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Ginger Rogers scored her first leading role in a major film in the breezy 1934 musical Twenty Million Sweethearts. The slender tale of two radio singers, Buddy Clayton (Dick Powell) and Peggy Cornell (Rogers), whose romance sends their managers, particularly Buddy's fast-talking agent (Pat O'Brien), into a tailspin, provided Powell with more musical numbers, but Rogers proved that she didn't need to rely on her trademark wisecracking to hold the audience's attention.
Thanks to her scene-stealing turn as Fred Astaire's dance partner in Flying Down to Rio (1933), Rogers was already on the fast track to stardom. With her co-star already committed to perform the Cole Porter musical The Gay Divorce in London and New York, the studio kept her busy before putting the two in the co-starring vehicle audiences and exhibitors were demanding. And, as was customary in the studio era, with no major productions at RKO demanding her participation, they were happy to loan her services to Warner Bros. for Twenty Million Sweethearts. After all, her supporting performances in Warner's 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 (both 1933), had helped bring her to the attention of RKO management.
The loan-out was hardly a problem for Rogers, who knew that screen exposure in a variety of films was the ticket to stardom. In addition, the film provided a reunion with Powell, whose talent and good looks had impressed her when he played banjo as part of the orchestra for a singing engagement she had in Indianapolis. At the time, she had thought his good looks and youthful charm were a natural for the movies and was happy to find her prediction come true when Powell quickly hit the big time as the star of several lavish Busby Berkeley musicals at Warners.
The vehicle that brought them together was the first story credited to writer Jerry Wald, who would go on to produce such classics as Mildred Pierce (1945) and From Here to Eternity (1953). Like many other studios, Warner Bros. dealt with competition from radio by making films about the medium that both poked fun at it and even borrowed some of its stars. The jokes in Twenty Million Sweethearts were aimed at nervous executives and sponsors who fear that a real-life romance between Rogers and Powell will alienate listeners who view them as surrogate sweethearts. The talent included The Mills Brothers, Ted Fio Rito and his band, female singers The Debutantes and a trio of impressionists billed as The Three Radio Rogues. The latter's repertoire included spoofs of Bing Crosby, Rudy Vallee, Amos 'n' Andy and, though the group's members were all male, Kate Smith.
Though Powell and Rogers did much of the singing, they really weren't expected to carry the plot. That honor went to Pat O'Brien, the fast talking Irish-American actor best known for his films with friend James Cagney. On his own, he could easily carry a picture, impressing critics and audiences with his comic antics as he sets out to turn singing waiter Powell into a radio star, then tries to squelch his romance with Rogers, and finally brings the two back together when his conscience conveniently takes over in time for the film's third act.
The songs came from Harry Warren and Al Dubin, the team who had brought the studio its first big musical success, 42nd Street. For Twenty Million Sweethearts, they gave Powell a hit with "I'll String Along with You," which he sang with Rogers, while giving Rogers her one big number in the film, "Out for No Good," a comic love song anticipating the sprightly songs she would introduce in her later musicals with Astaire.
Twenty Million Sweethearts opened to solid reviews, though some writers complained that the film didn't feature any of Berkeley's intricately choreographed dance numbers, which had become the standard for Warner Bros. musicals at the time. Although the lion's share of the notices went to O'Brien and Powell, Variety clearly had noticed Rogers' earlier films, writing "Miss Rogers is away from comedy on this stint and appears more pleasantly placed as a straight ingnue. A versatile young lady, she looks exceptionally well and plays pleasantly." It would take only four more films for the first Astaire-Rogers vehicle, The Gay Divorcee (1934), to prove that she could be more than just decorative and amusing on screen. Fifteen years later, Twenty Million Sweethearts would prove a solid vehicle for another rising blonde songstress, Doris Day, when she starred in the 1949 remake, My Dream Is Yours.
Producer: Samuel Bischoff
Director: Ray Enright
Screenplay: Warren Duff, Harry Sauber
Based on the story "Hot Air" by Paul Finder Moss, Jerry Wald
Cinematography: Sid Hickox
Art Direction: Esdras Hartley
Music: Leo F. Forbstein
Cast: Pat O'Brien (Rush Blake), Dick Powell (Buddy Clayton), Ginger Rogers (Peggy Cornell), The Four Mills Bros. (Themselves), Allen Jenkins (Pete), Grant Mitchell (Sharpe), Joseph Cawthorne (Mr. Brokman), Henry O'Neill (Lemuel Tappan), Milton Kibbee (Announcer), Leo Forbstein (Brusiloff), George Chandler (Johnny Klinger), Charles Lane, Dennis O'Keefe (Reporters).
BW-90m. Closed Captioning.
by Frank Miller