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Old Man Rhythm

Old Man Rhythm

One of the last of the great Tin Pan Alley songwriters, Savannah native Johnny Mercer began his career as a performer, with minor roles on Broadway in the late 1920s. He wrote his first hit song, "Lazybones," composing lyrics to music by Hoagy Carmichael. After two years as vocalist, emcee and songwriter for Paul Whiteman's radio show, Mercer was offered a contract to write and perform in movies by RKO producer Zion Myers. What Mercer didn't realize until he arrived in Hollywood was that Myers was strictly a producer of B-movies.

Old Man Rhythm (1935), Mercer's film debut, was a run-of-the-mill college musical. The film's gimmick is that a successful businessman (George Barbier) enrolls in college so he can keep an eye on his son (Buddy Rogers), a student who's in the clutches of a gold digger. Soon, Pop becomes a Big Man on Campus, but meanwhile he's neglecting his business.

For a B-college musical, Old Man Rhythm has some A-talent. Stellar character actors Eric Blore, Erik Rhodes and Donald Meek play supporting roles with their usual droll expertise, and future star Betty Grable shines in one of her early bits as a dancing coed, thanks to choreography by Astaire favorite Hermes Pan. Lucille Ball can be spotted in a non-speaking part as a college girl. Playing a colonel, Mercer proved that he had little onscreen charisma, and after acting in one more film, To Beat the Band (1935), it was clear that Mercer's talent lay in songwriting. He never appeared in another film. Mercer's songs for Old Man Rhythm, with music by Lewis Gensler, never became standards, but they're fresh and lively and fun.

One place where Old Man Rhythm was a hit was in Mercer's home town. The theater marquee in Savannah read "Old Man Rhythm – starring Johnny Mercer." Audiences applauded when Mercer sang his number, his father reported proudly. Despite Mercer's lackluster film debut, other RKO producers sought him out to perform or write songs for their films. But ever the Southern gentleman, he stuck by the producer who had hired him.

Mercer had hoped to write songs for the Astaire-Rogers musicals, but by the time he arrived at RKO, those musicals were so successful that only the top-tier songwriters were writing for the team. But while Mercer was recording songs for To Beat the Band, Astaire came into the studio and asked Mercer to write some lyrics for a song he'd written. The song was "I'm Building Up to an Awful Letdown," and Astaire had a hit record with it. By the time Mercer's two-picture contract at RKO was over, he was in demand all over town. He wrote songs for movies from the 1930s through the 1960s, for radio, for seven Broadway shows, and for some of the best singers in the world. He was one of the founders of Capitol Records, and won two Academy Awards. He never became a movie star, but after his inauspicious beginning as a performer, Johnny Mercer found his calling in Hollywood as one of the masters of the great American songbook.

Director: Edward Ludwig
Producer: Zion Myers
Screenplay: Sig Herzig, Ernest Pagano, H.W. Hanemann, based on a story by Lewis Gensler, Sig Herzig and Don Hartman
Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Editor: George Crone
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase, Perry Ferguson
Choreography: Hermes Pan, Sam White
Music: Lewis Gensler
Cast: Charles "Buddy" Rogers (Johnny Roberts), George Barbier (John Roberts, Sr.), Barbara Kent (Edith Warren), Grace Bradley (Marion Beecher), Betty Grable (Sylvia), Eric Blore (Phillips), Erik Rhodes (Frank Rochet), John Arledge (Pinky Parker), Johnny Mercer (Colonel), Donald Meek (Paul Parker).

by Margarita Landazuri



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