Thursday, January 22, 2009

It may be murder, but that doesn't mean there isn't time for a song.

The main reason I enjoy the B-movies of the 1930s, 40s and 50s as much as they do is that they were so good at basic storytelling. In the best of them, the plots moves along quickly and logically. There’s no pretension to them at all—story was everything.

Well, almost everything. The best B-movie series had likeably protagonists (Charlie Chan, Hopalong Cassidy, Andy Hardy, etc.) and they also had a real sense of fun. In mysteries and westerns, this is often emphasized by the inclusion of one or two comic relief characters. But there’s other ways to make sure these short and fast-moving films stay fun from start to finish. Sometimes, they’d manage to throw in a song or two.

Of course, for some B-movies series, this was a natural part of their world. Roy Rogers and the other singing cowboys, for instance, would always pepper their music throughout their films.

But every once in awhile, we’d get a pause in the middle of a murder investigation to hear a tune.

I just watched The Falcon and the Co-eds (1943), with Tom Conway playing the suave detective and ladies man. Conway is typically good in the role and the mystery (involving a couple of murders at a conservative girls’ college) is well-constructed. And, of course, the setting gives an excuse to show an even higher number of pretty girls than is usual in a Falcon film. We normally get three or four. This time we get dozens.

But we also get some music. The girls are putting on a talent show. Even with dead bodies turning up, the show must go on. And so the movie pauses a couple of times to toss in a song or two. And they’re pretty good songs as well.

I suppose one reason for this was that the main plot didn’t quite fill up the usual B-movie running time of about 64 minutes, so they needed the filler. But even so, the inclusion of the songs is fit into the story and only adds to the sense of good fun that fairly drips from the movie.

It reminds me of yet another case in which a B-movie murder investigation made way for a song. In Nancy Drew, Reporter (1939), Nancy and her boy friend Ted trail some suspects to a Chinese restaurant. The two obnoxious kids they are forced to bring along order too much food and they haven’t enough money to pay for the meal.

This leads to Nancy and her companions literally singing for their supper. The restaurant has a band. (Chinese musicians in traditional garb, but playing jazz on modern instruments. Go figure.) This band supplies the music as the desperate and unwilling performers improvise songs out of nursery rhymes. They are, of course, a big hit. And the entire scene—silly as it was---is overflowing with pure fun.

Back to The Falcon and the Co-eds—mention should also be made of how charming and delightful were the Three Ughs. The daughters of the school’s grounds-keeper, the three kids dress alike, speak in consecutive sentences (one after the other, finishing up each other’s thoughts) and do a bang-up job with one of the songs. Of course, at one point they insist on helping the Falcon with his investigation. It’s nice to hang out with them for awhile and they’re yet another example of the sense of fun the best of the B-movies exuded.

They don’t make ‘em like this anymore. I swear to heaven, I have no idea why.

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