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Sunnyside Up

Sunnyside Up(1929)

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teaser Sunnyside Up (1929)

Released in 1929, Sunnyside Up reflects that fleeting moment in Hollywood history when the studios were trying to cope with the difficulties of sync-sound technology and deal with the resultant changes in acting styles, genres, and staging. At the same time, stars Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell were hoping to make the transition from silent to sound movies, and this musical comedy proved a successful step in their careers.

Gaynor stars as vivacious Molly Carr, who lives above a grocery store in a tenement on New York's Lower East Side. Molly and her roommate, Bea, work as shop girls and are happy to be an integral part of their close-knit neighborhood. When Jack Cromwell, played by Farrell, has a car accident in front of her building, Molly recognizes him as part of New York's blueblood society. Jack confesses his romantic problems to Molly as she treats his injuries, and she suggests that he try to win back his wayward girlfriend, Jane, by making her jealous.

The girls invite Jack to the local block party, where Bea and her friend Eddie perform a duet, and Molly sings "Sunnyside Up," influencing her friends and neighbors to smile and look on the bright side of life. Jack decides to take Molly's advice to make his girlfriend jealous. He invites the happy-go-lucky girl and her friends to Southampton so Molly can pretend to be a socialite interested in Jack, while Bea, Eddie, and Eric the grocer live it up as her servants.

At the charity carnival in Southampton, Molly succeeds in making Jane jealous, though Jack's mother gets the wrong idea and accuses Molly of having an illicit affair with her son. Insulted at his mother's accusations and heartbroken because she has fallen in love with Jack, Molly returns to her tenement apartment. Jack spends a sleepless night thinking about Jane and Molly before realizing that the spunky girl from the Lower East Side is his one true love.

Sunnyside Up was scripted by the songwriting team of Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson, who also wrote the tunes. From 1925 to 1931, the trio thrived as the premiere composers of American pop songs for Tin Pan Alley and Broadway revues, and their buoyant, optimistic tunes captured the spirit of the Jazz Age. Though the three officially shared credit for the lyrics and music, DeSylva and Brown penned the words while Henderson was responsible for the music. Brown and DeSylva were adept at coining catchphrases in their lyrics, which Henderson wedded to peppy rhythms. Much of Sunnyside Up is like a 1920s musical revue with hambone comedy and catchy, optimistic tunes, which was the essence of DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson's music and style. DeSylva also served as the uncredited producer of the film.

However, by 1929 the Jazz Age was over, and the vaudeville-style songs and dances in Sunnyside Up seem stagey and old-fashioned even for the era. Most of the musical numbers are performed on two stage settings -- the show that is the high point of the block party and the variety program at the charity carnival in Southampton. The performances are photographed onstage in long takes as though viewers are watching a musical revue from the front rows of a theater. The effect eviscerates many of the performances. Even Jane's rendition of "You Find the Time" for Jack's 4th of July bash at the Cromwell summer home was captured in a medium-long shot in front of the piano as though she were singing to an audience.

Among DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson's quaint pop tunes are "You've Got Me Pickin' Petals Off of Daisies," sung in a broad, unpolished style by Marjorie White and Frank Richardson, as Molly's pals Bea and Eddie. White and Richardson were both veterans of Jazz Age vaudeville and knew how to mug their way through the song, but the heyday of vaudeville had passed by 1929, taking songs like "You've Got Me Pickin' Petals Off of Daisies" with it. Likewise, little Jackie Cooper's fidgeting onstage while reciting "Under a Spreading Chestnut Tree, a Village Smithy Stands" because he needs to visit a bathroom seems like the course burlesque of old-time vaudeville.

