“Crazy” and “nonsensical” would be reasonable words to describe the story of Hitting a New High, a musical comedy created as a showcase for Metropolitan Opera star Lily Pons. It’s the third and last of her RKO vehicles, all of which are unnecessary yet reveal her as a game trouper. Now available on demand from Warner Archive, this one’s directed by Raoul Walsh, a highly respected veteran best known for masculine adventures. Non-opera buffs should stay away, but Walsh’s fans will appreciate his ability to bring the right tone and pace to what could easily be a foolish mess.
The wilfully absurd story surrounds Pons with well-oiled comic characters. It begins with eccentric millionaire Lucius B. Blynn (Edward Everett Horton), who finances the Manhattan Opera (that would be the Met in disguise). He fancies himself another Frank Buck and wants to wants to bring exotic animals back alive from African safaris. Pons plays Suzette, a French nightclub singer who has a successful gig singing jazz with her domineering bandleader boyfriend (John Howard) but who yearns to star in opera. In a parody on Rima the bird-girl in the novel Green Mansions (not that anybody mentions this), she lets Blynn “discover” her in the jungle as a chirping, befeathered orphan who was raised by birds.
Are you still with the story? That’s only the premise. Subsequent mix-ups include her re-discovery by the jazz boyfriend who expects her to keep her engagement at the club; her discovery by a real opera maestro (Eduardo Cianelli) who can barely tolerate Blynn; and the blackmail scheme of a tippling oboist (Eric Blore) who barges in as her long-lost papa, all of which is barely handled by a manipulative press agent (Jack Oakie). The phoniest aspect of all is that when she naturally achieves her chance to star in opera, after a movie-length showcase for same, she decides that she prefers to stick with her jazzbo boyfriend and remain a down-to-earth female after all. Phooey.
There’s no point in looking for logic, as this story only exists to make us smile between the showcases for Pons, who even in this primitive tinny 1930s soundtrack is so impressive on the coloratura leaps of Donizetti’s mad scene from Lucia di Lammermoor or Saent-Saens’ “Nightingale Song” that you’ll think the TV screen is about to shatter. She also does some pop songs tailored for her. For the record, the conductor is her future husband Andre Kostelanetz.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.