Musical Monday: Show of Shows (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:
Show of Shows (1929) – Musical #721

show of shows3

Studio:
Warner Bros.

Director:
John G. Adolfi

Starring:
Master of Ceremonies: Frank Faylen

Armida, Johnny Arthur, Mary Astor, William Bakewell, Richard Bartelmess, Noah Berry, Sally Blane, Monte Blue, Irène Bordoni, Joseph A. Burke, Marion Byron, Georges Carpentier, Ethlyne Clair, James Clemens, Ruth Clifford, William Collier Jr., Betty Compson, Chester Conklin, Heinie Conklin, Dolores Costello, Helene Costello, Jack Curtis, Viola Dana, Alice Day, Marceline Day, Sally Eilers, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Louise Fazenda, Pauline Garon, Albert Gran, Alexander Gray, Lloyd Hamilton, Julanne Johnston, Sôjin Kamiyama, Lupino Lane, Frances Lee, Lila Lee, Ted Lewis, Winnie Lightner, Beatrice Lillie, Jacqueline Logan, Myrna Loy, Nick Lucas, Tully Marshall, Shirley Mason, Otto Matieson, Philo McCullough, Patsy Ruth Miller, Bull Montana, Lee Moran, Chester Morris, Jack Mulhal, Edna Murphy, Carmel Myers, Marian Nixon, Molly O’Day, Sally O’Neil, Gertrude Olmstead, Kalla Pasha, Anders Randolf, Rin Tin Tin, Bert Roach, Sid Silvers, Ann Sothern, Ben Turpin, Ada Mae Vaughn, Alberta Vaughn, Lolita Vendrell, Edward Ward, Alice White, Ted Williams, Lois Wilson, Grant Withers, Loretta Young, John Aasen

Plot:
With 23 songs and skits, there is little plot to this film. It is a talent revue to exhibit the speaking and singing talent of Hollywood stars during the dawn of sound.

Trivia:
• Warner Bros. fifth color film. Little of the color portions exist today.
• The response of the film was so enthusiastic, that police had to hold back crowds when it opened in New York City, according to the New York Times review by Mordant Hall.
• John Barrymore’s first talking picture.
• Jack Buchanan had a skit in the film that was dropped from “Show and Shows” and was released as a Vitaphone short instead.
• Second appearance of Ann Sothern, who was billed as Harriet Brown

show of shows 3 sally and loretta sisters

Sally Blane and Loretta Young in the “Meet My Sister” number

Highlights:
• Noah Beery singing?!
• Rin Tin Tin in color.
• John Barrymore as Richard III in “Henry VI”

show of shows

Rin Tin Tin

Notable Songs:
• “What’s Become of the Floradora Boys?” performed by Marian Nixon, Sally O’Neil, Alice Day, Lila Lee, Myrna Loy, Patsy Ruth Miller, Ben Turpin, Lee Moran, Lupino Lane, Heinie Conklin, Bert Roach and Lloyd Hamilton
• “Pirate Band” performed by Ted Lewis and the chorus
• “If I Could Learn to Love” performed by Georges Carpentier, Patsy Ruth Miller, Alice White
• “Ping Pongo” performed by Winnie Lightner
• “Meet My Sister”
• “Singing in the Bath Tub” performed by Winnie Lightner

show of shows4

Winnie Lightner and Frank Fay

My review:
As I write this, I finished watching SHOW OF SHOWS (1929) about three hours ago, and I still feel like I’m recovering from this film. This early sound film puts the “talk” in “talkie.” For two hours and eight minutes, this chatterbox film fills your eardrums with songs and soliloquies, making you wish for the good ole days of silent.

Now, while it was exhausting, at the same time it’s interesting. Similar to Metro-Goldwyn’s sound exhibition “Hollywood Revue of 1929,” Warner Bros. did the same thing to show off the speaking and singing voices of their stars, big and small.

If only they hadn’t used Frank Fay as the master of ceremonies. Good golly, I can’t stand him anyways, but 49 minutes in I thought, “Right, we understand how Frank Fay sounds on film. Enough.” I could have used more Chester Morris, Dolores Costello, Richard Barthelmess, anyone in the film other than Frank Fay.

