Take a leading lady and a leading man who can't really sing or dance, and put them in a lavishly-budgeted musical -- one of the first ever produced. A recipe for disaster, right? Wrong. Sunnyside Up (1929), which we had the good fortune to see in a restored print at MoMA this past weekend, completely charmed us, creaks (in the dialogue) and squeaks (in Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell's voices) and all.
The plot couldn't be more hackneyed: Gaynor plays a tenement girl who daydreams of society scion Farrell after seeing his picture in the paper. Farrell is handsome, rich, and more than a little naive in the ways of women. After his high society fiancee snubs him in favor of flirting with every pair of pants that comes her way at their Fourth of July party, he drives off from Southampton in a huff. Somehow, he winds up in Gaynor's neighborhood, has a car accident, is cared for by Gaynor and her pals, and sticks around to watch them perform at their July 4th block party celebration. Killing two birds with one stone, as he puts it, Farrell invites the gang back to Southampton, with the idea of making the talented Gaynor the star attraction of his mother's charity show, while also having her masquerade as a wealthy heiress (with her friends posing as her butler, maid and chauffeur) to make his fiancee jealous. Mayhem, misunderstandings, and marriage ensue.
From stars to supporting players to bit parts, every single character is a complete stereotype of the period: you have everyone from haughty, lorgnette-peering society matrons to wisecracking bottle blondes. What makes this film still entertaining today is the remarkable direction of David Butler; despite some lengthy (by today's standards) shots filmed without any dialogue -- a holdover from silents? -- Butler keeps things moving at a brisk pace, in spite of the 121 minute running time, and some of the camera work is still eye-popping. The opening sequence, with long crane shots of various vignettes of tenement life, is absolutely breathtaking.
The other reason for the film's success rests in the charm and appeal of its stars. Gaynor and Farrell were already America's sweethearts when they made this, their first sound picture; all in all, they made over a dozen films together, with Gaynor picking up an Oscar for two of them, Seventh Heaven (1927) and Street Angel (1928), at a time when Oscars were awarded for multiple roles. Their warm rapport and youthful chemistry seemed utterly natural; they were never romantically involved, but it's easy to understand why the public was convinced that Gaynor and Farrell were actually a couple. Later, Farrell would remark, "Janet Gaynor and I were always receiving wedding-anniversary presents in the mail, care of the studio. The fans didn't even know what date our anniversary fell on, which is logical, since we were never married."
As sweet and spunky Molly Carr, Janet Gaynor is remarkably fresh and appealing, and in spite of an oddly baby-pitched tone to her voice at times (which would be corrected within a few years), she somehow never comes off as saccharine or cloying. She has some wonderful moments in the film, running the gamut from physical comedy to tender love scenes to tear stained drama; a climactic moment where she breaks down during her appearance at the charity show still packs a punch. As has been noted before, Gaynor couldn't really sing, but her winsome charm makes up for a few wobbly notes. The big hit from the film was "I'm a Dreamer (Aren't We All)," and to drive the point home, Gaynor sings it not once, not twice, but three times -- albeit each from a different emotional perspective. Her best musical moment, however, is Molly's energetic performance of the title tune, in which Gaynor's enthusiasm more than compensates for a lack of singing and dancing finesse.
Charles Farrell often gets the short end of the stick when this film is considered; we've read reviews which either brush him off completely, or contend that he not only couldn't sing (he really couldn't), but that his acting wasn't up to snuff, either. There we take exception. As written, the character of Jack Cromwell is, to be kind, a complete idiot. He's under his mother's thumb, oblivious to the fact that his fiancee is a snotty tramp who makes love to other suitors right in front of him, and blind to the sweet Molly's obvious adoration for him. Farrell's also saddled with some of the most deathless dialogue ever written (Jack's one word reaction to being told that he'll never see Molly again: "Gee!"). So the fact that Farrell makes Cromwell's naivete not only believable but appealing takes bucket loads of talent and charisma.
