Welcome back, Mr. Breen!
Although it’s pretty gentrified nowadays, Greenwich Village has a reputation for counter-culturalism and being a haven for artists and other creative types. It’s always been a tempting setting for a story, even during the Production Code Era, when an undiluted bohemian Village didn’t exactly meet Mr. Breen’s standards. 20th Century Fox brought it to the screen, though, in their 1944 film, Greenwich Village.
It’s 1922. Ken Harvey (Don Ameche) is a composer from Kansas who’s in Manhattan to shop his concerto around to various conductors and publishers. He takes a tourist bus to the Village and finds a nightclub called Danny’s Den, where Querida (Carmen Miranda) and Bonnie (Vivian Blaine) are dazzling the crowd. Danny (William Bendix), the owner, is on the watch for poachers. Florenz Ziegfeld is after Bonnie for his new show, and Danny’s very protective. He’s cooking up his own show and wants Bonnie to star in it.
Ken walks Bonnie home, which isn’t much of a jaunt, seeing as she lives in the apartment building next to Danny’s Den. He’s about to leave when he sees Bonnie has a piano, so he noodles around a little, but before he and Bonnie can visit too much the Danny’s Den crowd accidentally-on-purpose drops by with food and liquor. Soon the absinthe is flowing and Ken is part of a chorus bellowing “When You Wore A Tulip” around the punch bowl.
In fact, Ken has such a good time that no one can find him. Bonnie calls Querida as they’re both getting ready to go to sleep because she’s worried about where Ken’s gone off to. Little does she know he’s passed out behind her sofa.
Ken wakes up a few hours later and staggers around Bonnie’s apartment, still fairly plastered and looking for any leftover spirits. He’s so out of it that he drinks the water out of a vase of flowers. Then he climbs into bed next to Bonnie, who must be a heavy sleeper, because having a guy in her bed doesn’t rouse her even the teensiest bit. Ken lumbers out of bed again and plops back down behind the sofa.
The next morning, Bonnie is making breakfast. Querida comes by, and they freak out when Ken rises out of his hiding place. Speaking of freakouts, Danny gets a start when he drops in and sees Ken, but he gets over that pretty quickly. He’s got a tune in his head that he thinks will work for their show, and he sits down and picks it out. Awkwardly enough, it’s the melody from Ken’s concerto, which he obligingly plays for them.
Ken’s concerto is a flowery, flowy version of “Whispering,” which was originally recorded in 1920 by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and considered to be the song that kickstarted the Jazz Age. It’s woven throughout the film, with and without the lyrics. It can get a little predictable, but hey, the song fits the time period, so it’s all good.
Anyway, while this is going on, another one of Danny’s crowd, Hofer (Felix Bressart) is uptown talking to his former employer, famed conductor Kavosky (Emil Rameau) and trying to convince him to hear Ken’s concerto. Kavosky agrees on the condition that Hofer quit pestering him for money.
Back in the Village, Danny is hosting a big charity costume ball to raise money for his show, and it goes over like gangbusters. The only one who’s slightly gloomy is Ken, who’s apprehensive about playing his concerto for Kavosky. Bonnie reassures Ken that he deserves it.
Danny’s skeptical when he finds out Hofer is the one spearheading Ken and Kavosky’s collaboration, because Hofer’s a notorious scam artist. He’s all set to out him when he sees Ken and Bonnie kissing, which turns Danny into the Green-eyed Monster.
Greenwich Village, like most 20th Century Fox musicals, doesn’t have much of a plot. Hofer’s scheme and Danny’s impending show are the biggest conflicts, and nothing can ever stay really dismal. The music in the film is terrific, consisting mostly of turn-of-the-century pieces like “Swingin’ Down the Lane.” Again, as was typical of Fox musicals, the music doesn’t advance the plot. Characters typically have to have a stage under their feet before they can sing. That’s not a bad thing, though–these musicals are generally pleasing romps that no one expects to get especially deep.
The film’s title character, Greenwich Village, had to be toned down considerably to keep the Production Code folks happy. The real place was a haven for writers, artists, musicians and singers, who helped each other refine their crafts. It was also a haven for free love and those who approved of free love, such as Edna St. Vincent Millay. Most were poor and couldn’t always pay their rent, but that didn’t stop them from making the Village a busy, colorful place.
We don’t find much of what made the Village avant garde, although there is an androgynous woman sitting next to Ken at the bar when he arrives at Danny’s Den. The first morning shown in the movie has people shaking rugs out of their windows and doing everyday morning chores like the Village is any ordinary neighborhood. The music is bright and cheerful, and it’s so clean it’s like an old Disney movie. I half-expected to see little birdies trilling on window sills. Then a guy in a robe gets ecstatic because his book has been banned in Boston. “I have arrived, I’m a success,” he says, his eyes dancing.
Yeah, Greenwich. We see you. 🙂
Other aspects of the Village worked in Fox’s favor. During the twenties, Greenwich was full of vaudeville theaters, and one of the most prestigious was the Greenwich Village Follies. Starting in 1919, the Follies were a fine proving ground for such greats as Cole Porter and Martha Graham. Irving Berlin also wrote some music for the Greenwich Village Follies. For Danny to produce a show would be completely natural for the time period and the setting, although some viewers might think it derivative of the Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney backyard musicals.
Greenwich Village might be the Sunday-school version of that storied place, but it’s still a crazy and fun movie that’s well worth watching. Fox pulled out all the stops with this one.
For more of the 2nd Annual Great Breening Blogathon, please visit the Tiffany and Rebekah at the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society. Thanks for hosting, ladies–it was fun. Here’s to bringing Mr. Breen back next year! Thanks for reading, all, and hope to see you on Thursday for Michaela’s Rita Hayworth Blogathon…
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