Dad: “Say... You know my slaves sing better than anyone else’s slaves around here?”
Son: “That’s because they love you! You’re always freeing some one of them!”
Dad: “Yeah… I think I’ll go down and free a couple of those tenors right now.”
Good timing may have been part of RKO’s 1929 debut as the newest major (well, middle-major) studio in Hollywood. With sound films and the nascent Technicolor process at its disposal, the studio had two technological advancements it could use to attract cinemagoers during the Depression, and one of the most popular venues to exploit the new features was the musical.
RKO’s first big effort was Rio Rita (1929), based on Florenz Ziegfeld’s stage hit, so it seemed natural to bring back the bulk of that film’s talent in a new vehicle, Dixiana (1930), doodled from scratch by Rita director Luther Reed, with operatic songs by Harry Tierney (music) and Anne Caldwell (lyrics), and orchestrations by newcomer Max Steiner (Gone With the Wind).
Reed’s story is beyond facile, and contains virtually no dramatic tension beyond a love triangle of sorts, with a revenge dropped in to accommodate a duel that ultimately brings justice to a scoundrel named Royal Montague, and love to the film’s unlikely lovers: Carl Van Horn, the son of a wealthy plantation owner, and a New Orleans circus performer named Dixiana Caldwell.
Rita co-star Bebe Daniels returned to play the heroine, while RKO imported Metropolitan Opera baritone Everett Marshall to the silver screen to play lovesick Carl. Due to their success in Rita, writer/director Reed also integrated the comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey as Dixiana’s friends and circus colleagues.
Like The Marx Brothers’ early films, Wheeler and Woolsey appear in static segments, breaking up the contrived love story with an ongoing routine involving picking up cigars without saying ‘Ouch,’ and chasing after a petite southern gal named Nanny (Dorothy Lee, another Rita alumnus, who would appear in almost all of Wheeler and Woolsey’s subsequent films). The only comedy sequence that has any merit involves a duel the pair has over Nanny, and where the entire contents of their luxurious room are smashed to bits, ending with the rivals sitting down and nibbling on the dinner brought into the room at the beginning of the scene.
(Though both initially share their screen time, Woolsey gets more Technicolor moments in a short song with three girls, and a follow-up number in which he plays drill sergeant to a group of women, and has them march, sit, row, and then roll over like pooches.)
Both the comedy bits and the songs feel like distractions to prevent audiences from realizing there’s barely any story in Dixiana, and whatever conflicts arise just sort of pop up from nowhere, and are resolved with very banal direction. The first conflict – Carl’s mother prohibiting the marriage when she discovers Dixiana’s circus background – comes at the tardy forty-minute mark; the second is a hasty card game that potentially puts Carl in debt; and the duel that unites the lovebirds in the final reel is over after a series of implausibly forced dialogue, and a handy portable scale.
Carl’s mother disappears from the film after the first (and brutally slow) first act, and Jopseph Cawthorn’s performance of Carl’s father, a Pennsylvania Dutchman, is tinged with an accent that’s more ersatz German than Netherland. Ralfe Harolde (Murder, My Sweet), though, is wonderfully slimy as jealous club owner Montague.
Tierney’s songs are light ditties that occasionally mine the lead’s vocal powers, and though Everett undoubtedly has a strong voice, as a screen actor, his presence is too theatrical; most of his acting is comprised of heavy posturing, and his two facial expressions lack any subtlety. (When he smiles, it’s like an off-screen technician is pulling at his mouth with a fishing line.) The baritone would make one more film in 1935, I Live for Love, before disappearing from movies.
With the exception of the film’s final 20 mins., director Reed didn’t seem to care very much about composition or editing. Perhaps it was an apprehension in moving the camera with pesky sound gear, but most of the film is comprised of static master shots. The pivotal card game, for example, is filmed in blah head shots, and there’s no sense of pacing to vary tension, nor any effort to include any cutaways.
One problem that worsens Reed’s banal direction is the improperly framed DVD transfer, lopping off some headspace and mucking up a few shots (the head of a horse rider at the film’s beginning is chopped from the jaw-line upwards). Most of the Mardi Gras sequence was designed to show off the 2-strip Technicolor process, and it’s by far the film’s most elaborate sequence, with a beautiful cobblestone street set through which the parade passes under a rain of confetti and streamers.
The large courtyard where the duel takes place also offered cinematographer J. Roy Hunt (Mighty Joe Young) a chance for some dramatic color lighting, but the strengths of these sequences make one ponder whether Dixiana was a rushed production, tempered by limited funds during the Depression, or just lazily organized, because there are three visual approaches at play: static master shots and medium close-ups for the first two-thirds; grand wide shots showing off colour and lighting in the finale; and a series of scenes on what’s revealed to be a stage-bound throne set, lit with glaring studio lights above.