It doesn't hurt that Farrell looks absolutely splendid in this picture, cutting a dashing figure in his immaculate summer suits. His slightly nasal, Boston accent strikes some as odd; we found it endearing. His big vocal showcase is the other enduring standard from the film, "If I Had a Talking Picture"; sure, Farrell sounds a little tinny, but it somehow suits the era, and his boyish, slightly goofy character.
The real revelations, however, are the ex-vaudevillian firecrackers who comprise the supporting cast. El Brendel, nicknamed "The Synthetic Swede" because of the accent he used for comic effect (the comedian actually born in Philadelphia), plays Eric, the Swedish grocer in the tenement who has a fatherly affection for Molly. Brendel doesn't have much to do with the musical numbers, but he has some nifty physical comedy bits, and is the often-frazzled voice of reason of the group.
Marjorie White and Frank Richardson play Molly's best friend, Bea, and Bea's hammy songwriter boyfriend, Eddie; and, boy, are they a joy to watch! Richardson, in particular, is a complete madman, yet because of Richardson's warmth, and the character's unwavering loyalty to Molly and Bea, he never is annoying. White is the prototype of every wisecracking, Noo Yawk best friend to follow, from Una Merkel to Joan Blondell. She also gets off the best line in the film; in one of the plot's many contrivances, Jack proposes to Molly, only to have her reject him because of her pride. Finding her best friend collapsed in tears, Bea comforts her and asks what the matter is; Molly woefully responds that Jack had asked her to marry him. Eyes opening wide, Bea recoils and shoots back incredulously, "Then what the hell ya cryin' for?!" White's startled, completely honest delivery (not to mention the surprising use of the word "hell") cuts through all of the corn and artifice like a knife.
Pert, pretty, and with an appealing overbite, Marjorie White could easily have become as popular as her contemporaries, Merkel and Blondell, if not for the auto accident which tragically cut her life short in 1935; besides Sunnyside Up, she also made a splash in the cult, sci-fi musical Just Imagine (1930), also for Fox. A natural scene-stealer, White commands every scene in Sunnyside Up that she appears in; over at MGM, she made the most of her screen time in the Crawford-Gable vehicle, Possessed (1931), with a haunting performance as a sympathetic chippie which manages to divert attention from even the formidable Joan.
Frank Richardson, billed as "The Joy Boy of Song," had had a long and fruitful career in vaudeville, performing since the age of six. Oddly, his film career sputtered after his strong debut in Sunnyside Up; perhaps because, by 1931, the oversaturation of musicals had caused a public backlash against the fad, and by the time they enjoyed renewed popularity within a few years, Richardson's vaudevillian-style bravado was considered old fashioned. Richardson returned to stage work in the 1930's, and eventually retired from performing, living out his years in his hometown of Philadelphia. In Sunnyside Up, he and White are the perfect early talkies musical couple, each one spurring the other on to crazier heights.
The film's most infamous production number, "Turn On the Heat," doesn't even feature any of the stars. It does feature a few dozen chorus girls (led off by Sharon Lynn, as the nasty fiancee) morphing from Eskimos to native girls, with a jaw-dropping set which transforms a frozen tundra into a tropical paradise, complete with the most tumescent bananas ever seen on film until Busby Berkeley's The Gang's All Here (1943). At MoMA on Saturday, this little ditty brought down the house with spontaneous applause -- a rarity from the staid, film historian audience.
All in all, Sunnyside Up remains a surprisingly delightful film watching experience. On a sweet note, the two elegant, elderly ladies seated in front of us had informed us, before the film began, that Sunnyside Up was the very first movie they had seen as little girls, over 80 years before. They hadn't seen it since. As we watched the film, we also watched them -- bobbing their well-coiffed heads to the musical numbers, laughing delightedly at the (many) comic zingers delivered by the cast. It was film history running before our very eyes, both on and off the screen. It was thrilling. We must mention that the print MoMA ran was nearly pristine, and part of their ongoing film restoration project; the YouTube clips we reposted here are a fraction of the quality, but hopefully, most of the film's charm still shines through. We also ask your indulgence when we share with you our other major observation from the screening: Charles Farrell had the most beautiful hands in Hollywood. See for yourself.