On with the Show! (1929) is historically important in cinema history as the first modern sound film photographed entirely in Technicolor. To explain this breakthrough, this film was promoted in 1929 terms as a 100% 'talkie', meaning that it had synchronized speech. Prior to this, Tiffany had released The Cavalier (1928), which was technically the first feature length sound completely in Technicolor, but only had music and sound effects with silent title cards, and would be regarded as a silent film by viewers today.
Warner Brothers promoted On With the Show! as being in: "Natural Color." The pioneers of sound were the first to introduce sound combined with color. Adverts proclaimed 'Now color takes to the screen'. The novelty of the color alone was enough to ensure a worldwide gross of over $2 million, at the time an outstanding figure. For Warners this would be the first in a series of contracted films made in color. It generated much interest in Hollywood and virtually overnight, most other major studios began films shot in the process. The film would be eclipsed by far greater success of the second Technicolor film, Gold Diggers of Broadway. Unfortunately, the original negative of On With the Show is now lost and no Technicolor prints have survived, only prints in black-and-white. A fragment of an original color print lasting about 20 seconds was recently discovered and used for the frame images shown here.
The film was a combination of a few genres. Part backstage musical using the now familiar 'show within a show' format, part mystery and part comedy. It featured famed singer Ethel Waters in two songs written and staged for the film. "Am I Blue" and "Birmingham Bertha" (with dancer John Bubbles).
The cast includes William Bakewell as the head usher eager to get his sweetheart, box-office girl Sally O'Neil, noticed as a leading girl. Betty Compson plays the temperamental star and Arthur Lake the whiny young male lead. Louise Fazenda is the company's eccentric comedienne, who is given little to do but laugh at inappropriate moments, her hair hennaed an improbable shade of red. Joe E. Brown plays the part of a mean comedian who constantly argues with Arthur Lake.
All of the characters are stereotypes and much of the attempts at humour are fascinating historically, but were dated even at the time of the film's release. Contemporary critic Mordaunt Hall noted in his New York Times review that he imagined the lovely hues "writhed in agony" serving such a story.
Despite this, the direction by Alan Crosland is far snappier than many other films of the period. Moving camera shots and angled, composed scenes do feature when many other early sound films have cameras firmly planted on the floor. The staging of the musical numbers is competent and the settings have been designed with some care to use Technicolor in a flashy, if obvious way. Thus Sally O'Neil finds herself in a storeroom crammed with colored vanity cases and many of the performers are heavily rouged on the cheeks with matching "cherry lips."
This is one of four 1929 Warner Bros. Technicolor films that blazed a trail, creating a brief year-long craze for color films. The others were the smash hit comedy Gold Diggers of Broadway, a lavish revue The Show of Shows, and a Ziegfeld stage adaptation Sally.
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