Musical Monday: On with the Show! (1929)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 600. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
On With The Show! (1929) – Musical No. 605

Studio: Warner Bros.

Director: Alan Crosland

Arthur Lake, Betty Compson, Joe E. Brown, Sally O’Neil, William Bakewell, Louise Fazenda, Sam Hardy, Ethel Waters, John W. Bubbles, Henry Fink, Otto Hoffman, Purnell Pratt, Josephine Huston, The Fairbanks Twins (Marion Fairbanks, Madeline Fairbanks)

A performance stage troupe hopes to hit it big with their show “The Phantom Sweetheart.” They haven’t made it to Broadway and their actors haven’t been paid so their livelihood stands on the success of this performance. Offstage, the actors (Lake, Compson, Brown, Fazenda) and producer (Hardy) deal with a collector who wants to take the box office earnings or the scenery to pay for their debts. Midway through the show, the box office money is stolen and a ticket taker (Bakewell) is accused of stealing it.

• Ethel Waters’ first film appearance.
• “On with the Show” was filmed in two-strip Technicolor, making it the first full-length film with synchronized sound movie filmed entirely in color. Unfortunately, the surviving prints are only in black-and-white.
• John W. Bubbles’ first film.
• Based on the play “Shoestring”
• Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck
• The only full-length feature film for Josephine Huston and Henry Fink

The film was shot in two-strip Technicolor, and this is one of the few scenes that survives.

• Ethel Waters’ appearance
• Dancing by the Four Covans
• Joe E. Brown dancing

Notable Songs:
• “Am I Blue?” performed by Ethel Waters and the Harmony Four Quartette
• “Welcome Home” performed by the cast
• “Let Me Have My Dreams” performed by Josephine Huston
• “Lift the Juleps to Your Two Lips” performed by Henry Fink and Josephine Huston

Ethel Waters performing “Am I Blue” in “On with the Show” (1929)

My review:
Some musicals made not long after the dawn of sound can be difficult to watch. Studios were still trying to figure out how to stage the numbers effectively and fit music into the storyline (Busby Berkeley later perfected this). Several of the musicals were “backstage musicals” and the numbers would be a camera shooting a theater stage straight on.

However, “On with the Show!” (1929) is a pleasant surprise. It is genuinely a good time, mainly because of the on-stage portion of the show.

Backstage musicals are where we see the drama off stage, and despite their troubles, they still have to go on stage and perform. In “On with the Show” (1929), the performing troop is struggling and hopes that this performance will get them on their feet. However, the collector shows up and is prepared to take the box office money, which was meant to be the salary for the unpaid stars, or the scenery in the middle of the show. Then, the box office is robbed and while the show is going on, they are trying to figure out who stole it.

Outside of the dialogue, we also see the stagehands performing the magic off-set during the musical numbers. Such as luring dogs in a fox hunt scene with a hunk of meat or blowing up balloons and throwing them on stage.

While Betty Compson and Arthur Lake are billed as the stars, I didn’t feel like there was any real star of “On with the Show!” and that it was more of an ensemble cast. We really see more of the characters played by Sally O’Neil and William Bakewell, Broadway hopefuls who work the box office at the theater. However, Lake and Compson are some of the stars of the musical within the musical, so perhaps that is why they get top billing.

Unfortunately, Arthur Lake’s character is really whiny, but thankfully not as stupid as his Dagwood character later on. Joe E. Brown has a small role in the film and plays a heel, unlike his later likable roles.

Louise Fazenda is also in the film and she is so young that I didn’t even recognize her!

The real highlight in the cast is Ethel Waters. She’s just in two numbers, but steals the show. This was her first film role.

As I noted, while some of the early musicals can be difficult, this one is enjoyable. While the dance numbers are still shot straight on, the dancing is surprisingly decent, especially the Four Covans tap dancing and a dance performed by Joe E. Brown.

The songs are also really fun, especially “Lift the Juleps to Your Two Lips.”

The really disappointing thing about “On with the Show!” (1929) is that the film was filmed in two-strip Technicolor, the first full-length film with synchronized sound that was shot in color. Unfortunately, except for a few minutes, this color print is still lost. The stills that survive look so beautiful and I hate not to see it. But at least we are fortunate to see the print that remains, even though it is in black-and-white since so many of these films are lost.

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