Hundreds of early British talkies are gradually being released on DVD in the UK by Network Distributing. The latest volume is British Musicals of the 1930s: Volume 3, due for release on January 12, which contains four rarities, For the Love of Mike (1932), Facing the Music (1933), My Song Goes Round the World (1933) and Heart’s Desire (1934) I’ll just write about the first two films here, and will post about the others separately. They are all part of The British Film collection.
Musicals from this period tended to offer entertaining escapism from the worries of the Great Depression. That’s certainly true of the two films on the first disc, which are both light-hearted romps serving up a blend of slapstick antics and glitzy outfits. For the Love of Mike is set in a grand country house, while Facing the Music largely takes place at a London opera house, and includes several operatic scenes along the way. Both films are amusing, but Facing the Music is by far the more polished of the two, with a highly entertaining performance by music hall star Stanley Lupino, who comes up with endless visual gags and one-liners. Watching this straight after The Love of Mike really gives a feeling of how much British cinema had advanced in just one year. Here’s a trailer to give a taste of the whole set.
For the Love of Mike was directed by comedy star Monty Banks, adapted from a stage farce. Although the picture quality of this film is pretty good, the sound is a bit ropey and at times I struggled to make out the dialogue. The film does feel a bit thin overall but has some good gags and an endearing cast. The main star is song-and-dance man Bobby Howes, but “Mike” is actually a girl – the name is short for Michaelis. This character is played by London-born actress Constance Shotter, one of three acting sisters, in her first screen role.
Glamorous heiress Mike is the ward of a self-made businessman – who unfortunately is also a gambler. However, when he wants to help himself to her inheritance in order to pay off his debts, his aristocratic secretary, “Booby” Seymour (Howes) decides to step in and save the day. The plot doesn’t really matter, though – it’s mainly an excuse for camp humour and slapstick, involving a private detective who turns out to be an equally upper-crust schoolfriend of Seymour’s and a grumpy vicar (character actor Wylie Watson).
At times I was reminded of PG Wodehouse, especially when the two old schoolfriends first meet up (“Stinker!” “Booby!”) but there are far more knockabout antics than you’d get in one of his tales. There are only a few musical numbers, and they are staged in a rather throwaway style, but one of them, Got a Date with an Angel, has a catchy tune and has been covered by a number of other artists over the years. Until seeing the film’s entry at the imdb, I hadn’t realised that Merle Oberon is said to have had an uncredited bit part in it, and didn’t spot her – but will look out for her if I watch it again!
Directed by Harry Hughes, Facing the Music had two of the same writers as the earlier film, Clifford Grey and Frank Launder, but Sidney Gilliat and star Stanley Lupino were also credited as writers here. I’m guessing Lupino must have written some of his own dialogue, which is very sharp and has a flavour of music hall, including enjoyable put-downs for hecklers. The sound and picture quality of this film are both excellent, and it seems to move much faster than the film made the previous year. If you blink, you are likely to miss a visual gag.
Lupino plays opera-goer Jack Foley, who stops looking at the stage, focuses his opera glasses on a girl in a neighbouring box, and falls in love. He then pursues her with comic determination, going in for some antics which seem downright stalkerish to a modern viewer (though I suppose the same could be said of Fred’s pursuit of Ginger in some of the Astaire-Rogers films!)
Anyway, the object of Jack’s affections, Nina (Nancy Burne) is the niece of opera diva Madame Calvini (another music hall star, Jose Collins). As he woos the niece, Jack becomes involved in a complicated plot to gain publicity for the aunt, culminating in a chase through the lower regions of the opera house during a performance which reminded me of Hitchcock’s Stage Fright.
As well as a couple of enjoyable musical numbers by Noel Gay, the film features numerous excerpts from operas, including the death scene from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and several scenes from Gounod’s Faust. I was left feeling that I must see Faust, and, as sheer luck would have it, a touring production by the Swansea City Opera will be staged at the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich in March, so I can get my wish!
Trivia fact – the stars of both these films had famous daughters. Stanley Lupino, of course, was the dad of great film noir actress Ida, as well as another actress, Rita. Bobby Howes’ daughter, Sally Ann, is known to millions as Truly Scrumptious in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Thanks to Network Distributing for kindly providing a copy of this DVD set for review purposes.
P.S., I’ve just come across a nice short interview with Stanley Lupino at the British Pathé website from 1933, where he mentions that he has two daughters called Ida and Rita – and says he first went on stage as a baby.