A Musical Milestone: SUNNYSIDE UP

February 23, 2017 - 9:47am
Posted by Jim Healy


These notes on Sunnyside Up (1929) were written by Casey Long, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Sunnyside Up will screen on Saturday, February 25 at 7 p.m., concluding our series of Fox Studios movies from the archives of the Museum of Modern Art.

The story is familiar; a working girl falls in love with a wealthy man and he eventually learns that he loves her too. However, Sunnyside Up’s boastful tagline points to several aspects of this early sound film which serve to make it unique: “The screen's first original all talking, singing, dancing musical comedy.” Indeed, contemporaneous reviews of the film (and later career decisions made by Janet Gaynor) would indicate that while audiences generally enjoyed the film’s soundtrack, criticism of certain aspects of the two leads’ vocal abilities coupled with— at times— lackluster choreography in various numbers would have lasting effects on the medium and genre in Hollywood.

Susan Doll notes: “Released in 1929, Sunnyside Up reflects that fleeting moment in Hollywood history when the studios were trying to cope with the difficulties of sync-sound technology and deal with the resultant changes in acting styles, genres, and staging. At the same time, stars Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell were hoping to make the transition from silent to sound movies, and this musical comedy proved a successful step in their careers.” A 1929 New York Times review reveals how filmgoers viewed the addition of aural stylistic elements (on a recorded soundtrack, instead of the live musical accompaniment featured during silent films) to what had previously only been visual entertainment: “It is a motion picture that might easily stand on its own feet, but there is no doubt but sound adds considerably to the general effect. The fact that the audience remained seated to the last fade-out proves the worth of this entertainment… nobody left until they could see and hear exactly what happened.”

Both the screenplay and the music were written by a popular songwriting team of the time: Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown and Ray Henderson. The group wrote and published pop songs and Broadway musicals from roughly 1925 to 1930, including the hit Magnolia (1927) and the musical Good News (also 1927). Prior to working within this trio, DeSylva had written songs performed and popularized by Al Jolson and teamed with George Gershwin on the one-act jazz opera Blue Monday. (DeSylva would also later co-found Capitol Records.) Lew Brown, the lyricist for the group, had written for several successful Tin Pan Alley songwriters, including Albert Von Tilzer and Harold Arlen. Rounding out the trio, Ray Henderson, who served as the composer to the group, had also worked in Tin Pan Alley, and was an accompanist to song and dance acts in Vaudeville.

The music in this film would prove to be popular and long lasting. From a Variety review of the time: “Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown and Ray Henderson have turned out an average Cinderella story for Janet Gaynor, and she plays it. And sings it. David Butler in direction does so well by Gaynor that you even believe she has a voice. The ace songsters pile up likeable songs so fast they have to be sung over again in the picture to decide which is the best. And here it’s ‘If I Had a Talking Picture of You’. But for delivery Gaynor’s ‘I’m a Dreamer – Aren’t We All?’ leads.” Sunnyside Up, an iconic example of a quality early sound era musical, would continue to be referenced through the decades. In the 1933 animated short, Hot and Cold (Walter Lantz/Universal), the song “Turn on the Heat” would be prominently featured. The Best Things in Life Are Free (1956) depicts the filming of the "If I Had a Talking Picture of You" production number. It also recreates the premiere of the movie. (The film's title is shown as "Sunny Side Up" rather than as the authentic but misspelled "Sunnyside Up”.) Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You features a vocally-shy Drew Barrymore lip-synching “(I’m a Dreamer) Aren’t We All?” And, finally, Sunnyside Up is the oldest film to be featured in the 1982 comedy documentary, It Came From Hollywood, wherein comedians such as Dan Akroyd, Gilda Radner, and Cheech and Chong narrated and joked about various B movies made between the 20s and the 70s.

There is one number in the film that especially stands out to critics both past and present due to its larger-scale, more complex design. From Variety again: “‘Turn on the Heat’ is a cooch by 36 gals. And what a cooch! As the hot dance proceeds, the snow melts, trees and palms grow, and all of this while 36 coochers go the limit. There’s a bit of hinted color in this scene.” Indeed, this sequence, as it existed in the original print, was shot in a color-tinting process dubbed "Multicolor," adding a sense of spectacle to the production, but reportedly no prints exist today with that effect.

Performers’ voices, at this early stage in the sound era, were closely scrutinized and critiqued. Producers, directors and actors, plus audiences and critics, sought to define and understand what type of vocal performance suited the medium—what worked and what did not. One major early concern was whether certain actors’ voices were simply not suited to the demands of the new microphone technology and recording devices. Morduant Hall had quite a bit to say about Gaynor and Farrell’s speech-style and singing abilities in his review of the film’s premiere at the Gaiety Theatre in New York City, noting: “Miss Gaynor's voice may not be especially clear, but the sincerity with which she renders at least two of her songs is most appealing.” And, “Her talking voice seems a little husky, or is it that the microphone has been unkind to her? This may be possible, for in several passages her tones are much clearer than in others.” Lastly, of Gaynor’s co-star, Hall states, “Mr. Farrell's singing is possibly just what one might expect from the average young man taking a chance on singing a song at a private entertainment. His presence is, however, ingratiating and his acting and talking are natural. He may not strike one as an experienced stage actor, but one is gazing upon a motion picture comedy in which the people are not on a stage, but walking through real roads and into houses that look real and sometimes are real. So his speech and even his singing suits the part.”

Indeed, while critics and audiences warmly praised Gaynor’s charming manner when acting and speaking (particularly noting her ease, naturalism, ‘sassy sparkle’ or ‘sweet flirtatiousness’), her singing was another matter entirely. From Doll: “Gaynor must have realized her shortcomings as a musical comedy performer. After appearing with Farrell in the musicals Happy Days (1929) and High Society Blues (1930), she sailed to Hawaii where she remained until Fox agreed to make several changes in her contract. Near the top of her list of demands was that she never be required to star in another musical comedy.”

Aside from the film’s soundtrack, Sunnyside Up’s photography is notable as well.  Director David Butler and cinematographer Ernest Palmer make a clear attempt to include some complex and virtuosic camera movement into the picture— something that, with the introduction of sound, would have been more difficult to integrate initially. Many reviewers note the four-minute-long crane shot that reveals life on the Lower East Side (Molly’s milieu), which is followed soon after by another long tracking shot through Jack Cromwell’s mansion. From the New York Times review, again, “David Butler, the director, has done extraordinarily good work on his scenes, the opening glimpse being of a few of O. Henry's four millions who are enjoying a shower bath on the east side.” Lastly, there is at least one instance of some early special effects work, wherein a still photograph of Molly is replaced by her moving image as Jack sings to her, giving the appearance of a picture come to life.