Saturday, January 7, 2017

Rainbow High

On what is, at least in Our Nation's Capital, a gray and snowy day, why don't we go Around the World in Something Less than Eighty Ways with that redoubtable all-singin', all-dancin' star... Maureen O'Sullivan?

"Dancing on a Rainbow" is one of two big(-ish) numbers from Stage Mother, a surprisingly hard-boiled 1933 picture that finds MGM in a Warners kind of mood. Alice Brady (marvelous) stars as a raucous Vaudeville widow saddled with the disapproval of her late husband's Brahmin family and the necessity of making a living. She channels her formidable energy into turning her bookworm of a daughter into a star, at a significant if highly predictable cost to all involved (including a woefully underperforming Franchot Tone as O'Sullivan's unfortunate love interest).  It's all very Gypsy in an avant la lettre kind of way, with the exception that in the third act she very nearly sells Baby Dumpling not into Burlesque, but the British peerage (before all hastily turns out sunnily in the end, to Franchot's satisfaction if not so much to the bemused audience's).

Beyond Brady's powerhouse performance, the principal interest here isn't so much the main storyline (which struggles to convince us, to be kind, that Daughter Dearest is the Toast of Broadway) as the richness that MGM, even at mid-budget, could bring to this kind of production. Scenes teem with interesting extras (including a surprising amount of ethnic and racial diversity), and there are a number of satisfyingly racy Pre-Code moments, chief among them Mama's breezy familiarity, early on, with a very swish dance instructor. There are some great sets along the way, including a very enviable hotel suite on the Riviera, and Adrian churns out a satisfactory number of confections, suitably overdressing the Gorgon mother once the money starts rolling in and keeping O'Sullivan so awash in chiffon that one is almost prepared to overlook how colorless her performance really is.

As for this number, it's something of an object lesson in one way of coping with a star who's simply not up to carrying such a production on her own: it basically introduces and then ignores her, relegating her hapless little caperings to the lower third of the screen while the chorus girls do their stuff. It's also a good example of the era's blithely uncaring approach to veracity in showing numbers ostensibly performed on stage, undeniably gaining in visual interest with its quick wipes and expressionistic silhouettes what's lost in coherence. Whatever you might think of the result, it may be useful to remember that it could have been a good deal worse: had original plans remained in place, the song would have been further padded with interpolations by the Three Stooges.

Why yes, I am still home with bronchitis - how did you guess? I'm terribly grateful to dear Peter for suggesting this little gem. If he's not careful, I may have to be in touch with him about running up one of Alice's little numbers - with his newfound draping skills, that Adrian style may be just the thing for spring...


  1. Sometimes an interesting review is better than the actual material its working with, as, I suspect, in this case.

    So sorry to hear about the nasty old bronchitis. Wheeze on darling, it will be better soon.

  2. I'll make if for either you or your dance double, but not for both. Actually, the first thing I remember thinking while watching this number was WTF that voice she's lipsynching to sounds NOTHING like Maureen O'Sullivan!

  3. Interesting you should mention the Stooges, because the same dance director was involved with this film and the recently rediscovered two color Technicolor Stooge short, 'Hello Pops'. The two films opened about two weeks apart in September, 1933. I can't help but wonder if the Stooges were removed for whatever reason from 'Stage Mother' and the footage was made into the short 'Hello Pops'. 'Dancing On A Rainbow' has a very retrograde look even for 1933---indeed Albertina Rasch worked on many MGM two color dance shorts/sequences from 1930-33. I wouldn't be surprised if parts of 'Dancing On A Rainbow' were initially photographed in Technicolor, and with the removal of the Stooges it ended up being printed in black and white. The odd irrelevance of the Oriental and Spanish dance sequences within DOAR might be replacements for the Stooges.

    1. Fascinating! Metro, for all its splendor, was thrifty in its way, so it wouldn't surprise me if that short weren't the relic of a plan for a rather more lavish, color-interpolated version of the number. The whole "Rainbow" theme would certainly have lent itself to it, no?

    2. It definitely would be an interesting film to investigate in its chrysalis stage. I wouldn't be surprised, if the Stooges were initially involved, that the whole story was originally more farcical---with Miss Sullivan's chiffon flapping and the pedestrian presentation of the dancers meant to be a burlesque of a Broadway debut. The credulity of the story, as you mention, may have not have been a problem at that point, since it was not meant to be taken seriously. Now I want to study both films and see if there are similarities to the set, etc!

  4. Were the stooges an earlier, and more interesting version, of the Kardashians (ubiquitous and not necessarily well-received)?