In the 1930s, ’40s, and even the ’50s, Hollywood made countless backstage musicals, movies that sold us the dream that there was nothing better in this world than singing and dancing your way to all-out stardom. Whether or not moviegoers had a musical bone in their bodies, they apparently couldn’t get enough of the vicarious glories associated with “making good” on an opening night. But imagine if golden-era Hollywood had made a myth-crushing, anti-backstage musical, something about performers coming to the conclusion that there’s life and happiness away from the footlights. That’s exactly what Give My Regards to Broadway happens to be. Perhaps its somewhat shockingly alternative message is the reason that the movie garnered no special attention in 1948. After all, it’s a showbiz musical that ends not in onstage triumph but in a garage.
What the film offers is a rare (and extremely fresh) flip side to just about every other backstage musical you can recall. It tells us that it’s okay, even sensible, to leave showbiz behind and choose a so-called ordinary life. Within the world of the 1940s movie musical, I’d go so far as to say that its message makes Give My Regards to Broadway a radical musical. It opens familiarly, with the death of vaudeville. Charles Winninger and Fay Bainter retire their family act and get a house in New Jersey. He gets a job at an appliance plant and wins several promotions throughout the years. She raises their three kids, who eventually become Dan Dailey, Barbara Lawrence, and Jane Nigh. But Winninger never stops dreaming of his, and the entire family’s, comeback. It’s only a matter of time before vaudeville comes back, right? ”Albert the Great and Family” can start “knocking ‘em dead” all over again.
Winninger is a male version of Gypsy‘s Mama Rose, a stage father doing it all for himself while trying to convince everyone else (himself included) that he’s doing it for all of them. He has raised his kids in a world of ongoing rehearsals, ever ready for the elusive phone call that will change everything. The act, as conceived by Winninger, is of course hopelessly dated, combining song and dance with juggling. His two daughters will eventually opt for marriage, and Dailey, despite his obvious stageworthy gifts, finds himself drawn to baseball, an engineering scholarship, and pretty Nancy Guild. Winninger’s offspring find their own kind of spotlights, and the old fellow has to find a way of letting go. He must give himself permission to be happy without clinging to his long-held fantasy. Showbiz success is a pipe dream in this movie, which is an almost unheard-of notion in a backstage musical.
If the movie is unromantic about showbiz, it’s certainly warm and cuddly about suburbia, domesticity, and post-war American prosperity, all of which are stressed to make the point that you can be content and fulfilled without applause. Most of the musical numbers are set in the family’s garage, and they are the perfect blend of skillful and embarrassing, just like Winninger himself. Cast to type, he had already played variations of this life-or-death trouper in films such as Ziegfeld Girl (1941) and Broadway Rhythm (1944). Winninger is typically obnoxious and delusional, browbeating his family until finally wising up. Ms. Bainter helps enormously, grounding the film with her seasoned, sensible acting style. (She and Winninger had already scored together as the parents in the 1945 State Fair.)
With his recent stardom opposite Betty Grable in Mother Wore Tights (1947), Dan Dailey was suddenly (and deservedly) Fox’s top male musical star. Give My Regards to Broadway gave him solo billing above the title, even though Winninger has the film’s central role. Dailey could sing, he could act, and he was one terrific hoofer, an all-around effortless and engaging performer. However, Give My Regards to Broadway is no lavish Grable-style musical. In fact, it’s barely a musical, what with those modest garage numbers. It may be the only Technicolor movie that lives in my memory as being in black and white. Maybe that’s because the color seems to be making an ironic comment, teasing you into expecting a big finale and a standing ovation, plus large sets and glitzy costumes, none of which will arrive. It’s as if Winninger’s fevered dreams have colorized a story that’s much plainer than he imagines. Instead of an ending that includes Broadway, the film opts for simplicity, finishing with Winninger and Dailey back in the garage, performing the title tune for the whole family. Just for the fun of it. And that’s okay.
It’s essential to note that Give My Regards to Broadway was directed by Lloyd Bacon, the man who directed 42nd Street (1933). More than any other backstage musical, 42nd Street established the screen’s showbiz myths, the ones debunked so gracefully in Give My Regards to Broadway. That’s a double feature I want to see.