Roy Mack | The Red Shadow
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Roy Mack was a prolific director of short musical films during
the 1930's. Although these films were typically around 20 minutes
long, they are full fledged Hollywood musicals in every sense
of the term, with story, characters and song and dance numbers.
These films have only rarely been shown in recent years. Had Mack
directed features instead of shorts, he would be a better
known director today. During the 1980's especially, music videos
were popular. Many of these were great pieces of film making.
They show the potential of the short musical as a form.
The Mack musicals tend to have a simple story, like "young
man looking for work". They have dialogue and characters.
Their plots tend to be similar to the feature length Warners'
musicals. However, the dialogue bursts tend to be much shorter
and more skeletal than in a feature. While a feature might have
a five minute scene of all dialogue, the short might just have
a few sentences covering the same ground.
Roy Mack's musicals tend to remind one of such Warner Brothers
feature-length musicals as Lloyd Bacon's
42nd Street (1933) and Mervyn Le Roy's
Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933). These films take place in
modern day New York City, and have recognizable, even fairly realistic
types of people from the daily life of that era. Many seem to
be working people in various professions, either the stage, a
business office, the Fire Department, or other realistic enterprises.
The settings of the both the short and the feature films also
look a lot like real life locations, such as a business office
or a dance studio. People are often looking for work in these
tales. Both the everyday nature of the characters and the job
hunting reflects the Depression. All of these films avoid the
desperate real life poverty that afflicted Americans in this era.
But they are also remote from the social drawing room, white tie
and tails settings sometimes thought appropriate for musicals.
Once the singing and dancing starts, both the shorts and the features
travel at once into a world of escapism. Realism vanishes into
the background, while elaborate musical production numbers occur.
These can be elaborately costumed, with substantial production
values. Like Busby Berkeley, Mack often has a troupe of chorus
girls who back up the leads.
The Red Shadow
The Red Shadow (1932) is quite different from the other
Mack shorts I have seen, in that it is an adaptation of a pre-existing
stage show. The Desert Song (1926) was one of composer
Sigmund Romberg's greatest stage successes. Warner Bothers owned
the film rights, and made it into no less than three full length
films (1929, 1944, 1953). The Desert Song has extraordinarily
beautiful melodies, and an appealing story, so it is not surprising
that it has been filmed so often. I believe that at one time it
was also a favorite of high school students doing a class play.
The Desert Song has liberal politics - it deals with the
Riffs revolting against French colonial rule in Morocco - and
it interesting that such a liberal point of view would be so popular
in this era. Warner Brothers was always the most liberal of the
Hollywood studios, and it is not surprising that they would end
up with the film rights.
A Hero with a Secret Identity
The 1932 Mack version uses the nickname of the hero, known as
"The Red Shadow", as its title. The hero's name was
changed in the 1953 film version to El Kohbar. I've always suspected
that the Quick Draw McGraw cartoons in which Quick Draw assumed
the role of masked hero El Kabong were parodies of this.
Part of the appeal of The Desert Song surely lies in its
hero, a man with a secret identity. Like Zorro, its hero is both
Pierre, the French general's son, and the Red Shadow, secret leader
of the Riffs. Such secret identity tales
already had a long literary history by the time The Desert Song
debuted on Broadway in 1926.
The Desert Song rises and falls on the performance of its
leading man, and fortunately Alexander Gray is up to the task.
Gray worked steadily in Hollywood musicals during 1929 - 1933,
then fell off the map, apparently never working in Hollywood again.
When sound films came in, Hollywood launched a great wave of musical
films in 1929. Many of these starred performers from the Broadway
stage, as well as Broadway directors and choreographers. Gray
was clearly part of this trend. These early movie musicals were
often quite stage oriented. There was a shakeup in 1933, and the
first wave of Hollywood musicals came to an end. They were replaced
by Warner Brothers musicals with extravagant choreography by Busby
Berkeley, and elegant RKO films with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
Gray's vanished film career was clearly part of this palace revolution.
Gray's singing and acting style both seem quite stage oriented.
It is easy to imagine his deep, resonant ringing voice penetrating
to the uppermost balcony of a huge auditorium. Gray also has the
tremendous enthusiasm and zest that makes for a good Red Shadow.
It is a role that celebrates life.
The sets and staging in The Red Shadow range from fairly
realistic film sets in which the characters are photographed relatively
realistically, to other sections that look like stage plays. Perhaps
the size of the cast in the various scenes influenced Mack.
Scenes with just a few actors, such as the opening scenes of the
heroine singing in an elegant Paris salon, or the beautiful garden,
are handled with filmic realism. By contrast, when Mack needs
to stage scenes with a full troupe of singers and dancers, such
as during "The Riff Song" or the finale in the Red Shadow's
stronghold, the film tends to look like a stage musical play. In these stage
like scenes, Mack often shows the whole stage, with the singers
and dancers in full flight, just like a stage play. He will cut
to close-ups of the leads, and then back again to a group view.
In the finale, he will sometimes stage more intimate scenes in
the background of the set, moving his camera closer. Then he will
withdraw to the full stage view for a big musical number.
Mack uses a split screen at one point, to show his hero and heroine
both singing "One Alone" while they are in different
rooms. It is an inventive effect, and not typical of 1930's films.
The most beautiful scene in The Red Shadow occurs here,
where Mack frames the heroine and the garden through a circular
archway. The scene reminds one of the circular film "masks"
that were popular in the silent era, which allowed directors to
frame shots in circular compositions. Unfortunately, such masking
shots fell out of favor after the silent era. Circular paintings
have a long and delightful history, both in Europe and the Far
East, and similar effects can be achieved with both still photography
and film. It is unclear if Mack created this image, or if the
set designer created the set with this angle in mind. The circular
frame of the arch is echoed by other circular topped Moorish archways
in the background of the garden.