THE BOOTLEG FILES: “SWING PARADE OF 1946″

When one thinks of the Golden Age of Hollywood Musicals, one usually thinks of the tuneful output from studios such as MGM, 20th Century Fox or Paramount. Monogram Pictures is not generally considered to be a part of that celebrated mix. After all, Monogram was over at the cheaper end of the Tinseltown spectrum, with an output of no-budget goodies that included Bowery Boys comedies, Bela Lugosi horror shlock and threadbare Westerns. Musicals, which required some degree of care and talent to produce, seemed beyond the studio’s reach.

But on at least one occasion, Monogram splurged on a smorgasbord of song and dance. The resulting “Swing Parade of 1946” was barely considered in its day and is virtually forgotten now. Yet it is an intriguing curio which deserves attention – if only for the fascinating collection of talent assembled in its creation.

“Swing Parade of 1946” came about as part of an ambitious postwar program envisioned by Walter Mirisch, who was an assistant to studio president Steve Broidy. Mirisch wanted to oomph up the Monogram offerings by investing more money into the studio’s films and pursuing a higher caliber of product. Musicals were previously not a part of the studio’s line-up, but the Monogram leadership was able to shake its piggy bank and loosen enough change to bring in a higher caliber of star power than the typical Monogram flick carried.

The most famous names in “Swing Parade of 1946,” by contemporary standards (this wasn’t the case in its day), belong to Moe, Larry and Curly. The Three Stooges were the stars of a popular two-reel comedy series, but they were not feature film stars. In fact, their home studio (Columbia Pictures) repeatedly balked at their suggestion of starring in their own feature. The trio, however, showed up in isolated guest appearances in several Columbia features (most notably in the final scene of “My Sister Eileen,” when they play sandhogs who tunnel their way into Rosalind Russell’s apartment). Columbia loaned the Stooges to Monogram, which was a double insult to the team: Monogram was considerably lower class than Columbia and the comics were being used solely as supporting comedy relief.

For 1946, the bigger stars in this little film were a pair of very popular recording artists: Louis Jordan and Connee Boswell. Louis Jordan was the ebullient singer/bandleader who enjoyed a long series of comic-tinged hit songs, including “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” and “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens.” Jordan was one of the relatively few R&B stars to enjoy crossover popularity in the segregated 1940s, but he was not able to cross the race barrier to enjoy stardom in Hollywood films (he did star in all-black independent “race films”). “Swing Parade of 1946” was among his very rare Hollywood appearances, and in his guest star role Jordan performed his lively “Don’t Worry About the Mule” and the song which many consider to be his all-time best: “Caldonia.”

Connee Boswell was a recording star for many years prior to the production of “Swing Parade of 1946,” first as a member of the Boswell Sisters trio act and then as a solo performer. No less a figure than Ella Fitzgerald cited her as a major music influence. Unknown to many people, Boswell was disabled: she contracted polio as a child and used a wheelchair all of her life. Her film work was relegated to guest appearances and she performed her numbers from a seated position (the force and artistry of her voice inevitably overpowered her lack of mobility).

Ironically, the stars of “Swing Parade of 1946” were the least famous and accomplished performers in the cast. Gale Storm (nee Josephine Owaissa Cottle) was a pretty starlet/singer who appeared in too many B-Movies (including “Cosmo Jones, Crime Smasher” and “Revenge of the Zombies”) without making much impact with the public. Phil Regan was a former NYPD detective who traded in his badge for a mildly successful career as a singer (billed as “the singing cop,” of course). He starred in a several B-grade programmers (including the semi-autobiographical “She Married a Cop”), but his primary fame came via radio appearances.

The plot of “Swing Parade of 1946” is a weak joke unto itself: Regan plays a nightclub owner who earns the wrath of his moneybags father by turning his back on the family business to pursue the brash world of cabaret management. Storm is an aspiring singer who is initially mistaken for being a process server and is thrown out of the nightclub during an audition. Through contrived circumstances, she gets work as a process server for Regan’s father and returns to the club, but manages to audition and land the star slot. The Three Stooges are waiters who break as many dishes as they serve. Louis Jordan performs his aforementioned tunes, Connee Boswell does a torrid version of “Stormy Weather,” Mary Treen and the Will Osborne Orchestra (who?) perform “A Tender Word Will Mend it All” and “Just a Little Affection,” and Storm sings “Oh, Brother” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” And all of this is wrapped up in a too-tight 74 minutes!

While the film is rich with great music, it is so blatantly low-rent that one cannot help but feel “Swing Parade of 1946” is trying to be something it is not. It is a film that thinks it is an extravaganza, but in reality it is a B-Movie with a few A-list singers. It is not bad, but it is not special. And anyone expecting the Three Stooges to steal the show with their knockabout will wait in vain: the trio rarely had such weak material.

Billed as “Your Pleasure Treasure for 1946 and All-Time!”, the film came and went with barely a hint of enthusiasm from the audience. Monogram Pictures shied away from producing more musicals, and the film is primarily recalled today by Three Stooges completists and no one else. The film appears to have fallen into the pubic domain and duped copies in varying degrees of quality can be found via collector-to-collector video services and PD labels; it is also available for online viewing at MovieFlix.com.

“Swing Parade of 1946” did nothing to advance the careers of anyone involved in its production. Gale Storm would eventually hit A-list stardom in the 1950s via her roles on the TV series “My Little Margie” and “The Gale Storm Show,” and she would parlay that small screen success into a successful recording and nightclub career. Phil Regan retired from show business in the early 1950s and went into public relations. He headed a Democratic Party group supporting Republican Ronald Reagan’s 1966 campaign for California governor. In 1973, he was sentenced to a year in jail stemming from bribery charges in a shady real estate transaction. Connee Boswell and Louis Jordan’s popularity waned as musical tastes changed. Curly Howard suffered a career-ending stroke after “Swing Parade of 1946” was shot and Shemp Howard replaced his ailing brother as a member of the Three Stooges. Walter Mirisch, the front office aide who convinced the studio to think big, would later team up with his brothers to produce some of the most celebrated films of all time, including the classic film musicals “West Side Story” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”

But the biggest surprise to come out of “Swing Parade of 1946” was its director, Phil Karlson. After churning out several forgettable B-Movies, Karlson abruptly hit gold as the director of the 1952 “Kansas City Confidential” and the 1955 “The Phenix City Story.” Karlson found himself elevated to A-list productions including “Hell to Eternity,” Elvis Presley’s “Kid Galahad,” and a pair of capers in Dean Martin’s Matt Helm series: “The Silencers” and “The Wrecking Crew.” Karlson ended his career slipping back into the B-Movies, albeit by helming two classics of the genre: the boy-loves-rat hit “Ben” and the ass-whupping revenge thriller “Walking Tall.”

Indeed, the story behind “Swing Parade of 1946” is infinitely more interesting than the film itself. Maybe the film should be jettisoned and the backstory should be released instead?

BRIEFLY NOTED: This column is the 100th in The Bootleg Files series. I would like to thank the Film Threat family and readership for their support and enthusiasm for this column. This has been the most entertaining and invigorating assignment in my journalism career, and I hope the next 100 columns will be met with the same level of audience approval!

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on October 21, 2005 in Features by
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