Ziggy Stardust

Another hen’s tooth log on the “things I  never thought I’d ever see” celluloid pile, 1929’s GLORIFYING THE AMERICAN GIRL, an embryonic talkie, gets a dazzling 2K 35MM restoration from Kino-Lorber and the collaborative efforts of UCLA, the AFI, Universal Pictures and Paramount Pictures.

Now, many knowledgeable movie folk may be scratching their heads, wondering “WTF is wrong with this guy?”  GtAG is a public domain title that has been around forever.  True that, BUT it’s been edited and (often) culled from tenth generation 16MM dupes, making it unwatchable (if not, “bacon frying” inaudible), and thus, unceremoniously tossed into the surviving nitrate landfill of godawful early talkers (and, heaven knows, there are plenty of those).  But this ain’t one of ’em.

In a complete, restored, gorgeous 35MM print, AMERICAN GIRL works.  Easily categorized at first glance (the old chestnut about a beautiful young ingénue, hoping to be one of those bright lights on the Great White Way), GtAG is usually compared to and overshadowed by the phenomenally successful Broadway Melody, made the same year at MGM (and renowned for being the first musical to win an Oscar…for Best Picture yet!).  In actuality, Melody is more worthy of the creaky rep that pics like AMERICAN GIRL get; it’s frequently difficult to sit through, let alone imagine what Hollywood could have been thinking, giving the Metro flick an Oscar.  That said, in 1929, talking pictures were all the rage – and musical talkers were (at least for a short while) what we in the 1990’s called “da bomb.”

The cardboard characters and dialog of Melody pale next to GtAG’s script by J.P. McEvoy (from a story by Millard Webb) which is remarkably snarky and sporadically vicious – correctly targeting the predators who victimize the innocents in the show business (usually girls and women).  In fact, GLORIFYING THE AMERICAN GIRL is a lot closer to Rouben Mamoulian’s brilliant Applause (also made in 1929, by Paramount and, like AMERICAN GIRL, at the New York Astoria Studio) than to Broadway Melody.

Okay, as indicated, while the plot of GtAG is firmly etched in the familiar groove of the go-getting wannabe dancer/singer/actress, it veers off early-on into darker territories.  Gloria Hughes, happily involved with her high school sweetie Buddy and besties with Barbara, (another beauty, who nevertheless harbors no real footlight aspirations) believes she can manage it all.  The flip flapper quickly finds she can’t.  Talented, but naïve, she disses her dedicated paramour for the road – experiencing the creeps and awful conditions that go along with it.  Worse, unlike Broadway Melody, which focused upon two loving sisters trying to crash the Biz, Gloria is saddled with a classic mooching, monstrous show business mother from hell.  Practically pimped by her parent, Gloria is taken under the wing (in the worst possible way) by Miller, a minor name on the circuit, whom both daughter and mother see as a rung to the top.  As far as he’s concerned, it’s vice versa (accent on the “vice”).  A competent performer, Miller is unfazed when their act is caught by a scout for Ziggy (Florenz Ziegfeld to you), who wants Hughes but not Miller.  This is okay by him, as the seedy hoofer sees it as a way to glide by doing nothing but collecting a hefty paycheck; he previously connived a legal contract for Gloria (witnessed and signed by Mommy Dearest), entitling him to half of all they make (back when he was considered the bread winner).  It’s here that Gloria’s worm turns, revealing herself to be a quick study, perfectly amenable to making this leech’s life a living hell 24/7.  Formerly naïve, the hardened woman’s growing partner-hatred coupled with that eternal lust for fame embellishes her with a warehouse of “the smarts,” and, as the song says, “she knows how to use it.”

Meantime, Buddy and Barbara, following their pal’s rise with glee, have now become a couple, a relationship forged out of their being abandoned by Gloria’s selfishness and Barbara’s recovering from a near-fatal traffic accident. With Gloria’s backburner chances for physical and emotional happiness ruined, the picture concludes with “regular” folks Buddy and Barbara deliriously in love while the “glorified” American girl is forever doomed to the loneliness of success, and addicted to an industry swarming with vipers and users.

