Friday, July 24, 2015

On the Avenue (1937)

On the Avenue is a bright and breezy 1937 20th Century-Fox musical that combines romance, laughs, a couple of impressive production numbers and some fine tunes courtesy of Irving Berlin.

Even by the standards of movie musicals the plot is thin, to say the least. Broadway star Gary Blake (Dick Powell) has a new hit stage production. The highlight of the show is a sendup of the home life of America’s richest girl. The troubler is that America’s richest girl, Mimi Caraway (Madeleine Carroll), is in the audience and she is not amused. Nor is her father, Commodore Caraway (George Barbier). Nor is her intended husband, famed polar explorer Frederick Sims (Alan Mowbray). They were targets of the satire as well. The Commodore wants to sue but his lawyer advises him that he has no grounds for doing so. Mimi Caraway has her own ideas on settling the score with Gary Blake.

Of course you know that Gary and Mimi will end up falling in love. And of course there has to be a complication - Gary’s co-star Mona Merrick (Alice Faye) is in love with him as well.

But this is a Hollywood musical so who cares about the plot? It might be thin but it provides plenty of opportunities for romance, comic relief and songs and being a species of backstage musical there’s an excuse for staging some fairly spectacular production numbers. In true Hollywood musical style these production numbers could not possibly actually be accommodated on a stage but thanks to the magic of the movies we accept them anyway.

Dick Powell had plenty of experience in musicals by this time. He’s particularly likeable in this one and he gets to show a few flashes of the real acting talent that he would develop in his very different 1940s movies. Madeleine Carroll couldn’t sing so she doesn’t but she still makes a satisfactory leading lady and handles the comedy side with ease. Mimi Caraway is supposed to a spoilt rich girl and Carroll conveys this effectively without becoming obnoxious.

Having a non-singing leading lady means that Alice Faye gets ample opportunity to demonstrate that she most certainly could sing. All three leads deliver the goods without any problems. George Barbier has plenty of fun as the blustering but basically good-natured Commodore.

There is one fly in the ointment. To provide extra comedy we have the Ritz Brothers, surely the unfunniest comedy team in the history of movies. They’re like a very low-budget version of the Marx Brothers but entirely lacking in any talent whatsoever. Luckily they don’t get enough screen time to ruin the movie.

On the Avenue features some of Irving Berlin’s best-known songs including the classic I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm. The extended production number The Girl in the Police Gazette is a highlight for its use of so many interlocking sets. This Year's Kisses gives Alive Faye the chance to really put some emotion into a song. It’s also a highlight while another of her numbers, Let’s Go Slumming, is equally good. Faye and Powell are both in fine voice.

The music is not just good - there’s plenty of it. This is after all what musicals were all about so this is obviously a major plus.

Roy Del Ruth had a long and distinguished career as a director and proves he can handle the musical genre very competently indeed.

The screenplay (by Gene Markey and William L. Conselman) provides enough amusement to keep the audience happy in the interludes between the songs.

Fox’s Region 4 DVD is barebones and the transfer is less than stellar. This is a somewhat neglected 30s musical. I suspect that if Fox were prepared to spend the money on a decent Blu-Ray release it might cause this one to be re-evaluated in a much more positive fashion. 

On the Avenue doesn’t get side-tracked by tedious social commentary. It has no real aim other than to provide an hour and a half of delightful entertainment and it achieves its aim in a very satisfactory fashion. With so many great Irving Berlin songs this one is really a must for classic musical fans. Highly recommended.

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