23 September 2011 | brucepantages-1
Jazzy off-beat comedy is worth seeing...
Being a vintage music enthusiast, I have long perused piles of old sheet music whenever the opportunity arose. One title that seems to be in every stack of old music is Eeney-Meeney-Miney-Mo – from To Beat the Band. A jazzy swing tune, it must have been very popular in its day, although it seems to have pretty much disappeared over the years. Part of the reason may be the relative obscurity of the musical itself. I had given up ever seeing it for myself, until about 8 years ago; a 16mm print of it appeared on a list of films that were being sold by a private collector. Although the NY Times had nothing nice to say about it at the time of its release (it opened at the Palace), Wikipedia calls it a flop, and TV Guide gives it only one and a half stars, referring to it as "dismal," I find it highly amusing and marvelous opportunity to see some truly great personalities doing their thing. I am not alone – I have shown it to film enthusiasts many times and it never fails to please its audience.
The "plot" is certainly off-beat. Hugh Herbert is desperate to find a wife so he can inherit his aunt's fortune (the will has a "clause"). Of course he is eager to snag gorgeous Phyllis Brooks, while the man-hungry attorney, Helen Broderick, is anxious to land just about any man, and Hugh looks fine to her – especially with the promise of extra money. Roger Pryor plays a seriously suicidal character that gets mixed up in the story, along with Johnny Mercer, Joy Hodges and the ever-hysterical, Eric Blore. How could such a wonderful cast of hams go wrong? The answer is, they don't. The antics are fast paced and funny. The music is lively and the sight gags are numerous and amusing. Possibly the reason the NY Times didn't care for it is that the comedy is very dark – frivolously dealing with Pryor's impending suicide. Dark humor is much more popular today than it was in 1935. As for TV Guide's assessment, I think their reviewer either never saw the picture (entirely possible) or it was reviewed by a curmudgeon
possibly both. Granted, To Beat the Band has no A-list stars. But that is hardly a bad thing. Instead it showcases some of the great character actors that had supported Astaire & Rogers in their movies. I never miss an opportunity to see Helen Broderick and Eric Blore do their stuff. I've never seen Phyllis Brooks fail to enliven the proceedings and she doesn't disappoint here. I'm glad to see that by the rating on the IMDb, the public agrees with me – at least so far. Lyricist Johnny Mercer, winner of four Academy Awards, not only wrote the lyrics to all the songs, but he is featured in the cast and sings at least one song. The production looks good by any standard, with Art Deco sets overseen by RKO's art director, Van Nest Polglase and his team. So what I am trying to say here is, check this one out if you ever get the chance.