I guess at first glance, GtAG doesn’t sound like “the happy one for the holidays,” but it really is entertaining.  There are some excellent performances in the pic and some nicely paced comedy (bourgeois mom trying to manipulate a stubborn lorgnette).  The lead star, Mary Eaton, took me by shock; I mean that as a compliment.  The only other title I had ever seen the (mostly) stage-trained actress in was as one-half of the useless love interest in the Marx Brothers pic The Cocoanuts (yet another 1929 Paramount filmed at the Astoria facilities).  In AMERICAN GIRL, she really gets to dance, belt out some numbers and act up a storm.  Who knew?

GLORIFYING THE AMERICAN GIRL was directed by the story’s writer, Millard Webb, who deserves the proverbial tip of a hat.  Unlike most primitive talkies, this one moves way better than the competition (including the oft soggy Cocoanuts).  Webb completes a nifty behind-the-camera trio with Paramount’s East Coast producer Monta Bell and d.p. George Folsey (both of whom were likewise on the Marx Brothers show).  The supporting cast, too, is of note, and includes quite a roster: Edward Crandall (Buddy), Gloria Shea (Barbara), Sarah Edwards (Mom-from-Hell), Dan Healy (Miller), plus Bull Montana and Kay Renard.  Having merchandised Ziggy’s name, the iconic Broadway showman used his clout to throw the production some extra prizes:  the participation of Helen Morgan (who sings “What Would I Do for My Man?”), Rudy Vallee (giving us a taste of “Vagabond Lover”) and guest appearances by Billie Burke (aka, Mrs. Ziegfeld), Mayor Jimmy Walker, Charles Dillingham, Noah Beery, Irving Berlin, Texas Guinan, Otto Kahn, Tony Sansone, Ring Lardner, the Ted Shawn Ballet, Flo Ziegfeld, Jr., 75 Glorified Beauties, and a young swimming star named Johnny Weissmuller (Paramount head Adolph Zukor turns up on his own).  Best of all is a revue segment featuring Eddie Cantor and Louis Sorin (Abie the Fishman from the Marx Bros. Animal Crackers, another Paramount Picture that would be shot at Astoria the following year) as two Lower East Side tailors trying to snare a rube tourist into purchasing garbage garb.

As for the musical numbers, once again, GtAG beats out Broadway Melody.  Producer Bell (with Ziggy’s help) was able to snare John W. Harkrider to create Ziegfeld-esque tableau show-stoppers that were shot in two-strip Technicolor.  Here’s where the public domain prints failed – giving us B&W washed out copies, or missing these sequences entirely (not cool for a musical).  Long thought lost, ALL of the Technicolor footage has now been re-discovered and re-inserted back into the print.  To call these scenes exquisite would be an understatement.  They’re also bizarrely complex.  Rather than just unveil a reel or two in this process, the producers thought better to keep the on-stage stuff in color, but the audience cut-a-ways and response (including Buddy’s and Barbara’s approval) in standard monochrome (unlike, for example, the all-color finale in 1930’s Florodora Girl).

Kino has additionally appended the 95-minute feature with a number of terrific clips and shorts, including Hearst Newsreels of Ziegfeld rehearsing his dancers, and the 1934 three-strip Technicolor short, La Cucaracha. The plum supplement is audio commentary by Richard Barrios, author of A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film, perhaps the finest book ever on the period and the genre.

As mentioned earlier, the 35MM presentation is outstanding in 1080p.  At last rescued from public domain purgatory, GtAG has transformed back to the 1929 jaw-dropper it was been meant to be.  As one astute viewer (pre-social distancing) at The Neuhaus Bijou noted, AMERICAN GIRL solemnly reveals that industry sexual rights and rites have not progressed much in nearly a century; indeed, the title itself is a cynical one. Here’s to better times.

GLORIFYING THE AMERICAN GIRL.  Black and white w/Technicolor sequences.  Full frame: 1.20:1; 1080p High Definition.  DTS-HD MA.  Kino-Lorber/UCLA Film Archive/AFI/Universal Pictures/Paramount Pictures.  CAT # K24183. SRP: $29.95.

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