Artists and Models (1937)

Artists and Models (1937) is the full 1930s Hollywood entertainment spectacle, complete with music, dancing, celebrity cameos, comedy, romance, and hot chicks in skimpy clothes. Because of all those things and the stars — Jack Benny, Ida Lupino, and Gail Patrick — I was sure I’d love it. I didn’t. I didn’t hate it, but it has some serious flaws that even Jack, Ida, and Gail can’t fix.

Artists and Models title card
Jack is Mac Brewster, head of the big name Brewster ad agency, and owner of one of the most fabulous offices I’ve ever seen:

Jack Benny in Artists and Models
We open with a wacky number by The Yacht Club Boys where George Kelly does a Max Bialystock theater producer routine; truthfully, I would not be surprised to learn that at least a few aspects of the Bialystock character came from this film.

The Yacht Club Boys in Artists and Models
By the end of the Yacht Club Boys number, a few thousand cast members are on stage, crowded amongst the sets for a dozen plays. It’s wacky, remember. Brewster is asked for his opinion:

Jack Benny in Artists and Models “It stinks!”

Ha! I love you, Jack Benny.

Brewster’s ad agency is in financial trouble, but all is saved when rich Alan Townsend (Richard Arlen) gives Brewster a large contract, contingent on finding a new Townsend Silver Girl for advertising their silver products. The Silver Girl should also be the winner of the upcoming Artists & Models Ball, it’s decided, for maximum publicity. Brewster figures his girlfriend and top model Paula Sewell (Ida Lupino) would be perfect.

Jack Benny and Ida Lupino in Artists and Models
Townsend, though, has visions of an unknown debutante who exudes class and charm for the model, so he puts the kibosh on Paula. Determined, Paula skips out on her own wedding to Brewster and heads to Miami where she pretends to be a debutante and socializes in Townsend’s circles. Townsend meanwhile runs into Cynthia Westworth (Gail Patrick) and feels she would be the perfect Silver Girl. Brewster heads down to Miami to find out what the heck is going on, only to wind up engaged to both Cynthia and Paula, who also both believe they will be the next Silver Girl.

During all this? Musical numbers. Unbelievably irritating musical numbers involving a certain Judy Canova. The day I watched Artists and Models is the day I discovered I cannot stand Judy Canova.

The A&M Ball is a costume affair, so you get to see Jack Benny in tights. That makes up for a lot. The movie also features several fashion artists of the day playing themselves, drawing famous model Sandra Storme and auctioning the results for charity. Also, you get bonus Rube Goldberg:

Jack Benny and Rube Goldberg in Artists and Models

Rube and Jack spend the entire time together trying not to laugh at each other’s jokes. It’s adorable.

Equally adorable are Jack and Gail, who are not only cute together but who have great chemistry. Jack getting flustered when he kisses Gail is one of the sweetest things I have ever seen. Ida is terrific, too, and she and Richard Arlen really click. This may shock those of you who know Richard Arlen as the dude who forgot how to act in 58% of his movies, but Arlen was quite good in Artists and Models! Sure, the role of rich guy in a musical romance with a thin plot is not much of a stretch, but Arlen pulls it off with an ability I didn’t know he had.

Artists and Models

“Public Melody #1:” That’s the name of the musical number that everyone remembers from Artists and Models. It’s odd in so many ways and, to add insult to injury, it’s not very good either. Burgeoning director Vincente Minnelli was in charge of this number and, by all accounts, it lead to his disillusionment with the studio and the film industry. Perhaps that explains some of the inherent sloppiness and lack of linear action in this mega musical extravaganza.

The plot of “Public Melody #1” is about a neighborhood of black people in the ghetto all being gangsters. That’s it. It’s obviously racist, but the Louis Armstrong parts and the team of background dancers are all very good, and underneath the idiocy is an intriguing concept. I would love to have seen it played straight and not as a race-based stereotype comedy with lead singer and dancer Martha Raye. She spends the entire number in light blackface, sticking her butt out, opening her eyes and mouth as wide as possible, and being unbearably pathetic.

But the really strange thing is how Raye looks at the end of the number. Her blackface throughout the segment looks like this:

Martha Raye in blackface in Artists and Models
But it has lightened somewhat throughout the number to where it appears like this very just before she takes the final bow:

Martha Raye in Artists and Models
And when she rises from the bow, the blackface is gone:

Martha Raye in Artists and Models
What. The. Hell.

Dennis Schwartz notes that some Southern U.S. states “objected to Martha Raye singing like a Harlem Negro and dancing with Negroes onscreen.” Further, Jack Gottleib in Funny, It Doesn’t Sound Jewish notes that “Public Melody #1” became a “cause célèbre for its candid sexuality between a black man and a white woman posing as black.”

This appears to be true, as Slow Fade to Black by Thomas Cripps quotes Variety’s review: “While Miss Raye is under cork, this intermingling of the races isn’t wise, especially as she lets herself go into the extremest manifestations of Harlemania torso-twisting and gyrations. It may hurt her personally.”

Yes, reviewers were mostly upset that Raye’s precious whiteness might be sullied by the presence of Negroes. But why did the makeup change until it finally disappeared? Was it done to appease critics? Or was the fact that the makeup was gone, showing her in her all-white pasty goodness, the problem? I don’t know how racist 1937 minds worked. Perhaps the removal of the makeup in the middle of her final bow didn’t have anything to do with racism at all but was simply a method used to show Raye without the makeup once the number was over.

