16 August 2008 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Tom Kennedy gets to act, for once; too bad Etting can't.
With a title like 'Derby Decade', I thought that this movie had something to do with race meetings. It turns out to be set in the 1890s (or possibly the '80s) when American men wore bowler hats.
The chief attraction in this mini-musical is Ruth Etting, a successful nightclub performer who demonstrates here why she never made the transition to film stardom: although Etting is superb at inhabiting a song, she shows no screen presence when she's not singing.
Tom Kennedy, usually stuck in small roles, is excellent here in a lead role as proprietor of the Bowery Palace, a saloon favoured by two warring ward-heelers. Some hatchet-wielding women (clearly inspired by Carry Nation) want to close down his saloon. I couldn't help wondering how this 1934 movie -- with its scenes of drunken carousing -- would have gone over with American audiences just a year earlier, before Prohibition was repealed.
I was impressed by a scene in which Etting's accompanist is (for once) actually playing the piano. Elsewhere, we get some of that horribly phony prole dialogue featuring grammar that never existed in real life. And I was amused that several of these 1930s actresses couldn't handle their Victorian skirts properly. There's also some bad comedy featuring a bunch of old women in tableaux vivants of American history: among other things, they stage Custer's Last Stand with Custer as the victor!
For some reason, during a scene in which the saloon rowdies threaten to tear down Kennedy's bar, somebody decided that Etting should placate them by singing 'After the Ball'. Did nobody realise that this same song is used in a very similar scene in the stage musical 'Show Boat'? I would have liked this movie better if Etting had sung ANY other song in that sequence. My rating for this one: 5 out of 10.