During Hollywood's golden era, several of the major studios tried to offer a splashy musical comedy that went through annual editions. MGM had 'Broadway Melody of (insert year)'. Paramount had 'The Big Broadcast of (insert year)'. Warners had 'Gold Diggers of (insert year)'. Typically, the date in the title was the year AFTER the film was released, so that the movie could remain in distribution for an entire year and still seem up-to-date.
'Merry-Go-Round of 1938' looks and sounds suspiciously like Universal Studios' attempt to get in on this franchise ... except that there was no sequel for 1939 nor any subsequent year.
The most notable thing about this movie is its two top-billed actors. Bert Lahr plays a rare starring role here, as a vaudevillain clearly based on himself. Second-billed is Jimmy Savo, a wistful little comedian (subclass Norman Wisdom) who was briefly a star on Broadway but made very few films. This is probably Savo's best screen performance, yet the director seems to be deliberately cheating him. Savo had a pleasant singing voice: here, when he warbles a lullaby to an orphaned baby, his face is turned away from the camera to create the (false) impression that Savo's singing voice is dubbed. In a later sequence, Savo does a spirited eccentric dance ... but the camera is so far away from him that the effect is diluted.
Get this plot, now. Lahr, Savo, Mischa Auer and Billy House are the Grand Street Comedy Four, a vaude act who (in 1918) play the same bill as aerialist Dainty Doris. Conveniently, Doris has just fallen off her trapeze: she survives just long enough to make the four comedians promise to raise her baby daughter Sally.
A few years later, the Comedy Four have got themselves booked in the Palace ... but, before they can play the date, their big break is lost when little Sally gives them all the mumps.
Fade to 1938, and some half-hearted attempts to make the four lead actors look older with makeup. 20-year-old Sally is now a vivacious young vocalist, who has got herself engaged to handsome society scion Tony Townsend. This is one of those annoying films in which there aren't any real problems, so the scriptwriter has got to throw phony obstacles in the characters' paths. Tony and Sally want to get married, but she hasn't the heart to leave her four 'fathers', who are skint and will presumably starve without her. Fair enough, except that wealthy Tony offers to take care of them. Fair enough, except that the Comedy Four have their 'pride' and won't accept 'charity'. Why not consider it as compensation for taking care of an orphan who wasn't their responsibility?
Then we need an obstacle to the romance, so Sally visits Tony unexpectedly and finds some over-sized and unfashionable female clothes that look like they belong to Margaret Dumont ... so, without giving him a chance to explain, she assumes that Tony's seeing another woman and she storms out. Oh, and Tony's aunt Hortense won't approve of the marriage if she finds out that Sally is a (gasp!) entertainer. So what?
Those female clothes are part of the drag act of Billy House, a man of huge girth and microscopic acting talent. For implausible reasons, he masquerades as an aristocratic Englishwoman to call on Aunt Hortense. Their scenes together are excruciating: actress Alice Brady (as Hortense) borrows Billie Burke's twee mannerisms, and she actually comes off here as an even phonier female impersonator than House does. American actor Billy House's phony British accent is half-acceptable, which makes me wonder why he didn't attempt an English accent in the movie 'Bedlam', in which he played a genuine Englishman. After House finishes impersonating an Englishwoman, he utters some of that de-rigueur dialogue about how it 'sure feels good' to get back into male clothing (so we won't get any -- ahem! -- ideas about him). House is the least talented of the four lead actors in this movie, yet he plays the leader of their vaude act.
Mischa Auer is his usual sourpuss self here, but bereft of his moustache and looking handsomer than usual. He spends the final third of the film in Gunga Din drag and body paint as a fake fakir, with Savo as his 'swami-ette'. Oddly, Auer's character has the *genuine* ability to levitate Lahr: a bizarre intrusion of the paranormal into a script which is otherwise all too earthbound.
The high point of this film is when Lahr performs 'The Song of the Woodman'. Lahr had enacted this skit in a Broadway revue; it was one of his most popular set pieces, and this movie happily preserves Lahr's big comedy song on celluloid. Unfortunately, very little else in this movie is worth watching.
I never fault a film for having a low production budget, but I'm always annoyed when film makers who know they're lumbered with a low budget obstinately go ahead with a plot about life among the millionaires ... knowing full well they haven't the dosh to depict it properly. Aunt Hortense and her phony-baloney cronies are meant to be the upper crust, but the depictions of her mansion and other 'wealthy' locales in this movie are laughable.
There are some oddities in the credits. IMDb says that Fay Helm is uncredited for her brief role as the doomed aerialist: in fact, she IS billed. But the credits also list actor Charles Williams as Hollywood producer Dave Clark: that character is mentioned in the dialogue but never seen. Nor does Hattie McDaniel (listed here as a maid) show up, either. I suspect that scenes were written for these characters, but 'Merry-Go-Round of 1938' ran out of money before they were filmed. Maybe it's a good thing there was no 'Merry-Go-Round of 1939'.
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