Caftan Woman

Caftan Woman

Thursday, February 26, 2015

THE MADELEINE CARROLL BLOGATHON: ON THE AVENUE (1937)


The Madeleine Carroll blogathon is underway, hosted by our friends Dorian of Tales of the Easily Distracted and Ruth of Silver Screenings and running on February 26th and 27th.

Madeleine Carroll began her screen acting career toward the end of the silent era.  She transitioned seamlessly to sound and became a beloved star in her native England.  Playing the role of Pamela in Alfred Hitchcock 1935 international hit The 39 Steps spread Miss Carroll's fame beyond Britain and, as was to be expected, Hollywood came calling.  Paramount Pictures secured her contract and she was quickly starred in The Case Against Mrs. Ames opposite George Brent and The General Died at Dawn with Gary Cooper.  Her next few pictures would all be on loan out to the recently formed 20th Century Fox (Lloyds of London), Columbia (It's All Yours) and David O. Selznick (The Prisoner of Zenda).

It was 20th Century Fox that cast Madeleine in her one and only musical, Irving Berlin's On the Avenue.  Her character sings a line in the reprise of a song in the film's finale, but I don't know if that is Miss Carroll's voice or not.  If it is her voice, it is charming and if it isn't - well, extra musical talent this movie didn't need.  Dick Powell from Warner Bros., Fox up-and-comer Alice Faye and The Ritz Brothers top this show business story.

Powell plays Gary Blake, the writer and star of a new Broadway revue, not dissimilar to Irving Berlin's 1933 hit As Thousands Cheer.  A popular skit in the show is a lampoon of the wealthy Caraway family, George Barbier as the Commodore and Madeleine Carroll as Mimi, the richest girl in America.  First-nighters the Caraways and Mimi's current beau, the explorer Frederick Sims played by Alan Mowbray are not amused.  The Commodore is determined to sue everyone involved in the show.  Mimi takes a more direct approach by bulldozing her way backstage and slapping Gary Blake.  However, it is she who gets the sting when Blake calls her a "poor sport".  With a start like that you can well see romance in their future.  Bad news for the show's leading lady Mona Merrick played by Alice Faye.  She's carrying the torch for Gary and is more than able to fight for what she wants.

The love story between the songwriter and the upper crust girl somewhat mirrors the love story of Irving Berlin and Ellen Mackay, the Comstock Lode heiress.  Disinherited from her father's will, Ellen and Irving shared a 62 year marriage, 3 daughters, 1 son and a little something referred to as "royalties".  Take that, daddy-dear!

Madeleine Carroll

In the hands of the wrong actress or director the Mimi character could come off as just another spoiled rich girl raging against the world.  Fortunately, Roy Del Ruth's experience and taste combined with comedic chops dating back to days with Sennett and such gems as The Broadway Melody of 1936, Topper Returns and Beauty and the Boss, keep the thin plot light and breezy.  Madeleine Carroll's extraordinary beauty immediately wins her audience favour, but it is also the light of intelligence and kindness in her eyes and her gracious way of speaking that keeps us on her side.  Madeleine plays the comedy with charming nuance.  Mimi can be stubborn and petulant, but she can also be playful and loyal.

Cora Witherspoon

The supporting cast in On the Avenue is a real treat featuring Walter Catlett, Joan Davis, Douglas Fowley, Sig Ruman, Stepin Fetchit and Bess Flowers.  Yes, that's right, our Bess plays Mimi's maid and has about a half dozen lines!  Playing, seemingly, the only Caraway with a sense of humour is Cora Witherspoon as Aunt Fritz.  She's one of those eccentric moneyed women with a mania for fads and Miss Witherspoon (The Bank Dick, Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise) looks like she is having as much fun as I have watching her.

Irving Berlin composed six tunes for On the Avenue and most of them are presented in the context of the Broadway Revue or show within the show.  Those numbers were performed on the stage as if we were in the audience of a theatre and filmed in one take.

The opening number He Ain't Got Rhythm is performed at first by Alice Faye and a bevy of Fox beauties including Marjorie Weaver and Lynn Bari then The Ritz Brothers take over.  Al, Harry and Jimmy (Harry is the one in the middle) give it their all with their eccentric and perfectly synchronized dancing in a memorable number.

The Girl on the Police Gazette features Dick Powell and company in Gay 90s garb pining over the picture of a lovely in tights through a revolving stage set that moves from a barber shop to a trolley car to Coney Island to a flower shop to a backstage rendezvous.