As noted above, there is no plot to this film. It is simply like a stage revue, or perhaps you could even call it a variety show like what became popular on television 35 years later. Fay talks (too much) in between act, and then the film transitions into a song or a skit. The whole film starts so oddly. It opens with a skit of the French Revolution and someone is beheaded on the guillotine. They all cheer and then … we immediately transition into a dance number of 100s of marching men in military dress, marching and turning on a large set of stairs. It left me thinking “Am I watching the right thing?” The French Revolution skit was evidentially supposed to represent the death of the stage show – the irony being that this all runs like a stage show.

While this whole thing is exhausting, there are some charming moments, mainly when it came to the songs and dances. “What’s Become of the Floradora Boys” was an entertaining number, and I enjoyed the “Meet My Sister” number to see the different actress siblings. Winnie Lightner is a bright spot in the film, and we get to hear her in two numbers. Thank goodness. “Singin’ in the Bath Tub” is a particularly fun spot.

“If I Could Learn to Love” is an odd number, because we go from a Paris setting and then it turns into an exercise routine? Perhaps because Georges Carpentier was a former boxer?

The run of show is as follows:
• French Revolution Prologue skit
• Military March dance
• What’s Become of the Floradora Boys? song
• $20 Bet skit
• Motion Picture Pirates song and dance
• Ping Pongo song
• The Only Song I Know song
• If I Could Learn to Love (As Well as I Fight) song
• Recitations skit
• Meet My Sister song and dance
• Singin’ in the Bathtub song
• Just an Hour of Love song
• Chinese Fantasy song and dance
• Frank Fay with Sid Silvers skit
• A Bicycle Built for Two song
• If Your Best Friend Won’t Tell You (Why Should I)? song
• Larry Ceballos Black and White Girls song and dance
• King Richard excerpt from Henry VI soliloquy
• Mexican Moonshine skit
• Lady Luck song
• Curtain of Stars song

While this is a star-studded film, if you aren’t well-versed on silent films, some people may not look familiar, because their talking picture careers did not go far. Examples of this include Georges Carpentier, Sid Silver (who did more screenwriting), Ted Lewis or Jack Mulhall.

The New York Times review by Mordant Hall does note that some of the dance numbers with many girls get to be a bit much.

“Not that the scenes are lacking in imagination, but it is like having too much of a good thing,” Hall wrote. I found that some of them get to be a bit much and difficult to follow.

While this film is a bit of a bore today, the response from film goers was so large in New York City, that police had to keep crowds away as they tried to buy tickets for themselves and friends, according to Hall’s review.

The cast is so large — boasting 77 stars — that it was difficult to make sure everyone was represented when listing the cast above. I tried dividing it up skit or number, but that even felt slightly incoherent. There are also so many musical numbers and skits that it’s hard to keep up with.

“Pausing for thought at this writing one recollects so many different numbers that one is apt to forget some,” Hall wrote in 1929.

One contemporary review said that the film was like a string of Vitaphone short, and I feel this is an excellent comparison. It is a shame much of the color is missing, but I loved seeing Rin Tin Tin in color.

At two ours and eight minutes, this film seems very long. But despite my complaints, it is impressive for 1929. Even today, the picture is clear, the sound is good, it just may not be well executed.

Even in 1929, Hall feels the same myself and other film reviews of today do: that John Barrymore’s Shakespeare moment is the most memorable scene of the film.

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1 thought on “Musical Monday: Show of Shows (1929)

  1. wow.. if YOU found this “ad” of a film tiresome… I’m certain I, myself, could not survive it.. so, I will take your word for it, say thanks for the review and interesting info about this “promotional effort”, and leave it there. I’m sure the popularity was due to… i believe, anyway… well—was that for movie money, one could see a fortune, comparatively, in musical acts, which were still in favor, as movies hadn’t killed the live musical show just yet; my theory, for what it’s worth. also, i think Hollywood was soooooooo worried about the transition to sound, that they went overboard (as you noted) with the, ah, ‘scope’ of this film. trying too hard can lead to that kind of overdoing, as i’m sure you have noticed over the years with various movie and the like. Thanks for this review and the many, many, others you have given us — along with ALL the other efforts you generously make for us !

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