Mardi Gras Film Review: Dixiana (dir by Luther Reed)

Mardi Gras in New Orleans has always been a legendary party.

If you doubt me on this, just watch the 1930 film, Dixiana.  Dixiana is all about Mardi Gras.  I mean, there is a plot of sorts but it’s pretty easy to guess that, for audiences in 1930, the promise of a spectacular Madi Gras finale (filmed in technicolor, I might add) was the main appeal of this film.  Dixiana itself takes place in the 1840s so there you have it.  90 years ago, RKO Pictures made a lavish movie about a Mardi Gras celebration that had happened nearly 100 years earlier.  That’s quite a legendary party, no?

As with many pre-Code films about the Antebellum South, it can be a bit awkward to watch Dixiana today.  This is a film that opens on a plantation, with Cornelius Van Horn (Joseph Cawthorn) and his son, Carl (Everett Marshall), discussing how much they enjoy listening to the slaves sing about the Mississippi River.  They’re amazed that the slaves can sing so beautifully about water.  (It doesn’t occur to them that the song was actually about going up the river and finding freedom.)  Cornelius and Carl, we discover, are actually from Pennsylvania.  Cornelius has recently remarried, to the snobbish Birdie (Jobnya Howland) and both he and his son have only recently moved down to her native Louisiana.  Carl and Cornelius are still getting used to life in and the customs of the South.  Cornelius, for instance, explains that he regularly frees some of his slaves and he imagines that’s why they’re always so happy.  But if he really wants them all to be happy why doesn’t he just free them all and maybe stop buying slaves all together?  Let’s just say that Dixiana is not the film to watch if you’re looking for an honest look at American life before the Civil War.

Anyway, if you’re still interested in seeing the film after reading all of that, the majority of Dixiana takes place in New Orleans.  Carl goes into town, does some gambling, and sees a show.  He is immediately smitten with a performer named Dixiana (Bebe Daniels) and he asks her to marry him.  Even though her two best friends, Peewee and Ginger (played by the comedy team of Wheeler and Woolsey), are weary, Dixiana accepts his proposal.  Carl takes Dixiana back to the plantation with him.  Unfortunately, he also takes Peewee and Ginger and they soon let slip that they’re all circus performers.  Birdie is scandalized.  There’s no way her stepson is going to bring shame on the family by marrying a circus performer!

So, Dixiana and her friends head back to New Orleans.  The circus no longer wants her so Dixiana is forced to work in a gambling hall that’s owned by smarmy Royal Montague (Ralf Harolde).  Montague has his own personal interest in Dixiana but she’s still in love with Carl.  So, Royal plots to not only have Dixiana crowned as the Queen of Mardi Gras but also to trick Carl into accept a duel with him.  Montague, of course, plans to pull an Aaron Burr and cheat.  Meanwhile, Peewee and Ginger steal money, kick each other in the backside, and fight a duel of their own….

And really, none of that matters.  In the end, the film’s storyline is mostly just busywork.  The main reason that anyone would want to see this film is for the final 20 minutes, which is when the grainy black-and-white cinematography is replaced by gloriously vibrant technicolor and the Mardi Gras celebrations begin.  There’s singing.  There’s dancing.  There’s even Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, making his film debut and dancing up a storm.  Seriously, 1840s Mardi Gras looked like it would have been fun to attend, even if it does sometimes seem more like a lively cotillion as opposed to the orgy of alcohol poisoning that everyone knows and loves today.

Dixiana is one of those films that’s fallen into the public domain and, as such, it tends to turn up in a lot of cheap DVD boxsets.  There’s quite a few prints out that are completely in black-and-white and which don’t feature the sudden change to color.  That’s a shame because, whatever flaws this film may have, it does make good use of that technicolor during the final 20 minutes.  It’s big and lavish and gorgeous to look at and it’s easy to imagine the valuable escape that it provided for audiences at the start of the Depression.

Today, Dixiana is probably most interesting as a historical document.  It’s not quite as racy as one might expect from a pre-code film but it’s a good example of the type of lavish musicals that were popular among audiences who, in the 30s, used the film as a way to escape from the grimness of reality.  And, if nothing else, it’s proof that Mardi Gras in New Orleans has always been a big deal.

De-Coded: Wheeler & Woosley in KENTUCKY KERNALS (RKO 1934)

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The comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woosley  join forces with Our Gang’s Spanky McFarland in KENTUCKY KERNALS, directed by Hal Roach vet George Stevens. Sounds like the perfect recipe for a barrel of laughs, right? Well, while there are some laughs to be had, the (then) recent enforcement of the Production Code finds W&W much more subdued than in their earlier zany efforts, and playing second fiddle to both Spanky’s admittedly funny antics and the plot at hand, a takeoff on the famed Hatfield-McCoy feud.

Weirdly enough, the film starts off with a lovelorn man attempting suicide by jumping off a bridge. Fortunately for him, he lands in a fishing net owned by down-on-their luck vaudevillians Elmer (Woolsey) and Willie (Wheeler), living in a waterfront shack. The two convince him to adopt a child, and go to the orphanage, where they find cute little Spanky, who has a…

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Pre-Code Confidential #21: Wheeler & Woosley in DIPLOMANIACS (RKO 1933)

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Political satire in film ran rampant during the Pre-Code Era. Somewhere between W.C. Fields’s MILLION DOLLAR LEGS and the Marx Brothers’ DUCK SOUP  sits DIPLOMANIACS, Wheeler & Woolsey’s madcap take on war and peace, 1930’s style. It’s purely preposterous, unadulterated farce, and is guaranteed to offend someone, if not everyone.

Let’s get it out of the way right now: DIPLOMANIACS is not politically correct in any way, shape, or form. It’s loaded with racist stereotypes, casting Hugh Herbert as a not-so-wise Chinaman (“It is written that it is written that it is written that it is written”), lambastes Jews, Native Americans, and homosexuals, and portrays women as sex objects (spy Marjorie White is delivered in plastic wrap). A bomb tossed into the peace talks causes everyone to turn blackface, leading to a prolonged minstrel number! If you’re already offended, stop reading… but if you can take the heat, by all…

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Turning Back the Cuckoo Clock with Wheeler & Woosley in THE CUCKOOS (RKO 1930)

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We last left the wacky world of Wheeler & Woolsey with a look at the looney HOLD ‘EM JAIL . Today we delve deeper into comedy’s film vault with their 1930 effort THE CUCKOOS, based on the hit Broadway musical by Guy Bolton, Bert Kalmar, and Harry Ruby. The play featured the team of Clark & McCullough, who are even more obscure than W&W to most film fans (they appeared in a series of shorts from 1928-35), but RKO (after the success of 1929’s RIO RITA) put W&W into the film version, hoping the team’s antics would click with Depression Era audiences.

And click they did, leading to an RKO contract and nineteen more features! THE CUCKOOS’ plot concerns romantic entaglements at a plush hotel, with  heiress Ruth (June Clyde) in love with pilot Billy (Hugh Trevor), but pushed toward the oily Baron de Camp (Ivan Lebedeff ) by her…

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