The big set – a kind of king and queen platform with multiple lines of long descending stairs – was reportedly leftover from the Rita production, and Reed uses it as an ‘outdoor’ Mardi Gras stage: Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson tap dances around the royal chaise and hops down the steps before a crowd arrives for the big crowning ceremony; Wheeler and Woolsey perform the cigar game on each other; and the stage is shown in full view in the finale, with parading girls encircling Mardi Gras Queen Dixiana.
Any montage is reliant on footage conceived with purpose and style, and Reed’s lack of both makes Dixiana editorially crude. When Woolsey’s failure to win the cigar game has him kicked in the pants, Reed cuts to a wide shot that not only shows the comedian flying high and away over the gathering crowd, but reveals the set to be large, wide, and smack-center on a soundstage, with a blue backdrop mimicking a dawn sky. The edit may have been designed as a shock cut to reveal the grandeur of the set, but it’s all so clumsy. Perhaps the combination of sound and colour were reasons Reed chose to retire from filmmaking after his next film, Convention Girl (1935).
One aspect that makes Dixiana controversial is the depiction of African Americans as feeble-minded but friendly oafs: a tall butler is the first person to attempt Wheeler and Woolsey’s cigar game, a group of servants are background comedy relief in the comedians’ duel scene, and there’s the bizarre dialogue exchange at the film’s beginning (see quote at review top) where father Cornelius tells son Carl of his spur of the moment decision to free another slave because he’s moved by the singing by the riverside; it’s a strange exchange that was perhaps Reed’s attempt to present the slave owners as benevolent and forward-thinking, but it’s as though father is telling his son he’ll be back in a moment after picking up the weekend newspaper.
The Roan Group’s DVD includes some light production notes on the film as well as its cast, and while the film isn’t properly framed, it’s still quite watchable, with minor evidence of digital compression at play.
The Technicolor sequence is clean, and the colour tones are fairly stable, and there’s an amusing moment when in a shot a hair-in-the-gate flutters in full Technicolor. The 2-strip process does create a good impression of the set décor and costumes, but the flesh tones tend to be salmon-hued.
Also included on the DVD is the first live-action, 3-strip Technicolor short La Cucaracha (1934), which was clearly pre-planned to show-off the blazing colours and lighting possibilities of the format to audiences and studios.
Alongside Beck Sharp (1935) and The Dancing Pirate (1936), this was the first of a trio of Technicolor films produced by Pioneer Pictures and released through RKO, and while the source print and transfer aren’t all that flattering – the focus is very soft, and the sound is muddy and low – one gets a sense of why studios were impressed by the new process’ commercial possibilities in other genres.
The short’s basic story has a jealous dancer foiling an impresario’s efforts to hire her male partner, so she isn’t left to toil in a low-brow club. At first she coaxes the visitor to devour a chili-enriched salad, and then proceeds to dance to and sing “La Cucaracha” – initially to annoy her greedy partner, and then as a disruptive method when he attempts his own show-stopping routine (a moments that’s oddly reminiscent of the national anthem duel in Casablanca). The two performing halves eventually converge, and their duet convinces the impresario to hire both, which solidifies their future together as performers and lovers.
This thin tale wasn’t helped by clichéd Mexican stereotypes, but the setting and décor meant art director and Technicolor bigwig Natalie Kalmus could fill the screen with costumes in red, blue, green turquoise, and deep brown. Director Lloyd Corrigan has male dancers glide with their flailing blue capes past the camera, and female dancers twirl their white and red costumes, sometimes moving slowly in front of the camera in a contrived but beautifully composed shot.
In many ways Ray Rennahan’s cinematography set the style for color film exotica; one need only watch Blood and Sand (1941), or more importantly Duel in the Sun (1946) to see the colour portraiture that was extensively used in these films, as well as the dramatic lighting which may have seemed overly stylized in their day, but feel quite contemporary now. For example, Rennahan has the actors sometimes enter areas illuminated in deep red, and the cantina’s interior is lit with an artful series of side-by-side streams of green, red, orange, and yellow.
La Cucaracha is an historical first (it nabbed an Oscar Award for Best Comedy Short), but it’s also a curio whose technical skill is more important than its dramatic narrative. (Even the music is rather blah, and could’ve been enlivened by stronger guitar work by a Vicente Gomez).
Both films on this Roan disc certainly deserve proper restoration, and ought to appear in a set that not only gathers all three Pioneer Technicolor productions, but supports them with solid historical materials.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan