Friday, September 26, 2008

SHOOTING STARS

An oddity in the sense that it's both a one-act *and* a full-length show, SHOOTING STARS (1935), by Edward Bradley and Don Wilson, is one of those vaguely agreeable scripts that throws a ringer at you in the last scene.

Set in a department store that's about to celebrate its fifteenth anniversary with a huge sale, it starts not with an overture per se but a pantomime of the janitor prepping the store for opening and then promptly falling asleep, which immediately leads to the mannequins in the display windows stepping down from their perches and singing:

Oh, we are mannequins,
We're mannequins,
When we appear the fun begins
We take this chance to sing and dance before you
We display in glad array
The season's newest styles
Youth and beauty on parade
We're mannequins!

... at which point they return to the window and resume their positions. It's a bouncy, jazzy little number. Now, you're thinking, Hmm, this could be interesting: a slightly surreal opening that sets things up in a way vaguely reminiscent of Evening Primrose.

Okay, so the clerks enter, clock in, take the dustcovers off their display cases, and happily tell the store manager that every bargain sign is in place. She opens the doors, and the consumer hordes rush in:

Oh the horn that says it's morn
Another day is breaking
To hounds, to hounds, the cry resounds
Of merry, merry making

We're hunters too, but we pursue
No hare or fox with view halloo
We're on the trail of every sale
Where prices have been cut in two

... and so it continues, in a relatively complex opening number that goes on for an amazing fifteen pages (Remember: the usual length of a song in one of these things is, at most, six) and ends with the customers wreaking havoc at every sales counter they can find. And as all this is going on in the background, we're given bits and pieces of exposition: things have been disappearing around the store, and a detective has been hired to find out what's going on. The janitor (whose name, by the way, is Hamfat) returns to tell the manager that there's been another theft, this time from the bakery department. The manager berates him for being lazy and forgetful, and his excuse?

Ah puts oil on mah hair an' things slip mah mind.

Well, okay, I guess that explains who *he*s supposed to be, right? But here's where the first of many mysterious things happens in the script:

Interpolate comedy song and dance for HAMFAT for full evening's performance.

The script doesnt say *what* the song should be, just that you do it. But it gives you the flexibility of taking a short one-act operetta and making it a full evening's performance, complete with a couple of places for an intermission and no less than half the score left to the director's choices. This happens maybe eight or nine times in the script, as though the authors wrote half a show and the publisher didnt want to pay them for any more. Maybe. I'm not sure.

Well, the story rolls along: the manager has a paramour who wants her to quit her job and marry him, today, right now, this instant. But she cant because the clerks (who were mobbed with customers, remember) somehow find the time to leave their posts and bring on a cake for the owner (which leads to an especially demented song about the various flavours of cake). Everyone dances off (taking the customers with them, I suppose), leaving the stage clear for the appearance, from a cardboard box, of Wally and Filbert, two vagabonds who have set up house inside the department store and hide in various places (Think "stock 1930s comedy team" here). Customers return, and our two thieves not only sell them various items but steal a few more from them at the same time.

Our detective arrives. Not a professional, no -- it's the boy (Bill) who's in love with the girl (Shirley) who happens to be daughter of the store owner. If he catches the thieves, her father will let them get married (okay, now you think you know the ending, but dont spoil it for the rest of the readers). Within seconds of entering, he comes face-to-face with our little sinside-job burglars. However, he thinks Wally and Filbert are store clerks and orders them behind the counter so they're not blocking the aisles.

... and so it continues, with more mistaken identity and comic relief and even an extended bit of cross-dressing (Bill dresses as a girl because... well, who knows at this point...). There's a parade of marching toys and a big production number featuring dances from Egypt, Holland, and East Europe... but it all moves at a bewilderingly frantic pace, culminating in a hopelessly disorganized scene where Bill's drag starts to slip, the store owner makes a pass at him in front of his girlfriend, and, resisting arrest, Wally and Filbert take out tommy guns and start shooting up the store. Chaos ensues.

-- at which point a man stands up in the audience and says, "Terrible! This movie is positively the worst I've ever directed!" A cameraman comes on from the wings, and suddenly -- ah hah! -- we see that it isnt a store celebrating its anniversary at all, it's a movie about a store celebrating its anniversary. We lurch into the lubrigious finale:

They're always shooting stars
From early morn to night
They spend their days in a movie studio
Making the films you treasure

Yes, it doesnt scan and it doesnt rhyme. It's this... anthem, of sorts, to movie-making, sung as though we were sending these boys and girls off to war. And as Bill (still in drag) and Shirley look happily into each other's dreamy, beamy eyes, the curtain falls.

Well, face it: there were lots of movies cranked off with the same speed and haphazardness in the thirties, and SHOOTING STARS is definitely an homage to them all. Same facile plotting, same frantic pacing, same pointless musical numbers, same stock characters. I'd almost guess that the one act version I have is about the same length of one of those Vitaphone pictures, maybe seventy five minutes, if that. It has all the standard plot lines, all woven up into something not quite like a patchwork quilt (because a patchwork quilt at least has *some* order) but more like a rag rug, where one rag rolls into another in a constantly spiraling pattern that ultimately goes in a great big circle. That was the intent here, I'm sure: the same kind of haphazard script that jumps from one scene to another with no real through line, because none is needed when you look at how it all sorta-kinda ends. Things are just sorta slopped on top of each other - a romantic scene, a comic scene, a romantic number, a big production number, a comic relief scene, and so on and so on.

Oh, and the mannequins? We never see them again after their opening number. That's a pity.

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