IT'S A GREAT LIFE (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1929) directed by Sam Wood, is another one of those "Broadway Melody" variations produced during the early sound era, with the plot revolving around the up and down stage career of two singing sisters and a songwriter, in this instance, piano playing composer. What makes this one more natural to MGM's own Academy Award Best Picture winner of "The Broadway Melody" (1929), which starred Bessie Love, Anita Page and Charles King, is that this one features actual sisters in the leads. The sisters in question are The Duncan Sisters. And who are the Duncan Sisters? No, they are not the originators of the franchise of Duncan Donuts. Both blondes, they were popular vaudeville headliners with one previous feature film to their name, the silent production of TOPSY AND EVA (UA, 1927). As a result from viewing IT'S A GREAT LIFE, Rosetta (1886-1959) is best described as the shortest of the two with a flare for comedy in the manner of Winnie Lightner with a sort of raspy voice; Vivian (1899-1986), slightly taller yet prettier, sings and dances, but lacking in acting ability, especially when it comes to heavy dramatics. As with many big names during this period, the Duncan Sisters are virtually forgotten today. It's interesting to point out on how Vivian closely resembles Anita Page at one point with a cross variation to future screen actress Dorothy McGuire. Had IT'S A GREAT LIFE been distributed earlier in 1929 instead of the tail end or early 1930, it might have become an equivalent to "The Broadway Melody," considering how both films are somewhat similar in theme, which makes one wonder if the writers of "The Broadway Melody" story had the Duncan Sisters in mind. Regardless, there were no further Duncan Sisters musicals to follow, indicating that IT'S A GREAT LIFE left little or no lasting impression to 1929 audiences. By the time of its release, musicals were showing signs of decline, thus making their talking debut the final feature film for the Duncans.
Synopsis in brief: Set in New York City, the story opens with a chase after two girls are seen running from their apartment building, down the street, and immediately being pursued by a policeman and some passersby, causing some traffic accidents as the girls cross through heavy traffic, ending with them heading into a department store where it is soon revealed that they are late for work. The plot development introduces the Hogan sisters, Casey (Rosetta) as the wisecracking elder sister to Babe (Rosetta). Babe loves Jimmy Dean (Lawrence Gray), with whom she works in the sheet music department. For some reason, Rosetta dislikes Jimmy, which is never revealed why. She always finding fault in him and takes every opportunity to criticize him whenever possible in hope that Babe will become discouraged and forget about him. After getting fired from their jobs following the annual store show by Mr. Mandelbaum for his disapproval of Casey's clowning, the trio make a go for the big time in vaudeville. Although they become successful, things become complicated when Babe marries Jimmy, causing problems in her relationship with Casey, thus breaking up the act. While failures on their own, they all become too stubborn to make the first move and admit their faults, even when one of them becomes seriously ill with pneumonia.
The musical program: "Smile, Smile, Smile" (sung by employees); "What the Debutante Must Do" (fashion show sequence in two strip Technicolor), "I'm a Son of a ---." "Lady Love" (sung by Vivian Duncan); "I'm Following You" (sung by the Duncan Sisters); "Smile, Smile, Smile," "I'm Following You," "It Must Be an Old Spanish Custom," "Rigoletto," "It Must as Well Be You," "Let a Smile Be Your Umbrella" (sung by unseen vocalist during dramatic moment); "I'm Following You" (sung by Lawrence Gray); "Dance Number" (performed by Rosetta dressed up like a little Dutch Boy); "Hoosier Hop" (production number in two-strip Technicolor with the Duncan Sisters); and "I'm Following You." With the songs being the main attraction, only "I'm Following You" is quite memorable, even after several reprises.
Aside from the aforementioned leads, only Benny Rubin as Benny Friedman, the booking agent, and Jed Prouty (who played the stuttering uncle in "The Broadway Melody" ) as David Parker, the store manager who loves Casey, assume billing in the opening casting credits while others do not.
The title to IT'S A GREAT LIFE has been used several times over the years: Paramount (1935) with Joe Morrison; Columbia (1943), as part of the 28 film series featuring "Blondie and the Bumsteads" with Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake, as well as the long forgotten TV comedy series starring Michael O'Shea and Frances Bavier (1953-55).
The movie as a whole is really not bad. After it is all over, it'll be hard to get these lyrics, "Wherever you go, whatever you do, I want you to know, I'm following you" out of your head. IT'S A GREAT LIFE may never be categorized as a great early musical, but mostly a curiosity for fans of movies from this particular era as well as a rediscovery look into the careers of the once popular Duncan Sisters. Only the final minutes, highlighted by a Technicolor production number choreographed by Sammy Lee, comes off a bit weak.
Once shown on a frequent level on Turner Classic Movies cable channel prior to 1996, it's become more of a rarity today. (** Duncans)