Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Big Broadcast of 1938 (1938) * * *

The new ocean liner S.S. Gigantic is about to race its rival, the S.S. Colossal. Gigantic owner T. Frothingill Bellows (W.C. Fields) sends his brother S.B. (W.C. Fields) on the Colossal, hoping he will cause trouble and help the Gigantic win the race. Delayed by a golf game, S.B. lands on the Gigantic instead. The ship makes a detour to rescue the passengers of a sinking boat which includes S.B.'s unlucky and cursed daughter Martha (Martha Raye). Meanwhile, gambling emcee Buzz Fielding (Bob Hope) is on board to host a radio broadcast aboard the new ship that is racing the ship that holds the current crossing record. He is also trying to escape from his three ex-wives with his fiancée Dorothy Windham (Dorothy Lamour). His job is to announce a series of musical acts, and he desperately tries to juggle Dorothy and his ex-wives who've come for the ride.

S.B. Bellows: (referring to Martha, who has just been rescued) Throw her back in, let the sharks protect themselves!
First reporter: Say, do you know anything about electricity?
S.B. Bellows: My father occupied the chair of applied electricity at State Prison.

The almost nonexistent story line involves a race between two oversized luxury liners. The Gigantic looks like an art deco yacht on steroids. S.B. Bellows, whose reputation for misadventures dates back to the sinking of the Merrimac, winds up on the Gigantic where disaster immediately strikes. On the way, the crew picks up his daughter, the even unluckier Martha Raye. One of the running gags of the film involves Raye breaking mirrors every time she sees her reflection. It's also about a failing radio station where Fielding works which needs to put on a huge ratings winner to have any chance of continued operation.

Grace Fielding: Oh, I'm so sorry, Mr. Bellows. I didn't recognize you in this bad light.
S.B. Bellows: Ah, everybody seems to see me in a bad light.

The film may be viewed as a changing of the comic guard, made just a couple of years before Bob Hope became the top comic star for Paramount. For top billed Fields, this was his last film at Paramount. His best scenes are a sort of review of some of his best skits involving games of golf and pool, as well as traveling on a contraption that is a combination scooter and airplane--one of several similarities to Field's INTERNATIONAL HOUSE (1933). Hope's humor has always been largely verbal, and he really shines as the self-deprecating master of ceremonies, telling jokes so terrible that they are funny, such as the one about the guy who went to the dentist with only one dollar and got buck teeth.

Lord Droopy: Aren't you awake yet?
S.B. Bellows: Ohhhhh! I don't know. I haven't looked yet. Meet me down in the bar! We'll drink breakfast together.
Divorcee: I was married to him for eight months. I gave him the best years of my life!
S.B. Bellows: Never mind what I tell you to do. You do what I tell you!

Most of the action takes place at sea as S.B. Bellows shows off his new invention: an ocean liner that can turn radio signals into electricity and part the waves at 100 miles per hour. THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1938 primarily serves as a showcase for a variety of performers. A number of music and comedy acts appear in the ship's showroom, and some of the specialty performances seem dated. Along with Fields, who performs several classic pool and golf routines, Martha Raye, Dorothy Lamour, and Ben Blue add to the laughs. There is a powerful performance of "Ride of the Valkyries" by Metropolitan Opera singer Kirsten Flagstad in full Brunhilde armor and horned helmet. The Shep Fields number combines the big band performance with animated water drops credited to Warner Brothers' animation producer Leon Schlesinger. The movie is very similar to Broadway musicals of the 1920s and 30s, with a little vaudeville in it.

Martha Bellows: Gee, I'm so cute! I'll bet they put my picture on the front page.
Scoop McPhail: I'll never forget the last time you had your picture on the front page. Your mouth was continued on page two.
Scoop McPhail: (after being kissed by Martha) Aaaaahhhh! I've been kissed by a tunnel!

Sixth billed Bob Hope made his feature debut here, and he sings his future theme song "Thanks for the Memories", which Hope's character sings as a duet with former wife Cleo Fielding (Shirley Ross), accompanied by Shep Fields and his Orchestra. It is not performed as a funny novelty song, but as a romantic one. The song itself, which won an Oscar for Best Song, is a look at how distance reshapes the view of the past, giving a romantic glow to a relationship that may have been difficult at the time. It is more bittersweet than nostalgic, with the memories becoming progressively darker, coinciding with the disintegration of the marriage. More than just a love song, the lyrics are about how fragile relationships can be between two adults.

This was the final film under Fields' long-running Paramount contract, before he moved to Universal Studios to make his final series of films. A comedy and musical extravaganza set mostly aboard an ultra-modern luxury liner, it does not hold up quite as well as most of W.C. Fields' films. It is somewhat dull in spots, but several funny scenes compensate. Fields disliked THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1938, since his unique talents were ill-suited for Paramount's musical-comedy revue. The memorable moments in this 94 minute hodgepodge can be found during the first hour, highlighted by Field's surreal golf routine. Directed by Mitchell Leisen, the film is the last in a series of Big Broadcast movies that were variety show anthologies. THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1938 is without a doubt the best of the four movies. It is splendidly acted with an all star cast.

The cast also includes: Lynne Overman (Scoop McPhail), Ben Blue (Mike), Leif Erickson Bob Hayes), Patricia Wilder (Honey Chile), Grace Bradley (Grace Fielding), Rufe Davis (Turnkey), Lionel Pape (Lord Harry Droopy), Virginia Vale (Joan Fielding), Russell Hicks (Capt. Stafford), Kirsten Flagstad (Herself), Wilfrid Pelletier (Himself), Tito Guízar (Himself), Shep Fields (Himself), and many others. Gordon Jenkins, John Leipold, and George Parrish composed the original music, along with music and lyrics by Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger. Walter DeLeon, Francis Martin and Ken Englund wrote the screenplay from a story by Frederick Hazlitt Brennan that was adaptated by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Mitchell Leisen directed.

The currently available DVD contains two movies: The BIG BROADCAST OF 1938 and COLLEGE SWING (1938) with Burns and Allen, Martha Raye, and Bob Hope. Transfer is superb on both films. There are no DVD extras, but there is a trailer for COLLEGE SWING. This is a terrific buy with two classic comedies on one DVD.

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