Let’s Go Native (1930)


CREDITS
BACKGROUND
PLOT
REVIEWS
MUSIC IN THE FILM


Paramount.
Released August 16, 1930.
Produced by Paramount-Publix Corp.
Directed by Leo McCarey.
77 minutes.

Original script: George Marion Jr. and Percy Heath. Sound: Harry D. Mills. Dances and ensembles: David Bennett. Montages: Slavko Vorkapich. Photography: Victor Milner. Movietone Recording.

Jack Oakie (Voltaire McGinnis)
Jeanette MacDonald (Joan Wood)
James Hall (Wally Wendell)
William Austin (Basil Pistol)
Kay Francis (Constance Cooke)
Charles Sellon (Grandpa Wallace Wendell)
David Newell (Chief Officer Williams)
Eugene Pallette (Deputy Sheriff Careful Cuthbert)
Richard “Skeets” Gallagher (Jerry, King of the Island)
Rafael Storm (An Argentinean)
Charlie Hall (Charlie, a mover)
Earl Askam (Mover)
Harry Bernard (Mover)
Pat Harmon (Policeman)
Virginia Bruce (Grandpa Wendell’s secretary)
E.H. Calvert (Diner eating duck)
Grady Sutton (Diner)
John Elliott (Captain)
Oscar Smith (Cook)
The King’s Men (Singing for movers off-camera)


Background

Let’s Go Native is one of the most interesting bad films ever made. It is a study in mistimed comedy routines, of gag lines explained and punch lines repunched into insensibility. This is not to say that punch lines can’t be repeated effectively. We have all walked in halfway through a film and found the audience helpless with laughter at a seemingly innocuous line. (A superb example is Melvyn Douglas’s “coffee” joke in Ninotchka, which becomes more and more hilarious with each equally pointless repetition.) But Let’s Go Native doesn’t know when to stop. Over and over again, the delicious bubbles of screwball comedy begin to form, only to be dissipated by heavy writing and heavy directing.

The comic core of the film is the shipwrecking of assorted lovers on a desert island where they have only theatrical costumes to wear. The “King” of the island is another castaway from Brooklyn who rules over two hundred maidens between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one. The mechanics of getting the group to the island are so elaborate and tedious, however, that less than half of the film remains for what should have been the heart of the story.

Director Leo McCarey was plainly still feeling his way with the sound medium. He was responsible for some classic Laurel and Hardy silent comedies, but two of his first three sound films were pedestrian dramas, and the third, Red Hot Rhythm (1929), was a slender musical starring Alan Hale. Let’s Go Native must have been valuable experience for him because three years later he directed the comedy classic, Duck Soup, with the Marx Brothers. His later successes include Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), The Awful Truth (1937), Love Affair (1939), and Going My Way (1944).

Miss MacDonald’s titular leading man is James Hall, a mildly pleasant young actor. He had made a promising start in silents and starred in Hell’s Angels in 1930, but did little thereafter.

The real star of the picture is Jack Oakie. This engaging, moon-faced comedian seems to be in half of the musicals Paramount ever made. Despite his rasping voice and baked-potato expression, he could break your heart in a moment of pathos and win the girl in the end.

The songs in Let’s Go Native are catchy and feature some of the best-worst lyrics ever written. Unfortunately the dance numbers they inspire feature tired choreography and unimaginative photography.


Plot

Our story begins in the enormous Hollywood-moderne lobby of Joan Wood’s costume shop. Through a bit of clumsy exposition, we learn that an Argentine millionaire is importing a Broadway revue with costumes by Miss Wood, and the beauteous damsels promenading about will leave that night for Buenos Aires. Miss Wood has not yet appeared for the dress rehearsal, and a phone call to her apartment reveals only loud crashing noises.

The noise is caused by several burly movers. The Sheriff (Eugene Pallette) is supervising a crew of incompetents in repossessing Miss Wood’s furniture. (Compare the wasted motion of this scene with similar sequences in good silent comedies and, of course, the brilliant destructive routines of the Marx Brothers or Laurel and Hardy.) The Sheriff instructs his men to be more quiet. The madame is still in the hay.

“Hey,” cries Joan Wood (Jeanette) from the bedroom. “Who stands without? Suitors for my hand?”

