For everything – there is a season, a time and a place.
The Bamboo Blonde. RKO. Story of a nightclub singer during WWII. 67 minutes. B&W. Released July 15, 1946.
Up until a recent screening on TCM, I never saw or ever heard of The Bamboo Blonde. At sixty seven minutes – the film qualifies as a Feature Length, somewhat on the shorter side. The title role is on Frances Langford (the sweet brunette) who introduced “I’m in the mood for love” in ’35. The ratings on Bamboo Blonde stretch from one to two stars / four original songs by the same composer & lyricist / featuring Ralph Edwards (future TV host of This is Your Life) and Wade Russell (who?) as the romantic interest. Even better, Langford’s name is above the title – no secondary singers crowding the lady’s spotlight. Perfect. A match for Ladies of the Nightclubs. Set the DVD. At last! Me Time with Frances Langford.
So, it must be The Season. It’s certainly about The Time – as in, the amount it takes to …
Fifteen seconds into the 01:18 of Fran’s first song, “I’m Good For Nothing But Love”, and I’m totally under her spell, chained-to-the-rocks, twitterpated. I suddenly stipulate that her recordings will go with me to the tomb. (The Boatman will understand.) Although I wouldn’t be caught dead with the entire film, I am splicing together its four nightclub scenes. Using the cues below (also handy for fast-forwarding), the total running-time will be close to the 1944 animated and music-packed short, Little Red Riding Rabbit and the sight gags about as looney. My fellow Lucy-fan Janet Roitz and I can hear Mrs. Trumbull rumbling, “People don’t realize how long 67 minutes can be!”
1. I’m Good For Nothing But Love, 09:16 – 10:34 [reprised, 57:58 – 1:00:07]
2. Dreaming Out Loud, 14:10 – 16:02. The Budget included this honey of a Wurlitzer juke box. The restaurant, Mom’s Pantry, though technically not a cabaret, does have candles stuffed into chianti and beer bottles which are now thickly covered in wax drippings. Somebody’s been draining the contents!
3. Moonlight Over the Islands, 27:32 – 29:39
4. Right Along About Evening, 46:20 – 48:17
Les Milbrook, editor of the 1-★ Gildersleeves adventures, pieced together Bamboo Blonde. No wonder it took me a week of 10-minute doses to finally reach The End. The film is an odyssey in disguise – with too many overlapping hack plots and gaseous characters snapping out cornball dialogue that was shopworn way-before ’46. Be wary of the yardage of stock war footage interspersed with could-be balsa planes. And bombs and more bombs dropping-down on who/whatever is below–below–and … IMPACT!
Maybe it is about The Time.
Picture it. May 1943. Three years prior to the release of Bamboo Blonde, RKO announces a countrywide search – “for an unknown” – to star in their forthcoming epic. Apparently, not since Scarlett O’Hara has there been such a challenging role. There was no mention of a starting date, no naming of a director, nothing about Technicolor. The PR also stated: “A contemporary American romantic comedy will be written on the lot to fit the title.” It was a blast of hot air, of course, with a ready-set routine of TBD responses should anybody ask (nobody asked); all typical of the free stuff that went with RKO’s steady output of B movies, i.e., those with operating budgets of less than $200K. That same year, radio superstar/recording and film personality Frances Langford (now permanently blonde) was the girl singer working beside Bob Hope on his first USO tour. Hope was awed by Frances’ voice, unfailing humor, sexual charisma, and instant connection to the soldiers. (Maybe I was in the audience?) She was everybody’s girl. In his sometimes hilarious account of that adventure, I Never Left Home, Hope writes: “It got so hot in Sicily we thought we’d be more comfortable if we did our shows in shorts. Frances was the first to try it. Her singing was the most enjoyable those guys ever laid eyes on. What an inspiration a pair of Hollywood legs were to those men! A few days later, Italy surrendered.”
Minus any touted talent search, RKO executive producer Sid Rogell signed Frances Langford, aka, Mrs. Jon (“The Hurricane”) Hall and “The Armed Forces Sweetheart”. He then engaged rapid-fire writers Olive Cooper and Lawrence Kimble for the romantic comedy screenplay. Both had experience grinding out scripts for the shoot ’em up singing cowboy melodramas over at Republic Pictures. So, they girded their mutual know-how, updated the backdrops, elevated the weaponry, and rounded up another company of crazy/cutups to mow down a totally other brand of enemy – and allowed space for a breakneck montage of fire and fury. A piece of cake, all within reach.
The writers’ ultimate assignment was to spin-out a lighthearted yarn about the long-distance longing between a hot New York City nightclub singer and a tepid (but Old-Monied) upper-crust lieutenant – a B-29 pilot whose squadron becomes part of the aerial armada that wipes out Japanese fighter planes and battleships and then drops firebombs over Tokyo. [Fact Check: March 10, 1945]. Though the lieutenant refuses to reveal the singer’s name – one of the crew, Shorty (handy with a paintbrush), snags his secret photo, re-imagines it into a huge pin-up, and then emblazons it on the side of their plane. “I put my all into that hair,” says Shorty. “It isn’t just blonde! I started her tawny, then I burnished it down to a gold, then I paled it down to a color of bamboo, Sir!”
“Shorty,” replies Lieutenant Patrick Ransom, Jr, “Words fail me.” The illustrator replies, “Well, The Bamboo Blonde won’t! She’ll bring us luck this time.” The NYC cabaret siren – now a B-29 Goddess of War – whistles a different tune as her arsenal falls below. One of the co-pilots observes, “I never saw a blonde yet that couldn’t wreck a city!” Once back in the U.S., the magical couple are re-united, go on a bond-selling tour and (judging by the final measures of the soundtrack) live happily ever after. All in 67 contemporary American minutes.
Sandwiched between the layers of the brief but frenetic Cooper/Kimble screenplay is a thick spread of American apple-pie hokum, war mythology, bombardier-type stock footage, and Hollywood ballyhoo. Turns out, Bamboo Blonde is a revealing product for exploring mid ’40s Big Studio image control and formula filmmaking. Likewise, the derivative songwriting that came from the arbitrary pairing of Mort Greene and Lew Pollack. They had never worked together before, now they’re composing for a major pop star, not some malleable “unknown”. So, how do you write for Frances Langford? Producer Rogell’s likely advice to the gentlemen, “Just make it all sound like her other stuff. On my desk, Wednesday.” Done! Their end products are manageable and fit the individual scene. But, out of context – not one of the four tunes ever gets off the ground, none were ever published or recorded. But Frances Langford knew how to soar above this low budget and B-average material. All novice director Anthony Mann had to do was follow her lead. Frances is totally in command, on-target with her message, sophisticated and lusty. And over too soon.
And The Place?
Come the fall season, it’s high time for me to be back in school and working on the M.A. – The Bamboo Blonde (1946), A Treasure Trove of Americana.