Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Sweet Adeline

Sweet Adeline 

Release date 12.29.1934

“You know, I can't do it…it's off!…
And there is Pop. I would kill him! A painted woman! A stage actress!!”
(Adeline to Sid)

Adeline Schmidt (Irene) works in her father's beer garden and is courted by two men: aspiring composer Sid Barnett (Donald Woods) and Spanish-American War Army Major James Day (Louis Calhern). Of course sweet Adeline is not only a waitress but an accomplished singer for whom Sid's songs are written and thus he tries to persuade her to star in the upcoming production of his operetta. Knowing that her father dislikes all things theatre Adeline refuses, which ends with a quarrel between Sid and her, and Addie starting to date the Major.

Adeline and Sid - prelude to a quarrel

Well, the role goes to Elysia (Winifred Shaw) whose wealthy boyfriend Rupert Rockingham (Hugh Herbert) conveniently will back up financially for the show. Adeline's nutty sister Nellie (Nydia Westman) is suddenly vanished from the beer garden, and Addie searching for her - of course with the Major in tow - happens to show up at the perfect moment at a rehearsal of the operetta. To make it short: Adeline sings and snatches  away the lead from Elysia who just shocked us and Sid with a horrible version of “Why Was I Born”. The part is taken over by Adeline and the financial back up by the Major, which means that he is around all the time.

Adeline and the Major

Sid has to face the green-eyed monster and rehearsals aren't going smoothly. At the day of the premiere, Adeline expecting a proposal, visits the Major at his new apartment, but the only future plans of the Major are to install Miss Schmidt as his mistress at this cosy little place. Shocked by this outlook and the notion that this is the kind of treatment "theatre dames" have to expect, Adeline wants to quit the show immediately, but is persuaded by Sid to go on.

Lonely Feet

The show runs splendidly, but there is still Elysia - did I mention that she is a spy and stupid Rupert a member of the Secret Service? - who attempts to kill Adeline cutting the strings of a swing while Adeline does a singing-swinging number. Poor Adeline ends crashing on the floor, Elysia in jail and Sid writing a new show using all these happenings as scenery. Of course Adeline - don't worry, fully recovered - is the star of this show, and after one and a half hour waiting for it, we get the final embrace - in thick darkness though. Happy End. Curtain.

Light, please!

That's the story and that's the main problem - and I had a lot more fun writing it than I had watching it. “Sweet Adeline” is a “hot and cold” film for me: thrilling me and boring me stiff during its duration of 87 minutes. The old, tried comedy construction of serious stock (Adeline, Sid and the Major) and laughing stock (Nellie, Elysia and Rupert) just doesn't work: all the attempts on being funny are just this - mere attempts. This interwoven ridiculous spy story is annoyingly distracting and from time to time the film commits the cardinal sin of dullness, which is a shame because all the craftsmanship Warner Brothers had to offer at that time is at hand: Mervyn LeRoy as director, Sol Polito as photographer and Orry-Kelly in charge of Irene's costumes. But not even the best are able to transform a lame duck of a script into a swan of a film.

Irene with a lot of dispensable folks in the background

That this duck doesn't sink is mainly - once again - due to Miss Dunne who is not alone, because she has the support of a Kern score. I love Kern and I love Irene singing Kern, so this combination is a sure bet with me. “Lonely Feet” is one of my absolute Irene favorites and this beautifully staged grand number (choreographer Bobby Connolly) is quite a treat. Beyond the wonderful Kern songs, “Sweet Adeline” certainly has its moments: smashing close-ups of Irene especially while she is singing, and clever ideas of handling the camera. As so often the parts are better than the whole.

Miss Dunne singing Jerome Kern

This film cries for a lot of cutting and that's the reason why I won't write about Irene's colleagues here, they just ended on my personal cutting floor - at last I got rid of these distracting, but innocently so, folks. In a long interview with Irene in 1978 James Harvey used “Sweet Adeline” as an example: even in films “where nothing much seems to be at stake, or even to make much sense - what's striking is your intensity. It's one of the things that holds people when the watch your films.”

and more singing...

If Irene's intensity and a wonderful Kern score are reasons good enough for you to watch a film, those are notwithstanding the delicacies “Sweet Adeline” proffers between some tasteless courses.
Delicious or not - for everyone really interested in Miss Dunne, this film is virtually a must, because it marks her first Kern on screen. Considering how much Irene is associated with Jerome Kern's music that's an important Dunne moment, which shouldn't be missed.