Other vaudeville vets in the cast included comedian El Brendel as grocer Eric Svenson. Brendel had constructed and perfected a comic characterization of the simple Swedish immigrant who mangled the English language, and he was asked to reprise a version of that character for Sunnyside Up. Though his verbal jokes are corny, he is featured in a funny physical gag at the Cromwell Southampton summer house. Svenson extinguishes his cigarette on the posterior side of a nude statue, seemingly unaware of its artistic value. When he notices the smoky smudge, he tries to remove it by rubbing his hand over the statue's nude backside--a bit of pre-Production Code humor.

As Molly, Janet Gaynor gamely sings the now-classic title tune with pep and verve before launching into a faux soft-shoe that reveals not only her untrained, natural voice but her minimal dancing skills. Gaynor also sings "I'm a Dreamer (Aren't We All)" and duets with Charles Farrell on "If I had a Talking Picture of You," with both songs featured as refrains later in the film. Neither Gaynor nor Farrell had ever sung professionally and, surprisingly, neither received any special musical training for their number before shooting began. Perhaps DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson felt that their songs were the real stars of their musical and anyone could put them over, but both Gaynor and Farrell were not strong vocalists, despite their personal charm.

It didn't take long for movie audiences to tire of the corny song lyrics, vaudeville-style staging, and unpolished vocal stylings found in early movie musicals such as Sunnyside Up. Within a few months of the film's release, the musical genre became box-office poison. Studios abandoned the musical comedy until Busby Berkeley and Warner Bros. revamped it in 1933 by presenting polished production numbers in a variety of shots and with motivated camerawork--techniques uniquely cinematic. DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson went their separate ways as songwriters in 1931, but the film launched DeSylva as a prominent studio producer during the Golden Age.

One performance in Sunnyside Up did prefigure the type of large-scale production number found in later movie musicals. The number begins with Jane, played by Sharon Lynn, singing "Turn Up the Heat" dressed as an Eskimo, with three dozen women dancing behind her on a stage filled with igloos. As the girls sing and dance suggestively, the igloos begin to "melt." The harder the dancers gyrate, the more clothing they shed, and the faster the igloos melt until they have completely disappeared. The girls' writhing and gyrations compel palm trees to sprout up from the floor of the stage while bunches of bananas inflate in one of the number's many provocative moments. At the end, the girls dive into a pool, and water sprays up in a fountain effect. The large scale, camera angles, and editing are akin to the filmmaking techniques used to depict the production numbers in the Warner Bros. musicals just four years later. Originally, "Turn Up the Heat" was shot in a color-tinting process dubbed "Multicolor," adding a sense of spectacle to the production, but reportedly no prints exist today with that effect.

Like other films from the era, Sunnyside Up exhibits several of the weaknesses and peculiarities of early talkies. Actors draw out the enunciation of their words so the sound equipment could pick up their dialogue clearly, and some actors cling to the gestures and movements that characterized outdated silent-film acting. Also, DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson were more adept at writing song lyrics and jokes than romantic dialogue, and some of the lines are either mannered or clichd. However, director David Butler and cinematographer Ernest Palmer did not fall prey to the static look of many films from this period. Sunnyside Up opens with an extensive crane and tracking shot that glides through Molly's Lower East Side neighborhood to introduce the setting and the characters. Nearly four minutes in length, the shot begins with a gang of boys playing in the street, and then tracks forward to a policeman serving as catcher for a game of street ball. The camera pans over to a window where a little boy is getting his first haircut, tilts up to catch an old man reading a scandal magazine, pans over to find a woman washing her hair on her balcony, and continues on to linger on a family giving a baby a bath. Craning back down to street level, the camera captures a group of girls singing "Farmer in the Dell," pans to the other side of the street to catch an Italian couple fighting, and then tracks with a young couple in love strolling down the street. The couple walks past a middle-aged mother sitting on a stoop with about a dozen kids clinging to her. A suffragette hands her a leaflet titled "Birth Control Review" to which the mother replies in an Irish accent, "Fine time to be tellin' me." The latter vignette may be a joke, but it still suggests the burden of too many children, an idea that would not be allowed a few years later when the Production Code would mandate that all films uphold the sanctity of motherhood. Finally, the camera pans into the window of the small grocery store owned by Eric Svenson, where it stops on the comical Swede as he tries to keep some rowdy boys from stealing fruit. Everything needed to illustrate the people, the lifestyle, and the working-class virtues of this teeming Lower East Side neighborhood is revealed in the opening virtuoso shot that would not be out of place in a contemporary film.

