10 December 2009 | lugonian
Casanova of Burlesque
BRIGHT LIGHTS (Warners/First National, 1935), directed by Busby Berkeley, captures the spirit of "from burlesque to Broadway" theme as well as the comedy talents of resident comedian, Joe E. Brown, in what many consider to be virtually a "one man show," as indicated during its opening credits with Brown's face in character make-up visible under the opening and closing credits. For Brown, whose wide mouth was his trademark, many of his comedies were one man shows, and in this case, a role perfected to his style and character classified on screen as "The Shakespeare of Burlesque." Berkeley, best known for his creative dance directions of tap dancing chorus girls doing flower formations, is given an ample opportunity directing a story with a theatrical theme, with little creativeness for musical interludes that are performed on a limited scale.
The story revolves around Joe and Fay Wilson (Joe E. Brown and Ann Dvorak), a husband and wife team working for Oscar Schlemmer (Joseph Cawthorn), manager of a burlesque troupe, "Parisian Belle." Claire Whitmore (Patricia Ellis), a runaway heiress, posing as Miss Brown, sneaks on board a train to avoid a hired detective (William Demarest). Through Joe's help, she soon becomes part of the troupe. Dan Wheeler, press agent, recognizes Whitmore and sees a great opportunity teaming her with Wilson for J.C.Anderson's (Henry O'Neill) Broadway frolics. Although Joe refuses to split up his act with Fay, it is Fay who convinces Joe, though Dan's encouragement, to go on with the deal. The Wilson and Whitmore partnership at the Tivoli Theater proves successful. At first Fay is happy with their newfound success until she finds Joe, whom she affectionately calls "Funny Face," drifting away from her and spending more time with Claire, with whom he appears to have fallen in love.
With score composed by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, songs include: "She Was an Acrobat's Daughter" (sung by Joe E. Brown); "Powder My Back For Me" (sung by chorus); "Toddling Along With You" (sung by Ann Dvorak/ by Mort Dixon and Allie Wrubel); "The Lady in Red" (danced briefly by Joe E. Brown and Patricia Ellis/ by Harry Warren and Al Dubin); "You're an Eyeful of Heaven" (sung by Patricia Ellis/ by Dixon and Wrubel); "Toddling Along With You" (reprised by Ann Dvorak). Although there are indications that the "Playboy of Paris" skit was filmed but ended up on the cutting room floor, all that remains in the finished product is Brown's character, sporting huge mustache and striped shirt, returning to his dressing room following the mentioned act.
Others members of the cast include Clarence Wilson (The Station Agent); Arthur Treacher (Wilbur, the Butler); Gordon Westcott, Tom Kennedy and Joseph Crehan in smaller roles.
Shifting from backstage theme to burlesque, BRIGHT LIGHTS contains a plot quite commonly place during the early sound era of 1929, with Paramount's THE DANCE OF LIFE and APPLAUSE immediately coming to mind. One virtually forgotten is MOLLY AND ME (Tiffany), which happens to be the earlier carnation of BRIGHT LIGHTS starring Belle Bennett and the one and only Joe E. Brown. For this version, there's extensive scenes of Brown reciting the poem, "Mousey" ; playing a dummy in a ventriloquist act participated by William B. Davidson; and Brown taking part of an acrobatic act in a night club sequence. There's a moment where one of the acrobats (The Maxellos) pushes Joe to a point of anger (looking all too real to be taken as part of the act or the movie itself) before suddenly extending out a handshake. Aside from Brown, there's Ann Dvorak as his second half of the act who showcases her ability as both actress and singer. Her dramatic moment towards the story's end is well played. Joseph Cawthorn resumes his familiarity with his accented character who adds more confusion with his broken English. Ranging from comedy to drama, the final half becomes the height of hilarity with Brown's trying efforts to retrieve a letter written to his wife he doesn't want her to read.
While not as noteworthy as other Brown comedies, or Busby Berkeley for that matter, BRIGHT LIGHTS, at 82 minutes, can be seen occasionally on cable TV's Turner Classic Movies. The best description for BRIGHT LIGHTS can be easily said through Brown's catch phrase, "Some fun." (**1/2)