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A rarely-seen confection from the height of Dick Powell's tenure as the preeminent boy crooner of the '30s on the Warner lot, Broadway Gondolier (1935) isn't terribly long on meaningful plot. What it does boast is a handful of catchy tunes penned by the prolific Hollywood songsmith Harry Warren, rendered with brio by Powell and the WB musical unit.
Indicative of how homogenized Powell's screen persona had already become, the script cast him as "Dick Purcell," a New York cabby with aspirations of being recognized as a serious vocalist. His vocal prowess impresses two music critic passengers to arrange a meeting with radio producer E.V. Richards (Grant Mitchell); Dick wastes no time in frittering the rare opportunity away, blowing off the audition and angering Richards. Purcell then offers up the last of his savings to his mentor, Professor deVinci (Adolphe Menjou), so that he can pursue his studies in Italy.
Richards' primary sponsor, the cheese magnate Mrs. Flagenheim (Louise Fazenda), opts to visit Venice to hunt for a new talent to anchor her radio hour, taking Richards' pretty secretary Alice Hughes (Joan Blondell) in tow. Coincidentally enough, they take Purcell's hack to the pier, and he makes a last-minute decision to stow away. Upon his arrival, he tracks down deVinci, finding him scraping out a living as a gondola pilot. Joining his teacher on the canals, Purcell's singing attracts Mrs. Flagenheim, who offers to make the ersatz gondolier a star. Alice, while recognizing the real identity of the sponsor's "discovery," keeps her silence. Just how long "Ricardo Purcelli" can maintain his pose once they return to the states, particularly around Alice's jealous boyfriend (William Gargan), drives the remainder of the narrative.
Powell and Blondell here display a chemistry that was more than merely surface, as they married the year after Broadway Gondolier's release, and would be together for eight years. (For what it's worth, the last two of their thirteen shared screen credits were I Want a Divorce (1940) and Model Wife (1941).) The supporting players complement the proceedings well, particularly the venerable Mack Sennett comedienne Fazenda. She seldom had trouble finding character work at Warner at this phase of her career, married as she was to estimable producer Hal B. Wallis, ribbed around the lot as "The Prizoner of Fazenda." The Mills Brothers and Judy Canova also pop up in cameo appearances.
The offerings from Warren and lyricist Al Dubin, which included Lulu's Back in Town, Rose in Her Hair, Outside of You and Sweet and Low, don't rank among their most enduring, but they were hits of their day and remain eminently listenable. The duo was recruited to Warner by Busby Berkeley for 42nd Street (1933), and that memorable score made them fixtures of the studio's musical output. By the time of his retirement in 1967, Warren had composed some 300 songs for over 50 films, and he had taken home three Oscars® for Lullaby of Broadway, You'll Never Know and The Atcheson, Topeka and the Santa Fe.
Producer: Samuel Bischoff
Director: Lloyd Bacon
Screenplay: Sig Herzig, E.Y. Harburg, Hanns Kraly, Warren Duff
Cinematography: George Barnes
Film Editing: George Amy
Art Direction: Anton Grot
Music: Harry Warren
Cast: Dick Powell (Richard Purcell), Joan Blondell (Alice Hughes), Adolphe Menjou (Professor Eduardo de Vinci), Louise Fazenda (Mrs. Flaggenheim), William Gargan (Cliff Stanley), George Barbier (Music Critic Hayward).
by Jay S. Steinberg