Cast & Crew
Just after "Snap" Collins is released from reform school, he and his pals, Mike Conroy and Steve, smell gas in an apartment in their New York City neighborhood and find Frank Eastman slumped over a kitchen table. After pulling Eastman into the fresh air, the boys find a note addressed to his daughter Patsy. When Patsy arrives, the boys try to cover for the obvious suicide attempt, but she knows what has happened and soon gets the note, which indicates that her father did it to leave her with his life insurance money. The next day, Patsy thanks the boys and reveals that her father is despondent because a wonderful score he wrote and offered to Broadway showman Arthur Cartwright was stolen by Cartwright, who is now producing it. Steve likes one of the tunes that Patsy plays on her harmonica and agrees to help her. The boys then go to the theater in which the show is being rehearsed, and Steve's impromptu dancing so impresses Cartwright that he is offered a job. In the office, Steve tells Cartwright about Eastman's score, but Cartwright pretends to know nothing about it. When his press agent secretly reminds him that Eastman could cause trouble because the score really is his, Cartwright offers Steve a $1,000 check, then calls the district attorney and has the boys arrested. On their way to the police station, taxicab racketeer Pete Detroit is put into the paddy wagon with them, claiming that he, too, has been framed. Soon some of Pete's henchmen ram the paddywagon, and they all escape in one of Pete's taxis. Safely in one of his garages, Pete gives each of the boys $100 and the advice to "get lost." Back in their neighborhood, a friend tells the boys that their pictures are in the paper, so the boys sneak into the basement of a building that had been deserted by some recently arrested Nazi Bund members. After "Eight Ball," the janitor, agrees to let them stay, they go to the Eastman apartment and learn that he also has been charged with extortion, and that Patsy is being taken to a children's home. By creating a diversion, the boys are able to sneak Patsy away to their hideout, where she reluctantly reveals that her father wrote the music in prison and has been on parole. Convinced that if people could hear her father's score before the Broadway show opens, they would recognize his genius, the boys hit on a plan to put on their own show, using neighborhood talent. When Patsy, disguised in blackface, goes with Eight Ball to visit Eastman in prison and get the score, she learns that he has no written copies. The show seems lost until Steve hits upon the idea of utilizing the talents of Mozart Cooper, a little boy who is an accomplished musicologist with perfect pitch. As Patsy plays the score on her harmonica, Mozart transposes it. Meanwhile, Pete, who is the guardian for Murray Saunders, a budding opera singer, learns that the false murder charge against him has been dropped but he is now charged, along with Eastman, with extortion. When he finds the boys's hideout, he confronts them, but they talk him into waiting until after the show opens to turn them in to the police; Pete agrees, on the condition that Murray star in the show. Because Cartwright's opening is now earlier than planned, actually on the same day as theirs, Nick sends some of his henchmen to stop the show. After stealing costumes and the bald lead's wigs, Pete instructs his cab drivers to pick up the departing audience and take them to the kids's show. The anxious audience at first must be subdued by Pete's men, but after the first two numbers, they love the show. When the police, alerted by hundreds of calls about kidnapping, raid the show, the audience denies being kidnapped and wants the performance to go on. Eastman then arrives, after having been bailed out of jail by Pete, and conducts the orchestra for the show's elaborate finale.
Charles R. Thomas
J. D. Jewkes
Robert J. Kern
Franz G. Spencer
Franz G. Spencer
Edwin B. Willis
Born to Sing
McPhail's version, however, a stalwart blend of showmanship and sincerity, is interesting because of its wartime context: It isn't flashy in the way Berkeley's earlier choreography had been--a la the Gold Diggers pictures, or 42nd Street (1933) and Footlight Parade (1933). There's something somber about it: At one point, a spotlight hits a group of African Americans singing a snippet of the spiritual "Let My People Go." Lines of everyday citizens--performers dressed as nurses, repairmen, policemen and teachers--snake around McPhail as he sings the song of the everyman, an exhortation for Americans to stay strong during tough times. The performance is all the more poignant when you consider that Born to Sing was McPhail's last movie. The singer and actor, despondent over his stalled-out career, committed suicide in 1944.
That finale, complex and strangely moving, is a bit out of step with the rest of Born to Sing, an agreeable-enough picture in which Virginia Weidler plays the daughter of a composer (Henry O'Neill) whose songs have been stolen by a crooked Broadway producer (Lester Matthews). Weidler teams up with a bunch of local kids--played by Ray McDonald, Leo Gorcey and Larry Nunn--to mount a show, anchored by her father's songs, before the duplicitous Broadway honcho can get his show ready. A local gangster (Sheldon Leonard) helps out, "kidnaping" an audience for the young performers, and also lending them the young opera singer (McPhail) he's been grooming for stardom.
