Warren William came off a lot better in Stage Struck than I had recalled, but that’s probably because the 1936 Warner musical includes what I still think has got to be William’s most embarrassing screen moment. That would be his being approached, harassed, and even assaulted by a pretty unfunny quartet of performers who played together for several years as The Yacht Club Boys. This 7-minute blitz is painful to watch and for the Warren William fan it is basically the final shovel of dirt atop of his once strong career at Warner Brothers.
In Frank S. Nugent’s September 28, 1936 review of Stage Struck in The New York Times he rips the movie, has kind words for The Yacht Club Boys, and doesn’t even type the name Warren William. That left me shaking my head. He did take time out to do two things I did agree with: praise Frank McHugh for being Frank McHugh and take a shot at Jeanne Madden, who felt like a poor imitation Ruby Keeler in Stage Struck.
William was in the process of escaping Warner Brothers during production on Stage Struck and by the time of it’s release had already completed production on the Mae West vehicle Go West Young Man (1936) for Emanuel Cohen’s Paramount off-shoot Major Pictures.
John Stangeland writes in his biography of William that he was “not featured nor touted in Stage Struck publicity once it hit theaters” (165). I don’t know if the Warner’s freeze was responsible for William’s omission in Nugent’s review, but he’s a pretty big part of Stage Struck to be completely overlooked like that.
If The Yacht Club Boys debacle could have been excised, Warren William actually gets to give one of his best non-mystery performances at Warner’s since his pre-Code glory days.
Warren William, as Harris, gets to lord over an office once more and make no mistake he’s a cutthroat businessman. At the same time Fred Harris is much more congenial than Kurt Anderson or David Dwight are at even their most charitable moments.
It takes 21 minutes into Stage Struck before we get to meet Fred Harris–heck, we’ve even seen The Yacht Club Boys by then!–when he bumps into dance director George Randall (Dick Powell) at a bar.
Producer Harris needs a director for his new show and is thrilled to learn Randall has recently become available. Harris is not as happy about Randall’s swearing off the business. But easing Randall along with his natural charm and a few too many boilermakers, Harris leaves with a signature on the contract.
A sober Randall busts into Harris’ office the next day demanding the contract be broken. Harris tells him the deal is binding and in his most friendly voice adds that “you try to break it and you’ll starve.”
Ruminating over those who’ve tried to get out of deals with him in the past, Harris remarks to his meek assistant, Oscar (Johnnie Arthur), “Remember what I did to Reginald Hempstead? Oscar, where is Reginald Hempstead now?”
Oscar replies, “I don’t know, sir.”
“That’s right, you don’t know. Nobody knows. Oblivion,” Harris gloats. Then to Randall he adds, “I’d hate to have to do that to you, boy”
Oscar, in a nervous whisper, to Randall: “I feel sorry for you.”
Then Harris introduces Randall to his star, the socialite Peggy Revere (Joan Blondell), famed for having gotten away with killing her husband. Revere’s obnoxious presence was responsible for Randall breaking his deal with his previous producer in the opening scene. Randall and Revere stare daggers at one another, leaving Harris to try and figure out how to keep the peace and get his show out of them.
Randall and Revere leave and only Oscar is left with Harris. “Randall’s the best dance director in the business. And Revere’s got the only bankroll I can snag,” Harris declares. He needs a plan.
“Sometimes the power of my own brain scares me,” Harris declares once an idea hits him.
Inspiration comes in the forced form of assistant Oscar’s last name: Freud. Harris decides to use psychology on Peggy, reasoning that if Revere’s love for her husband turned to a hate strong enough for her to kill him, then Harris will just work the angle in reverse and make her fall in love with the despised Randall.
A meeting with Peggy provides William with some of his best lines and reactions. He’s very up front with her about what he’s going to try to do and his Harris blurts out a bunch of psycho-babble that I imagine I’m no more qualified than Warren William to discuss the accuracy of.
The key comes down to her having to stop repressing her feelings and show Randall just how much she loves him. The grateful Revere gets it and tells Harris, “Thank you for helping me with my unconscious mind.”
After that the horror of the Yacht Club Boys unfolds. Given their longevity I’m sure people thought they were hilarious once, but it didn’t work for me. Approaching William’s Harris for a job one of them declares:
“We’re professional amateurs.” Another adds, “And all we get is the gong.”
Harris replies, “You’ve come to the wrong place. We don’t have any gong.”
The Yacht Club Boys tell him, “Well, you’re gong to get one.” Then laughter.
Thankfully much of what follows is shot so that we only see the back of the Fred Harris character’s head (I hope Warren didn’t have to endure all of that!). There are a few more embarrassing frames during The Yacht Club Boys performance, one of which I’ve done Warren William the discourtesy of posting just above.
By this point Warren’s Harris has had his best scenes, but unlike some of his other lesser roles from this period he doesn’t ever completely disappear from Stage Struck and still reels off a few good lines whenever we get to see him.
A favorite of mine comes after a meeting with lead actor Frost (Craig Reynolds). On the way out of Harris’ office Frost meets the young chorus girl that Randall’s shown an interest in, Ruth Williams (Jeanne Madden), and is eager to help her out for all the wrong reasons.
Frost tells Ruth he’ll have a word with Harris about her and get her into the show. He pops back into Harris’ office on his own with no plans of actually mentioning the girl but makes an excuse to Harris for his intrusion asking if he’s seen his gloves.
William as Harris channeling his best Kurt Anderson shoots back, “Gloves? You’re lucky to have shoes.” Frost departs to tell Ruth she’s all set.
