Debut film for Canadian child star Bobby Breen as Billy, Let's Sing Again (1936) is only minimally a musical, featuring three songs ("Let's Sing Again," "Lullaby" & "Farmer in the Dell").
It's 1928 in Naples, Italy. I loving father, Leon Alba (George Houston), sings a fragment of "Lullaby" (by Hugo Riesenfeld & Selma Hautzik) while rocking his infant son. His wife (Ann Doran) comes home angry over their poverty & her husband's failed singing career.
He's sure her anger will pass, but if she ever shared his dream, she no longer can. She takes the child, & leaves no clue to where they went.
Time jumps to 1936. The kid's been an orphan for two years, his mother having died without telling anyone about his father in Europe.
He has spent these two years in an orphanage in Connecticut. There's a circus coming to town & the orphanage residents press against the iron fence, as against prison bars, watching the circus parade pass along the street.
The orphans are supposed to go to the circus but when three of the boys screw around & break a lot of dishes, these three are left behind.
Breen decides to sneak into Carter's Circus in secret, as he's most eager to see the opera singer, Senior Joseph Pasquali (Henry Armetta). Not used to kids preferring his act to all others, Joe lets the kid in for free.
There's a nicely photographed trapeze act, featuring a husband & wife team (Grant Withers & Inez Courtney who argue & complain as they perform, & will turn out to be the villains of the tale. There's a dog act that makes Billy's face glow. There's a very strange juggling act, some tapdancing gals, & it begins to look like a vaudeville variety show as much as it is a circus.
When tenor Senior Pasquali does his opera song, quite out of tune, it turns out to be a comedy act. He'd once been a famous opera singer, but now he's a circus performer & the audience wants comedy. Kids in the audience chuck rotten vegetables at him the whole while. Billy is horrified, having had a real interest in opera.
Learning that Billy's an orphan, Joseph ends up fostering him & mentoring the kid's own desire to be a singer. On the road with the circus, it's the whole Toby Tyler fantasy, Senior Pasqueli being a first-rate grampa.
Billy becomes part of the act, a child singing "Santa Lucia" so beautifully, making a great addition to the act, singing a bit of opera, & the original song "Let's Sing Again" composed by the great ragtime composers Jimmy McHugh (whose hits included "I Can't Give You Anything But Love") & Gus Kahn (who wrote such hits as "Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye").
Billy's father Leon has had the Missing Persons Bureau trying to track down his son. But his wife had changed her name & without knowing to what, so it's a dead end search.
Leon's got a gig in New York singing, & his career has really taken off. It seems inevitable that his & the boy's paths will cross, but how will they recognize each other?
Billy's favorite song is "Lullaby" that his father sang to him in infancy. Plus Leon & Joseph have a mutual friend in the opera world, Rosa Donelli (Vivienne Osborne), who in childhood had vocal training from Joseph. So we can see the happy ending coming a mile away, though there's nothing syrupy about the road to that ending.
This is a fine film & the kid's got an incredible singing voice. The story is much more dramatic than comic, & downright scary when the the trapeze act couple decide that Joe has no legal claim on the boy & they should take over his care in order to exploit his singing ability for their own gain.
Billy & Joseph end up on the lam trying to escape the cops & the trapeze performers. Finding their way to a rural cafe owned by Bert, a fan of detective pulps, Bert has been eager to solve a mystery of his own, & already has a description of an Italian man with a nine year old curly-haired boy.
"They won't get past me!" says Bert, but he's totally slow-witted at realizing who he's serving breakfast. They flee the cafe & hitchhike into New York city with an Italian trucker. Things seem likely to work out but this story wants tears, not ease, & in New York Joe becomes bedridden & it could be serious. It's more important than ever to figure out who is Billy's dad.
When Rosa learns of Joe's illness, she takes him in, together with Billy. With her care, Joe recovers. One night there's a party. Leon shows up for Rosa's gathering. Though Billy was put to bed early, he's awake listening to Leon singing a song by Broadway songwriters Samuel Pokrass & Charles O'Locke, "The Farmer in the Dell" (not the children's song). Billy has no idea the voice he's aprpeciating is his own dad's.
Meanwhile the wicked trapeze artists Marge & "Diablo" are still hoping to find Billy for their own purposes. How smug they are when they succeed at tracking him down & bring the police to Rosa Donelli's door.
But at that same moment Leon begins to sing "Lullaby" & Joe quickly dresses Billy & brings him into the soiree, telling the boy to do his own rendition after Leon finishes. By this song they recognize one another, & there's a heartbreakingly beautiful reunion.
Bobby Breen is such a likeable, natural performer there's really nothing mawkish about it; it's really lovely. I'm surprised Breen isn't a well remembered child actor, but he seems to have stopped acting in 1939, with only one later rather demeaning role, in Johnny Doughboy (1942) playing a washed-up child actor).
As the blush of childhood left him, & his voice dropped an octave at age thirteen, he made a decision to focus on his nightclub singing career, supported by regular radio appearances, followed by an early television show in New York. In our own era when radio is not as consequential as it was in the 1940s & '50s, it may seem a downfall to end up in nightclubs & radio & live tv, but for a singer this was not far different from Sinatra preferring Vegas stage to movie stardom.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl