This article was written by Tiffany Brannan, the public relations manager and one of the founders of the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society.
I have written more than one article about the pathetic smallness of the amount of musicals with James Cagney, who was extremely gifted with musical talents. In my article honoring his birthday, I mentioned my idea for a film that could have been made with Mr. Cagney and Eleanor Powell. I promised to elaborate in an article for “The Great Breening Blogathon.” Now that the Breenathon is upon us, let us proceed, with no further ado, to Twinkling Stars.
In 1936 and 1937, James Cagney had left Warner Brothers after suing the company for breach of contract. He and his brother William then started Cagney Productions, which made two movies that were distributed by Grand National before running out of money. The Professional Againster then had to return to his home studio and gangland, with better artistic and financial terms, of course. During the schism, however, MGM missed a swell opportunity to feature him in a musical without having to borrow him from the Warners. I am imagining this movie as an MGM production from 1937 with Eleanor Powell, Lew Ayres, Ruth Hussey, and Virginia Bruce as the principle actors to accompany Mr. Cagney.
The movie begins in New York City on a bustling November morning. There is a traffic jam in the cold, crowded, but thankfully snowless intersection of 59th Street and Lexington Avenue. A taxi cab is in the middle of the jam. The cab’s passenger is an anxious Andy McPherson (James Cagney), who is nervously glancing out the window and checking his watch at intervals. He is very concerned that he is going to be late for his interview with a Broadway producer. As the traffic starts to move, his cab lurches ahead to start moving, and it crashes into another taxi. The passenger, Ellie Peters (Eleanor Powell), sticks her head out the window and expresses her indignation. Andy yells his apology to the pretty young lady, who is also very disturbed about being caught in traffic. The drivers get out and start yelling at each other, each blaming the other for the accident. Ellie begs them to stop squabbling, saying that she will be late for a very important appointment. Finally, Andy hands each driver a five dollar bill and tells them to settle it among themselves as he and Ellie dash to nearby vacant taxis.
Inside a Broadway theater, Jimmy Watson (Lew Ayres) is sitting in the front row of the audience, attentively watching a score of chorus girls perform a simple routine as his secretary, Ruby Sheldon (Ruth Hussey), takes copious notes. When the song ends, Jimmy selects the chorus girls who are hired and dismisses the rest. As they walk off the stage, Jimmy walks over to Ruby and consults her about the time. She tells him that it is five minutes past ten, and he expresses surprise, since he had appointments with two dancers at ten o’clock. Just at that moment, Andy dashes through the door. He apologizes for being late, and Jimmy says that he called him because he saw him dance in a small role in a show last spring. Just as Andy is about to begin dancing, Ellie rushes in and apologizes for being late. The dancers express surprise at having met each other again, and Jimmy explains that they both were called for auditions in the new show which he is directing, “Twinkling Stars.” They both perform solos for him, and he is immensely pleased. He hires them and explains that the productive team is composed almost entirely of unknown artists who are admired by the producer, Cornelius Haversham III. The dancers are impressed by the name of the young Wall Street heir, and they ask when they can meet the song writers, the scriptwriter, and the backer himself. Mr. Watson explains that he is the only one they will be seeing; everyone else is much too busy to attend rehearsals. The whole thing seems very mysterious to Ellie, but Andy doesn’t care; he’s just glad to be in a musical. Jimmy tells them to get something to eat now but be back at the theater by one o’clock this afternoon. After the dancers have left, Miss Sheldon comes over to Jimmy and puts her hand on his shoulder. She asks him why he insists on concealing the fact that he is Mr. Haversham III and that he is the only person who has anything to do with this production. He explains that he wants to have a chance to put on a play in earnest, since his father has given him one chance to be a success as a Broadway showman with his own money. If he let everyone know that he was the writer and director, they would doubt his capability but come because they wanted to see a glamour boy make a fool of himself. Plus, all his society friends would try to get into the show, and the cast would get filled with untalented socialites. He tells her that she is the only one he trusts with his secret, giving her a little kiss on the cheek. She smiles, and it is obvious to the audience that she is a conniving, flirtatious woman who has completely beguiled Jimmy. Fade out.
