An Honor To Be Nominated: Cain And Mabel

THE CONTENDER: Cain And Mabel (1936)

Number of Nominations: 1 – Best Dance Direction (Bobby Connolly for “1000 Love Songs”)

Number of Wins: 0

When I expanded the parameters of this column to include any movie that had been nominated for any Academy Award, it was out of a desire to explore the fringes of Oscar history. There have been a lot of pictures nominated for a single award like Best Original Song or Best Make-Up whose achievement has been forgotten, sometimes rightly, sometimes not.

The Oscars’ early years are chockfull of curios like that. The biggest reason for this is simply that it took them a number of years to figure this shit out. The number of nominees in any given category could vary wildly, from as few as three to a dozen or more. At the 17th Academy Awards, 20 (!) movies were nominated for Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture. This was just a few years after several technical categories (including Cinematography) were split in half between Color and Black-and-White. That tradition lasted well into the 1960s, resulting in a whole lot of weirdly bloated categories.

And then there’s the case of the Categories That Time Forgot, defunct categories that were introduced, hung around for a year or three, then vanished. The very first ceremony had several that were immediately dropped, including Comedy Direction and Artistic Quality of Production. For a number of years, the Academy handed out special Juvenile Awards to outstanding child actors like Shirley Temple and Judy Garland. But those were non-competitive awards and only given out intermittently.

All of which brings us to today’s subject: the obscure musical comedy Cain And Mabel which racked up a single Academy Award nomination in the long-gone Best Dance Direction category. Even by Oscar standards, this was a weird one. It was given out only three times, from 1935 to 1937. And unlike most other categories which recognize the overall quality of the production, nominees for Best Dance Direction were honored for a specific dance sequence within a film. This is how you could end up with Merian C. Cooper’s adventure movie She competing against the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers classic Top Hat.

Cain And Mabel was directed by Lloyd Bacon, a man who knew his way around the dance floor thanks to his work on such musicals as 42nd Street and Footlight Parade. Marion Davies stars as Mabel O’Dare, a waitress at a busy New York cafeteria. She takes pity on suicidal ex-reporter Aloysius K. Reilly (Roscoe Karns, whose rat-a-tat delivery is immediately recognizable from classics like It Happened One Night and His Girl Friday), giving him a breakfast that was being sent back to the kitchen. After her altruism gets her fired, Reilly vows to make things right. Realizing that his propensity for making up phony stories made him a lousy reporter but would serve him well as a publicity agent, he takes the seemingly talentless Mabel on as his first client.

Reilly marches Mabel into the office of theatrical producer Jake Sherman, claiming they’re old friends and promising to get her an audition. But Reilly stops the first person who walks out the door, assuming he must be Sherman. It’s actually Broadway star Ronny Cauldwell (Robert Paige, then going under the name David Carlyle). For a laugh, Ronny pretends to be Sherman and says he’ll give Mabel a shot at the lead role if she comes to rehearsal the next day.

Mabel and Reilly show up at the appointed time and place where the real Sherman (Walter Catlett) is understandably confused. Fortunately for Mabel, she shows up just as Sherman’s temperamental star Toddy (Pert Kelton) throws a tantrum and threatens to quit (perhaps because her producer stopped rehearsal dead for a good five minutes to banter with some rando off the street). Feeling bad about the trick he played, Ronny convinces Sherman to give Mabel a shot. Of course he does and of course she gets the lead. Why not? It’s not like he has a stage full of chorus girls directly in front of him who would probably kill for an opportunity like this.

The untested Mabel works day and night to prepare for her Broadway debut. It’s the “night” part that brings prizefighter Larry Cain (Clark Gable) into her life. He has the hotel room directly beneath hers and her hoofing practice is preventing him from getting much-needed rest the night before a big fight. Why Mabel is practicing in a hotel and not, say, at the theatre or a rehearsal space is not clear, nor is it understandable why the management of the hotel sides with her over the comfort of literally every other guest but whatever. Mabel’s show goes on, Cain loses his fight, and the two go their separate ways, happy to be out of each other’s life.

Some time later (Weeks? Months? A year? Who knows?), Cain has fought his way to the top but receipts are down. It seems nobody really cares about Larry Cain. Mabel’s having the same problem. People think her show’s OK but don’t have any real investment in her. So Reilly concocts a plan to sell the press on a phony romance between the two, giving them both a much-needed public persona. Both are reluctant at first, hardly a surprise considering they can’t stand the sight of each other, but agree to the arrangement once they realize how many other jobs depend on them. I don’t want to go into spoiler alert territory but if you don’t think Cain and Mabel end up falling in love for real, please let me know how you enjoy your first movie after you see it.

