This snappy, unpretentious black-and-white musical is my favorite pre-Wizard of Oz Judy Garland picture. It’s a “B,” and the plot is the usual backstage-showbiz silliness, but it’s a high-spirited, genuinely “screwball” musical that occasionally reaches hilarious heights. Of its kind, it’s a dilly, despite, it must be said, a mediocre score and forgettable ”big” numbers.
What’s best about Everybody Sing? The cast! Well, two cast members in particular. Yes, Judy, whose vocals gleam. Here, in her in-between phase, she tries to appear younger than she really is, though her voice is gloriously mature. She’s a brassy swing singer, expelled from school for rocking the joint in music class. (“When I hear music, it does something to me.”) Despite the indignities of a hideous milkmaid/pantaloon get-up in the ugly finale, and an audition in black face (“Swing Low…”), Garland is enchanting, clearly bound for greatness.
But the movie is stolen by Billie Burke, doing one of her scatterbrained matrons. But this time she is also a star stage actress. Burke gives a model high-comedy performance of an extravagantly self-conscious woman who can’t stop acting and is always acting. She is about to star in something called Hidden Destiny. When Burke is on-screen, Everybody Sing is as funny as My Man Godfrey. (Garland and Burke were just one year away from Oz.) Burke was Oscar-nominated that year for another supporting comic turn, in Merrily We Live, but she’s seen to better advantage in Everybody Sing.
Fanny Brice plays the family’s Russian maid. Here is Ziegfeld-star Brice playing opposite Burke, Mrs. Ziegfeld herself. Brice is likable and goofy, and good with the wisecracks, but oh-so broad. As Brice mugs, Burke glides by and effortlessly reaps the biggest laughs. And top-billed Allan Jones, still riding high from Show Boat (1936), is totally bland (as a singing chef) and completely swallowed up by the competition. His presence simply evaporates.
Everybody Sing is a minor musical with some major pleasures, one of those forgotten pictures worth singing about.