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August 22, 2007

The Big Broadcast of 1938

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Mitchell Leisen - 1938
Universal Region 1 DVD

Last week, The Siren had asked about the status of Mitchell Leisen. If the director is remembered at all, it is because of the films written by Preston Sturges or Billy Wilder. The conventional wisdom is that once the best screenwriters also were allowed to direct the films they wrote, Leisen's career went downhill. There may be some truth to that, though Senses of Cinema presents arguments that in some ways Leisen actually improved upon Sturges and Wilder. While The Big Broadcast of 1938 is not the ideal showcase for an introduction to Mitchell Leisen, it does merit a look.

The high point is seeing sixth billed Bob Hope, in his first film, performing the duet of Thanks for the Memories with Shirley Ross. The melody is probably familiar to those who at least know Hope from when he hosted the Oscars. The song itself, which won for Best Song, is a look at how distance reshapes the view of the past, giving a romantic glow to a relationship that may have been difficult at the time. The song is more bittersweet than nostalgic, with the memories cites becoming progressively darker, coinciding with the disintegration of the marriage. More than just being a love song, the lyrics are about how fragile relationships can be between two adults.

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There is also an extended musical number about how the waltz has survived the various trends in social dancing from the mid 18th Century through 1938. This is where Leisen gets to show off his background in set and costume design. He also gets to throw in a few shots of women's underwear - an abundance of petticoats and culottes, particularly in a brief Cancan number.

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The almost nonexistent story line involves a race between two oversized luxury liners, the Gigantic and the Colossal. The Gigantic looks like an art deco yacht on steroids. W.C. Fields portrays two brothers which have the Gigantic as part of their shipping line. The more unfortunate brother, whose reputation for misadventures dates back to the sinking of the Merrimac is suppose to travel on the Colossal. He winds up on the Gigantic instead where disaster immediately strikes. On the way, the crew picks up Field's daughter, the even unluckier Martha Raye. One of the running gags of the film involves Raye breaking mirrors every time she sees her reflection.

The Big Broadcast of 1938 primarily serves as a showcase for a variety of performers. The specialty performances seem especially dated. I'm not sure how many people remember Tito Guizar, while Kirsten Flagstad is probably of more interest to those who are as serious about opera as some of us are about film. The Shep Fields number combines the big band performance with animated water drops credited to Warner Brothers' animation producer Leon Schlesinger.

The film may be viewed as a changing of the comic guard, made just a couple of years before Bob Hope became the top comic star for Paramount. For top billed Fields, this was his last film at Paramount. His best scenes are a sort of review of some of his best bits involving games of golf and pool, as well as traveling on a contraption that is a combination scooter and airplane. Hope's humor has always been largely verbal. Where Hope really shines is as the self-deprecating master of ceremonies, telling jokes so terrible that they are still funny, such as the one about the guy who went to the dentist with only one dollar and got buck teeth. In retrospect, it is as if Hope's performance in The Big Broadcast of 1938 was an audition for his best remembered role, hosting the Academy Awards.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 22, 2007 01:46 PM


Peter -

A really terrific Leisen which was not written by Wilder or Sturges and which is not even a comedy is "No Man of Her Own" starring Barbara Stanwyck. It's a glossy and effective film noir based on a novel by Cornel Woolrich.

Posted by: c. jerry kutner at August 28, 2007 01:30 PM