“No, miss,” replies her maid. “Movers for your furniture.” Joan’s creditors have thought­fully arranged it. Joan starts to dress when her boyfriend, Wally Wendell (James Hall), arrives. He offers his usual solution to her financial difficulties: marry him and live off his rich grandfather. Joan refuses as usual, unless he consents to go to work. She turns to more important things, trying to select a frock from her departing wardrobe. Holding up two elaborate gowns, “the blue…or the green?,” she wavers back and forth until the Sheriff thrusts a fur trimmed gray dress into her hands.

The departing piano is stopped by Wally for “one last song,” “My Mad Moment”:

At our first meeting, a salad you were eating.
I sat enraptured and hardly dared to move.
For grace of movement there could be no improvement
As you speared a bit of orange with your fork.
And then you smiled. I forgot what home meant.
My heart went wild. You were my mad moment….
(Copyright Famous Music Corp.)

The movers (their singing voices supplied off-camera by the King’s Men) join Joan and Wally in a chorus, then relentlessly cart the piano to the top of the stairs for its inevitable shattering descent.

The Sheriff accompanies Joan in her roadster so that he can repossess it when they reach her shop. “I don’t know when I’ve seen a nicer paint job,” he comments. Joan, who is applying lipstick, takes it as a compliment. He comments on the lack of scars, and she tells him she has never had an operation. In this aura of misunderstanding, the roadster roars off, an accident looking for a place to happen.

Nearby, taxi driver Voltaire McGinnis (Jack Oakie) and his passenger, Basil Pistol (William Austin), are similarly occupied. They find their accident first when Joan’s pocketbook falls on her running board. Attempting to retrieve it, Pistol becomes spread-eagled between two moving cars (shades of Harry Langdon) and causes a monumental traffic jam before Voltaire drives their taxi through the police precinct window. (Again, compare this with the more spectacular silent comedy auto sequences.)

Joan arrives at her shop, oblivious to the havoc she has wrought. She turns her car over to the Sheriff who promptly runs it into a fire hydrant.

In the shop, we are treated to a musical montage depicting a “dress rehearsal.” A title explains that Joan “substitutes for the absent star” by modeling the costumes in musical numbers.

For purposes of plot, Joan learns that she must accompany her costumes to Buenos Aires to collect payment for them.

Wally arrives. He has told his family he is getting married and found they were just going to suggest the same thing. However, it wasn’t Joan they had in mind. Their choice is Con­stance Cooke, a girl Wally hasn’t seen since she was fourteen. She rubbed an eclair in his hair, he recalls. Wally, of course, has turned down his family’s suggestion and is now disinherited with only $48 to his name.

So that they won’t be parted, Joan decides to get him a job on the boat to Buenos Aires. The nice Chief Officer will do anything for her, she decides. Chief Officer Williams (David Newell) obviously has designs on Joan and is delighted to give her boyfriend a job as a “trimmer.” Joan is equally delighted. Wally can put the parsley and lemon on the fish during the day, and they will be together every moonlit night on boat deck.

Pistol dashes in looking for his old friend Wally, followed by the irate cab driver, Voltaire. “Not the old French philosopher?” asks Wally. Voltaire explains that when he was born, his mother told the nurses to tell the doctor that his name was Walter. The nurse was Jewish, so the doctor wrote it down the way she pronounced it: “Voltaire.”

Pistol needs to borrow $2,800 from Wally to pay for Voltaire’s cab. Wally confesses that he is broke. Pistol’s dismay is cut short by the arrival of an equally irate policeman bearing the license photo from Voltaire’s now-abandoned taxi. He is combing the city for the driver and passenger, and Voltaire looks suspiciously like one of the men he is after.

Voltaire frantically makes a series of faces until he decides the jig is up and relaxes into his own normal expression. The policeman shrugs. “For a moment I thought you were him,” he says and de­parts. Voltaire and Pistol decide the town is too hot for them. They will join Wally as trimmers until things cool down. Joan is introduced to Pistol and Voltaire. “Not the old French…” “No, lady, not the old French photographer. “

Wally must join Joan in another “dress rehearsal” number. One of many silent titles tells us that it is an occasion for “panting whirls and whirling pants.” Seated on a snow-covered log, they tell us “It Seems to Be Spring.” Joan strips off her coat, revealing summer chiffon:

It seems to be Spring, little flowers leap from their beds
…and snails with a shout, go sprinting about.
It seems to be Spring, the cows contentedly moo
And two little calves in your chiffon stockings I view.
It seems to be Spring in my heart.
(Copyright Famous Music Corp.)

