When someone plays an iconic character, it’s hard to think of them as anyone else. I guess you can call me a simple-minded idiot, but the thought never crossed my mind that Granny from “The Beverly Hillbillies” was ever young. Granny is the part that actress Irene Ryan will always be remembered for, but she did have a career before playing a crotchety old lady. In the 1944 B-musical “Hot Rhythm” she puts in a very funny performance as a replacement secretary. It was a role that was most likely written specifically for her by her ex-husband (divorced in 1942) Tim Ryan.
The film takes place in a Hollywood recording studio. The place is bustling with folks making records and advertising jingles. Two jingle writers, Jimmy O’Brien (Robert Lowery) and Sammy Rubin (Sidney Miller) are working away on their tunes, and desperately wanting a raise, when they happen upon a new female singer at the studio, Mary Adams (Dona Drake). Jimmy is immediately head over heels for Mary. He wants to help her move beyond just singing jingles, so he and Sammy arrange an after-hours recording session for her. Without any band to provide music, they have her sing along with a radio broadcast featuring the big band of Tommy Taylor (Jerry Cooper). They make a record and send it off to be heard by the boss, Mr. O’Hara (Tim Ryan).
However, when the guys down in duplicating get the demo, they are confused. Not knowing it was just an audition, they figure it’s a Tommy Taylor record featuring a new female singer. They duplicate 10,000 copies and send them out across the country. But when O’Hara figures out that the music was lifted from a radio broadcast, he scrambles to try and get the records out of circulation. O’Hara also has his hands full trying to deal with Tommy Taylor’s agent (Robert Kent) who is trying to negotiate a new contract, as well as bumbling studio manager Mr. Whiffle (silent film great Harry Langdon), and new secretary Polly (Irene Ryan).
It turns out that Polly aspires to be a singer, as well, and she manages to convince Mr. Whiffle to let her fill in for an absent girl quartet singer on a jingle recording. Meanwhile, O’Hara still hasn’t figured out who the girl is on the mystery Tommy Taylor record. When he mentions this new girl singer to Polly, she thinks he is talking about the jingle she recorded. She tells O’Hara it’s her, and he quickly signs her to make more records. All the while, Jimmy continues to woo Mary and try to earn her the high-profile singing gig she deserves.
It’s pretty clear from the beginning that this is a B-movie. It was produced by Monogram Pictures, a studio that specialized in low-budget flicks. Despite being a B-movie, “Hot Rhythm” features a very funny script. Tim and Irene Ryan clearly had a talent for this sort of farce. Their interactions as Polly and Mr. O’Hara are executed with great comic timing and precision. Having never really seen Irene Ryan outside of her role as Granny Clampett, it was quite a revelation to see her in this role. She was obviously a very gifted performer, skilled in the subtle nuances of comedy. Speaking of which, I’d be foolish not to mention the short but memorable performance of Harry Langdon. He does a great job of bringing a touch of his silent movie style comedy to a B-musical.
Also surprisingly good are the songs. In this department, Dona Drake is the real standout. She’s as sexy in this film as Irene Ryan is hilarious. Drake sings three great numbers, “Where Were You,” “Right Under My Nose,” and “You Gotta Talk me into it, Baby.” Her voice and look are quite a hypnotic combination. But as good as Drake’s numbers are, Irene Ryan actually provides the film’s most memorable song, a hilarious tune called “The Happiest Girl in the World.”
There’s nothing like being completely surprised by a movie, and “Hot Rhythm” was a very pleasant surprise. An at times sexy, at times hilarious, quick-paced musical farce…and an interesting look at the early career of a classic TV star.