DVD: On the Avenue (1937)

July 26, 2018 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer:  Very Good

Extras: Excellent

Label:  Twentieth Century-Fox

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released:  February 20, 2007

Genre:  Musical / Screwball Comedy

Synopsis: The world’s ‘richest woman’ woos a Broadway show’s star-writer to excise a highly satirical sequence ridiculing herself and daddykins.

Special Features:  Audio Commentary by Film Historian Miles Kreuger / Featurette:  “Alice Faye: Her Life On Screen” (18:56) / Ritz Bros. Deleted Scene: “The Plumbers” (3:26) / Still Gallery / Restoration Comparison.




Boasting songs by Irving Berlin and top crooners Dick Powell and Alice Faye, On the Avenue has aged extraordinarily well, perhaps because of a crucial combination of amiable top-level talent, a superb roster of character actors, great songs, elaborate sets & choreography, and Roy Del Ruth’s sharp direction.

The plot is simple: Broadway star Gary Blake (Dick Powell) has written a satirical musical that includes a vicious jab at the ‘richest girl in the world,’ one Mimi Caraway (British export Madeleine Carroll), and her pompous papa, Commodore Caraway (bearded and bluster-buss’d George Barbier). Whereas papa screams libel and wants to sue the producers, Mimi opts for something more low-key: woo Blake, and under the spell of puppy love, convince him to tone down or cut the objectionable sequence.

Faux wooing ends up igniting genuine love within Mimi, and Blake’s decision to tone down the sequence bristles co-star Mona Merrick (Alice Faye), whose own feelings for Blake causes her to plot a counter-measure. Naturally Mimi blames Blake for the more personal ‘revisions,’ and Mona soon realizes the consequences of her actions. Revenge comes to the fore when Mimi plots a scheme to humiliate Blake and ruin the show. The finale is, unsurprisingly, an all’s well that ends just swell, and as historian and DVD commentator Miles Kreuger notes, establishes a cast wrap-up that became standard in several subsequent Fox musicals.

Interpolated among the drama, hijinks, and scheming are the musical numbers from the Broadway medley, featuring incredible sets tied to Berlin’s songs which Del Ruth photographs in clean wide shots, only occasionally moving or cutting in closer when absolutely necessary. The effect is perhaps another aspect of Fox’s house style for musicals, seen in the 1941 Technicolor extravaganza My Gal Sal where the numbers are spread out and filmed from angles that place the cinema audience among the film’s chi-chi patrons.

The numbers begin modest but soon reveal great scope behind silk screens, such as “He Ain’t Got Rhythm,” in which the Ritz Bros. dance in front of an enormous observatory telescope. The satirical poke at the Caraways consist of a massive staircase behind a lengthy dining table, and a waiter who rollerskates around and under the table effortlessly.

“The Girl on the Police Gazette” is amazing for having Powell strolling though a moving street and garden set in search of a dancer, and in “Cheek to Cheek” the set used by Faye and Powell is handed over to the Ritz Bros., who perform dangerously timed movements as two halves of a building open & close, while none of the trio looks down to ensure their feet are in the right positions.

Del Ruth’s background in comedy and his cast of stage-trained comedians and scene-stealers offers some beautifully timed scenes; a major highlight is Mimi’s visit to the show’s production office, with plenty of back & forth banter between the nerve-racked producer who weigh’s Mimi’s buyout offer.

Key to the precision madness is Allen McNeil’s exceptional editing. Blake’s first encounter with Mimi occurs in his dressing room, and their dialogue between the opening & closing curtains features a series of invisible cuts as Blake’s replies are joined a little closer & tighter. The pair’s later telephone exchange in which they use the pet aliases of Mr. & Mrs. Hasenpfeffer flows like a ballet of reactions, verbal quips, and timed silence, and it’s no surprise McNeil was the adept cutter on Fritz Lang’s taut thriller Man Hunt (1941), the WWII actioner To the Shores of Tripoli (1942), and his feature film swan song, The Ox-Bow Incident (1943).

The fast romance between Mimi and Blake is kept sweet and light, flowing from a night of dancing to a diner in an old railway car where owner Joe Papaloupas (scene stealer Billy Gilbert) blusters on about making pies all night. Perhaps the film’s most perfectly timed, non-musical moment involves salt and sugar bottles sliding back & forth between the new couple and a tough guy having a late dinner – a hysterical ballet of reactions, gliding objects, near-misses & fast catches, and complimentary repartee.

Other top cast members include Alan Mowbray (Topper) as Mimi’s idiot fiancé; Cora Witherspoon (The Women, The Bank Dick) upping the film’s screwball material as Mimi’s eccentric aunt who moves from a Russian dance fetish to Germanic circus antics, as taut by scene-stealer Sig Ruman (The Song of Bernadette, Stalag 17) who may well have performed a short slide & tumble routine); and Joan Davis as a blink-and-she’s gone assistant. (Davis would star in the classic series I Married Joan, but achieved screwball immortality in 1941’s Hold That Ghost, where she upped the ante in the epic smackdown sequence with Lou Costello.)

Bobbing between this madness is Faye, playing pal, silent love and later foil to the Mimi-Blake romance, culminating in a great trashing of Blake’s rewrite. Faye’s unbottled magnetism, effortless skills as dancer and singer make Mona wholly likeable to the end.

If Faye and Powell maintain chemistry in their dance and teasing scenes, Carroll (The 39 Steps) is equally amiable as the blonde rich girl who’s not a brat but a savvy player, and whose striking beauty is luminescent under the silver lighting of cinematographer Lucien Andriot. The prolific cinematographer had worked his way up from B programmers like Fox’s Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto series, and later filmed Jean Renoir’s weird The Southerner (1945), Rene Clair’s And Then There Were None (1945), and Renoir’s Diary of a Chambermaid (1946), before switching almost exclusively to TV after 1950.

Kreuger’s audio commentary is fairly solid on facts but runs into a few deliberate but unnecessary dead spots in the last third, and his bio sketches skirt over the controversial aspects of Stepin Fetchit who plays Blake’s assistant Herman (although Powell actually blunders and calls him Step in one scene). Fetchit was the highest paid African American in film at the time, but the roles he was offered embody the awful ‘endearing’ halfwit; Kreuger’s decision to avoid touching upon the controversy of Fetchit’s roles is a missed opportunity to at least acknowledge the limited parts and unnerving stereotypes of the era which aren’t easy to digest.

Fox’s 2007 DVD came out at a time when the studio cared about exploiting their back catalogue with some archival and educational extras, hence the commentary track, and a short but succinct bio portrait of Faye, who literally left film in 1945 after studio czar Darryl F. Zanuck whittled down her screen time in Otto Preminger’s “grotty” noir Fallen Angel. (The actress would return to Fox for the 1962 remake of State Fair, but that ‘comeback’ was followed by small roles in lesser works, such as Michael Winner’s overblown Won Ton Ton: The Dog That Saved Hollywood in 1976). Faye’s daughters appear in the portrait, and there’s straight talk of her heavy schedule at the studio, which she rebranded ‘Penitentiary-Fox’.)

Also among the extras is a deleted scene with the Ritz Bros. playing plumbers in a talky bit originally part of Mona’s ‘rewrite’ of the Mimi Caraway scene. There’s also a restoration demo that samples the 2006 cleanup for the four films that make up Fox’s The Alice Faye Collection: On the Avenue (1937), Lillian Russell (1940), That Night in Rio (1941), and The Gang’s All Here (1943).

Certain plot elements and characters were reworked in the Marilyn Monroe’s swansong for Fox Let’s Make Love (1960), in which a billionaire poses as a bit actor to woo the actress in a play that mocks his wealthy stature and womanizing reputation.



© 2018 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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