Stage Struck is an oddball of a movie, a bit strange for a Busby Berkeley musical in that there really aren’t any of Berkeley’s typical stage numbers involved. I talk about the specifics of the movie and the other players in a more detailed post on Immortal Ephemera. As I open my article over there: Stage Struck is the Busby Berkeley musical that ends with a kiss, not a big stage number.
Forgiving the single scene, you know the one by now, Warren William is quite good here. More charming with certainly more to do than he had in his better known Warner’s musical appearance, Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933).
- Nugent, Frank S. “Stage Struck.” The New York Times 28 September 1936. 14:5
- Stangeland, John. Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2011.
Just read your piece on Warren William while chasing around the net after seeing Stage Struck on TCM yesterday. —-I agree about the film–and enjoyed the piece on William, because I also remember him in supporting roles in other films of the era.
Also agree about the mess of The Yacht Club boys inserted into the film. —–But that’s the reason I’m writing you. —–That was 1936 and this is whaaaa!! 2011—75 years later, and about 10-15 min into the first real there’s the YCB’s with this song “The Income Tax” ——-and it is soooooo apropos the current political scene, that I instantly wanted a copy of the “performance” to send around the net. ——It could be a rage (……..for about 15 minutes, of course…..) ——-Is the performance of “The Income Tax” available on the net somewhere?—–I’ve looked briefly for it but not found it when I ran into your review.
Do you have it available, or could you put it up on Youtube, or etc. so it will be available to link? ——-I’d appreciate any help on this. (I’ll check back here over the next few days to see if you can lend a hand.)
Hi Jay, just left a reply to you on Immortal Ephemera as well – the actual title is “The Government Takes Away”. Someone’s posted it on YouTube already, here: http://youtu.be/exsymuR9uz4
I watched this just yesterday, from a TCM recording done a while back. How they ever found someone who was as hapless an actress as Ruby Keeler is one of life’s mysteries. Madden does sing better, which is something of a relief. I can see why Powell and Blondell were getting tired of Warner, their parts aren’t much. Blondell tries to have fun with hers, while Powell seems to be bored with his characterization. There’s not nearly enough Warren William (I much prefer Go West Young Man) which is too bad as he is magnetic here, and the Yacht Club Boys are just stuffed into this for no reason at all. Yank them out and the film wouldn’t change at all. If Blondell had shot the lot of them, it could have solved two problems – they’d be integrated into the plot, and we’d be rid of them. Frank McHugh seems to be doing his schtick also swiping a bit from Allen Jenkins’ role in 42nd Street.
This leads me into my one big criticism of Busby Berkeley’s directing at Warner. He seemed enamored of stupid and obnoxious comedy as though it were entertaining. I see a lot of it in his Warner films from Gold Diggers of 1935 on.
But at least Ruby Keeler has being Ruby Keeler going for her! You know what you’re getting and it makes every experience at least a camp experience. Madden is just forgettable. To me her voice was more MGM than WB, which is to say that it’s clearly more polished yes, but not a good fit for the mayhem which was unfolding in Stage Struck.
I thought Blondell was a blast, she definitely had some fun lines to work with. Yeah, I wouldn’t have been surprised if McHugh’s character even had the same name he had in Footlight Parade, he’s exactly the same guy here. Which I like.
Oh those Yacht Club Boys.
I find Ruby being Ruby is endearing while I’m wearing a crooked smile (my, she does try, bless her heart), and you’re right about Madden’s voice (I avoid most MGM like it has the plague but I do see the connection).
Joan Blondell I would have found funnier except some of her malapropisms are really painful and stupidly obvious (though her “irregardless” made me laugh out loud). This is the sort of role which Joan could have walked away with the film in, but to me she didn’t. Her part is like Warren William’s in that she doesn’t get enough screen time. I even wanted to see more Craig Reynolds and less Dick Powell. Instead of his usual insanely chipper persona in musicals, Powell’s a bit of a jerk.
Confession: I always liked Frank McHugh. It’s like my affection for Mitzi Green, it’s just there.
John Stangeland says
Not to be too partisan, but it’s true – the ONLY really decent thing about Stage Struck is Warren William. I love Powell and Blondell, but they’re largely wasted here. Blondell is such a shrew (not unlike her character in Smarty)that you can’t warm up to her in any way – and Berkeley doesn’t even give us a single memorable musical set piece to fall back on.
As for the forgettable Jeanne Madden, Harry Warner apparently loved her – he sent a memo to someone (Hal Wallis? I don’t have it in front of me) lauding her performance and literally BEGGING him to “make sure we never let her get away.” (She made only 2 more movies after her debut in SS.) Hm. Wonder if anything ELSE was going on there…
Thanks for another great review, Cliff!
I do think Blondell’s miles ahead of her Smarty character here. There wasn’t much to like about her at all in that one, at least she made me smile a few times in Stage Struck. In fact I’m giggling a little right now thinking of her waving the gun around in her last scene while issuing her grand denial. And I loved her thanking Warren about helping her straighten out her unconscious too. That was one of my favorite scenes in Stage Struck, Warren and her side by side. I have nothing nice to say for Smarty.
I noticed Madden didn’t do too much on screen after this, I imagined this was because she was awful, but hmm, that is an interesting quote. I don’t want to assume anything out of line but I guess I could at least say Harry must have been a bit smitten by her because of that line–those are certainly some rose-colored glasses!
Oh, dear. Smarty. I wonder why Warner Archive released that when the William/Blondell comedy worth releasing (Goodbye Again) languishes. All I can say is I’m happy I have my copy.