The plot is loopy, but the picture--directed by Edward Ludwig, a journeyman director who got his start making shorts in the '20s--has a cheerful vibe along the lines of the Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland "Let's put on a show!" vehicles of its era. Weidler was by that point a show-business veteran: the daughter of an architect and an opera singer, she was, at age three, supposed to have made her screen debut in the 1930 Moby Dick with John Barrymore. She was replaced at the last minute, but she would appear in a movie opposite Barrymore a few years later, The Great Man Votes (1939). Reportedly, her confident acting style threatened to upstage Barrymore's more seasoned approach. At one point he bellowed at her, "Who the hell do you think you're acting with, you silly little brute?" It's likely he was only half teasing, though the two got along famously after that.
Weidler made a few films for Paramount in the 1930s, but it was only after she signed with MGM that her career took off: Just two years before Born to Sing, she played what is probably her most memorable role, that of Katharine Hepburn's precocious little sister, Dinah, in The Philadelphia Story (1940), in which she performed a saucy version of "Lydia the Tattooed Lady." After Born to Sing, Weidler went on to make four more films, after which she abandoned Hollywood for the stage. By the 1950s, though, she would leave acting altogether for marriage and children. She died in 1968, at age 41.
Weidler could be a charmer, but she was too much for some critics' tastes. The New York Times reviewer wrote of Born to Sing, "Another reminder that child actors are the world's No. 1 problem children arrived yesterday at the Criterion. For 'Born to Sing' is a painful kindergarten caper which serves a useful purpose, no doubt, in breaking the assorted infants to klieg lights and camera, but otherwise results in an exercise which only their mothers can love." That critic, who went by the initials T.S., did have some nice things to say about the "Ballad for Americans" finale, noting that Berkeley "might well be proud" of it. As Jeffrey Spivak notes in his study Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley, this particular production number was "easily the most jingoistic of [Berkeley's] output." Spivak also notes, "The number (like his stacked finales at Warner Brothers) is self-contained and non-referential to the film it inhabits." "Ballad for Americans" may not quite fit in with the rest of Born to Sing. But it's nevertheless a reminder that in 1942, no one knew how the war would be resolved. America needed a boost--why not do it with a song?
The New York Times
Jeffrey Spivak, The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley, University Press of Kentucky, 2010
Producer: Frederick Stephani
Director: Edward Ludwig
Screenplay: Franz Schulz, Harry Clork; story by Franz Schulz
Cinematography: Sidney Wagner
Music: Lennie Hayton, David Snell; "Ballad for Americans" by John La Touche and Earl Robinson
Film Editing: Robert Kern
Cast: Virginia Weidler (Patsy Eastman), Ray McDonald (Steve), Leo Gorcey ("Snap" Collins), Douglas McPhail (Murray Saunders), Rags Ragland ("Grunt"), Sheldon Leonard (Pete Detroit)
[black-and-white, 82 minutes]
By Stephanie Zacharek
Born to Sing
A working title for the film was Ballad for Americans, which was also the title of the song by John Latouche that provided the lyrics for the musical number of the same name. The song was initially called "The Ballad of Uncle Sam" and was first presented in the Federal Theatre production of Sing for Your Supper, which opened at the Adelphi Theatre in New York on April 24, 1939. It was also presented on radio on the CBS series Pursuit of Happiness, on November 5, 1939, with Paul Robeson singing the lead. According to Hollywood Reporter news items, Tom Stevenson, The Four Polka Dots, May McAvoy, Broderick O'Farrell and Cleo Ridgley were to be in the cast, but their appearance in the released film has not been confirmed. Pierre Watkin, Jack Norton, Etta McDaniel and Hillary Brook were also cast, but they were not in the released film.
A Hollywood Reporter news item on October 7, 1941 referred to a new series about American youth that was being produced by Frederick Stephani, directed by Edward Ludwig and starring Leo Gorcey. The film was supposed to be a follow-up to the studio's 1941 picture Down in San Diego, which was produced by Stephani and featured Gorcey. Although Gorcey's character, "'Snap' Collins" was the same in both pictures, the films are otherwise unrelated and no series was produced.
The Hollywood Reporter review of the film referred to it as a "junior Babes on Broadway...[having] the youthful spirit of the entertainment's same...'we kids must produce a show or else.'" Other reviews pointed to its similarities to the Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland musicals that were popular at the time.