Sunday, May 7, 2017

Rhythm on the River (1940)

Rhythm on the River is a 1940 Paramount musical starring Bing Crosby and Mary Martin, and it’s harmless but thoroughly charming entertainment.

Oliver Courtney (Basil Rathbone) is Broadway’s most successful and most acclaimed songwriter. His shows are guaranteed hits. He’s on top of the world. There’s only one problem. Courtney can’t write songs any more. He hasn’t been able to write songs for several years, since he had his heart broken. Since then he’s been relying on ghost writers, for both the tunes and the lyrics.

The tunes have been provided by Bob Sommers (Bing Crosby). Bob is happy enough with the arrangement. He gets a guaranteed income and he’s really not a very ambitious guy. All he wants in life is a catboat. Courtney will give him one in order to endure that those tunes keep coming.

The big problem is that the ghost writer who was providing Courtney’s lyrics has very inconveniently died. That problem seems to have been overcome when Courtney and his faithful musical assistant Billy Starbuck (Oscar Levant) find Cherry Lane (Mary Martin). She seems like the ideal lyricist and she’s willing to accept the arrangement. Of course we know that there are going to be complications.

Bob and Cherry keep bumping into each other but each of them is unaware that the other is also ghost-writing for Courtney. 

Cherry’s having difficulties writing her lyrics since a six-piece hot jazz combo moved into the apartment next door to hers. She needs peace and quiet but owing to the kinds of coincidences that you expect in a musical she ends up seeking out that peace and quiet at Nobody’s Inn, a little place that just happens to be owned by Bob’s uncle.

Obviously their secrets are going to come out eventually but where will that leave them all?  Bob and Cherry can’t sell their own songs - they’re unknown songwriters and there are thousands of unknown songwriters in New York. Oliver Courtney has the name that automatically sells songs but he can’t write any. They’re all likely to end up in a pickle.

Backstage musicals and musicals about the songwriting business are a dime a dozen but this picture has something that you very rarely encounter in a musical - a plot with some genuine originality. In fact it has a very clever plot (and at this point it should be noted that one of the writers was a fellow by the name of Billy Wilder).

It also has a terrific cast. Bing Crosby gives a performance that is laid-back even by Bing Crosby standards but his easy-going charm works its magic. Mary Martin is an excellent female lead and she and Crosby have the right chemistry. Basil Rathbone takes what could have been an unsympathetic part and makes Oliver Courtney rather likeable. He might be living off other people’s talent but it’s not by choice and he’s not relly a cynical exploiter. Oscar Levant basically plays himself, wise-cracking and cynical and very amusing. Rathbone and Levant make a surprisingly good comedy team.

This is a musical that doesn’t have to rely entirely on the music. There’s a decent story, reasonably three-dimensional characters and some sparkling dialogue. And the music is very good with some very fine songs.

The jam session in the pawnbroker’s shop is a highlight.

Rhythm on the River is available on DVD paired on a single disc with another Bing Crosby musical, Rhythm on the Range. Rhythm on the Range isn’t quite as good but it’s not bad and this pleasingly cheap double-header DVD really is a must-buy for Crosby fans. The transfer is very good as well.

Rhythm on the River is a bit of a mystery. It’s one of Bing Crosby’s best musicals and yet it seems to be one of those chronically overlooked and underrated movies. It has wit, style, romance, humour and great songs. Highly recommended.

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