Rudy Vallee: Comic Crooner

One of the more prestigious A-picture releases from Warner Bros. in 1935, Sweet Music was primarily designed as a star vehicle for the legendary crooner Rudy Vallee. In many ways, the movie could be seen as a distillation of his live appearances where he incorporated a great deal of humor into his act along with novelty songs and a jazz-influenced singing style that influenced Bing Crosby and other upcoming vocalists. 

Singer/Musician Rudy Vallee was as popular as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley in his heyday during the late 1920s/early 1930s.

While it might baffle audiences of today, Vallee had a wildly adoring fan base and was mobbed by female admirers wherever he appeared. In his own day, he was as popular as Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson and Sweet Music, directed by Alfred E. Green (The Jolson Story), was an early attempt to match his enormous success on the radio and in concerts with a comparable movie career. 

Vallee made his film debut in 1929 in the early talkie musical The Vagabond Lover but it wasn’t until he appeared in a few musical shorts and a top-billed role in George White’s Scandals (1934) that the singer/musician began to loosen up on camera and display the smooth, self-assured and witty performance style that made him the singing sensation of his era.

Ann Dvorak and Rudy Vallee are lovers and competing musical talents in the 1935 romantic comedy, Sweet Music, directed by Alfred E. Green.

In Sweet Music, Vallee plays orchestra conductor and singer Skip Houston, a popular entertainer who clashes over marquee billing with Chicago dancer Bonnie Haydon (Ann Dvorak). Their constant feuding gives way to romance, however, once they begin preparing for a Broadway show together. Complications quickly send the two musical talents on separate career paths which eventually lead back to a reunion and marriage. But the plot is incidental in Sweet Music – to take a cue from the title, what the movie offers are representative samples of Vallee’s stage show featuring songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin (the title song), Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal (“There’s a Different You”) and Mort Dixon and Allie Wrubel (“I See Two Loves”).

Torch singer Helen Morgan makes a rare screen appearance in the Rudy Vallee musical, Sweet Music (1935).

Ms. Dvorak gets to demonstrate her athletic rendition of tap dancing (she worked as a chorus girl and assistant choreographer at Warner Bros. before she became a featured actress), the famous torch singer Helen Morgan makes a memorable cameo and plenty of comic relief is provided by Ned Sparks and Allen Jenkins as Bonnie and Skip’s scheming managers/publicists. Alice White is equally delightful as a wisecracking chorus girl and Robert Armstrong of King Kong fame plays her dim gangster brother.

Alice White plays the bubbly blonde chorus girl Lulu Betts in the Rudy Vallee musical romance, Sweet Music (1935).

The first half of Sweet Music has a wacky charm that looks back toward the comedy routines of vaudeville but also forward to the madcap musical antics of Spike Jones and his Orchestra in the forties. In the opening production number, Vallee’s musicians (members of The Frank and Milt Britton Band) cut loose in a Three Stooges-like free-for-all in which a trombonist imitates the sound of an airplane, fellow musicians spray each other with seltzer bottles, and Rudy is tripped by a band member and goes sprawling across the floor as he introduces a chorus of fan dancers (they turn out to be a bunch of burly men in drag and even do a brief parody of Busby Berkeley’s geometric dance patterns).

One of the big musical production numbers in Sweet Music (1935), starring Rudy Vallee and Ann Dvorak.

For the nonsense song “Outside,” Vallee demonstrates his knack for impersonations and sings in a variety of accents as he spoofs cultural stereotypes. The show-stopping finale of “Fare Thee Well, Annabelle” – an elaborate production number which was adapted from one of Vallee’s Broadway shows – is a throwback to the minstrel shows of the 19th century with its blackfaced chorus dancers cavorting on Art Deco sets amid Vallee’s homage to le jazz hot.

Sweet Music was a hit with audiences and many critics enjoyed it as a frivolous but pleasing entertainment. Andre Sennwald of The New York Times wrote, “Far from being the grave and soulful songbird which his gleeful enemies used to lampoon, Rudy Vallee goes to great lengths in Sweet Music to show that he is one of the boys. During the rambling and somewhat informal progress of the new photoplay at the Strand, the eminent radio and night club entertainer not only sings his songs but also participates in the head-breaking frolics of the Frank and Milt Britton lads. When he is not making love to his radio rival, Miss Ann Dvorak, or adjusting his famous voice to the expert numbers which the Warners have assembled for him, Mr. Vallee may be found imitating Fred Allen or cracking his opponents over the head with his violin. Sometimes, to be sure, Mr. Vallee injects into his carefree clowning a slightly arch quality, but in general he is a hail fellow who wears his fame no more gravely than you yourself would under the circumstances.”

Warner Bros. star Ann Dvorak gets the glamor treatment in Sweet Music (1935), a musical romance co-starring Rudy Vallee.

While Rudy Vallee is clearly the star of Sweet Music, Ann Dvorak is afforded ample screen time to display her lovely gams and a flair for rapid repartee. The part is more decorative than substantial and is typical of so many of the movies she made at Warner Bros. that squandered her talent. With the exception of Scarface (1932), her breakthrough leading role, and a few memorable parts in such Pre-Code favorites as The Crowd Roars, The Strange Love of Molly Louvain and Three on a Match (all in 1932), Dvorak was mostly confined to B pictures by the studio and it prevented her from becoming a major star. She would later transition to supporting roles in such movies as The Long Night (1947) and A Life of Her Own (1950). One of her final screen appearances, I Was an American Spy (1951), based on real life espionage agent Claire “High Pockets” Phillips, was said to be one of her favorite film roles.

Ann Dvorak and Rudy Vallee star in the Warner Bros. musical romance, Sweet Music (1935), directed by Alfred E. Green.

As for Dvorak’s role opposite Rudy Vallee in Sweet Music, she had already had an unofficial “dress rehearsal” for the part when she starred in Crooner in 1932; that film, co-starring David Manners in the title role, was clearly inspired by Vallee’s popularity as evidenced by the self-absorbed, megaphone-sporting singer of the title.

Rudy Vallee doing one of his famous impressions in the musical comedy Sweet Music (1935).

One last bit of trivia: The screenplay is co-authored by Jerry Wald (with Carl Erickson and Warren Duff) and based on Wald’s original story. He would later become more famous as the powerhouse Warner Bros. producer behind such Academy Award winners as Mildred Pierce (1945), Key Largo (1948) and Johnny Belinda (1948). Later in his career he produced two more Oscar nominees – Peyton Place (1957) and Sons and Lovers (1960) plus the Elvis Presley vehicle Wild in the Country (1961).

From left to right (Producer Jerry Wald, Red West, Elvis Presley and unidentified) on the set of Wild in the Country (1961).

Sweet Music is not currently available on any format though it may turn up on DVD and Blu-Ray someday via the Warner Archives Collection since the film was a Warner Bros. release. It also occasionally pops up on Turner Classic Movies.

The excellent ensemble cast of Sweet Music includes (from left to right) Alice White, Allen Jenkins, Ann Dvorak and Ned Sparks in Sweet Music (1935), featuring singer/musican Rudy Vallee (not pictured).

* This is an updated and revised version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.

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