Queen of the Jukebox

swinghostess
The Movie Database

There’s a lot of weird, obscure stuff on streaming media, and Amazon seems to be a particular gold mine. I don’t know how I found the 1944 film, Swing Hostess, but somehow I did. Or it found me. Who knows. Either way, it’s been sitting on my Prime list for months, waving at me with its too-generic-to-be-enticing title, and now I’ve finally reviewed it.

Sigh.

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The movie starts out with Judy (Martha Tilton) heading to an audition for the Benny Jackson Orchestra. Another hopeful is Alexis Smith-lookalike Phoebe (Betty Brodel) who’s not half as talented as Judy but she certainly looks the part. The two of them join a big group of other hopefuls, who go to meet their fate in the studio one by one. No, we don’t get to hear all of them sing; in fact, the film shows a quick montage of assorted women standing in front of the camera with their mouths open.

Then Judy takes the stage and things start happening. Martha Tilton was a band singer with the Benny Goodman Orchestra and she knew how to bring it, but her character, Judy, isn’t at a typical audition. Producer Mr. Fralick (Harry Holman) is up in his office with Benny Jackson (Charles Collins) listening to the auditions on a special radio, and he’s worked out a signal with the bandleader and the engineers: There’s a light connected to his Dictaphone, and if he makes it blink, he doesn’t like what he’s hearing. If the light stays on, send the girl up to Mr. Fralick’s office.

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I’ve been around a few people in the music industry, and while I’m no expert, I don’t believe I’ve heard of anything like this. Maybe it happens, but it seems to be more Hollywood than anything.

Anyway, when Judy’s turn comes up, Mr. Fralick’s on the phone and forgets to listen, but she somehow gets the boot. He also forgets to listen when Phoebe takes the mic, but she’s in because Mr. Fralick’s heard a record Judy made and thinks it’s Phoebe. Confusing, right? Yep.

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Judy’s out and Phoebe’s a new star, with a glitzy contract and lots of publicity. Judy’s still got to get a job, though, and she and her best friend, Marge (Iris Adrian) are in a diner having lunch when someone on the Rock-Ola Master Mystic Music jukebox tells a customer that their staff is short handed.

Yeah, the jukebox has a live operator. It was a thing for a short while in the thirties and the forties to call into a jukebox service and request a certain song, the idea being that it gave listeners more options than the number of records that could fit in a conventional jukebox. It didn’t last very long because these kinds of companies were probably really hard to maintain, but a few of the jukeboxes still survive, at least the machines do.

rockolamysticmusic10_xxl
A Rock-Ola Mystic Music 3701 jukebox similar to the one used in the film. (FiftiesStore.com)

Getting back to the movie, Marge rushes Judy down to the jukebox company and gets her friend a job. Judy’s got to wait for people to call in and then fulfill their requests, and the trick is to always file the records in order. It’s not ideal, but it pays the bills.

Judy’s friends can’t believe the mediocre-at-best Phoebe is getting such a big buildup. Neither can Joe (Earle Sweeney), who made Judy’s record. So they cook up a scheme to put Judy where she should be and inspire Phoebe to come clean. Or something like that.

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Swing Hostess is a good idea for a film, but it doesn’t quite play out as fully as even a small-budgeted movie can do. The plot, what little there is of it, is a wee bit muddy. There’s an extremely tacked-on romance. The characters are paper doll thin. The editing is choppy, too. Right after Joe announces he’s been drafted and will be leaving the day after next, we see the group immediately conga-lining to the door by way of seeing him off. Not that it’s bad to send someone off with a smile, but it seems a bit abrupt. No hugs, no kisses, no “Don’t forget to write!” More like, “We’ll miss you. There’s the door. Bon voyage!”

The movie is all kept lightly anticlimactic. There’s no dramatic comeuppance and no one walks out in a huff anywhere even though some duplicity has gone on. Joe gets drafted, but that’s no huge obstacle, because the group has backup plans. They may or may not involve some acrobats from Judy and Marge’s boardinghouse tossing Phoebe around like a sack of flour until she’s hanging from the chandelier. The best parts are when Martha Tilton sings, but there’s a lot of stuff in between.

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What I wish they had done with this movie is build it around the jukebox. Have an operator also be a singer and have some fancy producer driven crazy trying to find her. That could have been a cuter story, and certainly pretty original.

Swing Hostess was released by PRC, which stands for Producers Releasing Corporation, not People’s Republic of China, in case anyone’s wondering. This name probably didn’t do anyone any favors, seeing as it doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue.

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PRC was among the poorest of the Poverty Row studios. They were in good company; RKO, Hal Roach and Columbia were also considered Poverty Row, but they at least had a little bit of money and prestige. Producers Releasing had neither. There’s very little information about this studio out there except for a site called (re)search my Trash, which has to be be translated into English from its original German.

Founded in 1939, PRC had trouble gaining any financial traction and was taken in by Pathé after only a year. The aim of the studio was noble. It was meant to be a place where filmmakers could create films out from under the purvey of the studio system and therefore with more of a free hand. They seemed to have a healthy output, releasing jungle movies, horror, and westerns, but the studio’s life was brief, and it went belly-up in 1948.

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While Swing Hostess seemed to be an anomaly among all the pulp, it didn’t make much of a splash. The papers of the time mostly just mentioned the film in passing, but the February 1945 issue of Photoplay got downright verbose:

feb45photoplayswinghostessreview

Ouch.

Time doesn’t seem to have been kind to Swing Hostess. Or maybe it was doomed from the start because it’s one strange puppy, even if Martha Tilton is wonderful.

Another review is coming up on Sunday. Thanks for reading, all…


Swing Hostess is available on DVD from Amazon or is free to stream for Prime customers. It can also be watched on Internet Archive.

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