Melody Cruise (1933) Review, with Charlie Ruggles and Phil Harris

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melodycruise21 melodycruise18 melodycruise5
Alan Chandler
Phil Harris
Pete Wells
Charlie Ruggles 
Elsa von Rader
Greta Nissen
melodycruise20 melodycruise36 melodycruise30
Laurie Marlowe
Helen Mack
Ms. Potts
Flora Roberts
Zoe & Vera
June Brewster
& Shirley Chambers
Released by RKO | Directed by Mark Sandrich
Run time: 76 minutes

Proof That It’s a Pre-Code Film

  • WELL. Two women get stranded in Charlie Ruggle’s cabin after a wild party. They spend most of the film in their negligees, cracking wise. Ruggles is forced to portray the women as his nieces to keep from getting in trouble. The porter, Hickey (Chick Chandler),suggests his solution before Ruggles banters back:

“I’ll take their clothes! They can’t go out without any clothes on, can they?”

“Oh, you don’t know my nieces…”

  • The porter comes upon these two scantily clad women as they sing-song: “Beware, beee-ware, dangerous nympho beware!”
  • Ruggles and Chandler convince the girls to stay that way by suggesting they threw their clothes overboard in a drunken glee. Zoe objects, but Vera notes, “You know whenever you get a few drinks in you, you always want to take your clothes off…”
  • Oh, and they both shower together at one point. Fun!
  • “What we need is something fresh, even if it’s only the air.”
  • “I’ll be a good boy.”
    “Well, if you’re going to be good, who wants ya?”
  • “You know how to explain one woman to your wife? Well, just double it.”
  • There’s a brief second where a black guy cracks a joke and two white guys laugh earnestly at it– it’s 1930s-style social progress!

Melody Cruise: Fun and Sin on the Sea

“You never learned to combine business with pleasure.”

“Well, it’s the night work that really saps my strength…”

I’m not sure what I was expecting going into Melody Cruise, but an RKO take on Love Me Tonight set aboard an ocean cruise with all the Transatlantic trimmings definitely wasn’t it. While the movie has a definite flaw– and, as weird as it is to say, it’s the main character– the rest of it is a nice little sex farce, with plenty of risque winks and clever lines to keep things moving.

Paul (Ruggles) and Alan (Harris) are the best of pals. Both board a steamer going from New York to California via the Panama Canal with very different goals in mind: Paul doesn’t want to get in any trouble with his wife waiting for him at the destination, while Alan simply doesn’t want to get married. To ensure this, Alan writes up a list of fake affairs that Paul hasn’t committed (“Compared to you, Casanova was an Eskimo!”) and sends them to Paul’s wife, with the envelope printed “Read this if Alan ever gets married.”

It's biological.
It’s biological.

It’s a goofy plot for sure, and the film may care just a bit too much about it. What surrounds the thoroughfare, from the musical melodies that match to launch of the ship to the many ways the film larks between singing and talking to elevate the story into a light fairy tale. It’s not wholly successful– sometimes the movie feels like the director was cramming in as many imaginative wipes and transitions as he could manage rather than staging the scenes with any poignancy– but that just speaks to the movie’s lightness.

Alan’s complications come in the form of his longtime paramour, Elsa (Nissen). They’ve chased each other around Europe and have just started getting close to serious. To throw them off, Paul enlists Hickey (Chick Chandler) to instead Alan into the arms of school teacher Laurie (Mack); unfortunately, that only puts him on another path towards marital bliss.

Buy American (romance-wise).
Buy American (romance-wise).

This romantic triangle at the center of the film is a little off. It’s supposed to be a mix between a ‘match made in heaven’ sort of love between Alan and Laurie with a sort of elegant continental romance he had with Nissen that’s just supposed to float away. I couldn’t buy it– Nissen seems just as invested and into the affair as Mack, with the added bonus that she harbors no illusions about the guy. Unfortunately, Harris looks and sounds like a sexed up Jack Benny, so you can’t quite see why the film portrays him as a real lady killer.

While his role at the center dulls things, there’s so much life in the rest of the movie that it’s impossible to resist. The musical numbers are a lot of fun, with the highlight, “He’s Not the Marrying Kind”, being performed by a dozen beautiful women, wonderfully showcases the fashions of the era. Another number, “Is This the Night for Love”, is a romantic ballad that goes international with Spanish, French and German passengers (all in obvious getups) take their turns with a verse.

We've all been in this situation, and sometimes not even our slips.
We’ve all been in this situation, and sometimes they’re not even our slips.

