Movie Morsel: High, Wide and Handsome
An early movie musical (in black and white-gasp!) that is worth a look (if you can find it) is Paramount Pictures’ High, Wide, and Handsome. The epic tale features a score by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, II who also worked together to write one of Broadway’s most prolific scores, Show Boat. Made in 1937 (ten years after Show Boat), High, Wide, and Handsome was directed by Rouben Mamoulian, who would go on to direct the original Broadway productions of Oklahoma! and Carousel. With a screenplay by Hammerstein and George O’Neil, the film starred Irene Dunne, Randolph Scott, and Dorothy Lamour. One of the novel items about the film was that its director worked with Kern and Hammerstein to make sure that the score was carefully integrated with the plot, with most of the songs growing out of the character development and action. In 1937, this was generally uncommon. Musical numbers in film were generally there for entertainment purposes and didn’t seek to further the plot. Among the songs to come out of High, Wide, and Handsome, “Can I Forget You?”, “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” and the zesty title number are standouts.
The story, much like the aforementioned Show Boat, is about a romance between an unlikely pair of lovers. Set in 1859, a traveling medicine show comes to Titusville, Pennsylvania. Run by Doc Patterson, the show is also the home of his daughter Sally who is also a performer with the flim-flam act. When their traveling cart goes up in flames, they are left homeless and so they are bought in by the Cortlandt family (oil drilling farmers). Peter Cortlandt (the grandson), falls in love with Sally and the two begin a long and soap opera style romance, with plenty of ups and downs. The story then takes a shift toward a different direction. A railroad tycoon wants to take over the oil farms in the Pennsylvania countryside and begin laying track for his railroad. The folks of Titusville raise up and fight to protect their land, constructing their own oil pipeline instead. High, Wide, and Handsome floundered at the box office, not because it was a critical disaster, but because it was shown in a special format known as “The Roadshow Format”, which was more-expensive to run. The film is rarely seen today and has never been given an official VHS or DVD release. It does, occasionally, pop up on television now and again. If you can catch it, it is worth a look.
Fun Fact: Irene Dunne, who starred in High, Wide, and Handsome, appeared in the film version of Show Boat a year earlier.