves that she’s the singer he's been seeking. The meeting is interrupted by a phone call from Strohbach, who triumphantly says that he has "the girl" under contract.
At the nightclub where Taylor is appearing, Mary and Polly are both scheduled to perform and all the interested parties are in the audience. When Taylor introduces his new singer, both Mary and Polly take bows, but Taylor escorts Mary to the microphone. Realizing he signed the wrong singer, Strohbach passes out. Mary, who by this time has made up with Jimmy, is a hit, and O'Hara tells Jimmy and Sammy that he will double their salaries.
When Strohbach regains consciousness, O'Hara offers to take Polly off his hands if he will drop his lawsuit. Strohbach readily agrees, but after he hands the contract over, O'Hara shows him a newspaper clipping about Polly's hit record, which causes Strohbach to pass out again.
After years of watching Irene Ryan as Granny in The Beverly Hillbillies, I always find it a little strange to see her in other parts. I remember as a teenager seeing her as Edgar Kennedy’s wife in one of his RKO shorts and I was simply dazzled, not only seeing her as someone other than Granny, but seeing her as a young woman. Already accomplished in vaudeville (where she met and married fellow performer Tim Ryan in 1922) and on radio, Irene’s film carer, which began in 1935, consisted mainly of shorts for Educational Films (later Columbia and RKO) and uncredited parts in feature films. In 1943, she and Tim went to Monogram, were they appeared in Sarong Girl, starring Ann Corio. Tim caught on at Monogram, both onscreen and off, as a scriptwriter. He often wrote parts for Irene, even after they divorced in October 1943. They were simply billed by Monogram as “Tim and Irene” on movie posters.
As O’Hara, the harried and perplexed boss, Tim Ryan puts in a nice performance. His scenes with Irene display the precise timing they learned during years in vaudeville. In addition, he and Charles Marion wrote a funny script for the film.
The presence of Harry Langdon as Mr. Whiffle is the reason for most film buffs to tune in. Langdon brings his silent movie comedic touches to the film, and the sad part is that he disappears about halfway through the film. He has a great scene when he stands in for a medicine tonic ad. At first, the tonic won’t fizz, and then it fizzes too much. Employing his great comic timing, Langdon reacts to the situation in hilarious fashion, even at one point attempting to trying to put the fizzy glass in his suit pocket. His scenes with Irene Ryan also stand out as they use their comic skills to good effect. Unfortunately, a few months after this film was released, Langdon passed away at the relatively young age of 60 from a cerebral hemorrhage.
Lowery makes for a so-so leading man, hindered by a lack of chemistry with female lead Dona Drake, whose singing far exceeds her acting. Sidney Miller is probably best known among film buffs for his many appearances in Warner Bros. Pre-Code pictures and later, Mickey Rooney films. He met Rooney on the set of Boys Town (1938) where, unlike many of Rooney’s co-workers, he got along well with the star and befriended him, later writing the lyrics to Rooney’s musical compositions. After World War II, he shifted careers from acting to writing, working for Donald O’Connor. In 1953, he joined Walt Disney, where he was wrote, directed, and composed music for many of Disney’s television ventures – in particular, The Mickey Mouse Club, where Disney tasked him with a total revamp of the show after its first season. (Disney wanted it to appeal more to teenagers than to the very young children at which it was originally aimed.) Miller brought in new writers and choreographers to give the Mousketeers more musical numbers and comedy skits and turn the show into a sort of mini-variety show. Although that was what Disney wanted, it didn't go over with the audience, with the result that the numbers for the show went down. Miller’s arguments with the cast led to his dismissal and he continued his directorial career in television, including My Favorite Martian (1963), The Addams Family (1964), and Get Smart (1965). He is also remembered as the man who directed Lou Costello’s first solo effort after his break with Bud Abbott, the ghastly The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock (1959).
All totaled, Hot Rhythm is a decent time-waster, with good comedy and surprisingly – for Monogram – good music. Director William Beaudine does a good job with the material, keeping the pacing brisk. It’s odd that Beaudine is remembered today – thanks in large part to the Medved brothers in their book, The Golden Turkey Awards – as a bad director.
Beaudine, who began directing back in 1915, was one of the most respected directors in the silent days, known as a seasoned comedy director and renowned for his ability to work with children. When talkies arrived he was one of Hollywood’s top directors, commanding $2,000 a week in 1931. But he was wiped out by the stock market crash and most of his salary went toward reducing his debt load. In 1935, he went to England, where he directed more than a dozen films. When he returned to the States, he found his absence had hurt him and he was unable to secure work at the major studios. The only places he could work were Poverty Row studios and independent productions. His efficient style made him in demand by low-budget producers needing to save money, and this efficiency translated well when he turned his directorial talent to television. It’s somewhat odd today that Beaudine is derided for his style, being called “One-Shot Beaudine,” when MGM director W.S. “Woody” Van Dyke, is praised for what was essentially the same style, and lauded as “One Shot Woody.”
Faces in the Crowd: Dona Drake
The life of Dona Drake could well be said to have been something right out of a Fannie Hurst novel. Born Eunice Westmoreland in Miami, Florida, on November 15, 1914, she was the daughter of African-American parents Joseph Andrew and Novella Smith Westmoreland. Being light-skinned was a great help to her career due to American attitudes about race, and she billed herself as a Latino of Mexican heritage. First known as Una Villon, she worked Broadway, nightclubs, and revues. (Keeping in line with her new identity, she even went so far as to learn Spanish.)
In 1935, she changed her name to Rita Rio to further emphasize her “ethnicity.” She landed a featured role in Eddie Cantor’s Strike Me Pink (1936) in which she did a snake-like dancing performance during the “The Lady Dances” number. The climax was when Cantor threw her high in the air and then catches her with the palm of one hand some distance away. Her performance didn’t lead to any further film work, but it did enable her to form an all-woman band called “Rita Rio and Her Rhythm Girls” (aka “The Girlfriends”) that toured successfully.
On her own she performed in a few two-reelers and sang on the radio. Her good friend Dorothy Lamour helped her land a contract at Paramount, where the studio changed her name to Dona Drake. The publicity sheet for her written by the studio stated that she was christened Rita Novella, was of Mexican, Irish and French descent and born and raised in Mexico City. Her first film for her new studio was the 1941 Lamour vehicle, Aloma of the South Seas. She also appeared in the Bob Hope comedy Louisiana Purchase (1941) as well as in the Hope/Bing Crosby/Lamour film Road to Morocco (1942), where she played an Arab girl. The failure to break from typecasting led the studio to drop her shortly after loaning her to Monogram for Hot Rhythm.
In August 1944, she married Oscar- (and later Emmy-) winning costume designer William Travilla. (Travilla gained fame when he dressed Marilyn Monroe in a tailored potato sack to prove she’d look good in anything.) As a freelancer, she appeared in the 1946 Claudette Colbert/John Wayne film Without Reservations. Other notable films during this period were Another Part of the Forest(1948) as Dan Duryea’s girlfriend, Beyond the Forest (1949) as Bette Davis’s Indian maid, and The Girl From Jones Beach (1949) as Eddie Bracken’s paramour. She also starred as the gold digging second female lead in the 1948 Stanley Kramer production So This is New York.
The birth of daughter Nia slowed her down a bit, but she returned to work television before retiring from a variety of health ailments, including heart trouble and epilepsy. In 1989, she succumbed to respiratory failure brought on by pneumonia. Husband Travilla followed her to the grave the following year.