Cain And Mabel is one of those zippy Hollywood confections that has no agenda other than to make you smile for 90 minutes. By that measure, it’s fairly successful. The script, credited to Laird Doyle and H.C. Witwer, is fast-paced and quippy. The story is ludicrous but it manages to work in themes like economic insecurity and the easily-manipulated media that are still relevant today.

Clark Gable was one of the biggest stars in the country, if not the world, at this time and every ounce of his considerable charm and charisma is on display. He has a relaxed, easy chemistry with the other members of his team, Allen Jenkins as corner man Dodo and William Collier Sr. as trainer Pops Walters. And it’s always a pleasure to see Roscoe Karns in action. He could read the want ads and make them sound hilarious.

But the real surprise here is Marion Davies, an actress who is too often given short shrift by movie fans today, most of whom I’d argue haven’t seen a single one of her films. Her career was overshadowed by her relationship with publisher William Randolph Hearst and his behind-the-scenes role in her career. Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Pictures was behind many of Davies’ films, including this one, which explains how such a trifling entertainment could boast such an extravagant budget. Today, too many people assume that the character of talentless singer Susan Alexander in Orson Welles’ Hearst-inspired Citizen Kane is an accurate depiction of Davies’ abilities. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Davies is a gifted comedic actress, more than holding her own against Gable and Karns. She’s tough, funny, sharp and even acquits herself reasonably well in the musical numbers. She’s no Ginger Rogers but she doesn’t need to be. Dance director Bobby Connolly finds other uses for her physicality that don’t require elaborate movements.

About that Oscar-nominated Dance Direction: Cain And Mabel is one of those “musicals” where the production numbers are part of the show within the show. There are two of them and both could be lifted out in their entirety without hurting either the narrative of the film or the integrity of the musical numbers. They’re that superfluous. Davies is involved in both but a couple of ringers are brought in to make her look good, vaudeville entertainer Sammy White and featured dancer Charles Teske. Both of them do their routines and vanish, never to be seen again.

Connolly’s nomination was for the second number, “1000 Love Songs”. The song itself by Harry Warren and Al Dubin is pretty unbearable, performed by Paige in a quavering falsetto. But the production surrounding it is jaw-dropping. Hearst supposedly paid upwards of $100,000 to have the roof of Warner Bros.’ Stage 7 raised 35 feet to accommodate the sets, which included a movable floor over a pool of water and enormous archways and sculptures. The sequence includes ethereal chorus girls suspended in midair, dozens more dancing everywhere you look, and elaborate costumes that render Davies completely immobile. In other words, it’s a number that would be impossible to stage in the Broadway theatre where it’s supposedly being performed.

The non-Oscar-nominated number, “Coney Island”, is even weirder. Sammy White does the song and dance around Davies, describing how they met and fell in love during a trip to Coney Island. Then, the set revolves, revealing a giant carousel. White and Davies proceed to promenade into the Wax Museum, where various historical figures come to life, including Napoleon, Julius Caesar and…um, Popeye. So if you thought Robin Williams was the first actor to play a live-action Popeye, guess again.

(If you’re wondering what the hell Popeye’s doing here, as I was…E.C. Segar’s comic strip Thimble Theatre featuring Popeye ran in the New York Journal and was syndicated by King Features Syndicate, both of which were owned at the time by, you guessed it, William Randolph Hearst. So there you go. Corporate synergy was alive and well even in 1936.)

In the end, Connolly lost the Oscar to The Great Ziegfeld, which also won Best Picture. He probably never stood much of a chance. Cain And Mabel had been a box-office flop and his competition included Swing Time, one of the very best Astaire-Rogers pictures. Connolly never did win an Oscar. The Best Dance Direction category was already a thing of the past by the time his best-known movie, a little thing called The Wizard Of Oz, was released. Marion Davies only made one more picture after this one before she retired to Hearst’s San Simeon estate. It would be decades before critics and audiences would begin to reappraise her work, a process that is still ongoing. As for Clark Gable, he grew his mustache back and continued to do pretty well for himself.

The Best Dance Direction category was a short-lived experiment. Even when musicals were at the height of their popularity, the Academy never really knew how to recognize achievements in choreography, opting instead to give honorary awards to people like Gene Kelly and Jerome Robbins. But, for a few years anyway, at least they could say they tried.

Cain And Mabel is available on DVD and Digital from the Warner Archive Collection.

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