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Features

March 28, 2007

B-ing There

Film Forum's B Musicals series revives star-studded back-lot bargains of the '40s, '50s and '60s

Tap dancer extraordinaire Ann Miller in Reveille with Beverly, one of 49 films screening in Film Forum's B Musicals series (Photo: Film Forum/Photofest)

"I don't want to walk without you, baby…" crooned Bruce Goldstein, Film Forum's director of repertory programming and the man behind the theater's B Musicals series, running from March 30 through April 19. The lyric was an excerpt from a famous 1942 film, Sweater Girl (listen to the song here), a prime example of the low-budget, high star-quality movie musicals produced during the 1930s, '40s, and '50s; the festival features 49 of the era's best bargain musicals, rarely seen by contemporary audiences and representing a serious triumph of film archivists and restoration efforts. The collaboration involved in bringing this program to life -- including contributions by Howard Mandelbaum, founder of the movie stills archive Photofest, and Clive Hirschhorn, author of The Hollywood Musical -- confirms the challenge of reviving the genre for contemporary audiences.

"We had big debates over what constitutes a 'B movie,' " Goldstein told The Reeler. "So we decided to put a few 'nervous A's' cause a little budget is a little better. But I think that the selection in the end was pretty good." The selection of films is a decidedly different look at a well-known genre -- "golden age" movie musicals -- because it highlights the films produced on the back lots to keep actors' contracts full of projects.

"The musicals come from the 'golden age' without having been golden themselves," said Hirschhorn, whose book is generally considered the authoritative Broadway-to-Hollywood text. "Though there are no masterpieces, they showcase some great talent and some terrific songs."

The festival pays tribute to all aspects of the B-movie musical genre. The proliferation of top studio talent cannot be missed -- early films including the first featured roles of Marilyn Monroe, Dorothy Dandridge and Frank Sinatra. "Audiences' love of popular stars and popular music was so great that audiences didn't look down on smaller pictures," Mandlebaum said via e-mail. "So kids who lined up for Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland would see Donald O'Connor and Peggy Ryan at neighborhood houses."

B musical star Judy Canova and Luis Alberni in Hit the Hay (Photo: Film Forum/Photofest)

The archival work is particularly notable in the triple features for the Andrews Sisters and Singin' in the Rain's O'Connor, as well as an evening dedicated to Ann Miller, the phenomenal tap dancer widely considered to be the queen of the B-movie pictures. "She was nurtured in A pictures, [but] she made a real series of real bona fide B pictures at Columbia," said Goldstein, adding that her talent is clearly evident in films like Reveille with Beverly (1943) and Priorities on Parade (1942), in which she dances to the big-band music of Duke Ellington and Count Basie.

Yet the B musicals, also featuring songs by future greats like Jule Styne and Frank Loesser and early choreography by Jack Cole and Bob Fosse, were not merely a testing ground for new talent. They capitalized on the name recognition of established stars like Ginger Rogers, Eddie Bracken, Bing Crosby, Debbie Reynolds and others when they weren't booked for more lavish films, often resulting in top-notch productions at back-lot prices. "There were more opportunities in the B pictures -- the B pictures used them and they got them rather cheap," says Goldstein. "The B's were just as important in the whole business of movies as A pictures. In fact, B pictures might have made more money for the studios in the end -- because they cost less to make."

The industry received an additional boost from churning out films that were not merely bicoastal in their appeal. Film Forum's series includes a triple feature of films starring Judy Canova, whose popularity first emerged in the "hinterlands" of cinema -- the small movie theatres of the Midwest and the Great Plains. "I doubt you would have seen a Judy Canova movie opening in Times Square or Broadway, since it wasn't really an urban taste." Goldstein said. "It's like the Grand Ole Opry." (Judy's daughter, the Broadway and television star Diana Canova, will introduce the program of her mother's most beloved films, including Joan of Ozark and Sis Hopkins.) Much of the B-musicals' traction came from these small theaters, often flocking to films that promised a degree of escapism from the realities of wartime America and Depression-induced poverty.

"These B musicals are nothing but fantasies anyway," Hirschhorn told me via e-mail. "Few, if any, contain a modicum of reality from start to finish. They're adult (and not-so-adult!) fairy-tales trading in dreams and wish-fulfillment. Most of them have a 'feel-good' factor built into their corny plots, which is why they were so popular." Goldstein called such films "flag-wavers," and as Mandelbaum noted: "Moviegoers didn't shun less pretentious offerings -- as long as the girls were pretty and the songs were catchy."

The B Musicals series runs at Film Forum from March 30 through April 19, many with new 35mm prints, in double and triple features. For more information, links and showtimes, visit the theater's Web site.

("I Don't Want to Walk Without You" written by Jule Styne and Frank Loesser; performed by Betty Jane Rhodes in the film Sweater Girl. Courtesy of Bruce Goldstein.)


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Comments (1)

would love to see or buy movies of donald o'connor with gloria jean,and peggy ryan.Any suggestions?

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