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Fun and Fluff From 'Broadway'

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 6, 2004; Page C05

There aren't too many one-man movies these days, but Rick McKay manages the trick in "Broadway: The Golden Age, by the Legends Who Were There."

The indefatigable McKay, a small-town Indiana kid who conjured a love of theater among the cornfields and silos and big empty skies of his youth, took off with a camera, traveled hither and thither, yon and anon, up, down and all around the town and came back with interviews with more than 100 Broadway stars in an effort to chronicle the Golden Age -- the definition of "Golden Age" seems to be "before throat mikes" -- of the Great White Way for once and forever.

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The results, while not rigorous or particularly eye-opening, might be characterized as one of the great all-time wallows. If you love the theater, you've got to see the film and simply enjoy as everyone from A (Edie Adams) to Z (Karen Ziemba) holds forth.

It's not helter-skelter. At the beginning of the project, McKay obviously set up an interview template, a series of questions in a sequential order, so he could keep things organized and accessible. Thus the film is broken neatly into chapters of theater lore -- such as "The Big Break" or "The Rooming House" or "Out of Town" -- and a batch of five or so vets comment on that one aspect of the old theater, intercut with usually scant visuals from the archive, and it goes on and on and on.

It's a mess, and I wish it had lasted four hours instead of two. It's just so darned much fun to hear these old duffers talking shop and gossip, recalling old traditions and hangouts, still catty, still arch. And I'm talking about the guys!

The movie is full of surprises, some good, some bad. It's not quite a general "history" of the modern theater in any sense, and it is somewhat sketchy on some subjects you'd think it would know more about. The thrust seems to be toward great actresses, and the surprise is that it comes across a forgotten legend. This would be Laurette Taylor, a star of the '30s and '40s, whose naturalism was so powerful it riveted and inspired whoever saw it. Taylor never made it into movies, though McKay does present her one sound audition, where she seems not particularly special (she reminded me of Spring Byington).

At the same time, he doesn't seem to do quite enough with the coming of Marlon Brando in the late '40s and its revolutionary impact on the theater. It may just be that the Brando-rama upon the great man's death a few weeks back has made everybody a temporary Brando expert, and so McKay's once-over-lightly feels thin.

And then there's the drama-musical issue: He might have done better to do two films, one dedicated to each branch. As it is, the film seems devoted about 70 percent to drama and only 30 percent to musical. Though she's in it, Ethel Merman doesn't dominate as you might expect her to; and Mary Martin seems oddly missing as well. Of course both died before McKay began his peregrinations, and so weren't available to sit for his camera. That seems one of the unfortunate inevitabilities of the historical process: Living witnesses are overrated by virtue of their accessibility, and so a cooler, more objective sense of history is distorted.

But for me at least, the star who emerges from the film isn't Taylor or Brando, or any of the dozens of well-known and beloved old stars who sit before the camera and display the kind of wit and charisma you'd expect. Who thought the most charismatic of them would turn out to be Charles Nelson Reilly? Shorn of his persona, he's funny, smart, nostalgic and utterly enchanting. Fortunately, McKay understands Reilly's power and returns to him over and over again.

Broadway: The Golden Age, by the Legends Who Were There (111 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated, with no objectionable material.


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