Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Glorifying the American Girl (1929) makes for a fascinating companion piece to The Cocoanuts. It was made the same year, again at Paramount's Long Island studios, again photographed by George Folsey and with musical contributions from Irving Berlin and, most exciting of all, with the same female lead.
Mary Eaton, the somewhat wan and lifeless Polly Potter in Cocoanuts, was in truth a lively and vibrant performer, as well as an exceptionally gifted dancer, whose talents, including her trademark pirouettes, are far better displayed in Glorifying.
With various brothers and sisters she had been one of 'the Seven Little Eatons', but also found considerable solo success on Broadway, notably in several Ziegfeld Follies revues, and with Eddie Cantor in Kid Boots and Sunny. Like her co-star Oscar Shaw, Mary was not in the original Broadway cast of The Cocoanuts but debuted in the film version, drafted in by Paramount to exploit the popularity of their latest contractee.
Alas, her popularity faded quickly in the thirties. Her last stage appearance was in 1932, and her last film role (and her first after 1929) was, as a result of circumstances I have been unable to unravel, an uncredited bit in the British Flanagan & Allen comedy We'll Smile Again (1942).
Sadly, it seems that Mary did not. Enduring three unhappy marriages to three unhappy alcoholics she almost inevitably fell victim to the bottle herself, dying of liver failure in 1948 at the age of 47. (Of her fellow Little Eatons: two others succumbed to alcoholism, sister Pearl was murdered in 1958 and the crime remains unsolved, while sister Doris, the last surviving Ziegfeld girl, will celebrate her 105th birthday on March 14th.)
Glorifying the American Girl is a Ziegfeld Follies revue for the movies, offering a "singing and dancing chorus of 75 glorified beauties" in its opening credits. It's as important as Cocoanuts to the historical record, as well as being of specific value to Marx enthusiasts as an example of exactly the format that Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers both (basically) adhered to and (gently) subverted and parodied.
In addition to a vapid plot, delightfully typical of its time (shop girl Mary dances her way to stardom but loses the man she loves), the film makes frequent halts and digressions to accommodate revue sequences featuring some of the great Broadway names of the time, notably Eddie Cantor, Rudy Vallee and the magnetic Helen Morgan (star of another Paramount Long Island classic photographed the same year by Folsey - clearly as tireless as he was innovative - Rouben Mamoulian's masterpiece Applause. Marx fans familiar with the Warner Brothers animated short The CooCoo Nut Grove (1936) will recall her in animated form, sat on the piano as here, being washed away on the river of tears resulting from her heartwrenching ballad singing.) Others appearing briefly as themselves include Berlin, Ziegfeld and Zukor.
Marx fans will enjoy the scene in which Mary and her boyfriend Buddy take a punt in a little boat, the latter serenading his girl on a ukulele, a reminder of how so much of what we take for random invention in the Brothers' Paramount movies was in fact parody of well-established clichés and recurring situations; it's hard indeed not to imagine the stuffed duck following along behind.
But best of all is Cantor's Jewish tailor sketch, which not only gives us a feast of references to blue serge suits, Sweet Adeline and the phrase "that's some joke", but also partners Cantor with none other than Louis Sorin - Roscoe W. Chandler to you, uncredited here as he often was in his mere nine film appearances. Interesting to see him playing not pompous straight man, Chandler-style (a function in which he outclasses even the great Sig Rumann), but co-comic; sly and very funny with Cantor in their mutual fleecing of an unfortunate customer.
As for Mary Eaton, the best overview of her life and career I've been able to find is this essay from the blog Vitaphone Varieties.