The image of the lovers dissolves into that of a pair of comic bears who embrace and cuff one another, then evolve back to Joan and Wally, now completely invisible beneath a blanket of snow.

In the posh Wall Street office of Wally’s grouchy grandfather (Charles Sellon), a telegram announces that his prospective daughter-in-law, Constance, has run away to South America rather than marry Wally. A second wire from Wally says he and his fiancé are on their way to South America. (Naturally, Wally, Joan, and Constance are all on the same ship.) “Aren’t those children cute, fooling us all the time,” Grandpa murmurs.

Wally won’t be seeing much of either Constance or Joan, however. He and his friends are down in the hold, trimming coal not fish. Joan is desolate at his unexplained absence and writes him a note begging him to meet her. Voltaire gets the note, thinks it is for him, and tries to keep the assignation. The head stoker won’t hear of it. “No wonder the French lines are doing all the business,” comments Pistol.

Wally’s friends wire his grandfather about his predicament, hoping for their own release. Grandpa Wendell wires the head of the ship line, his old school chum, to put Wally and Constance in the bridal suite. But there is no release for Voltaire and Pistol. Their grandfathers didn’t go to school with the head of the line.

Constance (Kay Francis) interrupts the reun­ion of Joan and Wally. The lovers quarrel over their imagined rivals, Constance and Chief Offi­cer Williams. Pistol and Voltaire are transferred to the dining room, and a series of uninspired comedy routines follow involving the difficulty of eating uncarved duck and a free-for-all that ends with dozens of passengers tossing each others’ hats, shoes, and coats overboard. (Com­pare with similar sequences in late silent comedies like Two Tars and A Pair of Tights.)

The tedium is relieved when the chorus girls come out on deck to rehearse their number. Voltaire is delighted and leads them in “Joe Jazz,” whose zestful arrangement almost suc­ceeds in canceling out some of the dullest, most poorly filmed choreography in early filmdom. (Oakie describes in his 1981 autobiography, Double Takes, how the musicians had discov­ered they could collect overtime by repeatedly making mistakes and how he decided to help them out by spoiling a few takes himself. Thus the number was shot over and over into the night and finally abandoned. The end result is a cut-and-paste photo-montage over one of the music tracks.)

He isn’t interested in winning your hand.
If he can win your feet
His evening is complete.
When he yells ‘Up and at ’um’,
Well, his anatomy’s up,
‘Cause Joe Jazz is taking you.
(Copyright Famous Music Corp.)

A heavy fog causes a shipwreck, and after another needlessly long sequence (5 1/2 minutes) full of stock footage, five castaways, happily our principals, reach the desert island where they should have been four reels ago. Native maidens come out to greet them, and Voltaire tries elaborate sign language on one of them without success. “Just call me Voltaire,” he shrugs. “Not the old French philosopher?” she cries.

Joan has found a trunk full of her costumes washed up on the beach, surrounded by giggling girls who are trying on the spangled garments. “You likee? Maybe makee purchase?” she asks.

“Well, I should hope to tell ya. This is strictly the bananas,” replies the gum chewing damsel. “I could do damage with that,” cries another, “It soitenlybrings out me good pernts.”

Joan asks if the girls are from Brooklyn. No, they tell her, but the head man is. The King (Richard “Skeets” Gallagher) is borne in on a litter by a bevy of grass-skirted beauties. He is delighted to have visitors. He was marooned here some time ago, himself.

“Shipwrecked?” asks Pistol. No, the King explains, he was a master of ceremonies on a cruise ship, and one night they threw him overboard. (Gallagher had been a master of ceremonies for Paramount on Parade.) As far as the King has been able to figure out, they are on one of the Virgin Islands…“that drifted.”

The “ersters” offered the hungry castaways for lunch contain enormous pearls. The King apologizes, but they haven’t been able to catch any without them. Pistol goes off to lay a golf course and wherever he attempts to dig a hole, oil shoots up. Again the King apologizes. The castaways are trapped forever with untold wealth.