After Molly and her friends are introduced, the sequence shifts to the Cromwell summer home in Southampton, where a long tracking shot through the mansion reveals Jack's set of wealthy friends and their extravagant lifestyle--a sharp contrast to the Lower East Side of New York. The mobile camera effectively establishes the differences between the two worlds of the main characters. Equally as cinematic is the nifty special effects shot later in the film. When Jack croons to a photo of Molly, the picture suddenly comes to life, and a miniature Molly steps out of the frame -- a figment of Jack's imagination.

Despite the unadored singing style of both Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, Sunnyside Up helped advance their careers from silent to sound films. Gaynor and Farrell had spoken in the partial talkie Lucky Star (1929), but Sunnyside Up was their first all-talking movie. At the time, reviewers and industry leaders were scrutinizing the talking films of silent-era stars, and the two key criteria that made for a successful sync-sound actor were a "natural" performing style and the quality of the voice. Gaynor, the stronger actor of the pair, was singled out by reviewers for her natural acting style in Sunnyside Up and sound actually enhanced Gaynor's star image. In silent films, she was beloved for her waif-like vulnerability, wholesomeness, warmth, and eternal optimism, but spoken dialogue added a sassy sparkle or sweet flirtatiousness to her characters, modernizing them.

Gaynor and Farrell were an unlikely romantic pairing because she was barely five-feet tall, and he was a strapping six feet two inches. Yet, the two had an undeniable chemistry, partly because they were romantically involved off-screen, at least through the production of Sunnyside Up. They generally played a couple experiencing the joys and pangs of romance for the first time, so their joint star image came to epitomize the essence of young love, particularly in romantic dramas. The box office success of Sunnyside Up propelled Gaynor and Farrell in a different direction over the next couple of years because Fox Film Corp. cast them in more musical comedies. In the pair's silent films together, the screenplays had been tailored to exploit the romance and sincerity of their joint star image, but in their musical comedies, they had to conform to the material chosen for them. Farrell suffered the most because in lieu of heroic actions or romantic gestures, his characters broke into song to win the girl, showcasing his weaknesses. Despite their foray into musical comedies, the pair's popularity remained intact, and they returned to other genres. Gaynor and Farrell made a dozen films in all, with their last effort, Change of Heart, released in 1934.

Gaynor must have realized her shortcomings as a musical comedy performer. After appearing with Farrell in the musicals Happy Days (1929) and High Society Blues (1930), she sailed to Hawaii where she remained until Fox agreed to make several changes in her contract. Near the top of her list of demands was that she never be required to star in another musical comedy.

Presented by William Fox for Fox Film Corp.
Producer: Buddy DeSylva (uncredited)
Director: David Butler
Screenplay: Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson, with continuity by David Butler
Cinematography: Ernest Palmer and John Schmitz
Editor: Irene Morra
Art Director: Harry Oliver
Composers: Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson
Music Directors: Howard Jackson and Arthur Kay
Dance Director: Seymour Felix
Cast: Molly Carr (Janet Gaynor), Jack Cromwell (Charles Farrell), Bea Nichols (Marjorie White), Eddie Rafferty (Frank Richardson), Eric Svenson (El Brendel), Jane Worth (Sharon Lynn), Mrs. Cromwell (Mary Forbes), Joe Vitto (Joe E. Brown, as Joe Brown), Raoul (Alan Paull), Tenement Boy (Jackie Cooper).

by Susan Doll

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teaser Sunnyside Up (1929)

A millionaire hires a tenement girl to make his fickle fiance jealous.

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