29 May 2002 | luannjim
A '30s musical unlike any other
You'll probably never have a chance to see this mind-boggling extravaganza from 1937; a colossal flop in its day, it's so completely forgotten now that it doesn't even appear in Leonard Maltin's book. I can't imagine it ever coming out on video. But if you do see it -- as I did at Cinevent in Columbus, Ohio this spring -- you're in for an experience I'll bet you won't soon forget.
In 1936 a new administration swept into Universal Pictures determined to remake the studio from top to bottom. "Top of the Town," released the next year, was part of that process and was obviously intended to be the musical to top all musicals. Well, it's not that, not by a long shot -- there are too many ghastly moments. But when "Top of the Town" is good, it's very good indeed, and much of it is hilarious (though sometimes unintentionally).
The plot, such as it is, centers on the opening of a luxury nightclub atop a 100-story skyscraper and the conflict over what kind of floor show to present. Bandleader George Murphy wants hot tunes, belly laughs, great dancing and razzle-dazzle, while the club's owner Doris Nolan (who has just returned from a trip to Russia filled with sympathy for the downtrodden masses) wants something artistic, deep and socially significant. Guess whose version sends the audience away in droves, and guess whose version brings them back singing and dancing.
But the plot is just an excuse to string together a wild variety of musical-comedy specialty numbers. "Top of the Town" is like an old-time vaudeville show, with some good comedy (like the Three Sailors, who combine their bodies in bizarre ways to "impersonate" camels and giraffes), some bad comedy (Hugh Herbert, a little of whom...), a lot of terrific songs by Jimmy McHugh and Harold Adamson (including two big hits, "There Are No Two Ways About It" and "Where Are You?", the latter of which became a standard), some great dancing by Murphy and 13-year-old Peggy Ryan (in her first movie), and absolutely eye-popping Art Deco sets by legendary Broadway designer John Harkrider.
And above all, the last half-hour, which begins with the (intentionally) hilarious disaster of the Doris Nolan character's "entertainment" program and continues through George Murphy and the gang swinging to the rescue, is just about the most spectacular, cast-of-thousands-style toe-tapping production number in Hollywood history (the song, an infectious one, is called "Jamboree.") It's so irresistible that it easily erases any misgivings you might have had about the first 60 minutes.
The performers, like the film as a whole, are something of a mixed bag. George Murphy was clearly going places (though no one could have predicted the U.S. Senate), as was little Peggy Ryan (she became a popular star in the 1940s in a series of B-musicals with Donald O'Connor; they were Universal's answer to Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland).
A little more problematic are the two female vocalists. Ella Logan has pep and obvious talent, and she really shines in "There Are No Two Ways About It," but her enthusiasm becomes a bit obnoxious at times. Gertrude Niesen was, frankly, a little too odd-looking to make it in movies -- stocky and rather hard-faced, with an unflattering Prince Valiant hair-do. Still, there are times when (thanks to Joseph Valentine's soft-focus photography) she suggests a younger, 1930s version of Bette Midler. And she does a rendition of "Where Are You?" ("Where are you?/Where have you gone without me?/I thought you cared about me...") that is absolutely unforgettable. Since Niesen (like Logan) would become a major Broadway star in the 1940s, I suspect that this is a case where a performer's film career suffered not from a lack of talent but simply because the camera didn't like her.
It's a real hodge-podge and definitely a mixed bag, but "Top of the Town," whatever its faults, is at least never boring. When it's good it's terrific, and even when it's bad it's entertaining. As I said before, you'll probably never get the chance to see it. But if you do, and if you enjoy 1930s musicals, you won't be sorry you caught up with this one.