The next scene shows a dance number with Andy and Ellie. It looks a little rough, and Jimmy calls out directions as they block the staging. As soon as they finish, Jimmy tells Andy to rest for a few minutes while he works with Miss Peters. As she starts dancing her part again, Andy walks down the steps and sits on the edge of the orchestra pit. Miss Sheldon is watching her boss and the pretty leading lady very closely. As Jimmy leads her through the steps by the hand, admiration and infatuation shine in his eyes. Miss Sheldon’s face shows concern that she is losing her handsome, wealthy admirer.
The next morning, Ruby is the first person in the theater. Soon Jimmy walks in. “Good morning, Jimmy,” she says, but he responds in a polite but impersonal way, kindly advising her not to call him by his first name; it wouldn’t look good. Then, Ellie enters. Jimmy walks over and warmly greets her, telling her she looks lovely today and expressing his admiration of her dancing. Ellie is sweet and polite, but it is obvious that she does not return Jimmy’s infatuation. Then, Andy walks in cheerfully. Ellie greets him eagerly; the audience can tell by the look on her face that she likes him. Andy doesn’t notice her admiration, though; he responds plainly. Ruby is a vindictive, jealous person by nature. She instantly sizes up the situation that Jimmy has transferred his affection from her to Miss Peters, who is a little sweet on Andy. As revenge, she walks over to Andy and begins femininely flattering him. He is unable to see through her flirtatious guise; he immediately responds to her wiles. As Jimmy talks to Ellie, she sadly watches Andy falling for Ruby. Fade out.
A montage follows which shows the passing of several weeks. Andy and Ellie dance, sing, and act, while Jimmy, with Ruby’s secretarial assistance, does everything else. The other principle member of the cast is a pretty singer named Betty Winters (Virginia Bruce). She has a small part in the play, and no one gives her much thought, but it is obvious that she admires Jimmy from afar. After rehearsals, Jimmy takes Ellie to restaurants, nightclubs, and an occasional show, while Ruby lures Andy to the same diversions. I will let the filmmakers’ discretion decide how much and how little should be shown during this montage. I suppose it depends on the schedule and the budget.
Eventually, it is December 5. It is one week to the show’s opening and twenty days until Christmas. Jimmy tells Andy and Ellie that their romantic duet is really lacking something. He tells Andy to put more sincerity in his performance, adding that maybe the costumes will help, since this is a dress rehearsal. They begin the number. He is dressed in an 1890s-style suit with a straw hat, and she is wearing a late Victorian-era dress which is modified to reach just to the knees; her costume is completed by a big, decorative hat and a lacy parasol. They do a slow, romantic soft shoe and sing a charming little song together. At the end, he tosses her parasol into the orchestra pit, lifts her into his arms, and kisses her. It is obvious that he has never kissed her like that in previous rehearsals. Jimmy commends them for their emotional performance, and both artists look effected by it. Andy delicately returns Ellie to the floor, looking at her with wide, surprised eyes which meet her bashful ones. Fade out on them looking at each other.
Later that day, Jimmy says that rehearsal is over, and Ellie walks toward her dressing room to change out of her costume. He calls to her, and she walks back. He reminds her of her promise to go to a special dinner with him tonight, and she says that she hasn’t forgotten, although she doesn’t sound terribly ecstatic. She is looking at Andy, who glances at her occasionally as Ruby speaks quietly to him. You can tell by that his glances that Andy really noticed Ellie for the first time in today’s rehearsal. As the two performers go back to their dressing rooms to change, Betty approaches Jimmy and says, “Mr. Watson, did I do my solo well today? I tried to make the changes you suggested yesterday.” Jimmy, who was still looking after Ellie, absently says, “Hmm? Oh, yes, it was swell, Miss Summers. You’re a great singer.” Betty looks hurt, since Jimmy doesn’t even know her name. “If you please, Mr. Watson, I’m Betty Winters, not Summers.” “What? Oh, I’m terribly sorry. Winters, yes, of course. You did fine work today, Betty. I really mean it. I know what your name is. I just… have a lot of things on my mind today. You understand, don’t you? Of course you do. Now why don’t you go out to dinner with some nice young man tonight? You have my permission.” “Thank you very much, Mr. Watson, but I don’t know any young men except you and Mr. McPherson, and I don’t really know you two either.” “Oh, that’s too bad. You’re a very pretty girl. I’d offer to take you out myself tonight, but I have a date. Maybe Mr. McPherson could take you.” “I’m sure he has a date with Miss Sheldon. Besides, I couldn’t ask him to take me out. I’m not that desperate for male companionship.” “Oh, of course not. You don’t need us. Perhaps I could introduce you to a friend, and he could….” “Oh, you needn’t be so concerned about my social life, Mr. Watson,” she interrupts. “I can take care of myself, thank you. Goodbye.” With that, she turns and walks away.
Meanwhile, Andy and Ellie are walking back to their dressing rooms. Andy engages her and tells her that her performance was especially good today. She thanks him, and there is a definite attraction between them for the first time. That is, Andy is attracted toward her for the first time; she has liked him from the beginning. They talk, and he impulsively asks her to go out with him. She says she would love to go but that she has a date. He then remembers that he too has a date. He invites her to spend the day with him tomorrow, when there is no rehearsal because it is Sunday. She happily accepts and promises to be ready at ten o’clock the next morning.
The next thing you see is Andy and Ruby going into an expensive night club. As Ruby is taking off her coat, you see her purposely put her compact down on top of it. As soon as she and Andy have walked up to host, she pretends to realize that she has misplaced the compact and asks Andy to retrieve it for her. As soon as he walks away, she slips the host a dollar and tells him to make her date’s drinks whiskey with just a splash of soda. He looks at her suspiciously but agrees. When Andy and Ruby sit at their table, she orders a glass of champagne, and he orders a highball which is just a quarter whiskey and the rest soda water. She imperceptibly nods at the waiter. After the waiter leaves, Ruby begins to flatter Andy with a lot of nonsense about him being the first man in her life and the only man she could ever love. For the first time, he doesn’t really respond to all her blather. It’s obvious that he’s thinking about Ellie. When the drinks arrive, Andy expresses surprise at the strength of his drink. Ruby says, “Oh, you’re not afraid of a little whiskey, are you? A big, strong man like you; I bet you could take anything.” Andy takes that as a challenge, so he says, “Sure, I can take anything. Whiskey doesn’t bother me.” He drinks the highball rebelliously and smiles at Ruby. Fade out.
Ellie and Jimmy are standing on the terrace outside a ballroom. They are wearing their coats and gazing down at the city below. “Look at all those twinkling stars down there,” he says, pointing to the city below. “Oh, and look at all those twinkling stars up there,” she adds, pointing to the sky above. He laughs and says, “I chose the perfect place. We’re surrounded by twinkling stars.” Gently clasping her hand, Jimmy says, “Ellie, you like me, don’t you?” “Of course I like you, Jimmy. I think you’re the nicest man I know.” “Do you find me… attractive?” “Yes, I think you’re very handsome.” “Ellie, I think you’re the most wonderful, beautiful, talented, sweet, kind, nicest girl in the world. Will you marry me?” “Marry you?” she exclaims. “Oh, Jimmy, I hadn’t expected that. We haven’t known each other very long.” “I’ve known you long enough to know that I love you. Oh, Ellie, I have so much to offer you. Not just myself and my love. We could have a penthouse, a house in the country, lots of servants, furs, jewels, beautiful clothes, trips to Europe, anything you want.” “Oh, Jimmy, you’re just an unknown director. You don’t even know if this musical will be a success. You can’t afford all those things. Why, I don’t even know how you can afford all the fancy restaurants where we’ve been going.” Jimmy looks uncomfortable and says, “Well, I’m not just a director. I have a lot of money myself. You see, I come from a very wealthy family.” “Oh, you mean your father pays for all this?” she asks. “Oh, no. I’ve been working for the family company myself since I graduated from college, and I’ve made a fortune in my own right. I haven’t had an allowance from my father since I graduated.” “That all sounds very wonderful, Jimmy, but I won’t marry you just for your money.” “Well, of course not,” he says, sounding a little offended. “I have more to offer than my money.” “Oh, of course you do,” she says. “Do I have to answer right now, Jimmy? Please wait until after the show opens next week. I think I’ll know by then.” “Oh, of course, darling. I don’t mind waiting for you. Ellie, will you take this ring anyway?” He pulls a velvet box out of his coat and opens it to reveal a huge star-shaped diamond ring. She gasps, “Oh, Jimmy, it’s beautiful!” “For my twinkling star,” he says. “Won’t you wear it for me?” “Alright, but not on my left hand. I wouldn’t want people to think we’re engaged before I make up my mind.” He kisses her hand earnestly before saying, “I’ll take you home now.” Fade out.
