7/30/13

LOST IN THE RAIN: FORGOTTEN MEN OF THE FREED UNIT



Obviously anyone reading this knows that "Singin' In The Rain"--the movie--is about the talking picture revolution that swept Hollywood in 1929. Furthermore I would bet that most of you reading are aware that the project came about as a result of producer Arthur Freed's desire to re-invigorate his old song catalogue--Freed was a popular tunesmith of the 1920's and early thirties along with his partner Nacio Herb Brown before becoming a producer at Metro. Betty Comden and Adolph Green's assignment was to simply cook up a way in which to jam ten or so Freed/Brown antiquities from twenty-five years earlier into a workable musical storyline. As they sardonically comment in an essay they wrote for the MGM Script Library introduction to the screenplay of "Singin' In The Rain" (and which is reprinted in the liner notes of the soundtrack CD) "...several possible stories suggested themselves. For instance, "The Wedding Of The Painted Doll" could well have been the basis for a story about a painted doll who got married." As you can tell, the assignment was a gloomy one for the writers--until the eureka notion came along of setting the whole thing in the exact period in which the songs were written. More importantly, Freed and Brown's songs were, for the most part, written for the earliest MGM musical films--"Broadway Melody of 1929" (which became the first talkie to win the best picture Oscar) and "Hollywood Revue Of 1929" as well. These films were at the vanguard of coming of sound era and thus it made a certain poetic sense to create a new story around them that involved the early talkie craze--the very reason the songs came into existence to begin with. Thus, the screenplay of "Singin' In The Rain" not only didn't remove the songs from their niche, it managed to solidify their position in it. The result was the greatest musical film ever made, a career-maker for everyone involved, and cinematic immortality...for all but two important participants. One was a man named Cliff Edwards. The other was a man named Jimmy Thompson.

Who the hell was Cliff Edwards? He was a major record and radio figure of the late twenties and early thirties and later the voice of "Jiminy Cricket" in Disney's "Pinnochio" (and thus the man who introduced "When You Wish Upon A Star"). Edwards was largely responsible for the ukelele fad of the 1920's and was, for a good many years, quite famous and beloved. Alas his star burned fast and his money burned even faster. Drink, drugs and divorces left him indigent. (This last sentence reminds me of my favorite line in Woody Allen's "Deconstructing Harry": "I blew everything I had on hookers, shrinks and lawyers.") Upon Edward's death in 1971, he was discovered by the Disney Company to have died in a welfare hospital in Hollywood. (They'd apparently been picking up his medical bills for the previous few years and helping him along). The body was to be donated to science, as with most unclaimed remains. Apparently Disney threw in for a proper funeral for the forgotten former star. (Or did Disney just take the opportunity to say that they did? Do you trust the Mouse? I don't). Anyway, all very sad--especially given the fact that Edwards introduced two staples of the American Popular Songbook, songs that have both lived long past the times they were written during and which many kids still actually know, without having the faintest idea where they sprang from.

If there is some sort of record for the most watched actor who appeared in the least amount of films, Jimmy Thompson must be right up there at the top of the list. But who is this uninventively named pretty-boy and what has he to do with SITR? Thompson is the master of ceremonies in the "Beautiful Girl" fashion number and as such becomes the star of the film for a full five minutes right dead center in the films running time. The number itself is a  set-piece period pastiche with a wonky charm of it's own--the fashion show is silly and the commentary is intentionally unwitty in a very clever Comden-Green take on how those badly written commentaries that thought they were being clever actually sounded. And it features the mysterious Jimmy Thompson as the Rudy Vallee-esque lead singer and fashion show commentator .His IMDB credits suggest some sort of relationship with Gene Kelly--his first credit is in the Kelly/Garland vehicle "Summer Stock" and, aside from "Singing In The Rain" his next biggest credit is in the Kelly/Minnelli version of "Brigadoon"--a film that he was, regrettably, cut out of. Was this the reason for his hasty retreat from the spotlight? He has a handful of other MGM credits which suggests that he may have been under contract and the liner notes in the "Singin' In The Rain" CD refer to him as Kelly's "protege." Did his opportunites vanish as Kelly's stock at MGM sunk after "Brigadoon" and "Invitation To The Dance"? Perhaps he and Kelly had a falling out as a result of the scratched "Brigadoon" number? The internet is unhelpful on anything other than the above short-list of credits. In 1971 he turns up in a movie called "U-Turn" playing the "old ferry driver". How old could he have been? He appears no more than thirty in the below clip which would have made him fifty at the time of his last credit. To a forty-whatever year old like myself, fifty is a little soon to be playing a role like "old ferry driver."

