Welcome to another Film Friday! Today, we’re wrapping up our sampling of several films released in 1929! In the title, I refer to 1929 as a year of firsts and lasts. I’m primarily speaking of the transition to sound, which went into full swing by 1929, and had every major studio technologically converted to the process — most notably M-G-M. Stars we’ve covered here like Norma Shearer and Joan Craford made their sound debuts. But the year wasn’t completely all-talking just yet — 1929 also saw the slow burning off of the silent films, which essentially ceased production by the time the year was over. The few films I’ll be featuring here (both talkies and silents) show an industry on the cusp of the biggest turning point in cinema history. So far we’ve looked at Pandora’s Box, Their Own Desire, Applause, Blackmail, and The Kiss. Today, a musical: Sunny Side Up!
Sunny Side Up (1929)
A working girl meets an escaping Long Island millionaire at an urban block party. Starring Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, El Brendel, Marjorie White, Frank Richardson, Sharon Lynn, and Mary Forbes. Story, Dialogue, Music and Lyrics by Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson. Continuity by David Butler. Directed by David Butler.
This fascinating two-hour musical is noted as being one of the first — if not THE first — all-talking musical comedy created especially for the screen. The picture comes to life through the brilliant songs of DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson (who wrote last Monday’s featured musical, Good News!), and though the story is pedestrian, the performances and musical numbers make for entertaining viewing.
The plot concerns, “Molly and Bee, [two] sweet young ‘working girls,’ [who] live in a cheap room over a New York grocery store. Molly’s idol, wealthy Jack Cromwell, lives in a Long Island mansion but is markedly less happy, since his fiancée Jane won’t discourage her other admirers. Fleeing in his car, Jack ends up in an urban block party where he meets you-know-who[…] He persuades her to return to Southampton with him to make his fiancée jealous. His scheme works, but in the process, Molly has fallen in love with Jack. When she leaves and he faces never seeing her again, he realizes that it is Molly whom he really loves.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of IMDb.)
The narrative spins an unfortunately ordinary yarn that never manages to really distinguish itself in its storytelling. But, that’s not a severe handicap because, even as a two-hour film, there’s little doubt that the film’s focus is, naturally, on the wonderful musical numbers. This isn’t undeserved praise. As a musical lover who had never heard this entire score before, I was VERY impressed. Every song is unique, catchy, and a pleasure to watch. No doubt this is due in part to the energetic supporting players — among them Marjorie White, Frank Richardson, and Sharon Lynn — who fill out the story and contribute to the picture’s overarching sense of ebullience. As every song is a winner, I’ll just share one of the most visually memorable, the erotic and excitingly Pre-Code (or Pre-Pre-Code as the code wasn’t even written until early 1930) “Turn On The Heat.”
Gaynor gets the two most well known songs from the score — the earnest “(I’m A Dreamer) Aren’t We All?” and the bouncy “If I Had A Talking Picture Of You,” which she sings with her leading man, Charles Farrell (clip below). Though the casting of the two leads drew mild apprehension in 1929 — they were, by all definitions, not singers — their mutual charm carries them through each number to the extent that, truthfully, their limited vocal abilities are almost unnoticeable.
Gaynor, the first actress to win an Academy Award, is a strange creature. She has a lightness and a naivete that, though always believable, sometimes threatens the integrity of her acting skills. That is, she has such honesty that it almost seems unnatural for her to be as sweet and bubbly as she appears. (Does she ever get mad?) In Sunny Side Up, her best moments come in the last 35 minutes, when Gaynor’s inherent airiness is coupled with the emotional weight of her seemingly impossible romance. Though we know things will work out in the end, Gaynor is superb at playing everything believably — and the juxtaposition of her sunny persona with the cloudy circumstances demonstrates her talent best. Essentially, Gaynor shines when given good material; the better the script, the better Gaynor’s performance. (Think 1927’s Sunrise and the original 1937 A Star Is Born.) Though the same is true of every performer, her inability to play something as false limits her skill at elevating weak material.
Not to say that the material here is weak, but when the stars and the songs are exceptional, a glaringly predictable (and thus, relatively boring) story is more noticeable. And when a film’s story is not up to par, the whole picture drags. (Really, this film doesn’t need to be two hours long, though I can’t imagine it being any shorter. The musical numbers are too entertaining to be excised, and the story is too thin to afford any reductions.) Fortunately, the songs are sprinkled throughout the picture, saving us from ever losing interest in the proceedings. And all in all, with the musical numbers being extraordinary, this is a completely worthwhile picture — recommended for all classic musical fans!
Come back next Friday for the start of a new series of posts on the films of Myrna Loy! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment!
Another great post. I can’t believe I never heard of this film. Guess I need to pay more attention to 1929. Your comments on Janet Gaynor’s performance intrigue me. I always found her a bit bland and waify, even in Sunrise. Maybe this will change my mind.
Hi, Adam! Thanks for reading and commenting.
If you found Gaynor “bland and waify” in SUNRISE, you’ll find her even more so in this picture, which doesn’t have a strong script and lacks the former film’s humanity. As I mentioned in my post, she often seems unreal.
However, what is appealing about Gaynor’s presence in SUNNY SIDE UP is that, though she isn’t a singer, there’s an earnestness about her, a straightforward simplicity, that sort of endears her to us and does a lot in making the whole picture come off as more genuine.
But the real treat in this film are the fun musical numbers. All of them are so catchy!
I enjoyed your post about Sunny Side Up. I used to have this on a Critic’s Choice VHS tape. While I enjoyed the musical, especially the songs, there was one element that drove me nuts, and that was Frank Richardson’s singing. Compared to the more intimate style of Gaynor and Farrell’s “singing”, Richardson sounds like a cat going through a saw mill. This may be partly due to the recording technology of the time. I’m not sure if you saw the same version I did, but there was exit music after the The End title consisting of Richardson’s version of “If I Had A Talking Picture Of You”, sung at ear-splitting volume. The thing I liked most about this picture was the performance of Marjorie White, a terrific singer-commedienne who tragically died in 1935 after being in an auto accident. I’ve only seen her in two other films besides tbis one: Just Imagine, a 1930 Fox sci-fi musical which I feel is much better than it’s reputation, and Diplomaniacs, a Wheeler and Woolsey film from 1933 which is a very funny film. You were right to include the download of “Turn On The Heat” as a great example of the best musical numbers of Sunny Side Up. A number far ahead of it’s time. Supposedly, this number was originally shown in two-color Multicolor process, like the musical numbers in The Great Gabbo, a truly bizzare picture from 1929 which is one of my guilty pleasures to watch.
Hi, Leslie! Thanks for reading and commenting.
My copy does not have any exit music, so I was not bothered by Richardson’s vocals, or anyone else’s in the cast, really. Was it the volume that bothered you at the end?
I too enjoyed White’s performance. It seems she had a small part in POSSESSED (1931), a Crawford-Gable film that I covered here back in August. And I know she was featured in HOT-CHA! (1932), which I will be covering on a Musical Theatre Monday post in July. Hadn’t heard about her tragic demise; no wonder her body of work was so few.
It must be the sheer volume of that exit music that really got me. Think of his short vocal in “Turn On The Heat” when he intones: “RAADIIAAATORR” , up the volume about 50%, and have him sing the last lyric an octave higher than should be humanly possible, and you’ll clear the theater for the next show in no time. Again, the raspy sound quality of surviving early Movietone recording dosen’t help, and, in spite of my carping, Sunny Side Up is an entertaing film which deserves a good restoration and a DVD release.