The next thing you see is Ruby and Andy in a dark cafe. They are sitting in a secluded corner, laughing and talking. It is obvious that he is very drunk, but he doesn’t seem to realize it. He foolishly babbles on about how beautiful and wonderful Ruby is, and Ruby is doing her best to make him very confused. She persuades him that the room is swaying because the building has a weak foundation; they decide that they would be safer in her apartment, which has stronger architecture. She leads him out of the restaurant. The scene fades to them arriving at her apartment. She brings him over to the couch, turning on only one small light by the door. When he asks why it is so dark, she replies that she has to save electricity. When he notices that the room is swaying here as much as in the restaurant, she coerces him into believing that that is a side-effect of being in love. She retrieves a bottle of champagne and two glasses from the kitchen, saying that she got the wine from her old maid aunt who got it from her liquor store-owning admirer. She then proceeds to give him a pathetic sob story about having to live all alone because her parents are dead and her brother is in the Navy. She has to work all day as a secretary and then come home to an empty, lonely apartment. There is no one to take care of her. No man would want to marry her. As planned, this leads him to say that he would want to marry her. Within one minute, they are engaged. She tells him that she wants him to write it out for her so she can put it under her pillow and keep reading it to tell herself it’s true. He unsteadily writes and signs a statement that he has agreed to marry her. They kiss and drink a toast to the betrothal. Suddenly, he realizes that he is intoxicated. She insists that he isn’t; she says that he’s just in love. Now that he’s realized it, though, he can’t be befuddled anymore. He looks around and says, “Where are we again?” She replies, “My apartment.” He asks, “And you live here all alone?” “All alone,” she sighs. “Well, what am I doing here at…” he checks his watch, “three o’clock in the morning?” “Getting engaged,” she responds. “Well, don’t you think my presence here is a little improper?” “No,” she simply says. “Well, I do. Especially in my condition. No matter what anybody says about me, I’m a good boy. My mother told me never to go to a girl’s apartment unless I was married to her. Besides, I wouldn’t want the doorman to misunderstand. I have to think of your reputation. Mrs. McPherson’s little boy is a good boy.” He gets up and staggers to the door, where he retrieves his coat and hat from a chair. “Goodnight,” he says. She acts hurt and asks for a goodnight kiss. He obliges her before leaving. As she watches him stumble toward the elevator, she smiles wickedly and whispers, “Goodnight, fiance.” Fade out.
The next thing you see is Andy, who is still in his tuxedo, sleeping on top of the covers of a well-made bed as the telephone persistently rings. He begins to stir, and he finally wakes up enough to pull the telephone off the hook and bring it to his ear. Without opening his eyes, he murmurs, “What is it?” On the other end, you hear a female operator’s voice say, “Mr. McPherson, you asked us to call you at nine thirty to be sure that you are awake.” “Why?” he groans. “You have a date at ten o’clock with Miss Peters.” “I do?” he says, opening his eyes in surprise. “Oh, that’s right. Thanks.” He hangs up. He sits up and rubs his head. “Ellie,” he murmurs.
The next thing you see is Ellie sitting on her couch, fully dressed and concerned about Andy’s tardiness, since the clock is striking ten thirty. She sighs. The doorbell rings, and she rushes over to the door. Andy is there, and he apologizes for being late, saying that his alarm clock didn’t go off. She notices his pale complexion and dark circles and notes that he looks like he had a big night last night. He chuckles in embarrassment, and they leave her apartment arm in arm.