Lets go to the videotape. First, Cliff Edwards with the Box Singers and the original version of "Singing In the Rain" from "Hollywood Revue of 1929".



Technically, in the above clip, we're in the cinematic stone age with the cameras recording the not very well staged dance scene from a distance, implacably staring at the action and resolutely remaining as uninvolved and unenergized as possible. It's a little astonishing how mediocre the level of dance performance was here--and yet this was deemed acceptable for a big movie musical. (I don't think the chrous girls here would have cut it a couple of years down the line when Busby Berkeley got into business.) The Strobe effect toward the end, though, is reasonably mod-ish for the time and, along with Edwards, the three girl singers are quite pleasant as well; they're the Brox Sisters, one of whom later married the composer Jimmy Van Heusen--who wrote many hits for Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. Which could lead us--if we're not careful--into one of those six degrees of seperation games with "Singin' At The Rain" at the center; how are Crosby and Sinatra and Gene Kelly and Jiminy Cricket all connected being the lead-off question?

Now onwards (and upwards) to the technicolor-1952-stereophonic sound-esqu version of the above referenced era, the "Beautiful Girl" number. Roll 'em, Charlie...




"Beautiful Girl" is also worth noting as being one of several pastiche numbers in "Singin' In The Rain"--"Fit As A Fiddle" is another as is the "All I Do Is Dream Of You" where Debbie Reynolds jumps out of the cake. It's interesting to note that the film uses these pastiche numbers sparingly--in an effort to evoke the era rather than define the reality of the story. When the movie takes the songs seriously as "book" material, it treats them as full-tilt up to date 1952 orchestral pieces. Thus other twenties tunes like "Good Morning" and "You Are My Lucky Star" and even "Broadway Melody" sound entirely up-to-date and somehow don't clash at all with the campier treatments accorded the others. Clearly a decision on Kelly and Donen's part (and Arthur Freed's? Lennie Hayton's?) which helped keep the film from feeling campy (a la "Thoroughly Modern Millie") but nonetheless firmly rooted it in the 1920's.


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4 comments:

  1. Edwards and Thompson are interesting topics, but can you clarify your sentence: "...his next biggest credit is in the Kelly/Minnelli version of "Brigadoon"--a film that he was, regrettably, cut out of."

    As the first part of your sentence implies, Thompson has quite a large role as Charlie Dalrymple, including performing in the "Bonnie Jean" number. By "cut" are you perhaps alluding to the fact that the "Wedding Dance" was truncated? (The excised footage is available on a DVD release.)

    The MGM musical and the Freed Unit were gradually dwindling as of the mid '50s and I suspect Thompson was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, one of many MGM contract players who never pushed into the A level.

    According to various internet sources, other Hollywood groups paid for Edwards' funeral and Disney paid for the grave marker. There seems to be some conflict/uncertainty about what actually happened, but unless there is a factual basis to dispute that Disney helped in Edwards' declining years and at the time of his passing, doesn't it seem a mite churlish to randomly suggest the company may have lied about helping when he passed on? JMHO.

    As a side note, Edwards also dd a lot of work in "B" Westerns playing sidekick to stars like Tim Holt and Charles Starrett. Thanks for calling attention to the careers of two interesting men who aren't well known today.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

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  2. Thank you Laura for this excellent addendum to my under-researched piece. I haven't seen Brigadoon in years and didn't realize that A) he wasn't entirely cut out and B) his footage is available on DVD. I did hear that as of a few years ago Thompson was alive and well and living in the south beach area of LA. But as I haven't had a chance to research this I didn't go into it.

    As far as Disney goes, they are wealthy enough to withstand a little churlishness from me. They are also crypto-fascists and people who I love to hate :)

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