Tuesday, December 05, 2017


As a member of internet discussion groups devoted to Charlie Chan and the Bowery Boys/East Side Kids, I get to see a lot of exhibitor-focused promotional materials and ads in the trade magazines from Monogram Pictures, perhaps my favorite B-movie studio of the 1940’s (along with Columbia and PRC). Monogram had many series films, and they were sold to exhibitors in blocks, which made a lot of sense….theater owners knew that, say, The East Side Kids or Bela Lugosi or the Frankie Darro/Mantan Moreland duo could be relied upon to bring in customers, and customers who enjoyed what they saw (it’s interesting to see how exhibitors would rave about Monogram’s product being especially satisfying to the paying customers and how their product could be RELIED UPON to bring in warm bodies to fill their seats and buy their popcorn and snacks), so what could be better than to get the promise of six or eight more films in those successful series to guarantee good box office receipts for the next fiscal year for your small-town or second-tier theater.

One area that has surprised me somewhat when I am looking at old Monogram trade ads from the 1940’s is how there are usually a few swing-oriented musicals on offer, and how the selling points are a few name bands (and they actually use the term NAME BANDS in the ads) and a few song hits of the day (and back then, the song was still more important than its performer). Of course, a formula “swing picture” would also need some comic relief, a young female and male lead who could have some kind of romance, etc. Swing music was huge both on radio and on records….and in major cities, at the larger movie houses (probably ones that DID NOT book Monogram films!), you’d even get swing bands in between the films. My late mother got to see many of the greats—Benny Goodman, Count Basie, etc.—that way. One of these swing movies could provide an hour of escapist entertainment, a number of “name bands” and hit songs, and truly satisfy the audiences in that pre-television age.

That’s what we’ve got in this 1946 offering, and it certainly does deliver the goods. In fact, the titles of the hit songs (such as "Caldonia" and "Stormy Weather") are plastered all over the film’s opening credits sequence multiple times! The film also starts in high gear with an uptempo flag-waver (as they used to call them during the swing era) of a theme song, “Swing Parade,” while the star-studded credits roll quickly. I can imagine that everyone would be sitting up in their seats and tapping their toes within five seconds of the film’s start. Monogram Pictures did not waste their time in their features, which often averaged between 59 and 69 minutes.

The female lead, Gale Storm, was a singer/actress who was one of Monogram’s few home-grown “stars.” The studio tended to use both stars and series which were already known (or, as the trades would put it, “pre-sold”)—The East Side Kids/Bowery Boys actually became “stars” at Warner Brothers as the Dead End Kids, Charlie Chan began at 20th Century Fox (the series was brought to Monogram by star Sidney Toler after it was dropped by Fox), and series such as Joe Palooka and The Shadow already had followings in other media. Storm was also a star in early television (MY LITTLE MARGIE and THE GALE STORM SHOW) a few years after this feature, and she’s both a vibrant and attractive presence AND a good, swinging vocalist (her version of “On The Sunny Side Of The Street” is first-rate and holds its own with the better of the many versions of this jazz standard). Because much of Gale Storm’s work was at Monogram and on early TV, and neither of those have ever been the darlings of either critics or those who write the history books, Storm has not really received the credit she is due. If you own a theater, let me program a Gale Storm festival for you!

The “plot” is typical of those found in low-budget musical films, and this formula was still being used in the 1960’s! A club devoted to whatever kind of music is being featured (rock and roll, calypso, folk, swing, the twist, you name it) is in financial trouble or about to be shut down for some reason (here it’s because the club manager, played by young Phil Regan, providing the romantic interest for Storm, has a father who disapproves of swing music and wants his son to get into the family business). There’s usually a big production number featuring most of the “name acts” near the end, and whoever was opposed to the club and/or the music is eventually won over….blah, blah, blah. We’ve got all that here, and it’s presented in a fast-moving and entertaining package. Every few minutes there’s another musical number or comedy sequence, so you could have staggered into the theater after some long night shift at work, half-asleep and burned-out, and you’d still get awakened every few minutes by the swinging music and the comedy.

