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It was only fitting that Harry Warren, whose songs had provided Busby Berkeley with his first great dance numbers in Forty-Second Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 (both 1933), should provide the music for the choreographer's last musical at Warner Bros., Garden of the Moon (1938). And even if the film lacked the earlier pictures' elaborate staging and failed to produce any hits, it did feature a tune that would become a "Looney Tunes" standby, "The Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish."
The plot, taken from a 1937 Saturday Evening Post story, focused on unscrupulous manager Pat O'Brien, who runs the Garden of the Moon nightclub. When Rudy Vallee and his band have to cancel what had promised to be a lucrative engagement, he settles for a two-week fill-in with John Payne and his musical unknowns. At first the two clash over O'Brien's management style, seemingly inspired by the career of Attila the Hun, and the affections of his pretty secretary (Margaret Lindsay). When Payne becomes a star on radio, however, O'Brien uses every trick in the book to keep his suddenly profitable band together. The film's chief gimmick was featuring references to almost every U.S. entertainment columnist and an appearance by Hollywood Reporter writer Jimmy Fidler, whose film reviews awarded pictures bells for quality; he received a resounding one gong from one critic, who suggested that a real actor might have done a better job.
Although he gave Warners' permission to use his name in the film, Vallee never actually appeared. He had, however, just starred for the studio in Gold Diggers in Paris (1938), so the plot point may have been intended to give him a little extra publicity. Sadly, the radio star never hit the jackpot in movies until he came back in the '60s as a character comedian in films like How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967) and as Lord Phogg on Batman.
Failed publicity for a failed film star may have been a warning sign of the film's flimsiness. Before the picture could even get into production, it suffered a setback when the original leading lady, Bette Davis, decided she'd rather go on suspension. After landing one of her best roles ever, as the temperamental Southern belle in Jezebel (1938), the studio had offered her two lesser films in a row, Comet Over Broadway, in which she would have played an actress who gives up her career to care for her jailbird husband, and Garden of the Moon. The former was never made. It's altogether possible, however, that Jack Warner was simply trying to goad her into going on suspension so he could get away with not paying her until the studio had a more suitable picture ready.
Davis wasn't the only actor bailing on Garden of the Moon. Dick Powell had originally been slated to play the bandleader, but decided to follow in the dramatic diva's footsteps, leaving the role to newcomer John Payne. Working his way up the Hollywood ladder with films like this (and his debut in the much more acclaimed Dodsworth-1936), Payne was on the road to stardom, but Warners' moved too slowly to capitalize on his looks and talent. Instead, he signed a long-term contract with 20th Century-Fox, where he would serve as a reliable leading man to musical stars like Alice Faye and Betty Grable while also distinguishing himself in such classics as Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and film noirs (Kansas City Confidential , The Boss ).
Even without his trademarked musical extravaganzas, Berkeley showed on Garden of the Moon that he fit well with the studio's fast-paced style. He also got some strong comic support from Johnnie "Scat" Davis, who had just introduced "Hooray for Hollywood" in Hollywood Hotel (1937), and Jerry Colonna, who would soon become a regular comic sidekick for Bob Hope on the comedian's radio show and some of his films. Berkeley would do even better with his next film, the straight crime drama They Made Me a Criminal (1939), starring John Garfield. During production, however, Jack Warner tried to get him to pass on a scheduled pay raise. Berkeley left the studio and moved to MGM, where he would direct such rising musical stars as Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in a string of profitable musicals. Warren would leave Warners', too, moving to Fox, where he would win an Oscar® for the song "You'll Never Know," written for the Payne-Faye film Hello Frisco, Hello (1943).
Producer: Louis F. Edelman
Director: Busby Berkeley
Screenplay: Jerry Wald, Richard Macaulay
Based on a story by H. Bedford-Jones and Barton Browne
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Art Direction: Robert M. Haas
Music: Leo F. Forbstein
Cast: Pat O'Brien (John Quinn), Margaret Lindsay (Toni Blake), John Payne (Don Vincente), Johnnie "Scat" Davis (Slappy Harris), Melville Cooper (Maurice), Isabel Jeans (Mrs. Lornay), Penny Singleton (Miss Calder), Curt Bois (Maharajah of Sind), Jimmie Fidler (Himself), Jerry Colonna (Musician).
by Frank Miller