Arguably more manic than spry, Tim Whelan’s Step Lively (1944) is a rambunctious – largely successful – screwball comedy with some bright and buoyant Sammy Cahn/Jules Styne tunes thrown in for good measure.
Produced at RKO, the film is based on Allen Boretz/John Murray’s successful stage play, Room Service – miserably attempted as a film with the Marx Bros. in 1938. Gregarious to a fault, a lot of one liners and several lavishly mounted production numbers divert from a rather paper thin plot reconstituted by screenwriters Warren Duff and Peter Milne. Nevertheless, the claptrap clings together with an almost absurd amount of good cheer and great timing.
Gordon Miller (George Murphy) is a would be Broadway producer who’s two parts conman to one part Florenz Ziegfeld. Determined to put on a show, Miller’s managed to arrange rooms for his entire cast at a swank New York hotel with the penthouse reserved for himself, thanks in part to the fact that his brother-in-law, Joe Gribble (Walter Slezak) is the manager. However, the debts are mounting and with no break in Miller’s dreary fiscal drought it seems that both he and his actors will be out – both of work and the hotel if owner, Mr. Wagner (Adolph Menjou) has his way.
Gordon’s only hope is to land a big fat check to finance the whole project. His pigeon is Simon Jenkins (Eugene Palette); a banker dealing for Zachary Fisk – one of the wealthiest men in the world. Fisk’s interests in backing shows are purely mercenary. He has a yen for beautiful trophy gal, Miss Abbott (Anne Jeffreys) who aspires to play the lead.
Meanwhile, another fly in Gordon’s ointment materializes with the arrival of Glenn Russell (Frank Sinatra); a would-be playwright who sent Gordon his religious masterpiece to produce along with a check for $1500.00. The money’s gone but the play is a colossal dud – one that Gordon has no intention of producing. However, when Glenn proves he can carry a tune he wins not only Jenkins’ check for Gordon’s show but also the unwanted libidinous pursuits of Miss Abbott.
That’s about as far the plot goes. As with most screwball comedies, the audience is simply required to suspend disbelief and indulge in the crazy quilting of it all. There is, for example, no reason why Miss Abbott should pursue Glenn all around the lobby of the hotel, smothering him with kisses and then virtually disappear from both the film’s plot and the show-within-a-show finale – except in a very brief dance sequence.
Anne Jeffreys has an utterly thankless part in this film, consisting of one number and a brief pas deux with Murphy in the final reel. Casting on the whole is superb, though George Murphy delivers each line as though he were calling out the marines to combat. Sinatra is in fine voice and is ably assisted by Gloria DeHaven, cast as Miller’s gal pal and the show’s leading actress - Christine Marlowe.
The great curiosity of early Sinatra films like Step Lively is that although he’s arguably the star he never quite gets the girl in the final reel. The ending of Step Lively gives us an ambiguous romantic conclusion at best with Christine sandwiched between Miller and Russell as she walks out of the theater arm in arm. Earlier, Chris and Gordon had been involved. Then Glenn kissed Chris. Chris kissed him back…but…well…it’s best left opened ended, I suppose.
The Sammy Cahn/Jules Styne score yields a few gems including the meaningful ballad, ‘As Long As There’s Music,’ boisterous ‘Where Does Love Begin?’ and dreamy ‘Some Other Time’ – magnificently staged atop an art deco penthouse restaurant. Overall, Step Lively is neatly packaged, slick and stylish entertainment with a decided kick. Just don’t expect clarity or continuity from the story.
Warner Home Video’s DVD transfer is middle of the road. The source element used in minting the disc range from pristine to less than average. The B&W image can, at times, experience a very nicely refined grayscale with good tonality. There are, however, whole portions of the film which appear to be slightly faded with a decided loss of fine detail as a direct result. Screen flicker and a rather obvious patina of film grain and age related artifacts are also a problem. Hence, the image is at times rough looking, while at other times almost smooth and easy on the eyes.
The audio is mono as originally recorded. As with other Sinatra movies released in this latest spate, Warner gives us NO extras (not even a theatrical trailer) and NO menu for ‘chapter stops.’ For shame!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)