Back in May of this year, Grapevine Video offered those customers who previously purchased a double feature collection of the early talkie musicals Glorifying the American Girl (1929) and Dixiana (1930) an opportunity to upgrade their copies because they had improved the image quality on the earlier discs. And on the off chance you had not previously purchased the 2-DVD set…well, now was your chance to take them up on a limited sale offer of $6.99 (normally $9.95).
I decided to have a flutter—even though I already owned a copy of Dixiana, which was gathering dust in the TDOY archives. (As a matter of fact, it was the Roan Archival Group DVD, which also contains the Oscar-winning 3-strip Technicolor short, La Cucaracha .) I’ve reviewed the movie previously on the blog, but I decided to give it a second glance to refresh my memory of the film. It’s still no classic, but I enjoyed it more the second time once I got past the scene that always sends me into hysterics: a plantation owner (Joseph Cawthorn) remarks to his son (Everett Marshall) that his slaves sing better than any of the others on the neighboring plantations. “That’s because they love you, Daddy,” the son asserts. (I believe they’re planning to make a movie based on this, in fact: 12 Years a Singing Slave.)
In a nutshell, Dixiana is the name of the leading lady in the film, played by Miss Bluebeard’s Bebe Daniels. Bebe does okay in the role (though her southern accent slips from time to time) of a circus performer who plans to wed that son of a plantation owner…but at a “coming-out party,” two of her fellow big-top confederates, Ginger (Robert Woolsey) and Peewee (Bert Wheeler), let slip to her future mother-in-law (Jobyna Howland) that she comes from common Barnum & Bailey stock. Humiliated in front of all those in attendance, Dixiana and Company land jobs in the casino run by the rat bastard of this piece, a skeevy gambler named Royal Montague (Ralf Harolde). Monty killed the son’s (Carl) uncle in a duel long ago and plans to rid himself of the nephew in the same fashion—but Dixiana learns of this scheme and foils it in the nick of time.
In the past, when Dixiana played on the teevee machine, those people who tuned in to watch often didn’t learn how the movie ended because the final third of the film, an elaborate Mardi Gras sequence, was filmed in 2-strip Technicolor and the reels were believed to be lost. But they were rediscovered in 1988 and the film has been restored…except that the copyright didn’t get renewed in 1958 and it’s now in the public domain. If you’re a fan of Wheeler & Woolsey (I know—to many they are an acquired taste), you’ll sit through some of the slower parts of Dixiana to watch them (they do a hilarious routine with cigars, and interact with the lovely Dorothy Lee—the ingénue who appeared alongside them in many of their films), not to mention Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who made his film debut with a stair dance that director Luther Reed apparently did not pay too close attention to in the rushes (you don’t get to see the great man’s footwork a lot). (Warning: the soundtrack on Dixiana goes out-of-sync on occasion, and it ain’t half annoying.)
Glorifying the American Girl was completely filmed in 2-strip Technicolor—but for many years, before it was restored to its color glory by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, it circulated in a black-and-white print made in the 1950s that actually ran shorter than the original ninety-six minute running time because a few cuts were made to excise some of the nudity and naughty business. (Grapevine advertises their version as running 87 minutes—I clocked it at 94.) It’s a musical mellerdrammer starring Mary Eaton as Gloria Hughes, a young woman with aspirations to be a Ziegfeld Follies girl…but until such a time as that dream comes true, Gloria’s toiling away in the sheet music department of a local department store. Her boyfriend answers to “Buddy” Moore (Edward Crandall); he’s a song plugger who’s offered his hand in marriage but Glo insists on waiting for her big break. (Her gal pal is Barbara [Gloria Shea], who’s pining for Buddy but he takes no notice.)
At a company picnic, Gloria is persuaded to demonstrate her terpsichorean talents and as such, attracts the attention of vaudeville hoofer Dan Miller (Dan Healy), who’s looking for a replacement in his act “Miller and Mooney” since “Mooney” (Kaye Renard) has had enough of his nonsense (Dan has a tendency to be a little handsy, if you know what I mean). The two of them are a success in vaudeville, and eventually Gloria is signed to a contract with The Great Ziegfeld himself to appear in his show Glorifying the American Girl. The last third of the film is presented as an actual Follies show, with special guests Helen Morgan (singing What Wouldn’t I Do for That Man?), Rudy Vallee (I’m Just a Vagabond Lover) and Eddie Cantor, who performs his “Belt in the Back” routine with Louis Sorin (the Marx Brothers’ foil in The Cocoanuts). Mary eventually earns applause and accolades from the theater crowd…but because she put ambition before Buddy, she loses him to Barbara ‘cause he feels sorry for her after she’s injured in an auto accident. (Tough luck, Mare.)
American Girl is every bit as creaky as Dixiana as far as early talkies go; I’d give Dixiana the edge in the musical numbers department (and that’s a tough contest, since Girl capitalizes on an Irving Berlin score) but Girl has a more interesting storyline. What I particularly enjoyed about Girl was that the characters were not always the most attractive individuals, behavior-wise; Miller’s a lech, Gloria’s ma (Sarah Edwards) a harridan…even Mary gets a bit fair weather bitchy throughout the course of the film. I really felt sorry for the Barbara character, who’s left behind at the train station when Gloria breezes into town to reunite with Buddy; Babs is hit by a car and has to be rushed to the hospital in an ambulance, all the while Glo and Bud are catching up and are completely oblivious to the fact that she’s been injured. (I was prepared to go a little nuts if the movie had thrown Gloria and Buddy together after all Barbara had been through.)
The Great Ziegfeld hisself produced Girl for Paramount (and, like Dixiana, it’s fallen into P.D. status) and he appears in a silent cameo in the film along with then-wife Billie Burke; you’ll also catch glimpses of celebs like Texas “Hello suckers!” Guinan, Ring Lardner and NYC mayor Jimmy Walker. (Check out that opening “Adonis” number in the Follies sequence and see if you can’t place the gentleman wearing nothing but a fig leaf as a guy what used to swing on vines in the jungle later at MGM.) The special cameos from Cantor and Morgan are a lot of fun (I’m not much of a Vallee fan), but I have to admit Eaton’s dancing didn’t do much for me. Oh, incidentally—Glorifying the American Girl is one of the earliest sound films to not be shy about throwing in an occasional “damn” (Edwards mumbles it when she’s unable to open her lorgnette, for example), long before Clark Gable used it as an exit line in Gone with the Wind (1939).