David Manners plays Ted Taylor, an aspiring musician in a struggling band in the pitch of the Depression. Times are tough, gigs are hard to find and they rarely pay well, and the group is ready to break up.
The band scores a spot at a New York nightclub. The lead singer is so excited by the opportunity he goes out, gets drunk, and is then too hungover to perform! How's that for squandering good fortune?
This thrusts Ted into frontman duties. Ted's got passable talent but he's not a singer by the standards of the day--that is, he doesn't have the pipes to belt it out loud. The nightclub's clientele start griping that they can't hear him, until a helpful drunk hands him a megaphone (not the bullhorn device you might associate with that word today, but an old-timey one). Insulted, but figuring the gig couldn't likely get any worse, Ted jokingly starts singing through the cardboard cone, which turns his voice into a syrupy babe-magnet. Overnight the nightclub's profits skyrocket.
Ted turns into a sensation--but it's a sour ride for everyone near him. He gets the idea that he is a Great Artist, rather than just a modestly talented guy with a clever gimmick. The cardboard amplifier is in principle not so different from Auto-Tune--a technological intervention that turns an otherwise unremarkable person into a star. And maybe deep inside Ted's soul, where his greatest insecurities gnaw away at him, that realization that he is nothing more than a lucky fool is too terrible a thing to accept. He overcompensates, as self-doubters are wont to do, and becomes a monster.
His sense of pretension and entitlement swell his head to gargantuan proportions. He pushes away his friends, insults his supporters, and burns bridges at every opportunity. He spends money like water, adopts a phony British accent (did Madonna take notes?), performs wildly self-indulgent material, and sets himself up for an Amy Winehouse-style flame out.
Now, just to be clear about this--my comparisons to modern-day pop stars are more than me just trying to make this 1932 relic seem "current." Let me tell you a little about the peculiar moment of American pop culture in question. Just as the advent of cameras changed the relationship between actors and audiences, allowing performers to engage more intimately with a close-up, the advent of microphones radically changed the relationship between singers and their fans. Nightclub singers used to have to bellow with enough vocal force to project to the back of the dance floor. But with a microphone, a singer could dial that energy back and still be heard. Songs could be gentler, the soft inflection of a soothing male voice could now be appreciated--at least by the ladies. The joke was that men hated these crooners, but women melted in romantic bliss.
We can even be specific about this: we're talking about such singers as Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallée, whose sweet honeyed voices caused women across America to swoon. A generation later, their children would go into frenzies over the Beatles and Elvis Presley. The difference is minimal. Even the response of the public moralists was comparable--Boston's notorious crusader Cardinal O'Connell condemned crooners as a threat to the nation's moral safety; their appeal was too obviously rooted in raw lust. Between the Bible-thumpers and the frustrated men, the very word "crooner" became an epithet.
There's an irony here--compared to the next generation of rockers (Elvis, the Beatles), crooner music would become the "safe" alternative, a staple of Lawrence Welk and his style of non-confrontational entertainment. But to appreciate Crooner, it helps to remember the context, to realize that by 1932 standards, this was licentious stuff.
Indeed the film is steeped in a kind of ribald freedom that filmmakers of the Pre-Code era could enjoy, but which would be shortly stamped out (by the same moralists who found this style of music to be threatening). For example, in an early scene there's a fun throwaway gag in which a shapely woman is seen stretching; the camera lingers on her rear end for a while before she turns around and reveals herself to be an older and much less sexy woman than her figure implied. (Yes, it's a bit of a cruel joke.)
There's an even racier gag later, when Ted's fame is ascendant. The camera roams across the nightclub floor, lingering on the faces of enraptured young ladies and resentful young men. . . and then finds a table with an enraptured and obviously gay man sitting with a resentful lesbian.
Crooner was the first film in which David Manners received top billing. Manners was a handsome but rather milquetoasty star of the 1930's best known for his work in Gothic horrors like Dracula (1931) and The Black Cat (1934). Unlike the character he plays in this film, Manners was never seduced by fame. No sooner was he settling into a leading-man niche in Hollywood, than he decided to quit the picture business and start over as a novelist. He occasionally returned to acting in the years that followed, on television and on the stage, but never again sought the spotlight. As Ted's long-suffering love interest Judy, Ann Dvorak was similarly in the middle of a career transition that would take her out of the public view, but unlike Manners', hers was unintentional. After years of struggling in the background as a chorus girl on the MGM lot, she was cast in a breakthrough role next to Paul Muni in Howard Hughes' 1932 classic Scarface. Warner Brothers executives were so impressed they borrowed her contract from Hughes to star her in various Pre-Code delights like Crooner. This was, at long last, the break she had been working for. So when she chose to get married and depart for a year-long honeymoon, Warners naturally felt like their investment in her had been disrespected. She returned to a hostile studio that was more interested in suing her than promoting her films.
Another key figure in the making of Crooner whose life was in flux was director Lloyd Bacon, still hovering halfway between one life as a minor actor and a new one as a gifted filmmaker.
Bacon was a former slapstick comedy actor, playing supporting roles beside Charlie Chaplin in many of his best-remembered shorts. As the silent era started to end, he moved behind the camera to begin directing, a career path that would take him through more than a hundred pictures before his death in 1955. His defining work would be 42nd Street (1933), a lush Busby Berkeley musical made a year after Crooner. His CV is stuffed with mostly crime thrillers, but he never lost his sense of comic timing or sensitivity to the mechanics of film language. One doesn't work next to Chaplin all those years and not walk away changed.
Throughout Crooner, Bacon's attention to details is consistent. For a film about a musician, it is a remarkably visual piece of work: the handheld megaphone is a clever visual metaphor for the technological intermediation needed to transform his unimpressive voice into a hit-making instrument. The simple thing to do would have been to have him sing at a microphone--which is, after all, how the real crooners did it. The megaphone is a memorable touch, though, that catches in the mind.
At the same time, for a film made at such a transitional moment of talkie cinema, it is remarkably well recorded. Pay close attention to the introduction of Ted's band in the very beginning of the movie--each instrument is given its own emphasis, an aural equivalent of a close-up, while remaining part of a harmonious whole. Bear in mind that at this point in Hollywood history, it was still necessary to record such music live on the set--no after-the-fact technical jiggery-pokery was yet possible. The subtle musical swells used to bring each instrument to the foreground aurally as it takes similarly center stage on screen must have taken the crew hours to prepare. It is a small scene in a now mostly forgotten movie, but it may be one of the best moments of sound design in all of early Hollywood.
Crooner is full of such unheralded accomplishments--I won't spoil all of the fun surprises for you, partly because the list would be too long.
Producer: Lucien Hubbard
Director: Lloyd Bacon
Screenplay: Charles Kenyon (screenplay); Rian James (story)
Cinematography: Robert Kurrle
Art Direction: Robert M. Haas
Music: Ray Heindorf (uncredited)
Film Editing: Howard Bretherton
Cast: David Manners (Ted 'Teddy' Taylor), Ann Dvorak (Judith 'Judy' Mason), Ken Murray (Peter Sturgis), J. Carroll Naish (Nick Meyer), Guy Kibbee (Mike the Drunk with Megaphone), Claire Dodd (Mrs. Constance Brown), Allen Vincent (Ralph - Band Member), Edward J. Nugent (Henry - Band Member), William Janney (Pat - Band Member), Teddy Joyce (Mack - Band Member).
by David Kalat
Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg, Hollywood in the Forties.
John Norris, www.davidmanners.com.
Michael Pitts and Frank Hoffman, The Rise of the Crooners.
Christina Rice, www.anndvorak.com.