And I know some of you are rushing to reply “Everyone was racist back then so it was 100% okay.” Can we not go there this time, please? For once?

At any rate, between “Public Melody #1” and Judy Canova, this movie grates more than it entertains. There is a bizarre puppet number — yeah, you heard me — in the middle of the film that had me scratching my head, until one of the elaborate puppet sets was revealed:

Artists and Models
That sound you hear is me packing my things and moving to that set to live out my days. Good day.

17 Comments

  1. Outstanding! I’m going to find this. Jack Benny.

  2. Jack Benny in tights? I’m so there! You seem like everything about A&M except the musical numbers and therefore it might have worked better if they had been deleted, Benny’s screen time expanded, and the film turned into a comedy. I hope you are doing well, Stacia!

  3. Sounds…interesting. I can’t figure out what is up with some of the musical numbers from the late ’30s. I just watched Goldwyn Follies and it was pretty terrible. However, I’m oddly intrigued by this one. Maybe for a rainy day? I’m totally adding it to my Netflix queue. Thanks for the review!

  4. My mom was just telling me how irritating she finds Martha Raye in general… she has been thinking about it for several years, it seems. She also told me that an asteroid is set to hit the earth in 2036!

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  6. Someone uploaded “Public Melody #1” to YouTube! The blacking-up of Martha Raye reminds me of Shirley Ross in Manhattan Melodrama. It’s rather indicative of the times that rather than featuring a popular black female singer of the time, Hollywood would apply some burnt cork to an up-and-coming white singer–and yet, Raye & Ross look “light-skinned”.

    Very interesting to think about, particularly when looking at the brief moment of stardom in Nina Mae McKinney’s career in the early talkie era, this 1930s practice, and the rise of Lena Horne in the 1940s and Dorothy Dandridge in the 1950s.

  7. Eric Stott says:

    Jack Benny was surprisingly handsome in the 30’s. Martha Raye was also not at all bad looking, I just wish she’d had better material. The acrobatic stuff can be good sometimes (Hellzapoppin and Big Broadcast) but often she’s just undirected energy.

  8. Stacia says:

    Thanks Shady! I’m better, yes, and less busy than I thought because work has dried up. Just as I get back into blogging regularly, work will pick up and I’ll have no time. That’s how life goes.

    Lauren, it’s certainly a rainy day film at least. I don’t think you or Dull Tool will regret watching it.

    Thanks for pointing that out, Evangeline! You’re right that styles change in interesting ways. I would bet cash money that by 1937 people thought Al Jolson’s blackface a decade earlier was dated, but they still enjoyed seeing deliberately old-fashioned blackface like Judy in “Everybody Sing”. I would some day like to find a book mapping the fashion trends of white actors playing other races.

    Eric, your observation that she is undirected energy is spot on. I was thinking that exact phrase tonight while watching Betty Hutton in “Annie Get Your Gun.”

    P.S. Here’s hoping Jack Pendarvis’ mother is not psychic.

  9. I absolutely agree with you regarding Judy Canova and Martha Raye, although I adore Betty Hutton’s often “frenetic” screen persona, I found both of these actresses jarring. I had only heard Judy Canova’s name before watching this film, my father often mentioned in passing that she was Diana Canova’s mother, but her number made me question what passed for humor in late 1930s America. I was familiar with Martha Raye’s onscreen persona before this film, but nothing prepared me for her musical number, which is wrong on so many levels. The one exception (for me) is the WHISPERS IN THE DARK sequence featuring Andre Kostelanetz and his orchestra with Connie Boswell. I’m a big fan of Connie (and her sisters) and neon light shimmering in water unexpectedly indulges my addiction for visual novelty. A few more numbers like this would have made an entirely different film.

  10. Stacia says:

    her number made me question what passed for humor in late 1930s America

    I have been known to say on occasion that an old film was made “before humor was invented”. I don’t mean it seriously, but sometimes, I mean it seriously.

  11. Eric Stott says:

    Judy Canova could be pretty good when she soft-pedaled the backwoods character:

    but I agree, she’s grating in Artists and Models. At least its intentional- some people are irritating with no effort at all.

    I like Martha Raye better than Betty Hutton- Raye had a better singing voice. I USED to think I liked Hutton but I realized that I only like her in “Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” where she’s quet for a change. It’s like seeing Veronica Lake in “Sullivan’s Travels” and nothing else- you’d think she could act.

  12. Judy says:

    This is a great posting – and the Martha Raye musical number sounds disturbing.

  13. Stacia says:

    It’s like seeing Veronica Lake in “Sullivan’s Travels” and nothing else- you’d think she could act.

    Ha! I have only seen her in “Sullivan’s Travels” and I was shocked. I couldn’t believe people thought she could act, because she so obviously could not. Yet, my opinion is not a popular one.

  14. shahn says:

    Where did you FIND this? I’ve been trying to grab some screen shots from this for ages!

    Ditto Judy Canova. Her radio show is simply grating. Not all is as immortal as *Jack Benny*

    I didn’t think much of Marthat Raye until I saw her in “Four Jills in a Jeep.” I thought she was great in that.

  15. Stacia says:

    I grabbed it off TCM last year. I look for any Jack Benny movies they’re showing, and this just happened to be on. If I find it, I’ll let you know, just in case you want a copy.

  16. vani says:

    can someone plz tell me where i can watch this movie?.. i cant watch it cos i am from outside the US. Kindly let me know. Gotta Love jack benny.

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