There is no reason why the movies should stop making bad musical comedies so long as bad musical comedies make money in buckets, so the only squawk on The Great American Broadcast is that its standard ingredients for success in this field could have been shaped together for fair entertainment, as well. It is another of the Twentieth-Century-Fox series of Only Yesterday in Tinpan Alley and uses everything in the formula: the ups and downs of love in show business (radio, this time), specialty acts, songs, wisecracks, blows, background music with old tunes, and what we might call a Spitalny Finale. As usual, the story is only an excuse for introducing these baubles; but at the same time, and also as usual, the story manages to do a lot of shoving around and by the end has got half the emphasis all to itself.
At first they thought of doing an authentic history of radio as entertainment and imported a prominent studio engineer from the early days as adviser. Well, this gentleman worked up a lot of material, but this was too technical and dull, so they put a writer on with him and the two worked up one or more treatments, but these were technical and not bright enough. So apparently they said to hell with it and threw the stuff into the customary mill, with credits for four writers but nothing more from the engineer, or from history. So Jack Oakie meets John Payne in a fight and they meet Alice Faye. Jack loves Alice but she doesn’t love him. Alice hates John but soon they are making with kisses, so Jack hates John. Cesar Romero loves Alice but she marries John and nobody loves Cesar, but Jack goes to work for him. Then Alice goes to Cesar on a technical matter and John hates Alice and leaves the country. Alice and Cesar are going to Reno, off with the old and on with the new, so Jack hates Cesar and manages to get hold of John. Jack wants to help John and now loves him, so they fight. Cesar goes away and Alice and John fight. Then they kiss. Then it says the end.
--Otis Ferguson, review of The Great American Broadcast in "Not So Good," The New Republic, 9 June 1941. (The Film Criticism of Otis Ferguson, ed. Robert Wilson, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1971, pp 366–367.)
What's going on here isn't just a funny, knowing way of recounting the plot of a film. It's about how the movie brushes against what audience members bring in with them in the way of gobs and gobs of previous films and plot expectations, and what the movie does to these viewers: pulls them along, drags them along, gets a groove, bores and/or comforts them, and here we are, The End.
I think there's something special in the way Ferguson walks that border between screen and watcher — obviously all viewers and reviewers inhabit that borderland, but that doesn't mean they do it with awareness and insight. Of course, a skeptic could say, "Wait, Otis is still just fundamentally recounting the plot, not saying anything in particular about that borderland." Well, he didn't drag or dance us into analysis in the way that I might. It's more artistic or poetic, like a Hemingway: he touches that boundary, waves at the space outside the movie, the world of other movies and the rest of life, while getting on with the review.
(And Ferguson could do this pretty consistently.)
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