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In 1934, two of Warner Brothers/First National's brightest stars, Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler, embarked on a departure from the glitzy Busby Berkeley musicals that had made them famous. Bidding farewell to the Great White Way settings of 42nd Street (1933) and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), Powell and Keeler tested their on-screen chemistry at West Point, by way of the Hawaiian islands, in Frank Borzage's Flirtation Walk.
Powell stars as Dick Dorcy, a wiseacre army private stationed in Hawaii, who one day violates protocol by spending a moonlit night with Kit Fitts (Keeler), a general's daughter. Later insulted by Kit's smug fiancé, Lieutenant Robert Biddle (John Eldredge), Dick decides to one-up his rival by applying to West Point to become "an officer and a gentleman." There, his path again crosses with Kit's, and instead of toeing the "long gray line," he chooses to walk arm-in-arm with her down Flirtation Walk, a legendary wooded promenade for the love-stricken cadet. When the threat of scandal again intrudes upon the would-be lovers, Dick must choose between abandoning his military career or possibly spoiling the reputation of his beloved Kit.
Although the setting was far from Broadway, the producers of Flirtation Walk couldn't resist adding a few dashes of musical spectacle to the military romance, often in unconventional forms. In one scene, Dick and Kit stumble upon an epic luau in which dozens of Hawaiians harmonize and sway beneath the lovers' moon. In a more peculiar twist on the Busby Berkeley aesthetic, several lengthy scenes are devoted to the West Point cadets marching in formation as they pass in review, their tightly choreographed marches backed by a military band instead of a jazzy orchestra.
The thought of putting Powell and Keeler together in a film and not letting them sing was, of course, unthinkable. A subplot was therefore introduced in which Dick, aptly nicknamed "Canary," stages a variety show prior to the cadets' graduation. It is there that the stars finally share a duet and the distinctive peppy, brassy sound of the Warner Bros. orchestra (under the direction of Leo F. Forbstein) is at last unleashed. While Flirtation Walk continues to charm, almost 70 years later, Dick's musical farce within the film has not aged quite as gracefully, based on the "absurd" premise that a woman is promoted to general and put in charge of the Academy. Keeler's playful performance as the silk-uniformed general makes the mini-musical charming all the same, even without exercising her talents as a dancer.
Of the songs written by Allie Wrubel and Mort Dixon, the climactic "Mr. and Mrs. Is the Name" is the standout number, capturing some of the zest of the best 1930s Warner musicals. The studio was later confronted by a songwriter named Irving Gielow, who demanded $550,000 from the producer, claiming two of his songs had been plagiarized in the film. However, studio mogul Jack Warner took pleasure in squaring off with the overly litigious Mr. Gielow who was soon sent on his way, empty-handed.
To add some weight to the breezy Powell/Keeler romance, the cast was expanded to include the personification of Depression-era happy-go-lucky manliness: Pat O'Brien. As Dick's stern but protective sergeant, O'Brien (The Front Page (1931), Ceiling Zero, 1935) provides the necessary element of rough-and-tumble camaraderie that lent the film some military authenticity, while securing the interest of the typically musical-phobic male audience. Yet even O'Brien seems charmed by the effervescent romance between Dick and Kit, and the gruff character actor sheds a few tears in the film's final reel -- a stunning departure for the shouting, punching, tough-talking O'Brien.
One of the standout supporting actors is the young comedian Ross Alexander, who portrays Dick's West Point sidekick "Oskie". Regrettably, Alexander never clicked with moviegoers and was soon banished to third-rate pictures, before committing suicide in 1937 at age 30.
The deft blend of comedy, music and drama in Flirtation Walk earned the film an Academy Award nomination, though Frank Capra's It Happened One Night claimed the prized statuette. Encouraged by the success of the film, Powell, Keeler and Ross Alexander re-teamed with director Borzage the following year to make another military-themed romance, Shipmates Forever (1935). Borzage is best known for a series of dreamy romances made at Fox Studios near the end of the silent era. Although he continued working until 1959, creating such sound era classics as A Farewell to Arms (1932) and History Is Made at Night (1937), few of his later works captured the ethereal sensuality of such silent movies as Seventh Heaven (1927), Street Angel (1928) or Lucky Star (1929), all starring Janet Gaynor.
In 1950, Flirtation Walk was remade, with a host of alterations, as The West Point Story. Coincidentally, the star of this updated version was James Cagney, another Warner Bros. star who had appeared alongside Powell and Keeler in their 1933 hit Footlight Parade.
Producer/Director: Frank Borzage
Screenplay: Delmer Daves
Based on a story by Lou Edelman and Delmer Daves
Cinematography: Sol Polito and George Barnes
Production Design: Jack Okey
Songs by Allie Wrubel and Mort Dixon
Musical Director: Leo F. Forbstein
Choreography: Bobby Connolly
Cast: Dick Powell (Dick Dorcy), Ruby Keeler (Kit Fitts), Pat O'Brien (Sgt. "Scrapper" Thornhill), Ross Alexander ("Oskie"), John Eldredge (Lt. Robert Biddle), Henry O'Neill (Gen. Jack Fitts).
By Felicia Feaster