Next you will see a series of shots showing what they do all day. They look at the Christmas decorations around town, they go on the Staten Island ferry, they visit the Statue of Liberty, they ice skate in Central Park, they take a sleigh ride, they go rowing, they visit the zoo, and they end up on the Empire State Building. It is now dark. Ellie is looking at the sparkling lights all over town and clutching her coat around herself against the cold. Andy senses her coldness and puts his arms around her. She looks at him coyly, and he smiles. “Look at all the twinkling stars down there,” Andy says. Ellie looks up, but the sky is cloudy tonight. “Hmm, no twinkling stars up there,” she comments. “You’re wrong,” he says. “I see twinkling stars everywhere, especially in my arms.” He turns her toward him. “Ellie, we’ve been working together, singing together, dancing together for weeks, but I never really noticed you until yesterday. You were just any girl. But yesterday, when we were dancing, I pretended that I was in love with you. It was going so well that I started to think I must be the greatest Broadway actor since John Barrymore left the stage. When I kissed you, I saw stars everywhere. Then I knew I wasn’t acting; I really am in love with you. I don’t care if the show’s a success. I don’t care if I become a star; I’ll be a star if I can have you. Will you marry me?” She looks at him with tears in her eyes and says, “Oh, Andy, I’ve wanted you to say that to me since the first day we’ve met. I’ve known that I love you from the beginning. Of course I’ll marry you.” They kiss. “Say,” Andy says, “I always thought the number where we dance in the stars was pretty screwy, but now I believe it. I could dance on the stars right now.” He grabs her and starts dancing wildly around the observation deck. After a few turns around the deck, he jumps onto the ledge with a wild movement. “Oh, get down!” Ellie cries. “I know what I’m doing,” he says, but a security guard with an Irish accent (Robert Emmett O’Connor) hurries out of the shadows. “Say, what are you doin’ up there? Get down, you young fool!” “I’m in love! She just agreed to marry me! Don’t you know that when you’re in love you can dance on the stars?” “Why, that’s a lot of malarkey,” he says. “Get down right now, or your sweetheart will be a widow before you’re even married.” Andy grudgingly climbs down. He takes Ellie’s arm, and they walk over to a more private corner. As they smile at each other, it begins to snow. “You see?” he says. “Now twinkling stars are falling all around us.” They embrace each other, and the camera closes up on Ellie slipping Jimmy’s ring off her finger and into her coat pocket. Fade out.
The next thing you see is the end of the final number of the last dress rehearsal for “Twinkling Stars.” Jimmy complements all the performers on their performances and tells them all to go home and get some rest. As they start to walk away, Andy tells everyone to wait. He bursts out the news that he and Ellie are engaged. Ellie looks upset that he made this sudden announcement. The camera focuses on the faces of Jimmy and Ruby. He looks crushed, but she looks furious and greedy. “That’s impossible,” she cries. “Andy is engaged to me. He proposed last Saturday night.” Andy looks shocked, but Ellie is devastated. “Andy,” she sobs, turning to run away. He grabs her arm and says that it’s not true. “Oh, yes, it is,” Ruby says. “I have proof,” she adds, pulling out the paper on which he wrote his agreement to marry her. “Let me see that,” he says, running down the stairs and snatching the paper from her hands. “All I remember from that night is that we went to a night club, and I drank a very strong highball when I asked for only a quarter whiskey. Then I vaguely remember going to a dark cafe and drinking more highballs. After that, I don’t remember a thing until I woke up with a hangover the next morning. You must have asked the host to spike my drinks. Is that why you forgot your compact in the coat room?” “I did nothing of the sort. You got a little tipsy, but of your own free will. I had nothing to do with it. Then we went to my apartment, you asked me to marry you, I accepted, and you left. And now you won’t have me.” She starts sobbing into her handkerchief. “Look at that writing,” Andy says, showing Jimmy the scrawled letters. “You can tell from that how drunk I was.” Jimmy eyes Ruby with contempt and says, “I’m appalled, Ruby. I never thought you would stoop to gold-digging of this cheap a nature. First you flirted with me, then you tricked Andy into giving you a drunken proposal. Well, I won’t stand for it.” He tears up the paper. “You’re fired. I’ll give you a month’s severance pay. If you don’t leave Andy alone, I’ll tell the newspapers all the evidence we have of your framing him.” She glares at him and says, “You win, but you’re a fool. Maybe Ellie would have married you if you’d kept your mouth shut.” She turns and storms out. Jimmy goes over to Andy and Ellie. “Won’t you believe Andy, Ellie?” he asks. “I know he’s telling the truth.” “Yes, I believe him,” she says. “I’m sorry you had to find out that way, Jimmy,” she adds. “That’s alright,” he says and walks away sadly.
