Monogram May: Sweethearts of the USA (1944)
The Columbus Moving Picture Show staff are big fans of little movies from little studios, whether that means small studios or those that received little respect in their day. In May, we’ll be turning the focus on a trio of films from Monogram Studios, a studio that managed to be both of those things.
RODNEY BOWCOCK: "It’s got that Thing, that Swing, that Sing!” Well, sort of it does, anyway. When the film opens, we meet Patsy (Una Merkel) who is working in a defense plant. After being hit on the head with a piece of pipe, she dreams that she is a detective in a nightclub with ghosts, bank robbers--and Parkyakarkus.
SAMANTHA GLASSER: What begins to be a film about the war and the efforts made by regular people, either women working in the factories or the men being drafted into the fight, abruptly drops the wartime theme and turns into a musical with any excuse to roll out forgettable number after forgettable number. The music, some of which is performed by Jan Garber, is pleasant and typical of the era, but none of the tunes lodge into your brain. The standout for me is "All The Latin I Know is 'Si Si,'" which doesn't exactly offend, but will raise the eyebrows of the PC Police. It is probably the most elaborate of all the music pieces and it unexpectedly expands from a close-up solo to a duet and then a long dance routine with dozens of dancers. Interestingly enough, I noticed some decomposition in the center of the frame during the tap dance routine, which I misinterpreted as a spotlight until I noticed its waviness.
RB: After the genuine surprise of last week’s film, this is a little more typical of what we expect from Monogram. It’s kind of a kitchen sink sort of film. Plot points are introduced and then dropped, which, I suppose does lend itself to the dreamlike state of the film. It’s as if screenwriters Arthur St. Claire, Sherman Lowe and Mary Sheldon (This is Sheldon’s only film credit.) each took a chunk of the movie, wrote some pages and combined them all together. St. Claire and Lowe collaborated on such “gems” as Miss V From Moscow (which was unspooled at a Cinevent several years ago), while solo Sherman Lowe worked on a bunch of serials and westerns for Columbia, before moving into television. So, yeah, maybe this isn’t the most prestigious writing staff, but the film does have a certain charm to it.
And that charm does come from the cast. Una Merkel filmed this when she had finished up a pair of comedy shorts for Columbia (Quack Service and To Heir Is Human), although it appears that they didn’t really know what to do with her, and the series didn’t continue (In one she was paired with Gwen Kenyon, in the other with Harry Langdon. Neither clicked with audiences). It’s a shame, because she’s really a lot of fun in this film and is a constant welcome presence.
SG: Merkel is a welcome presence in many pre-code films where she plays either a wisecracking or dizzy sidekick to the many leading ladies who went on to become icons of the era. She had no such luck regarding her own immortality, but I always enjoy her performances and have sought out films simply because her name is in the cast. Some of them are low quality, but her energy level and distinctive voice never disappoint.
RB: Parkyakarkus (Harry Einstein) was primarily known as a radio comedian (some trade ads for this film refer to him as “your favorite radio comedian”), but appeared in about a dozen films and TV shows, nearly always playing the same character. Radio stars in movies were quite a novelty at the time (as we’ve discussed previously here), and it’s easy to understand why audiences would’ve been interested in seeing someone that they’ve heard so often on the radio. Einstein was fresh off a stint on the Al Jolson program, and had made this film a shortly before starting his own program, Meet Me at Parkys, which ran for a few years, in which he owned a restaurant. Sheldon Leonard was often in the cast, and it’s not a bad show at all, if you’re into that kind of thing…and I am.
If I knew a fella as fine as Don, I'd marry him myself.
SG: Parkyakarkus worked with Dick Powell on Tuesday Night Party, the later iteration of Presenting Al Jolson after Jolson left. I discovered him through a photo of the two working on the show and I had to break his name down several times before I got that it was a joke moniker. Contemporary comedy fans likely aren't familiar with Parkyakarkus, but they know the work of his children Bob Einstein and Albert Brooks (who altered his name for obvious reasons). He famously died of a heart attack on stage after performing at a Friar's Club Roast of Lucille Ball and Dezi Arnaz. Bob Einstein used to cynically crack jokes about people who tried to comfort him by saying, "At least your father died doing what he loved," as if that justified his death at age 54.
RB: Everything else in the film is kind of indistinguishable, but pleasant. Donald Novis (who was no stranger to radio himself) has a sizable romantic lead role, but everyone else in the cast is pretty forgettable, as are the myriad music numbers and set pieces.
SG: Lillian Cornell is a competent singer with a beautiful face and good acting skills, but her singing style is slightly more operatic than I like.
The middle-aged benefactor of these stage shows (Cobina Wright) was unfortunately stuck with a poorly fitted snug satin dress with diamond darts meant to look slimming, but unintentionally making her look heavy and cheap. Thanks Kay West. It is fitting that she only has two credits on IMDB.
RB: Yeah, as I said this is pretty much what you’d expect from a Monogram film, but it’s really not that much worse than the hour-long musicals that all of the studios turned out. I think Monogram gets a bad rap, and while this is no bomb, I also can’t, in good conscience, give it more than two and a half stars, mostly for the pleasure of seeing Merkel and Parky together.
SG: The craziest part of this movie is the implication that they're staying in a haunted house complete with ghosts, but that plotline is dropped and given more legitimacy (if you can call it that) by switching to a criminal plot to rob the bank. None of it is ever properly resolved. Ultimately, it is all about the music, and if that is all this film really has going for it, I can't award it any more than 2 stars.