MR. DODD TAKES THE AIR (Warner Brothers, 1937), directed by Alfred E. Green, under the production of Mervyn LeRoy, marks another contribution to the studio's own cycle of movie musicals from the 1930s. With Dick Powell as its star attraction since 42nd STREET (1933), this latest installment brings forth another personality to the screen, a radio singer by the name of Kenny Baker. Though not his very first motion picture, Baker's initial leading role carries his assignment in the Powell tradition but with a different style of singing. Taken from the Clarence Budington-Kelland story that incorporated an earlier Warners production, CROONER (1932) starring David Manners and Ann Dvorak, this edition offers nothing new or relatively different in regards to "rise to fame" story or its inspired title taken from director Frank Capra's MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN (Columbia, 1936) that brought forth another Capra classic, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (Columbia, 1939). While Mr. Dodd is not equivalent nor memorable to either Mr. Deeds (Gary Cooper) or Mr. Smith (James Stewart), they're all similar by means of being country boys learning valuable lessons from the outside world while accompanied by compassionate, strong-willed city girl to guide him.
The basic plot revolves around Claude Dodd (Kenny Baker), a naive 23-year-old electrician who takes part in the annual Pewano Strawberry Festival talent show with "Sniffer" Sears (Frank McHugh) as master of ceremonies. Claude's baritone singing becomes an audience pleaser, especially for Hiram P. Doremus (Ferris Taylor - in a Guy Kibbee influenced performance), who agrees to sponsor Dodd with arrangements for his radio audition at the Metropolitan Broadcasting Building in New York City. Later, a bronchial cold causes Claude to lose his voice. Coming to Doctor George Quinn (Harry Davenport) for treatment, he finds himself subjected to a slight throat operation for which he's not to speak for 48 hours. After arriving in New York, Claude, accompanied by "Sniffer" now acting as his agent, comes for the audition. Introduced as a baritone, Claude goes on the air singing tenor instead. With his newfound popularity, Mr. Dodd encounters three women in his life: Marjorie Day (Jane Wyman), secretary to general manager, Mr. Gateway (Henry O'Neill); Joyce Stafford (Gertrude Michael), a gold-digging socialite out to patent Claude's radio invention for her conniving boyfriend, John Lidden (John Eldredge); and Madame Sonia Mono (Alice Brady), a temperamental middle-aged opera singer with two ex-husbands wanting Mr. Dodd for herself.
With music and lyrics by Harry Warren and Al Dubin, songs, sung by Kenny Baker unless otherwise indicated, include: "If I Were a Pond Lily," "Here Comes the Sand Man," "Here Comes the Sand Man" (reprise); "Am I in Love?" Operatic song (aria dubbed for Alice Brady); "Remember Me?" "The Girl You Used to Be," "Here Comes the Sand Man," and "Am I in Love?" While "The Girl You Used to Be" gets a slight stage production number treatment with Baker singing to his audience while standing the foreground of a microphone in the middle of lines with musical notes, only the now forgotten "Remember Me?" comes off as the film's best, good enough for an Academy Award nomination and voice-over singing during the opening credits to the Warners comedy NEVER SAY GOODBYE (1946) starring Errol Flynn and Eleanor Parker.
While Baker's performance lead the way for his appearing in Samuel Goldwyn's lavish scale Technicolor musical, THE GOLDWYN FOLLIES (1938); THE MIKADO (1939) and supporting the Marx Brothers in AT THE CIRCUS (MGM, 1939), he never did achieve the on-screen popularity as singing idols Dick Powell or Bing Crosby. However, MR. DODD TAKES THE AIR did become a stepping stone for Jane Wyman, billed fifth in the cast, in her first major film role. Her Academy Award winning performance for JOHNNY BELINDA (1948) was still only a decade away. Alice Brady, appearing 51 minutes into the story, acceptable playing high strung socialites, seems a little out of place playing an opera singer, while Gertrude Michael, a much forgotten name from classic cinema, cast as the possessive other woman, is no different from those she enacted at her home-base studio of Paramount's I'M NO ANGEL (1933) and/or MURDER AT THE VANITIES (1934). Considering her vamping sequence with Baker, it makes one wish the studio had placed either Glenda Farrell or Ann Sheridan over Michael for some assurance of what might have turned out to be a comedy highlight.
In spite of the film's promising start, the cast tries hard rising above 87 minutes of weak scripted material. Virtually forgotten, MR. DODD TAKES THE AIR turns up occasionally on cable TV's Turner Classic Movies. (**1/2)
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