And speaking of comedy, this film is best-known—if it’s known at all!—for the presence of THE THREE STOOGES, who play janitors at the club. This was one of their few outside loan-out films while they were working at Columbia for 20+ years…..this one for Monogram in 1946, and the western GOLD RAIDERS (with George O’Brien) for United Artists in 1951. I first saw Swing Parade in the 1980’s, when a friend taped it off of cable TV onto a VHS tape for me. The Warner Archive issued it on DVD in 2011, and I’ve probably watched it five times since then. My first impression of it—while certainly positive—was to realize how much of the greatness of the Three Stooges was complemented by the photography and editing of their Columbia shorts. We don’t have that here. It’s like when Laurel and Hardy moved from Hal Roach to 20th Century Fox, or when a small-label recording artist would move to a major label that somehow did not “get” what they were about—something just doesn’t FEEL right. Oh, the Stooges are funny (some of the routines are recycled from their pre-Columbia Ted Healy days—and the film’s screenplay was written by the great TIM RYAN, one-time husband of Irene Ryan, Granny of BEVERLY HILLBILLIES fame, a man VERY familiar to Monogram Pictures fans both as a screenwriter and as an actor, in multiple Bowery Boys and Charlie Chan films….in fact, he played the same comedic police inspector in a few of the Roland Winters Chan films---he was also the comic relief in the 1946 Columbia/Sam Katzman serial WHO’S GUILTY….and perhaps most legendary of his achievements to us here at BTC, “Tim and Irene” had their own series of comedy shorts at Educational Pictures in the mid-1930’s!!!!), and they’re actually in a lot of the film, not just one sequence, as is often the case with “guest stars” in this kind of film. It’s just that for director Phil Karlson—a legendary name in crime films but someone who worked steadily in many low-budget films in a variety of genres for decades, even into the early 1970’s with the original WALKING TALL with Joe Don Baker—The Stooges’ sequences in the film were just another sequence, like the musical numbers or the romantic scenes with Gale Storm. He got them in the can quickly and efficiently, but he had no experience working on the Stooges Columbia shorts and did not know the unique filming and editing style their films had there.

Let’s not forget the amazing LOUIS JORDAN, whose sequence here would be worth the price of admission by itself, the man who was the main influence on both Chuck Berry AND Bill Haley, and thus the true godfather of rock and roll. He’d appeared primarily in all-Black Cast features distributed by Astor Pictures, which played to African-American audiences and also to the kind of third-run backwater or neighborhood theaters serviced by Astor (and I’m old enough to remember when these Black cast features were shown as filler on BET back in the early days of cable….can you imagine a Louis Jordan movie or one of Spencer Williams’ films such as THE BLOOD OF JESUS being shown on cable TV, watched by tens of thousands? Those days are certainly long-gone, as BET fills so many hours with bad sitcoms!). Though he gets only one song, the classic "Caldonia", it’s a real show-stopper, beginning with the outline of the musicians’ instruments being glow in the dark on a darkened stage, as the booting R&B beat kicks in….the band does a long version of the song AND dancers are brought in during the final verse. You’ll feel exhausted by the end of Jordan’s performance. What a master!

Yes, there are a few sappy ballads here….back in the day, you could have gone to the bathroom or gotten some popcorn during them, and today, you can go to your home bathroom or get a snack from your kitchen. But don’t take TOO long as those songs last about two minutes maximum, and you may miss a Three Stooges sequence!

As this period of Monogram is owned by Warner Brothers (the DVD of this is from the Warner Archive), you can probably wait until it airs again on TCM and see it for free, but devoted Stooges fans will want to get their own copy now. I’m sure I’ll be re-watching this film here and there in future years, as it’s the kind of thing that puts a smile on your face and takes you into an entertaining alternate-universe for its 74 minutes (long by Monogram standards). If I owned a revival or “art” theater, I would book this!

1 comment:

diskojoe said...

I have a version that has riffs done by the Rifftrax gang (you can also watch the unriffed version). I especially love the glow in the dark instruments in the Louis Jordan set. I'm surprised that a rock group hasn't done this either live or on video.