Monday, April 29, 2013

Big Broadcast of 1938, The (1938)

Director: Mitchell Leisen


Forth in a line of modest successful variety pictures The Big Broadcast of 1938 brings the comedy of W.C. Fields and newcomer Bob Hope and mixes in a cornucopia of musical and comedy acts in a ninety minute package dressed up with a silly plot. It’s a rather different style of film a common movie goer might think of when going to the theater, but in a picture like this the audience was paying to watch a large bill of talents instead of getting a strong plot driven movie. Lined with good production quality, a poor script, a song that would become a classic, and a plethora of performances Paramount provides the fourth and final installment in the line of Big Broadcast films.

The Big Broadcast of 1938 is a comedy variety film about a race between large ocean liners across the Atlantic, filled with comedy routines and musical acts as the talent that entertains the guests aboard these racing ships. Staged as the greatest race ever are two massive cruise ships, the sleek and streamlined S.S. Gigantic and the slightly smaller and more traditional S.S. Colossal. The klutzy S.B. Bellows (W.C. Fields), brother to the owner of the Gigantic (also played by Fields), is sent to cruise with the Colossal, but mistakenly boards the Gigantic, where he causes issues that could lead to the loss in the race. Meanwhile radio emcee aboard the ship, Buzz Fielding (Bob Hope), is bothered by his three ex-wives humorously looking for their alimony and keeping watch that he does not marry a forth suitor, girlfriend Dorothy (Dorothy Lamour). In a mish-mash of events and musical acts the wives help the Gigantic to win the race by allowing the use of the ship’s state of the art “radio powered” propellers, Buzz rekindles his romance with one of his ex-wives, and Dorothy is free to turn her fling with the ship’s first officer into a full blown romance. It’s a mess, but it’s a happy ending.

Like the film’s predecessors , The Big Broadcast (1932), and its sequels …of 1936, and …of 1937, this picture is really about bringing a variety of talents to the screen all loosely tied together by the rather weak plot of a massive ship race structured around the talents of Fields and Hope’s characters. Fields is the center of the story, while the charm of the movie follows Hope. Lining the feature is ten entertaining routines presented as acts in a variety of ways, including stage musical numbers, comedy acts, routines gone wrong, and candid songs sung by characters in moments of affection. Each are unique and entertaining in their own way.

Veteran comedy director Mitchell Leisen would be brought back to direct his second in the series after the previous film The Big Broadcast of 1937. His style of filming and assembling the picture is rather beautiful and would compete with the level of many musicals of the time from Busby Berkley or films with Astaire and Rogers, but this picture lacks any punch due to its outright silliness from W.C. Fields’ character, S.B., and his equally cursed sister Martha (Martha Raye). The most outstanding work of the picture is that of Bob Hope’s love story and iconic song, as well as the large musical number “The Waltz Lives On” which is shot beautifully.

Fields is a much more of a bumbling foolish character instead of his usual down trodden everyman that made him so popular. Whatever the case it is still W.C. Fields with his usual murmuring and quick remarks that he is known for. He provides the star attraction to the picture with much of the comedy, but can be seen as overshadowed by Bob Hope in a more minor role. Hope’s character, Buzz, provides a true story arch, albeit of a thrice divorced man rekindling love with an ex.

Bob Hope was at that time still new to the screen, with work in radio and poor short pictures with the small Educational Pictures studio, this opportunity with Paramount allowed him to better manifest his comedic skill. Also, Hope would first perform what would become his theme song “Thanks for the Memory,” which he would work into his future acts as a sentimental ballad that meant so much to him and his adoring fans through his many decades of performing as an American icon.

Also featured in the film are the talents of Martha Raye, Dorothy Lamour, Ben Blue, Leif Erickson, and Shirley Ross. Martha Raye showcases her comedic skill and booming vocals as Fields’ sister, returning to theseries albeit in a different role in the previous film …of 1937. Raye was a singer for big bands and becoming known for her peculiar large mouth. Dorothy Lamour, an actress actually on the rise, is in a minor role as Buzz’s girlfriend that ends with the ship’s first officer played by Leif Erickson. Although Erickson is rather flat as an actor here. Lamour shows much more promise, both in acting and musically, especially compared to her films leading up to 1938. She would become common in Bing Crosby and Bob Hope’s future Road to… series. Ben Blue would provide the comedic sidekick to Hope in a very bumbling, minor role. Shirley Ross performed the very memorable “Thanks for the Memory” with Bob Hope, marking peaks for both actor and actress up to that time, but for the vocally talented Ross, she would hit her ceiling and quickly fall never to rise as far as this small role’s fame in cinema again.

The legacy of The Big Broadcast of 1938 would prove to be Bob Hope’s rise and the debut of his iconic song “Thank for the Memory” which would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song. As mentioned before, the tune would go on to be used over and over again by Hope as a sentimental send off to his many radio broadcasts, television specials, and live performances. The film would conclude the series Big Broadcast films put out by Paramount in the 1930s as this picture seemed to not garner near as much interest as the original, based on the play, or even its Bing Crosby sequels. It lives on as a look back at variety performances that entertained audiences of the period.

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