The next morning, Ellie is eating a piece of toast and reading a newspaper in her apartment. She opens it to the front page and gasps at the headline: MUSICAL OPENING TONIGHT, “TWINKLING STARS,” IS REVEALED TO BE WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY WALL STREET HEIR, CORNELIUS HAVERSHAM III. She is shocked and whispers, “Jimmy?” in disbelief.
The next thing you see is backstage at the theatre, which is bustling with anticipation. All the artists are gossiping about the director’s newly revealed identity, but no one has seen him today. Ellie and Andy talk about him in front of their dressing rooms. Suddenly, Ellie spots Jimmy hurrying toward them. When he reaches them, she asks him why he hid his identity, and he gives her the reasons he gave Ruby earlier. “Well, why did you reveal it now?” Andy asks. “I didn’t,” Jimmy says. “Ruby did. I’ve been inquiring at the newspapers all day. Apparently the scorned woman cashed in on her fury by selling my identity to every newspaper in town. Well, it doesn’t matter now. We’ve got a great show, and it is going to be a hit, no matter who wrote it.” Ellie pulls the ring out of her pocket and says, “Here, Jimmy. This is yours.” He tells her to keep it in memory of “Twinkling Stars,” since she will always be his twinkling star.
The show has begun. We see the first act’s finale. It begins with Betty Winters standing on top of a glowing pillar on a dark stage. She is singing while wearing a sparkling gown. As her solo ends, the glowing pillar fades into darkness, and two spotlights appear on the stage. On either side of the pillar, a spotlight shows a man in a full dress suit with a top hat and a cane. The men are doing simultaneous dance steps with their backs to the audience. Suddenly, they turn around. One of them is Andy, and the other is Ellie! Her hair was tucked into her hat, but she pulls her hat off now to release her red locks. They do an intricate number in which they do identical tap steps. The number incorporates high kicks, quick turns, jumps, and lots of quick tapping. At the end of the number, the whole stage is lit up. Betty’s singing accompanies their quick footwork as the act ends.
Finally, it is the finale of the whole play. Ellie and Andy are walking along the front of the stage, which looks like a park walkway. She is wearing a plain black cloak over a black dress, and he is wearing a black suit and an overcoat. They sing a little romantic duet. As they finish singing, he kisses her, and the lights on the stage begin twinkling. As the stage fades to black, stars are projected on the backdrop. When the lights come back up a few seconds later, the whole stage is quite dark with stars all over the backdrop and the floor. In the center of the stage, a star-shaped spotlight illuminates the couple. He is wearing a sparkling dancing suit, and she is wearing a glittering gown. Even though this is in black and white, their costumes should be dark blue. They perform a magical, romantic dance together called “Dancing Amid the Stars.” As they finish the grand number, the audience erupts in applause. They take numerous bows, and the critics in the audience comment to each other, “I think Cornelius James Haversham, III, has a hit on his hands.” Backstage, Betty is applauding vigorously as she stands somewhere near Jimmy. He smiles toward the happy stars then looks at Betty. She looks awfully pretty, so he meanders over toward her. “What are you doing after the show, Betty?” he asks. “Nothing, Mr. Watson,” she says coyly. “I don’t have a beau.” “Oh, yes, you do,” he says, squeezing her hand. She smiles joyfully, and he leads her onstage to take a bow. THE END. AN MGM PRODUCTION.
MGM composers would have written original songs for this production. Lew Ayres didn’t belong to MGM yet, but he could have been hired for this production. He would have been perfect for the role. I think that Eleanor Powell’s dance style would have fit perfectly with James Cagney’s. They both did high kicks and quick taps, and they moved their legs without moving their upper bodies much. They would have been magnificent together in a movie like this. Of course, both would have solos and duets throughout the film aside from the numbers I mentioned. Also, Virginia Bruce would have maybe one more solo. I imagine Roy Del Ruth as the director of this picture, since he directed most of Eleanor Powell’s pictures.
In accordance with the Code, I made it clear that Andy had no dishonorable inclinations the night he went to Ruby’s apartment. I made sure that it was obvious that nothing immoral happened. I hope you enjoyed reading this movie; I tried to make it seem as real to you as it does to me.
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