Lloyd Bacon | Crooner
no longer a member of the band
Charles Kenyon (screenplay, based on a story by Rian James), Lloyd Bacon (director) Crooner / 1932
Before I even venture into a discussion of Lloyd Bacon’s 1932 movie Crooner, let me quote David Kalat, who nicely defines the rise and role of “the crooner”:
“Let me tell you a little about the peculiar moment of American pop culture in question. Just as the advent of cameras changed the relationship between actors and audiences, allowing performers to engage more intimately with a close-up, the advent of microphones radically changed the relationship between singers and their fans. Nightclub singers used to have to bellow with enough vocal force to project to the back of the dance floor. But with a microphone, a singer could dial that energy back and still be heard. Songs could be gentler, the soft inflection of a soothing male voice could now be appreciated–at least by the ladies. The joke was that men hated these crooners, but women melted in romantic bliss.
We can even be specific about this: we’re talking about such singers as Bing Crosby and Rudy Valle, whose sweet honeyed voices caused women across America to swoon. A generation later, their children would go into frenzies over the Beatles and Elvis Presley. The difference is minimal. Even the response of the public moralists was comparable–Boston’s notorious crusader Cardinal O’Connell condemned crooners as a threat to the nation’s moral safety; their appeal was too obviously rooted in raw lust. Between the Bible-thumpers and the frustrated men, the very word ‘crooner’ became an epithet.”
Specifically, Bacon’s film was seen to be a satire of Rudy Valley, who, like the major figure of this work, Teddy Taylor (David Manners), began as a saxophonist in a band, had a weak voice which even he felt was not at all appropriate to the nightclubs in which his band played, and after singing sweet ballads, found that he could better project his voice through the use of a megaphone, which the hero of the film, turned him into almost a cult figure.
Teddy’s band, The Collegians, a small orchestra begun by its members in college, offer the New York clubs nothing very special. Teddy and his friends can hardly pay their hotel room bills or get enough to eat—reminding one of the hungry band members, including Fred Astaire, of Gene Raymond’s far more interesting orchestra in Flying Down to Rio. Having struck out again in another audition, most of them are about to pack away their instruments for ever until Teddy gets them to agree to hang on for two more weeks, the time when one of the member’s pre-paid rent expires. They are about to audition live in the Golden Slipper Nightclub when their singer suddenly announces that he’s suffering from laryngitis and can’t go on. They try to get by with just the music, but the management insists they have to have a singer, and Taylor is the only one, apparently, who can even carry a tune vocally, although his voice is so frail that when he begins his number, “Sweethearts Forever,” the whole room is ready to send them packing since the voice can’t be heard.
A drunken dancer (Guy Kibbee) spots a chauffeur with a megaphone, buys it off him, and hands it over the Teddy whose sweet tenor voice is suddenly an immediate (and inexplicable) draw to all the women, who stop dancing just to listen. Teddy and his band sign a contract that very night, although it hardly pays enough to get his members through the week. But for Teddy, as he rushes off to tell his girlfriend Judy Mason (Ann Dvorak), it’s the breakthrough he’s dreaming off. And by the time the contract renewal comes round, he’s ready to ask for double the previous salary.
Judy, however, playing a character who these grade movies generally define as a “smart cookie,” calls up her old friend and suitor Peter Sturgis (Ken Murray), who works as an agent. Much like what I presume this film’s original audience must have felt, Pete is not a great admirer of Teddy’s talent, but observing the female audience he’s built up, gets the cheap Nightclub operator to offer more than three times the previous amount bringing the original $500 up to $7,500 and even then tears up Teddy’s contract, promising to get him $10,000 a week or offer his services free of charge.
When he doesn’t come through quickly, Teddy is about to swallow his pride and force his band members to go hungry by signing for an even a lower amount at the Golden Slipper that they originally were paid; but just in time Peter arrives with Judy on his arm to tell him he’s got him a radio program which will hire him full time depending up the number of fans writing it response to the show.
Teddy gets a record number of letters (2/3rds of them, without his knowledge, being written by Judy and Peter themselves). But one particular love note is shown being written on camera that when as it pulls back reveals a male admirer sitting in a prison cell, the first of a number of gay jokes that two years later no movie could make.
Soon, in the Slipper he has become so very popular with the female clientele that the women’s bathroom attendant (Hattie McDanniel) tells the women gathered in her sacred shrine when Teddy begins to sing, the women rushing out to the dance floor to hear him as the males all rush into the men’s room. What they intend to do there is not explained, since I have never seen a men’s bathroom that features the divans and settees I have seen featured in theater, hotel, and nightclub ladies’ rooms.
Meanwhile, back in dining room we observe a couple sitting at a nearby table, the male responding when Teddy begins his sweet reprise of “Sweethearts,” “I think he’s superb,” his table mate, a monocled lesbian intoning in a far lower voice, “I think he’s lousy.” If there were any question about the male’s sexuality, we only must remember that he has failed to flee with the other boys to the urinals and stalls.
But it’s not only that some of his admirers are “fruity,” but the singer himself—his head swelled with self-adulation as predicted by Peter—has grown into a narcissistic, queerly behaving man, who as his band members tell us through their imitations, slicks back his hair, stairs for long moments in a nearby mirror, and even walks these days a bit like a swish.
Teddy is clearly no longer one of them, no longer a member of their band.
Before long, Teddy has developed an Oxford accent, hired a Japanese house boy to pick up the telephone just a few inches from his suddenly frail fingers, and started to date a married socialite (Claire Dodd). She arranges a secret rendezvous with him on a boat, but only three days out is so bored by a conversation that consists of a myriad of different ways in which he talks about only himself, that she suggests they tack course back to port.
By this time the level-headed Judy, hearing him attempt to sing opera, has read enough gossip and heard his now soprano voice enough to want to drop him. But even then, Teddy doesn’t catch on, slowing down his songs so severely that even his women fans beg him to pick up the tempo just in case their beaus wander back with the intention of dancing.
When a seated customer teases him about the high range of his voice, Teddy leaps from the stage to beat him up, without realizing that the gentleman is a WWI vet, with only a stump of a leg. The abuse of what the newspaper headlines describe as a “helpless cripple” is the last straw as his fickle fans make clear.
Suddenly without a job, without his former band friends and having lost his girl who is about to marry his agent, Teddy winds up as a fill-in in Harlem afterhours clubs—although I must admit that the few chords of music we hear from his new gig sound far better than anything else we’ve heard in this movie.
Having gotten his comeuppance, however, the writers find a way to forgive him, Peter abandoning up his plans to marry Judy at the last moment after he hears the way her voice wavers upon receiving a telephonic congratulation from Teddy. Given what Teddy has revealed about himself, however, even after his wising up I wonder if he’s truly the marrying kind.
Director Lloyd Bacon previously acted in several of Charlie Chaplin’s early films (The Tramp, Beyond the Screen, and The Rink), and had already directed several gay-laced pictures such as Office Wife (1930), Fifty Million Frenchmen (1931), and Footlight Parade (1931). Soon after this film he would direct the successful 42nd Street (1933) along with numerous other well-known films, including Knut Rockne, All American, starring Ronald Reagan. In 1934, he helmed one the last movies to openly include pansies, Wonder Bar.