One of my very favorite things in the world is old-school journalistic prose, especially film reviews, and MOST especially negative film reviews, so it was with a delighted heart that I came across this terrific pan from Frank S. Nugent’s review of Stage Struck in the New York Times, published September 28, 1936:
Mr. Dick Powell and Miss Joan Blondell, who entered the state of matrimony a week ago, are coming to New York this Saturday and the Strand, a veritable maiden aunt, has a wedding present waiting for them: an opus called “Stage Struck” which the pair completed shortly before wedlock claimed them. It will be, we suspect, about as welcome a gift to the Powells as a clock for their mantelpiece, a carving set or a waffle iron and it is just about as novel as a contribution to musical comedy.
So great. With the advantage of being able to see Berkeley’s whole life laid out to us future folks, I’ll agree that Stage Struck is nothing particularly novel when considered in context. Especially when you can see that at this point in his career he had already choreographed (and/or directed) 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933 and 1935, and Footlight Parade. Stage Struck is certainly more reminiscent of the dramatic works I’ve been covering recently, and doesn’t fit in quite so well with the more famous, showy musicals he’s known for now.
But it’s charming enough, with Berkeley-faithful Dick Powell in the lead role as a Broadway director, his new bride Joan Blondell as the difficult star, and Ruth Williams as the young ingenue determined to make her mark on the stage.
The Yacht Club Boys also appear to provide some vaudevillian comic relief, though they’re not really related to the main plot of the film. They first appear as a faux-Mexican Mariachi troupe, and sing a song about income taxes. Yes, income taxes. This movie actually has a strange, repeated bent towards intellectualism–in addition to the tax number, there is also a song about Freud’s totem and taboo theory, and another one about the science of evolution. The Boys also get a great number called “The Body Beautiful,” in which their standard acrobatics are enhanced by some terrific and fairly seamless gymnastic wirework.
There are more than a few moments that require a bit of pause in the name of belief, such as the cops allowing an assault suspect to perform on stage–they’ll just arrest him afterwards. Since the plot is fairly standard, many of the stand-out moments are physical comedy based, like the Yacht Club Boys’ Body number linked above, or the enormous dog who seemed just a little too committed to biting off Dick Powell’s arm (Acting!). There’s also a great bit with the assistant stage director’s reflexive repetition of certain words, where any mention of the word “quiet” in any context prompts him to immediately bark a “QUIET!” command.
Overall, it’s an interesting combination of Berkeley’s musical work and his quieter dramatic pieces, but, again, kind of has the feel of a filmmaker still looking for his voice, despite Berkeley’s already established choreographic pedigree at this point.
By the way, the 1958 Sidney Lumet film also titled Stage Struck is not related to this film at all–that version is actually a remake of 1933’s Morning Glory, which itself was the source of Katherine Hepburn’s first Oscar.