Several years ago I had the good fortune to see a beautifully restored two-strip Technicolor print of the musical Follow Thru at New York’s Film Forum. I feel especially lucky to have seen it because, as far as I know, it hasn’t turned up anywhere since then. Its star, Nancy Carroll, is one of my favorite early-talkie pre-Code stars, and her mid-1930s oblivion continues to confound me. Pretty, talented, and with undeniable star quality and a natural presence, she is a treasure of her time, and perhaps never more than in Follow Thru in which, with her lovely red hair plainly red, she may in fact be the screen’s first star made for color cinematography. Call her the Queen of Two-Strip Technicolor. (The fully formed three-strip variety of Technicolor arrived in features in 1935.) Who knew that “two-strip” could look this exquisite and inventive?
Follow Thru is a wonder with regard to its magical color and its winsome star, but that’s not all it’s got. For anyone with even the remotest interest in the Broadway musical of the 1920s, this film is beyond invaluable. With a peppy score by DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson (the team who gave us the 1927 smash Good News), Follow Thru was a Broadway hit of 1929. It’s no surprise that it got to the screen so quickly because studios were clamoring for material that “talked,” specifically for a new craze called the movie musical.
The shiver you get from this film version isn’t just from the fact that it is one of the better m0vie musicals of a now seemingly prehistoric period, but also because four of the six leading players are from the show’s original cast. So, with this pristine print, the restored color, and the film’s basically uncinematic approach (typical of early talkies), it’s like you have an orchestra seat to a 1929 performance of the show. There can exist few finer examples of what a ’20s Broadway musical actually felt and looked like. The movie was co-directed by Laurence Schwab, the show’s producer and co-book writer, and Lloyd Corrigan. Ms. Carroll and Charles “Buddy” Rogers are the cast’s newcomers, the two movie stars already familiar to screen audiences. Of the four stage-to-screen players, Zelma O’Neal, Don Tomkins, and Margaret Lee have long since been forgotten, but Jack Haley would find his niche in Hollywood and eventual screen immortality nine years later as Oz‘s Tin Man. (Also in the Broadway cast was teenager, and soon-to-be MGM dancing star, Eleanor Powell.)
On film, Follow Thru is genial, rapturously pretty fluff. Its silly, frivolous plot is still fun, and its innocence and goofiness still appealing. This is especially impressive for a musical about golf! The charmingly puffy-cheeked Ms. Carroll has a very pleasing speaking voice as well as attractive song-and-dance skills. She and Mr. Rogers sing the love ballad, “We’d Make a Peach of a Pair,” which now seems like a spoof, like something from Dames at Sea, yet they manage to put it over quite winningly. There’s a lovely reprise when the stars listen to the tune on a phonograph record and feel the lyrics as they gaze into each other’s eyes.
Mr. Haley and Ms. O’Neal are the comic duo, and their big number, “Button Up Your Overcoat,” is a zesty delight. O’Neal also gets an outrageous production number, “I Wanna Be Bad,” complete with fire and angels. She’s dynamite even though there’s no escaping the fact that choreography from this period is so clunky and graceless. “Eccentric” would be the polite term, but it’s just so damned heavy.
Follow Thru stands as a testament to the joys of the conventions of the ’20s Broadway musical, which became the conventions of the early ’30s movie musical. It’s funny, romantic, and it retains a playful wit. It also is a celebration of Nancy Carroll: her ease, charisma, talent, and beauty. Among her other films are The Devil’s Holiday (1930), for which she received her sole Oscar nomination, Laughter (1930) with Fredric March, and Hot Saturday (1932) with Cary Grant and Randolph Scott.
It’s a miracle that Follow Thru could be restored to its original glory, but the miracle seems tainted by the fact that the film cannot easily be seen. I’m imagining a special premiere on TCM in the near future. Follow Thru is ready to go, still shimmering, just waiting to light up all over again.