Like I said, the movie tries. Where it succeeds the most, though, is putting Charlie Ruggles through the ringer. He’s a playboy who suddenly finds himself not just having to sabotage his friend’s sex life, but, to his horror, discovers two revelers have stowed away in his cabin. Zoe (Brewster) and Vera (Chambers) may not be the brightest pair in the world (and they’re definitely not the most clothed), but the two have a good time on their own terms. No one sputters like Ruggles, and, with the spunky enthusiasm of Brewster and Chambers, the movie gives him plenty of chances to do so.

Nissen and Mack are good, too; it’s a very wacky, loose and somehow friendly feeling sort of film that’s flawed, but still worth a look. Between the RKO set designs, the gentle numbers, and that lulling way it tries to spin itself as a fairy tale, it almost pulls it off.

Gallery

Click to enlarge. All of my images are taken by me– please feel free to reuse with credit!

Trivia & Links

  • There’s a number of references in here to other pre-Code works.
    • Hickey looks at one of the lingerie clad beauties and winks, “Come up and see me sometime.” in the style of Mae West.
    • When questioned about why the two girls want to go to Paris, Ruggles intimates “Oh, well, you know. Fifty million Frenchmen…”, a Broadway smash in the 20s and a film of the same name from two years earlier.
    • A little more specious, but Hickey notes that, “The Greeks had a word for it.”, which calls to mind the 1932 Joan Blondell comedy The Greeks Had a Word For Them.
  • Director Mark Sandrich made the transition from shorts to feature length films with this one. He would go on to be best remembered for working with Astaire and Rogers on films like The Gay Divorcee, though he was also behind the lens for a pair of Wheeler & Woolsey flicks, Hips, Hips Hooray! and Cockeyed Cavaliers. He also directed site-favorite Aggie Appleby, Maker of Men.
Ruggles originally auditioned for the part of Alice in Alice in Wonderland, but just didn't get it.
Ruggles originally auditioned for the part of Alice in Alice in Wonderland, but just didn’t get it.

Mr. Sandrich also tackles the blending of different sounds, and often the boisterous incidents are depicted with such artistry as to make them quite bright. One might hazard that it is a film in which the wizardry of the camera “is the thing.”

According to modern sources, Melody Cruise was a surprise financial success for RKO.

Awards, Accolades & Availability

  • While this one did make it on to VHS, I don’t believe there’s ever been a DVD release. Too bad. Caught it on TCM.

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Danny

Danny is a librarian who lives on the coast of California with his lovely wife, adorable daughter, and yappy dog. He blogs bi-weekly at pre-code.com, a website dedicated to Hollywood films from 1930 to 1934, and can be found on Twitter @PreCodeDotCom.

4 thoughts on “Melody Cruise (1933) Review, with Charlie Ruggles and Phil Harris

  1. Thanks for this great review! I watched this film for the first time yesterday…loved seeing a youngish Phil Harris. Melody Cruise was SO much fun!

    Keep up the great work…love your site! 🙂

  2. I recorded it and only watched the first few minutes, and it of course put me in mind of Love Me Tonight’s famous opening, that symphony of sounds, Paramount’s Paris sets coming to early-morning life. Looking forward to watching the rest. Seems like one of those great little surprises. Not a nasterpiece, but saucy and definitely not Code-friendly. Terrific review, Danny…

  3. I also was put in mind of Love Me Tonight, both in the opening “Go West” montage, and also by the way “He’s Not The Marrying Kind” was structured. Very clever! All in all, I thought there was a decidedly Wodehousian air to the storyline.

    Danny, It’s funny you compare Phil Harris to a “sexed up Jack Benny.” I agree that Harris comes across as too tepid to send the ladies swooning. But at the time of this movie, Phil was still three years away from joining the Jack Benny show, and as I listen to those radio programs, it isn’t really until late 1938 that the real “Phil Harris” character, that of the hard-partying, skirt-chasing, jazzbo, finally emerges. Knowing where Phil was in his career in 1933, I’m rather at a loss to understand how he rated the lead in this picture. Well, actually I guess I do understand–he must obviously have wowed the studio with his performance in the short “So This Is Harris.” I haven’t seen that yet, have you?

  4. The phrase is “through the wringer,” not “through the ringer.” It refers to the pain of being squished in a laundry wringer, and has nothing to do with telephones. One of those metaphorical phrases that has survived longer than the device it refers to, so no one knows how to spell it anymore!

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