9 March 2002 | lugonian
Who's Minding the Store?
"SING ME A LOVE SONG" (Warner Brothers, 1936), directed by Ray (billed Raymond) Enright, is a movie musical, which one can gather from the background of musical notes placed during the opening title credits. Not only is it a musical with comedy, but a musical that goes on a different level of entertainment as in previous past. Instead of the usual backstage story, this one's set in a department store headed by tenor James Melton, making his second of three musicals for Warners, doing most of the vocalizing during the interludes of the plot.
Melton plays Jerry Haines Jr., a young playboy whose grandfather was the founder of Haines Department Store (established 1878). The old man's recent death has left the store with no active head, so Jerry is advised by his attorneys, Barton (Hobart Cavanaugh) and Willard (Charles Halton), councils for the Barton estate, to return with them and assume the position as head of the store in hope that he can save it from financial ruin. Once at the department store, which is based in New York City, Jerry decides to go incognito, posing as Jerry Hanley, and employs himself as a clerk in order to learn the inside of the business and to find out why the store is having financial problems. Keeping his identity a secret, Jerry not only succeeds into making improvements and acquainting himself with the other employees, but becomes particularly interested in a pretty young blonde named Jean Martin (Patricia Ellis), working in the music department, thus making "sweet music" along the way.
Although the theme of millionaire playboy/or owner of a department store working amongst his employees incognito sounds like a original idea, a similar storyline, minus music, was put to better use with "THE DEVIL AND MISS JONES" (RKO Radio, 1941), where Charles Coburn plays the middle-aged owner of a department store who takes on a clerk's position in order to investigate the labor problems. Regardles of a misleading title of the aforementioned film which makes one think of it being a horror thriller, that witty film by Norman Krasna remains a comedy classic while "SING ME A LOVE SONG," a similar film of sorts, is forgotten and rarely shown.
Melton, who makes the best in his rare opportunity playing the central character, is overshadowed by his supporting character actors, especially that of Hugh Herbert. As Sigfried Hammerschlog, he plays a shoplifter and kleptomaniac, who on various occasions, arrives in the store using different disguises, regardless of being a man of wealth. Herbert's shoplifting antics alone makes this comedy worth watching, making other comedy scenes pale in comparison. ZaSu Pitts comes a close second in the humor department as a department store klutz accidentally damaging merchandise and buying them through deductions from her paycheck. And let's not overlook Walter Catlett as Mr. Sprague, the floorwalker who observes everybody's business; Allen Jenkins as Christopher Cross, the elevator operator; and Nat Pendleton as Melton's chauffeur named Rocky
The songs, compliments of the reliable composing team of Harry Warren and Al Dubin, are as follows: "That's the Least You Can Do for the Lady" (sung by James Melton); "That's the Least You Can Do for the Lady" (reprise by Patricia Ellis and James Melton); "Carry Me Back to the Lone Prairie" (written by Carson J. Robison, sung by Melton); "Your Eyes Told Me So," "The Little House Love Built," "Summer Night" and "The Little House That Love Built" (all sung by Melton). Of the songs listed, "Summer Night" comes off as both pleasing and haunting. It is possibly a song that was deleted from an earlier Warners musical, "COLLEEN" (1936) in which Dick Powell is heard humming a few bars of that same song while playing the piano in the opening scene.
One final note: Where is Ann Sheridan? When Turner Classic Movies, a cable channel that occasionally plays this movie, had Ann Sheridan as its star of the month back in August 1996, host Robert Osborne mentioned "SING ME A LOVE SONG" to be Sheridan's debut at Warners, playing Lola Parker, Melton's débutante fiancée. True, she did participate in this film, and it is evident, especially in the three minute theatrical trailer with a couple of scenes involving Sheridan, whose name is placed with the others in the casting credits but not in the existing opening credits. After watching this 75 minute product, Sheridan's character of Lola, who's mentioned about a couple of times, once by Pendleton, is nowhere in sight. On top of that, "SING ME A LOVE SONG" suffers in severe editing, especially one where Melton's Jerry is unable to locate Jean (Ellis). Next scene suddenly has him rushing out from his limousine, into the music store where he finds his beloved Jean sitting by the piano, sharing the piano bench alongside her where he sings to her. Talk about speeding things up a bit with tight editing. It's uncertain whether movie was released this way or not, or whether an edited reissue choppy print. Yet, since Ann Sheridan did become a major star attraction for Warners, especially in the 1940s, it would have made sense restoring her scenes, if they exist at all.
James Melton (1904-1961), whose debut film was STARS OVER Broadway (1935), would star in one more musical programmer, "MELODY FOR TWO" (1937), before striking out with the studio, resuming his career on radio and Metropolitan Opera Company. Of the three musicals, "SING ME A LOVE SONG" comes off best. See it not for the songs, not for the romantic leads, not for its almost original screenplay, but for Hugh Herbert who comically makes shoplifting a work of art. If one doesn't get enough of Herbert's antics, he can also be seen playing his own father, Rudy Hammerschlog, and brother, Herman Hammerschlog, vice president of the United Railways Railroad. (***)