Tuesday, March 24, 2009

CROCODILE ISLAND

Another movie-musical pastiche, CROCODILE ISLAND (1930) comes from Geoffrey Morgan and Frederick Johnson, the same team that wrote BELLE OF BAGHDAD, and it carries the same wacked-out sensibility as its sibling.

Crocodile Island, which might be in the South Pacific (or might not — and in truth it doesnt matter), is ruled by the cheerful King Bongazoola and his chamberlain Nitwit. Everyone's all happy — except for the evil sorcerer Coco Orinoco, who wants to rule the island himself. He pretty well does anyway, courtesy a supposed "oracle" (which is really just a wooden ventriloquist's dummy) that tells him the wishes of the island's sacred crocodiles. His latest scheme demands that the king and the chamberlain offer themselves as sacrifices and be thrown into the croc pit at sunset.

As you might think, that idea doesnt go over real well, so the king spends a good chunk of subsequent time figuring out how to avoid this rather unpleasant fate. His daughters, Pearl and Petal, are brazen enough to say that they think the sorcerer is full of hot air, but their words are tempered by the royal nurse, Mammy Lu, who doesnt want to upset the "oracle".

Meanwhile, a ship from the States has pulled into port, bearing a party of American tourists. Among them are the hypochondriac gem collector Amos McSnoozer; the near insufferable Miss Abagail and her nephews Thomas and Jefferson, and a black porter, Hopalong Simpson, who makes no secret of the fact that he wields a mean razor.

Pearl and Petal ask Tom and Jeff to help them save the king, and they hit on a plan to have Hopalong replace the king at the last moment, under the assumption that his skill with the razor will help keep him alive. Hopalong overhears this and, since he has no real confidence that the crocodiles prefer white meat, resolves to hide until the danger has passed. Fortunately for him — and unfortunately for Coco — he hides in the shrine that bears the dreaded oracle. When the sorcerer calls on the oracle for one final pronouncement, Hopalong is able to change the course of events by demanding the sacrifice of the sorcerer instead of the king. The sorcerer confesses all, the king gives his daughters to Tom and Jeff, Hopalong gets Mammy Lu, and it all ends happily.

As with BELLE, this is essentially a fun little show, but it has one noteworthy advantage over its companion (as well as several others in this genre) in that the songs, in the main, actually propel the plot. Rather than stopping everything for a musical number, the authors have rewritten some of the dialogue into song lyrics. For example, once the king and chamberlain are told of the sacrifice they're supposed to make, they respond in song:

We have to think of a plan
To baffle the sorcerer man
If he is a winner
The crocodile's dinner
Will never come under the ban

We're certainly far from gay
This isnt a time for play
The quicker we scurry
And hurry and worry
The quicker we'll find a way

Even the mandatory love song has a loopy little charm:

You're just the kind of girl my mother used to be
When mother was a girl like you
She had the same sweet wonderful smile
Changing to laughter once in a while
Now is it any wonder
She should win the praise of all who came to woo
I can only hope I'll have the luck my daddy did
When mother was a girl like you

There's also a couple of small-scale patter songs, a quasi-Mozartian quartet, a paean to vitamins, and a "dramatic" solo in which Coco outlines his plans when he becomes king, as well as a large-scale first act finale that involves just about every major character.

But this is the thing about CROCODILE's score: it's a complex little construction, with leitmotifs just about squandered all over the place. I pity the music director that tackles this one, because just looking at it, you can tell that it's not for the timid of heart. The overture is six pages of heavy allegro work, and the first act finale is twelve pages that are even more demanding. It gives its singers opportunities to demonstrate their acting as well as singing skills, and it requires their best attempts at both.

Like BELLE OF BAGHDAD, CROCODILE ISLAND is a cute little show-off piece that could be mounted today, with a few minor changes. I suspect it was a big seller within the high school operetta canon (My copy is a 1942 reprint), because it is so mindlessly challenging. I'm really starting to like Morgan and Johnson's work, and I'll certainly be on the outlook for more.

The other thing to note here is the cover art, something I've been meaning to discuss for some time now. If you havent noticed by now, some of the covers for these little works were pretty impressive pieces of art. Donn Crane, of course, created some real stunners, but the uncredited artist for the cover of CROCODILE ISLAND did a wonderful job of evoking the sheer ditziness of the play. The characters are portrayed with a gentle yet outlandish humour, and the use of three colour printing is put to its best advantage. When you look back at these images, you have to remember that full-colour printing wasnt as viable as it is today: the artists had to be clever in their use of tint breakdowns as well as skilled in layout and rendering typography (The type for most is hand-drawn, not typeset). As with so many other truisms of the late 20s and 30s, one had to make the most of little, and these covers prove that.

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