Step Lively (1944)

Gribble is getting angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry. (Screen capture by TMP)

Gordon Miller (George Murphy) is a stage producer, currently working on his latest musical comedy. He’s rented out the penthouse suite of a hotel owned by Joe Gribble (Walter Slezak) in order to carry out rehearsals, but can’t actually afford the space, so it’s all on credit. Gribble is going mad over the ever-mounting bill, but Miller insists that his latest work is so close to finding a financial backer that he’ll soon be able to pay off the debt.

One day, Glen Russell (Frank Sinatra) shows up at the hotel. Miller mistakes him for a perspective backer who was supposed to arrive on the same day, not realizing that Russell is actually a playwright who recently paid big bucks to see Miller put his latest dramatic work into production. Needless to say, Miller has done no such thing, even though he agreed to it.

But it turns out that Russell is more than just a playwright: he has a beautiful voice which instantly puts every lady in the room under his spell. Could such a voice save the show that Miller is actually producing? Along with the musical comedy’s leading lady, Christine (the lovely Gloria DeHaven), Miller plots to get Russell involved in the show and at the same time con a few rich men into providing the financial backing needed to save his reputation and his work.

Tim Whelan (1940’s The Thief of Bagdad) directs Step Lively, a 1944 RKO musical comedy released with the simple tagline of “It’s Fun!” It was nominated for an Oscar for Best Art Direction – Interior Decoration, Black and White. The film is based on the play “Room Service,” which also served as the inspiration for the 1938 Marx Brothers film also known as Room Service.

(Image via bikespainclassic.com)

That previously mentioned tagline doesn’t lie. Step Lively is a fun film, and it’s clear to the viewer right off the bat that it’s going to be a fun one. It opens with a silly little musical number to set up the lively mood that accompanies a hotel full of performers. From there on out the songs remain very cute and pleasant to listen to.

Sinatra could sing the ABC’s while suffering from laryngitis and I’d fall over backwards in admiration. He’s so lovable that he leaves all of the ladies – both on screen, and in the audience – swooning. He’s the definition of a total charmer, and his character is a bit naive which just endears him to the audience even more. The rest of the performers that make up the musical numbers here have great voices as well. They suit the songs perfectly and make the song-and-dance routines very enjoyable for the viewer.

The plot of the film is fairly simple and not particularly engaging, but surprisingly it isn’t terribly  predictable. This is no thinking film, and no cinematic masterpiece. I would hope that no viewer would go into it expecting such a film.But it’s full of excitement, packs a few surprises and only gets better as it moves along. It’s a high-strung, very high-energy piece of work.

There are a number of very funny moments, some of which come from the song lyrics, which can be very forward. Not all of the comedy comes from the songs. There are also plenty of mishaps, overzealous reactions, decisions coming back to bite the characters and lots of character-versus-character plotting to keep the viewer chuckling.

I discovered Step Lively as a blind purchase from one of my favorite record stores, Dearborn Music, which also happens to have a pretty amazing (and cheap!) used DVD selection. It isn’t the best musical out there, but I’m glad to have it in my DVD collection. It’s an exciting musical, sure to provide me with endless Sinatra swoon-marathons (in combination with On the Town and other great films of his, of course) and delightful re-watches. The score: 3.5/5

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