Musical Monday: Melody Cruise (1933)

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:
Melody Cruise (1933) – Musical #458

melody cruise

Studio:
RKO Studios

Director:
Mark Sandrich

Starring:
Charles Ruggles, Phil Harris, Helen Mack, Greta Nissen, Chick Chandler, June Brewster, Shirley Chambers, Florence Roberts, Marjorie Gateson, Betty Grable (uncredited), Clarence Muse (uncredited)

Plot:
Friends Pete Wells (Ruggles) and Alan Chandler (Harris) escape the winter of New York and go on a cruise. Pete is a philanderer and Alan drunkenly writes a letter to Pete’s wife about all of his affairs, to be opened only if Alan ever married — something Alan has sworn he won’t do. Complications arise when Alan falls in love and wants to marry.

Trivia:
• Phil Harris’s first credited acting role.
• Director Mark Sandrich’s first full-length feature film
• Working titles were Maiden Voyage and Maiden Cruise.
• Nelson Eddy turned down the lead film role for this film.

Highlights:
• The beginning where the sounds illustrate how cold it is in New York City.
• The use of rhyming to share gossip
• The ice skating ballet

Notable Songs:
• “He’s Not the Marrying Kind” performed by the chorus
• “Isn’t This a Night for Love” performed by Phil Harris
• “This is the Hour” performed by Phil Harris and Greta Nissen

melody cruise

My review:
For an unassuming musical, “Melody Cruise” set the tone for other RKO musicals to come, including those starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

The clever way of rhyming sing/song speech, slideshow like image transitions, and using repetitive noises and images (train tracks, brooms sweeping, etc) to mimic speech all are included here, and were used in musical storytelling throughout the 1930s.

This is all impressive, especially since this was the feature-film directorial debut of Mark Sandrich, who went on to direct films like “Shall We Dance,” “Top Hat,” “Follow the Fleet” and “The Gay Divorcee.”

The story begins depicting New York City looking cold and miserable (and do they do an excellent job of it): newspaper boys blowing on their hands or brooms pushing slush down the sidewalk. We then see hands stamping tickets, as New Yorkers are fleeing the cold for a warmer client. The main characters, Pete Wells (Ruggles) and Alan Chandler (Harris), are boarding a cruise ship to head west to a warmer climate. At a rowdy farewell party in their stateroom, Pete tells Alan never to get married, and as a way to seal the deal, Alan writes an inflammatory letter to Pete’s wife, outlining all of his philandering. Complications arise when Alan falls in love and two ladies from the party (wearing only their skivvies) accidentally end up on the cruise, posing as Pete’s nieces.

“Melody Cruise” isn’t the best musical, but also is cute. It is also quite Pre-Code, if you enjoy that film era. For example, when the two “nieces” awake on the boat in only their undergarments, one says “You know you like to take off your clothes when you have a few drinks in you.”

Visually and musically, I think it’s fun and Sandrich’s storytelling methods with the camera work are interesting and groundbreaking for this period. New York Times film critic Mourdant Hall was also impressed with Sandrich’s work:

“It is, however, not the singing or the clowning that makes this a smart piece of work, but the imaginative direction of Mark Sandrich, who is alert in seizing any opportunity for cinematic stunts. From the viewpoint of direction this production is quite an achievement, for there are moments when it has a foreign aspect and there is some extraordinarily clever photography. Mr. Sandrich also tackles the blending of different sounds, and often the boisterous incidents are depicted with such artistry as to make them quite bright.”

While Sandrich’s work is the bright spot, the casting is what makes this lightfare a bit difficult. Charles Ruggles is perfect (per usual) in the befuddled, but often in the wrong, character. It’s Phil Harris that leaves me scratching his head. In his first film role, Harris isn’t quite yet the Southern gentleman “now shut my mouth” character that he became famous for when he joined The Jack Benny Radio Show a few years later. He’s fine here, but that’s just it –he’s only okay. If it was a few years later, he may have been more fun.

I also don’t understand the point of Greta Nissen’s was an oddly wasted character. And Helen Mack is another bland 1930s actress who didn’t do much acting after 1939.

Regardless of these aspects, this is still an interesting film for what it set up as far as musicals go in years to come.

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