“New Faces of 1937” (1937)
by A.J. Hakari
Tell me if this sounds familiar. A shady show business figure oversells shares in his latest entertainment venture, only to intentionally mastermind a flop with the aim of pocketing the cash for himself. If this premise brings to mind Mel Brooks’s The Producers or the means through which Uwe Boll loopholed his way into stocking cinemas with stinkburgers for most of his career, you’d be right, but these aren’t the first times the subject has gotten Hollywood’s attention. New Faces of 1937 takes this old showbiz legend and plugs it into an already frenetic production, one featuring a madcap world in which the Brothers Marx would be nice and cozy. Bad puns flow like the mighty Mississippi, the action frequently stops for the characters to engage in vaudeville antics, and saying what’s on your mind with a song is par for the course. On the downside, this means that the full cleverness of the story isn’t touched upon, so that more room can be given to the featured talents and their single-scene schtick. But when New Faces of 1937 is on, it’s a real delight, with nary a scene lacking something to leave you giggling like a ninny.
Robert Hunt (Jerome Cowan) is tired of critical acclaim. Reviewers have given their highest marks to the theatrical impresario’s shows, but the financial return hasn’t been as robust as he desires. Thus, Hunt has decided to enact a devious scheme to land him some easy dough: oversell backers ownership in his latest production and do everything possible to turn them into catastrophic failures. With a flop floundering on the stage, no one will think to ask for their money back, allowing Hunt to walk away with all the cash. Unfortunately, one of his stars gets wise to his plot, forcing the cur to hit the road and leave his upcoming revue, “New Faces,” in the hands of neurotic financier Wallington Wedge (Milton Berle). Having always wanted to break into show business, Wedge proceeds to undo the damage his predecessor wrought, injecting “New Faces” with the dynamite acts and great gags that were previously jettisoned. But it’s only a matter of time before he realizes the grave he’s digging for himself, and with a stable of fresh-faced stars hoping to make their dreams come true, he’s stuck between ensuring that the show goes on and saving his own skin.
Passing on the satire that Mr. Brooks would partake in thirty years later, New Faces of 1937 instead uses the story at its core to simply cast a spotlight upon various types of talents. The film pauses on a number of occasions to give these acts a couple of minutes to do their thing, including a trio of brothers with radically different heights and a young Ann Miller tapping up a storm on the dance floor. Usually, vintage musicals stopping dead in their tracks to let someone do a random bit is a pet peeve of mine, but New Faces of 1937 works such moments into the proceedings more naturally than the norm. The show within this show is a variety performance, so it makes sense to have a cavalcade of kooky characters traipsing through, ranging from those who excel at their craft to those who should stick to their day jobs. In the long run, they don’t contribute anything especially vital to the story, but these little diversions are more often amusing than not and don’t come across as terribly intrusive. In fact, these newcomers fit in right along with the asides that the picture rations out for its more established stars. Joining Berle — who’d long since made a name for himself on stage and radio by this point — are the nasally-voiced Joe Penner as a wimpy would-be actor and Harry “Parkyakarkus” Einstein as a gofer, obliterator of the English language, and sower of behind-the-scenes chaos as “New Faces” gets closer to its debut.
Together, the ensemble behind New Faces of 1937 pulls through and gives us an appealing bunch of knuckleheads. Although the movie’s energy levels aren’t as manic as those of the dizzyingly insane Hellzapoppin’, the cast does a fine job of carrying on similar spirits at a lower volume. The one-liners are fast and funny (upon reading a negative review: “What did the Journal give us?” “24 hours to get out of town!”), and there’s enough diversity amongst the acts and tunes performed to fend off any feelings of sameness that might creep in. Still, this doesn’t mean that New Faces of 1937 is without occasions that could’ve been cut in the name of picking up the pace. A centerpiece skit involving Wedge being fleeced by the world’s worst stock broker (which appeared in the previous year’s Ziegfeld Follies) wears out its welcome really fast, and the standard-issue romantic subplot doesn’t end up eliciting very much concern. Also, while something like A Night at the Opera let the Marx siblings be their usual oddball selves as it told a satisfying story, this flick has a little more trouble sticking its landing. The “will the show sink or swim” aspect of the plot ceases to be a driving force a good hour or so into the running time, and as unexpected as its resolution is, it still comes across as disappointingly anticlimactic.
New Faces of 1937 was met with a mixed reception upon its release, unfortunately putting the kibosh on parent studio RKO’s plans for an entire series of cinematic showcases. It’s a film filled with its share of hits and misses, but the overall spirit is so infectiously silly and the ratio of endearingly corny jokes to outright clunkers so skewed in the former’s favor, you can’t help but let your grin spread and your toes tap away. New Faces of 1937 is a boisterous buffet of a movie, offering viewers a little bit of everything in the way of fulfilling their appetites for fun.
(New Faces of 1937 is available to purchase through the Warner Archive Collection.)