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The Big Broadcast of 1936

The Big Broadcast of 1936(1935)

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The Big Broadcast of 1936 (1935)

Contemporary audiences associate series and sequels with modern-day Hollywood, but studios during the Golden Age also produced series based on popular trends and established formulas. The difference is that the studios of the 1930s and 1940s averaged 50 films per year so that repetitive series did not stand out. Also, series films were not considered A-budget, top-level releases as today's franchises are.

During the 1930s, Paramount Pictures produced the Big Broadcast series, which was centered around the radio industry and featured signature performances by popular radio stars. The original Big Broadcast was released in 1932, and it was followed by three other entries in the series, including The Big Broadcast of 1936 (1935). The formulaic plots began with the station in financial trouble, followed by events designed to lift the station back on its feet. Many of these events consist of performances by a variety of radio and film stars. The films concluded with a glorious vaudeville-style finale to celebrate the station's solvency. Initially, the Hollywood industry may have felt competition from radio, because it gave audiences entertainment for free. However, the studios quickly learned to use radio to support and promote their films and stars, creating a synergy that benefitted both mediums. The Big Broadcast musicals were financially successful for Paramount.

The Big Broadcast of 1936 stars Jack Oakie as Spud Miller, owner of second-rate, financially strapped station W.H.Y. He broadcasts love sonnets and sings ballads as Lochinvar, the Great Lover, though the singing is actually done by his sidekick, Smiley, played by Henry Wadsworth. Two plot threads are used to weave together the performances by the musical guest stars. Spud pursues Countess Ysobel de Naigila, a ditzy socialite played by Lyda Roberti. The Countess takes Spud and Smiley to the private island of plantation owner Gordoni, who is jealous of her attentions to Spud. In the meantime, Spud is in possession of a machine called the Radio Eye, an invention developed by George Burns and Gracie Allen, who play themselves. The Radio Eye is an exaggerated television set, which, according to George, can receive "anything anytime . . . whether the events are broadcast or not." The invention with its bizarre reception capabilities provides an excuse in the plot to introduce performers as diverse as the Vienna Boys Choir and Ethel Merman, but its similarities to television suggest that TV was becoming part of the cultural consciousness. In 1929, Vladimir Zworkin had used a kinescope tube to demonstrate the first practical electronic system for the transmission and reception of images; the first television studio opened that same year; and, in 1933, a radio station in Iowa began broadcasting two television programs twice a week. The time was ripe to reference and even lampoon this new broadcast medium. Burns and Allen appeared in three of the four Big Broadcast films, including the original in 1932. In The Big Broadcast of 1936, they costarred as characters who figured into the storyline, though they also performed their own original material. Burns and Allen had developed their act and show-business personas in vaudeville, becoming successful in 1925-1926 on the Orpheum Circuit. Their act was a version of a Dumb Dora routine, which was a male-female act in which the woman appeared to be ditzy or dimwitted. The male, who was the straight man, engaged the woman in conversation, asking her questions and soliciting her opinion. As the routine continued, it became clear that the female was not always as dumb as she seemed. She merely had a unique perspective, responded to the situation in a different way, or misunderstood the question because she took it literally. This vexed the straight man, and his frustrations are part of the humor. Typically, the Dumb Dora archetype was a chorus girl, usually dressed in a sexy, flamboyant costume. Gracie Allen varied the archetype by eliminating the sexy angle and playing her as a sweet, tastefully dressed woman. Her character, Gracie, in The Big Broadcast of 1936 is arguably more dimwitted than usual, but the film showcases Allen's persona, particularly the way her actions and perspective are usually validated. In one scene, George and Gracie are adrift at sea in a rowboat. While George is pre-occupied, Gracie sets the oars on fire in order to burn up some knitting she does not want. George rants and raves when he discovers what she has done and why, but the fire results in their rescue because it attracts the attention of the coast guard, and the two are saved.

Another team of entertainers who received screen time as characters were the Nicholas Brothers. Fayard Nicholas was only 20 and his brother Harold 14 when they costarred as Dot and Dash, assistants to Spud Miller at W.H.Y. Harold croons a ballad and scats during a jazz number, while Fayard plays multiple instruments. They also tap dance in their trademark fast-paced style that includes a variety of stunts and acrobatics. Their dance number provides one of the film's most interesting sequences. As the camera moves in on Harold's feet, the scene cuts to a different pair of feet following the same steps. The feet belong to Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, who is sitting in a barber's chair. He gets up and dances down the street in his light-footed, upright style, which differs from the acrobatics and lightning pace of the Nicholas Brothers. Robinson was credited with bringing tap up on its toes compared to the earlier flat-footed, shuffling style of early vaudeville and minstrel shows. At the end of Robinson's number, the scene cuts back to Harold's feet, suggesting the influence of one generation of dancers on another and the evolution of tap. On a side note, the Singing Sisters who appear in Robinson's number are the Dandridge Sisters, consisting of Dorothy and Vivian Dandridge and Etta Jones.

Most performers were shown via the Radio Eye, appearing in one scene that showcased their act. Movie stars Charles Ruggles and Mary Boland perform in a comedy skit about the frustrations of married life. This unlikely romantic team would star in 14 films all together as husband and wife, and in 1935, they were riding a wave of popularity after their hit comedy Ruggles of Red Gap was released in February of that year. Comic actor Benny Baker shared a skit with Gracie Allen about a cooking program gone awry, while band leader Ina Ray Hutton leads her all-girl band, the Melodears, in a high-energy number that shows off Hutton's unique way with an orchestra baton. According to some Internet sources, Ethel Merman's number, "It's the Animal in Me," had been shot for another film but never used. However, the gimmick of the Radio Eye made it easy to insert her performance into The Big Broadcast of 1936. The plot device of the Radio Eye combined with the assured direction of studio stalwart Norman Taurog accounts for the smooth integration of the diverse performances into the storyline. Only a serious sequence with dramatic actor Sir Guy Standing involving sick children is out of place because the melodramatic tone clashes with the exaggerated comedy and surreal antics of the rest of the film.

Producer: Benjamin Glazer for Paramount Pictures
Director: Norman Taurog
Screenplay: Walter DeLeon, Francis Martin, Ralph Spence with continuity by Jack Mintz
Cinematography: Leo Tover
Editor: Ellsworth Hoagland
Art Director: Hans Dreier and Robert Usher
Music and Lyrics: Ralph Rainger, Richard Whiting, Leo Robin, Dorothy Parker, Mack Gordon, Harry Revel, and Ray Noble
Special Effects: Gordon Jennings and Farciot Edouart
Cast: Spud Miller (Jack Oakie), George (George Burns), Gracie (Gracie Allen), Smiley (Henry Wadsworth), Countess Ysobel de Naigila (Lyda Roberti), Sue (Wendy Barrie), Gordoni (C. Henry Gordon), Fayard Nicholas (Dot), Harold Nicholas (Dash), Wilbur Sealingsworth (Charles Ruggles), Mrs. Sealingsworth (Mary Boland), Doctor (Sir Guy Standing), Little Girl in Hospital (Virginia Weidler), Brother (David Holt), Nurse (Gail Patrick), Freeman F. Gosden and Charles J. Correll (Amos and Andy), Boris (Akim Tamiroff), Captain (Samuel S. Hinds) and Bing Crosby, Ethel Merman, Bill Robinson, Ina Ray Hutton and Her Melodears, and Ray Noble and His Orchestra
1935 Black and White 97 mins.

By Susan Doll

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