Monday, September 1, 2008

UP IN THE AIR

The daunting definition of what constitutes a "real man" is the core of UP IN THE AIR (1929) by Geoffrey F. Morgan and Don Wilson (and a cover illustration by Donn Crane, as usual). Morgan's work has been discussed in here before, but Wilson is someone whose name, like Estelle Clark, is almost stapled to the hip of the format. He started his career as a composer and, based on what I've found in just the catalogue listings, got a lot of work out there. As the decades passed, he was working as less a composer and more an editor and arranger, providing those skills for, for example, a stage version of BABES IN TOYLAND (1945), but as is the case with so many that worked in this field, there's scant little information about him outside his published work.

UP IN THE AIR (a phrase that must have carried a second layer of meaning -- see its use in THE PENNANT) is Wilson hitting his stride as a composer, and it's interesting seeing him in tandem with the man who brought us plot-heavy shows like BELLE OF BAGHDAD and ROSE OF THE DANUBE. UP IN THE AIR also gives us the first glimpse of the more "theatrical" operetta, something more akin to musical comedy than opera. True to the times, the plot is almost mind-numbingly simple, but it responds to its simplicity with an energetic fervor.

At the centre of this is the Harold Post and the love of his life, Betty Burbank. Harold is a bashful, "sensitive" young man who thinks more than he acts -- which causes Betty's father, a successful businessman, no end of consternation. George Burbank believes his daughter's fiancé should be all brawn and derring-do... and not much else.

Sigh -- what's a poor boy to do to show his potential father-in-law that he's just as capable of being a man as the next guy? Well, opportunity comes knocking when his friend Joe Bennett, an aviator with intentions of being a stunt pilot in the movies, is given the chance to show off his flying skills -- and Joe, being a good friend, tells Harold *he* should come along on the flight and prove his manhood by making a parachute jump. Having never made a jump like this, Post naturally agrees (well, no one ever said operetta heroes were especially bright, right?), then, when reason starts to kick in, starts having second thoughts. He tries to wiggle out of the jump by using various alibis that will prevent him from actually going up while at the same time giving him points for at least saying, "Well, I wanted to do it, but..." Naturally, all of these collapse, and Harold finds himself getting in deeper and deeper until, finally, he has no choice, and up he goes.

But this is High School Operetta, so rather than the more probable and certainly more realistic ending that brings his broken, half-dead body centre stage for a final scene with his beloved... Harold actually succeeds. George, now satisfied, gives his blessing to the couple. All ends with happy singing and dancing.

Okay, like you expected anything else, right? C'mon, you know how these things are supposed to work.

At the same time, UP IN THE AIR, like BELLE OF BAGHDAD and ROSE OF THE DANUBE, is a surprisingly charming little show, with some cute lyrics and music that's fun in an early Gershwin kind of way. For example, Betty's entrance number, which extolls the joy of playing tennis:

To play a game of tennis
You must hold the racket tight
Then toss a ball into the air
And swing with all your might
If you should miss the first
Then you can serve a second ball
But if you miss hem both, of course
The score will be "love all"

Love all, love all,
Why not let the matter stand that way?
Love all, love all,
That's exactly how I feel today

For life is just a tennis game
So watch what you're about
And some may score "advantage in"
And some "advantage out"
But to keep the honors even
Will be best, without a doubt
And there'll be the "deuce" to pay!

... all sung to a fast little allegro. Or George's vaguely martial, vaguely homo-erotic take on the "perfect son-in-law":

Just give me a man who's six feet tall
With shoulders broad and square
With a tramping heel
And a grip like steel
And a will to do and dare!
If his brain will think both fast and slow
If his "Yes" means yes and his "no" means no
If he stands foursquare in the winds that blow
That's the kind of man for me!

You can almost hear the 4/4 tempe, cant you.

As for lessons in parachuting, well, hey, who needs those? As George's best friend, a movie producer, informs us: "There's no real danger in parachute jumping. It's more a test of nerves than anything else. To make this more exciting, I'll offer a thousand dollars to any novice who'll go up with (Joe) and make one." See? Nothing could be simpler, for, as Joe the best-friend aviator tells poor Harold:

If the wing should start to crumple
Or the gas should start to flare
You'll have to seek for safety
In the wide and open air

Count ten! and pull the ring
And then begin to sing!
Never fret and never worry
For there isnt any hurry
There's a mile of open air
Beneath your wing!

You can count upon a parachute to save you
Slow and easy is the downward swing
When you're dropping like a bullet
Grab the ring and quickly pull it
Count ten! and pull the ring
Count ten! and pull the ring!

Now, fully informed of how to work his parachute and having packed his emergency tap shoes, Harold's ready. Sorta.

Taken at face value, UP IN THE AIR is great fun, with wonderfully pompous characters and musical numbers that allow for more than just "stand centre stage and sing". As I said earlier, it's molded in the style of early Gershwin or Dorothy Fields, with a couple of ensemble moments that, like any big-time show of the era, completely break the story just for the sake of a production number, like "Weather", a nonsensical paean to... well, weather, enhanced by the dancing chorus appearing in various costumes for the seasons of the year. Or, for a completely out-of-left-field scene, the cast become passengers on a sight-seeing bus (!). There's a novelty ensemble number about Mexico (supposedly one of the songs in the producer's new film) and still another "I Remember It Well"-styled solo about the Good Old Days. The script bounces merrily from one scene to the next; even the obligatory black-face number verges on the theatrically self-mocking. In this light, even though it's not in the script, it's almost irresistable to imagine a scene for Harold in mid-jump, which could be staged relatively simply and provide an even more theatrical moment for a show that has more than its share.

However, there's another, somewhat darker side to this facile little piece, one that says a lot about who we were as men and women in the early part of the century. Betty, for example, makes it clear that she has no intention of following her father's wishes and concerns about any man she may choose as a future husband: she is her own person, the emerging New Woman, still giddy from getting the vote. By contrast, Harold is quieter, more introspective, more willing at moments of crisis to defer to those clearly his superior. He may plot and scheme to find ways to avoid the jump, but he never quite seems to find the actual courage to say "No" to anyone -- not his future wife, not his future father-in-law, not even his closest friend. Even though he found the shaky courage to literally put his life on the line for the girl he loves, one wonders about the pay-off... and what kind of standard it set for the future relationship between these two.

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