Saturday, October 11, 2014

Shameless Saturday Camp Explosion: Hi-dee...No

One of the many topics in regard to which I heartily agree with Mr. Ethan Mordden (novelist, raconteur, and entertainment historian par excellence) is the regrettability of the extent to which Hollywood (and, to a lesser extent, the stage) embraced the idea of the New Dance Sensation Number.  This surprisingly long-lived phenomenon consists nine times out of ten of a (frequently quite lavish) sequence based on a (nearly universally) sub-par song in praise of said terpsichory, staged without even a hint of what the damn dance was supposed to actually be.  I mean, face it - based on what you've seen on screen, could you attempt to dance the Varsity Rag?  The Continental?  I thought not.

Along those lines, this one's a lulu - and that's the least of its (many) sins.

Yes, it's the "Shanghai-De-Ho," and all you need to know to understand the gravity of its egregiousness is that it was dropped into Paramount's 1936 go at Cole Porter's Anything Goes.  No, this is not Cole Porter (as if there were any question), and yes, this song was in fact preferred to such apparently superfluous bits as "Blow, Gabriel, Blow."  The whole picture retained only four Porter songs, as well as basically recasting it as a Bing Crosby vehicle featuring a supporting character called Reno Sweeney (not, you'll recall, exactly the point of the original).

One has to give credit to Ethel Merman, doing her best to recreate her stage Reno (even though a Reno Sweeney without "Blow, Gabriel" is a pale thing indeed) and, at the same time, to keep a straight face.  If ever there were a performer simply not meant to head a lavish Chinoiserie number, I think it would have to be Astoria's own Ethel Zimmerman; even little Myrna Williams, of Helena, Montana, was more believable during her (admittedly rather more extended) Peking phase.

Still, even out-of-her-element Merman is pretty good stuff, and she can't be accused of coasting, although as was the truth throughout her Paramount years, she's not really allowed to do much in the way of dancing herself - nor, in truth, seemingly given much in the way of direction beyond "smile" and "sway."

And of course sing.  She almost makes you thing that this is a passable song (it's not), and for a moment, starting at around 4:20, you can see what the real point of Ethel Merman is (and almost tolerate the presence of Bing, about whom I'm at best lukewarm).  Oh, and yes, those are Arthur Treacher, looking much as always, and Ida Lupino, looking like a Ginger Rogers impersonator, out there in the rainy crowd.

What I find frustrating, I think, is all the work that went into making this (let's face it, pretty putrid) number - the sets, the costumes, the girls, the whole shebang - when instead they could have been doing "Blow, Gabriel, Blow."  Fortunately, the Merm did film the song, even though it wasn't until 1954 and for television's Colgate Comedy Hour.  Hell, she was still trotting out her Reno Sweeney as late as 1979, and more than doing the part justice.

As for "The Shanghai-De-Ho," well... let's just say that she didn't try that out even for The Love Boat, and leave it there.