Voltaire offers a solution: “Let’s Go Native” and Pistol takes up the second verse:

Upon some archipelago, put me and watch this fella go.
Some maiden who’s Maylay, I’ll waylay.
No costume bills to pay for her.
Old nature’s making hay for her.
These girls get their trousseaus with a scythe.
(And some naughty males always hope the harvest fails….)
(Copyright Famous Music Corp.)

The torrid native dance that follows is weakened by constant dissolves, a flaw of even Astaire-Rogers numbers for several years to come.

The ladies of the island have costumed their jazz band from Joan’s ample trunk. To pay for their finery, the King gives Joan the island and his pearl crown, worth half a million dollars. It is too small so she gives it to Pistol as commission for negotiating the sale of the island. Voltaire claims it in payment for his taxi and then runs off to use it to charm Constance.

Connie, in a fetching spangled tutu, listens to his vows of love: “I’ve Gotta Yen for You.” She is moved to reply prettily in song, one of Kay Francis’s rare singing appearances. Within a year Miss Francis would be hard at work on the dramatic “women’s pictures” that would make her fame, but here she is the essence of the musical heroine, soft, warm, and incredibly beautiful.

Wally’s grandfather arrives on his yacht to rescue Wally and Constance. In the process he buys the island from Joan for a million dollars. A crudely simulated earthquake then destroys the island, driving everyone onto the yacht.

Joan returns the million dollar check to Grandpa and agrees to marry Wally if he gets a job. Voltaire is now rich enough to marry Constance because he has the pearl crown. He models it raffishly, accidentally knocking his own hat off the ship rail. When he leans over to try to retrieve it, the crown follows. The film fades out on Joan and Wally laughing, and we assume that Voltaire and Constance will have to live happily ever after on her money.


Reviews

“A ludicrous audible film hodgepodge,” wrote Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times. (“Audible film” was the Times current terminology for sound films.) “Whatever may be the final opin­ion of this mile or so of merry tomfoolery, it should be set forth that not a few of its hectic adventures were greeted with shrieks of laughter….Miss MacDonald gives as pleasing a performance as possible in such melange.” (Mr. Hall also disliked the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers which he reviewed the same week.)

Mildred Martin in the Philadelphia Inquirer noted that Jeanette “sings a song or two in her usual pleasing fashion but…doesn’t seem quite as much at home in this whimsical crazy sort of thing as she does in some of her former pictures.” Miss Martin liked the film however: “sheer delight for those who like slightly mad, light-hearted comedy.” She found Jack Oakie “irresistible” and said “Leo McCarey…has shown his deft touch in numerous places.”

“This is madness—weird, wonderful mad­ness!” Photoplay opined. “Every gag in history turns up somewhere in this insane hash of song, dance, and story….Terrific nonsense—and how you’ll scream!”


Music in the Film

All music by Richard A. Whiting and all lyrics by George Marion Jr. (who had been prominent as a writer of clever titles for silent films.) In listing performers after each title, “and” denotes a genuine duet, while commas between names indicate a sequence of singers.

Overture: “Let’s Go Native” (sung by the King’s Men), “It Seems to Be Spring.”
“My Mad Moment” (MacDonald and Hall with the King’s Men)
“It Seems to Be Spring” (MacDonald and Hall)
“Joe Jazz” (Oakie sings, then dances with girls’ chorus)
“Let’s Go Native” (Oakie, Austin, reprised by good unbilled jazz band)
“I’ve Gotta Yen for You” (Oakie, Francis)
Finale: “It Seems to Be Spring,” “I’ve Gotta Yen for You,” “Joe Jazz,” “Let’s Go Native.”

The song “Pampa Rose” for MacDonald apparently was filmed but cut before release. However, she can be seen dancing in a Spanish costume during the fashion show montage. (“Pampa Rose” was ultimately used in the 1935 film Coronado.)

The song “Don’t I Do,” apparently intended for Oakie to sing to Francis, was also cut, possibly replaced by “I’ve Gotta Yen for You.” Apparently used as background music is “Gotta Be Good” by Victor Schertzinger.