Watching 1939: Naughty But Nice (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film:  Naughty But Nice (1939)
Musical No. 610

Release date:  July 1, 1939

Ann Sheridan, Dick Powell, Gale Page, Helen Broderick, Zasu Pitts, Ronald Reagan, Allen Jenkins, Maxie Rosenbloom, Jerry Colonna, Luis Alberni, Vera Lewis, Elizabeth Dunne, William B. Davidson, Halliwell Hobbes, Granville Bates, Hobart Cavanaugh (uncredited), John Ridgely (uncredited), Peter Lind Hayes (uncredited), Daisy Bufford (uncredited)

Studio:  Warner Bros.

Director:  Ray Enright

Music Professor Donald Hardwick teaches at Winfield College and is opposed to swing and jazz music. Donald travels to New York to publish a symphony and stays with his Aunt Martha (Broderick), who is the black sheep of the family because she married a jazz saxophone player. Donald falls out of favor with his dean (Hobbes) when he’s tricked by lyricist Linda McKay (Page) and singer Zelda Manion (Sheridan) to write swing music.

1939 Notes:
• “Naughty But Nice” was Dick Powell’s last film at Warner Bros. and marked the end of his boy crooner days, though he still was in a few musicals. By this point in his career, his musical films were slowing and Powell was starting to perform in comedies. This was his only film released in 1939.
• Ann Sheridan was in seven films released in 1939. The year helped her career. Her singing in “Dodge City” made studio heads take Sheridan more seriously, The Women of Warner Brothers by Daniel Bubbeo.
By the numbers:
• Zasu Pitts was in five films released in 1939.
• Halliwell Hobbes was in seven films released in 1939.
• Vera Lewis and Hobart Cavanaughw were in 18 films released in 1939.
• Helen Broderick was in three films released in 1939
• Granville Bates was in 15 films released in 1939

Gale Page, Dick Powell and Ann Sheridan in “Naughty But Nice”

Other trivia: 
• Because Dick Powell wouldn’t resign with Warner Bros., the studio shelved the film and wasn’t going to release it.
• Vera Vann dubbed Ann Sheridan in the song “In a Moment of Weakness”
• Working titles “Professor Steps Out” and “Always Leave Them Laughing.”

Notable Songs:
• “Remember Dad on Mother’s Day” performed by Jerry Colonna and Allen Jenkins
• “I’m Happy About the Whole Thing” performed by Dick Powell

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
Singing actor Dick Powell was noticed by audiences for the first time in “42nd Street” (1933); with his boyish looked and velvety singing voice.

But by 1939 and at age 35, Powell was tired acting in comedic musicals at Warner Bros., wanting roles of more substance. “Naughty But Nice” (1939) marked the end of Powell’s contract with Warner Bros. and the rest of his career working to reinvent himself. He did this successfully, both acting as hardboiled characters like in “Murder, My Sweet” (1944) and later turning to directing.

Outside of Powell’s dissatisfaction, the quality of Warner musicals at this stage of the 1930s was lacking, compared to the Busby Berkeley extravaganzas of a few years before.

Warner Bros. wanted to punish Powell by shelving the film, but 1939 was also a profitable year for one of the film’s stars – Ann Sheridan. After acting in uncredited roles in 1934 to 1935, Sheridan was slowly working to stardom in B-budget films. But 1939 offered her better roles and she was a star by the early 1940s. Because of her work in the Errol Flynn film, “Dodge City,” the studio felt she could handle one of the leading roles in “Naughty But Nice.” After wanting to shelve the film, Warner Bros. released the movie to capitalize off of the “Oomph Girl.

Poster for “Naughty But Nice” emphasizing Ann Sheridan

Gale Page plays another leading lady in the role, who may not have Dick Powell’s best character at heart, but is more honest than Ann Sheridan’s character. One surprise is that I had no idea that Gale Page could sing!

While the film’s lead was unhappy, “Naughty but Nice” is a hilarious and fun film. Powell’s family abhors swing music except for his black sheep aunt played by Helen Broderick. At one point, Broderick holds a jam session and is playing the drums and the trombone, and it had me laughing out loud.

Other Warner Bros. character actors are peppered through the film:
– Allen Jenkins and Jerry Colonna are a pair of lousy songwriters, with songs like “Remember Dad on Mother’s Day” to their name. Jenkins gets his lingo mixed up like “That makes me blood stand on end.”
– Tough Maxie Rosenbloom plays Helen Broderick’s servant, doing everything from protecting her, answering the door and cooking. He often comes out, complaining that they are interrupting his cake or souffle cooking.
– Zasu Pitts is one of Powell’s stuffy aunts. While straight-laced, she had one time where she got drunk. Her sisters are Broderick, Elizabeth Dunne and Vera Lewis.

“Naughty But Nice” is an entertaining and very funny film. But more importantly, it marked a turning point in the career of Dick Powell.

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