‘Broadway Highlights’–subtitled ‘Intimate News Of The Gay White Way’–was a series of several short subjects produced by Paramount Pictures in 1935 and 1936. They purported to tell the viewer, newsreel-style, what was happening on the Gay White Way (as the street was dubbed in the lyric of ‘Broadway Melody’). Much like the short film I posted yesterday featuring Walter Winchell, the value of this piece of arcana is in its evocation of the cultural phenomena that ‘Broadway’ was to the nation. At that time ‘Broadway’ became an adjective as well as a noun–it described a style, an attitude, a type of aggressively good-natured (and perhaps shadowy) person (‘he’s real Broadway, that fella’ etc.) Even its use as a noun expanded beyond it simply being a place into being a thing of a somewhat metaphoric nature. People talked of Broadway being ‘a tough mother and a forgiving lover’…’Broadway’ll be there for you, whether your a sap, a sucker, or a straight-arrow shooting blanks’ etc. These lines were typical of the style of column writing practiced by Hellinger, Winchell and others who personified the era and the attitude prevalent on the street. As the Broadway columnists syndication expanded, the whole country became conscious of an exciting if distant culture filled with glamour and danger. The movies picked up on it too, natch. Thus did ‘Broadway’ become firmly entrenched in the national psyche.
In this installment of ‘Broadway Highlights’ we are first taken to Jack Dempsey’s restaurant, where a testimonial dinner for Paul Whiteman is taking place. The speakers are Rudy Vallee (very dull), Jack Benny (very funny), and Dempsey (he’s a boxer–what do you want?). Next, off to the Winter Garden Theatre, where we get a rare view of Earl Carroll, as he selects dancers for his new ‘Earl Carroll Vanities’ revue. (W.C. Fields, who headlined several editions of the Vanities, once described Carroll as looking ‘like a preacher with a hard-on’). After this we get a look at ‘The Hollywood Nightclub’. This was a big, showy, noisy Broadway hangout noted for its floor shows featuring barely clad young dancers. Here it seems Sophie Tucker’s being welcomed back to Broadway, and she introduces Bea Lillie and Fanny Brice (who looks like Fran Lebowitz to me) in the audience before singing a bit of ‘Some of These Days’. Then we’re given a glimpse backstage at Music Box Theatre, where it’s opening night of ‘Ceiling Zero’ starring Osgood Perkins (father of Tony and shortly to die after making this appearance) and Margaret Perry. The many attendees include Gary Cooper and–guess who?–Walter Winchell! Finally, Al Jolson’s rehearsing a radio show at NBC Studios with Victor Young’s orchestra and guest Max Baer, one of the greatest boxers of his era. Al and Max rehearse a sketch–Max appears to ad-lib a bit which annoys Jolson–and then we close up with Jolson singing a tune from his new movie ‘Go Into Your Dance’. The advent of sound-on-film recording (as pioneered by Fox Movietone) allowed these scenes to be documented without undue camera and sound issues–sometimes we’re seeing something grabbed live (like the Hollywood Restaurant footage), sometimes its staged for the cameras (Earl Carroll directing his rehearsal). One way or another, all of this material is of immense value to those who love the world of twentieth century show-biz culture, the history of New York City, the story of the rise of celebrity culture in America…or just the story of old Broadway–the Gay White Way.