SUPPOSE THEY GAVE A MOVIE AND NOBODY CAME no. 2
by Jeff Grimshaw
"Boys," said Dick Nathan one afternoon as Chuck and I were rinsing off the pop corn that people had left behind following the matinee (just the stuff they left in the cups, nothing they dropped on the floor; hey, what kind of place do you think we were running?), "We have a change of plans for the 4th of July. We are hosting a world premiere!"
"A world premiere?"
"A world premiere. And not just ANY world premiere. This will be the FIRST world premiere of THIS movie in 40 years!"
"And," said Chuck, "the name of this world premiere movie is?"
"Hallelujah, I'm a Bum," said Nathan. "Boys, this is not just going to be a movie-- this is going to be an event! We may have to hire extra ushers!"
"Boys-- when I say 'event,' I mean 'EVENT,' all in capital letters just like on the marquee! 4th of July, boys, so we are going to bring off this premiere in 4th of July style with FIREWORKS! I have already made a small *ahem* contribution to the local constabulary, and obtained the necessary permits for setting off fireworks across the street in the park. And if we play our cards right, I think we can get one of the actual STARS to attend." Pause for effect. "Madge Evans herSELF, boys!" We stared. "HUGE star in her day. HUGE. Yes, we will definitely need extra ushers." He went on in this vein for several minutes, musing that on the night of the premiere, everybody in town would be here and the streets and houses would be empty. "They'll have to put on extra cops that night, boys, because otherwise this town will be a Burglar's Paradise."
At this point you may be wondering, as Chuck and I were wondering, just what the hell was this 40-year-old movie we had never heard of, and why did the owner think anybody was going to pay money to see it? In answer to the second question: I have no idea. In answer to the first, I will share with you...
A BRIEF HISTORY OF "HALLELUJAH, I'M A BUM"
February 3rd, 1933: "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum," starring Al Jolson, Madge Evans, Frank Morgan, and Harry Langdon, opens.
February 10th, 1933: "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum," starring Al Jolson, Madge Evans, Frank Morgan, and Harry Langdon, closes.
As it turned out, this was not a terrible movie, but it was very strange. It had a story by Ben Hecht, rhyming dialogue by S.N. Berman, and songs by Rogers & Hart, including the standard "You Are Too Beautiful," which was familiar to me from the version by John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. And of course there was the ever-popular Madge Evans. Madge, a now almost forgotten actress from the early sound era (she had also had an earlier career as a child star in the silent days), was remarkably beautiful even by Hollywood standards, but virtually retired from the screen while still in her twenties (I guess most famous movies were Dinner at Eight and David Copperfield) when she married the playwright Sidney Kingsley (Pulitzer prize winner, author of, among other things, DEAD END and DETECTIVE STORY). I was given several assignments in preparation for the grand premiere. Most importantly, I was responsible for getting MADGE EVANS HERSELF to attend the showing. Madge was living in New Jersey-- a wealthy widow--- and Nathan figured that we could reap tons of publicity if this elderly, utterly forgotten movie star attended a showing of this elderly, utterly forgotten movie.
So I wrote her a letter explaining that we were presenting the movie and if she wanted to come to opening night, I could pick her up in my '68 Malibu. She did not reply to the letter, so I was ordered to drive out to her palatial home and entreat her in person. I took the Malibu to the car wash for the first time in over a year and drove to the estate, which I believe was in Bergen County. I got as far as the gate. I buzzed the intercom, and explained to someone--possibly Madge herself? -- what I wanted. There was a pause that lasted almost a full minute, and then the voice on the intercom said, "No. I don't think so. Good Lord. No Thank you." "Well," I said, "I'll write my phone number on this envelope and stick it in the gate here, and if you change your mind, just give me a call." But she never did.
"We could," Chuck suggested a day or two before the premiere, "just get some other old bag and say she's Madge. Who'll know?" The owner vetoed this idea as ungallant, to both the beautiful Madge Evans and the hypothetical other old bag.
On the 4th of July, 1973, with the temperature steady at 96 degrees, the entire population of Caldwell, NJ, decided they would rather risk heat stroke than sit through our Al Jolson movie. Nobody at all came to the first show; one of the new candy girls burst into tears and locked herself in the popcorn storage closet, crying "It's MY fault. They won't come because I'M here." We talked her out just before the second show, for which one (1) drunk graced us with his presence. He sang along with Al during the lovely Rogers and Hart ballad "You Are Too Beautiful." The owner stood at the back of the auditorium watching the movie-- which is actually pretty good, even if the dialogue does rhyme-- interesting thoughts visibly racing around in his head. The extra ushers scampered about, looking for nonexistent soda cups to pick up. The pyrotechnician tapped the owner on the shoulder. "It's dark, sir. Should we set off the fireworks now?"
"By all means, by all means," he said, calm and serene to all appearances, except for the vein twitching spasmodically in his forehead. The candy girl locked herself in the closet again. The rest of us stood on the roof, near a decaying satchel full of rusted burglar tools that had been abandoned in panic years before, and watched the fireworks-- visible, perhaps, even from Madge Evan's house-- while the dulcet tones of the singing drunk and the crazy candy girl drifted up from below. It was the greatest 4th of July, and the greatest World Premiere of a previously premiered 40-year-old movie, that Caldwell, New Jersey had ever seen.
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