Mimi and Gary spend a date that takes them from nightclub to diner and a tour around the park in a Hansom cab.  Billy Gilbert runs the diner and E.E. Clive drives the cab.  Moonlight and a park bend is a perfect song cue and Berlin's perfect song for the spot is You're Laughing at Me.  Ah, love!

Later at the theatre we are treated to the lovelorn Mona singing what will become a Berlin standard, This Year's Kisses, to a disinterested Gary Blake.  He is only thinking about how he can soften the popular sketch to please Mimi.  Mona knows just what to do with the sketch!  The next production number we enjoy on stage is a song that has become as tied to the year-end holiday as Irving's White Christmas.  Dick Powell and Alice Faye introduce I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.


A taste of Madeleine as Mimi, plus  the exuberant Slumming on Park Avenue.

Irving then spoofs his own hit Puttin' on the Ritz with the lively Slumming on Park Avenue.  Alice Faye and some talented Fox dancers give us the number relatively straight and then The Ritz Brothers take over with Harry dressed like Mona/Alice and Al and Jimmy dancing barefoot!

In its 90 minutes, On the Avenue gives us fabulous music performed by a cast of troupers, that glorious 20th Century Fox black and white sheen courtesy of cinematographer Lucien Andriot, eye-popping costumes from Gwen Wakeling, a who's who of character actors, and romance unencumbered by angst.  A treat on every level.   

18 comments:

  1. Great cast and Irving Berlin songs. Alice Faye sings "This Year's Kisses" beautifully. I had forgotten Ms Flowers had some dialogue.
    Thanks for video link too.

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    1. Alice just about breaks your heart with "This Year's Kisses" doesn't she? They don't make 'em like this any more. I guess that's why we watch so many older movies.

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  2. So wait, she's the female lead and she only sings one lyric in the whole movie, which might not even be her singing?

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    1. Madeleine provides the star power and the acting chops. The cast has more than enough musical talent to handle the Berlin ballads. The way it was set up with the musical numbers presented as part of the revue make a singing heiress unnecessary.

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  3. Paddy, On The Avenue was delightful! Wish my late mom could have seen it; heck, maybe it was Mom's faves back in the day; I think she would have loved it, espsecially the Ritz Brothers! Loved your quip: "Romance! unencumbered by angst!". A treat on every level indeed, my friend! :-D

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    1. Dorian, I think enjoying a movie with your Mom would have made any movie ten times better. I'm particularly pleased to hear of another fan of the Ritz Brothers. They have fallen out of fashion, if they are known at all, by many and I've caught a lot of flack over the years because I still like the guys.

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  4. I've just added this to my Must Watch List. It sounds terrific: the cast, the plot, the music. I know I'll really enjoy this. Thanks for recommending.

    And thanks for joining the blogathon with this little-known gem. :)

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    1. The great Irving Berlin standards are enough to recommend "On the Avenue", but everything that surrounds them is just as fun. I hope you enjoy the ride.

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  5. This sounds like great fun - I love musicals from this era, and I see this one is available on DVD in the UK, so I hope to catch up with it very soon! Enjoyed your piece! Judy

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    1. Have a good time, Judy! I don't know why this doesn't air often on television. Lucky to find the DVD.

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  6. What a great choice, I like this one a lot and wish it was better known, good to see you'll get a few more readers to discover it :)

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    1. I think all "On the Avenue" needs is a prime spot on TCM to put it back in the spotlight.

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  7. I didn't know Carroll starred in a musical, and an Irving Berlin one at that. What a treat! And happy to see that it's available in the UK too!

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    1. Lots of talent on display in this movie.

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  8. This sounds like a charming and delightful film (as described in your charming and delightful post). I am not a huge Powell fan, but I am taking your word for it. Plus, I'd love to hear Madeleine sing that line!

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    1. One of my favourite bits in the movie is Powell and Carroll stopping at a diner where they pick up two coffees and four donuts for 25 cents. Only eating three of the 'nuts, they bargain the price down to 20 cents.

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  9. Every time I com here, I discover a new delightful film. Being a huge fan of Alic Faye, I'll look for it. She is such an underrated beauty and talent nowadays!
    Thanks for the recommendation and the kind comment.
    Kisses!

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    1. The star is Madeleine Carroll, but Alice really steals the show. You'll really like "On the Avenue".

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