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Fashion February: Manhattan Parade (1931)

The movies have been influencing style since the early silent film era. Audiences gawked at Gloria Swanson's gowns in her DeMille films. During the Depression and war years, they escaped their shabby mended and re-mended wardrobes in the glamourous clothes they saw on screen. Later, they reminisced about the Jazz Age fashions in Singin' in the Rain. This month we contemplate movies about clothing designers and focus on an industry that looks very different today than it did in the classic movie era. This week, Samantha and Rodney view Manhattan Parade.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: The John Roberts Costume Company offers costumes for sale or rent to theatrical companies in New York. It is a bustling business run by its namesake (Walter Miller) but truly operated by his wife Doris (Winnie Lightner). She is a competent, creative and systematic, but in order to run the company, she doesn't have time to fulfill the traditional housewife role. As her husband's wandering eye becomes more serious, Doris must work harder to secure and repurpose orders to keep the company solvent.

RODNEY BOWCOCK: I found this an interesting location, in that it’s a look at a different world than we have previously covered this month. The theatrical world in New York, and specifically Broadway has been such a touchpoint for movies throughout the years, that this seemed oddly comfortable and in many ways familiar to me.

SG: Charles Butterworth plays the Lillian Michelson of the designer's office. He fact checks the historical accuracy of costume elements by using his extensive reference library and has a wonderful comedy run-in with Nat Pendleton.

RB: I like Charles Butterworth, so it was pleasing to see him in a fairly prominent role in this film. He’s really good in this, adding a lightness to what is essentially a melodrama. The whole bit with Nat Pendleton is very funny. It’s a shame that Butterworth’s life was cut so short (he died at the age of 49 in a car accident). He lightens up most every film that he’s in.

SG: Dickie Moore as Doris's son is so freaking cute I just want to squeeze him until he pops. Given his cherubic face, it is astounding to think that his mother could neglect him for her work, even if she is fantastic at her job.

RB: I’m sure that Dickie Moore being in the cast had NOTHING to do with why you chose this film for yourself, does it? But seriously, he’s adorable.

SG: Of course it was! Although it has been years since I first watched it, so his impact was as fresh as the first time. By contrast, menacing Charles Middleton pops up to collect on the costume bill.

RB: Did you yell “IT’S MING!” at the screen as soon as he walked onto the set? Or was that just me?

SG: He sure is merciless. The gay character played by Bobby Watson is completely over the top. He contemplates suicide for being forced to design in cerise instead of the maroon he knows is best. In his book Screened Out, Richard Barrios called Watson, "the unsung pioneer of screen sissies." His presence acknowledged the existence of gay men, so even though the characterization is broad, it was a revolutionary step in the history of the screen. This film is chock full of stereotypes like the cheating businessman (with his secretary no less), the gay costume designer, the hysterical stage director and the Jewish producers played by vaudeville comics Smith and Dale. At first I was slightly put off by their abrasive presences, but slowly I warmed to their incessant and ridiculous bickering.

RB: Oh, yeah, Smith & Dale. Those guys. A really fascinating career, although this film probably doesn’t use them to their best advantage. They were pretty much household names at this point, which does explain their presence, but this is one of only two Warner’s films in which they star, although they also did some Vitaphone shorts, and a couple of Columbia shorts under Jules White.

It seems that their best work was on stage, where they performed, unbelievably until they died. Apparently Neil Simon based the lead characters in his brilliant work The Sunshine Boys after them, and they’re even buried next to each other (with a genuinely hilarious dual tombstone that reads “BOOKED SOLID” over the two of them.

Like you, they grew on me, and I’m intrigued to seek out more of their work.

SG: That just adds another layer to my love for The Sunshine Boys. I knew those characters were based on a real team, but I didn't know it was one whose work I knew.

There are lots of laughs to be had here. Lightner tells a worker with an abundance of skirts that they aren't going to be used, and to dye them plaid so they could be used as kilts. I did a double take. How do you dye something plaid? The run through of the artistic stage show is absolutely hysterical and a welcome climax to the movie.

"What do we use the brassieres for? To bake pies in them. What do you think?"

RB: Likely my favorite line in the entire film is when Lightner is putting Dickie to bed early in the film and asks him if he’d like her to sing "Sonny Boy" and he retorts with, “Only if you have to.” It really speaks to how unpopular Al Jolson was at this particular time, but he also handles it with great delivery.

SG: I love that song, and I love Al Jolson. And I love Dickie Moore. We're just one big happy family.

Although this film has several pre-code elements, including a gay character, a joke alluding to prostitution, and a philandering businessman violating the Mann Act with an underage girl, this film was passed by every censorship board in every U.S. state with no cuts.

This film is based on an unsuccessful stage play called She Means Business. It was set in a handbag factory, but the studio changed it to a costume company for more excitement and glamour.

Columbus native Polly Walters plays the switchboard operator.

RB: That was probably a wise move. I can’t remember the last time I wanted to watch a film about the inner workings of a handbag factory. Broadway on the other hand, as we’ve discussed, seems to hold an endless amount of inspiration for movies. We’re still making movies about backstage at Broadway shows today!

SG: There is a lot of action and a lot of characters stuffed into this little movie and not enough of the storylines are resolved to bring about a satisfactory conclusion. It could have run a half hour longer, which is astounding considering it might have, but with fluffy musical numbers instead of plot. This film was originally shot in Technicolor, but only black and white prints survive and it is unclear whether any of the musical bits were shot or only planned. Lightner was known for her talents in musical comedies, and although the public took note of her more glamorous look in Manhattan Parade, it wasn't enough support for Warner Brothers to renew her contract in light of the steep decline in the popularity of musicals.

William Stull A.S.C. wrote for American Cinematographer, "The combination of the first really good Technicolor print seen in years and Dev Jennings' fine camerawork make Manhattan Parade a much more important film than it would otherwise be. If all color camerawork had been as good as this, and all Technicolor release-printing as well-defined and uniform, the later color-craze would never have subsided. The picture is entirely a triumph of the technicians." Unfortunately, we can't see what he is talking about.

New Movie Magazine gave it a fair rating, calling it, "A lively lot of nonsense against a Broadway background. There is not much to the story but Smith and Dale, Charles Butterworth and Winnie Lightner lead the laughter."

Because it feels like an incomplete film, I have to give this movie two stars, although there are lots of very good bits and pieces.

RB: It’s hard to review a film when you feel like you aren’t getting the full picture. I can’t draw any distinction between what the critics of 1931 saw with what we watched. Supposedly, a 16mm safety color print exists at UCLA and it’s a shame that for whatever reason Warners has not been able to access this source for a commercial release. But even that print isn’t likely to have the musical numbers which I understand were included in foreign releases. I think this was likely a better film than we’re giving it credit for. I’ll go three stars because in spite of only being able to watch the film in a neutered form, it’s an entertaining piece and one that I think fans of pre-code comedies or vaudeville historians will want to peruse.

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