“It’s Great to Be Alive” may not be the nuttiest Hollywood musical of 1933 — a year that brought the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup” — but it’s surely the only one to end with a production number in which the women of Cuba, the Netherlands and Czechoslovakia compete for the affections of the last man on earth.
Restored by the Museum of Modern Art, where it screens this week, “It’s Great to Be Alive” posits a plague called masculitis, which has decimated the world’s male population. The sole survivor is Carlos, a cheerful ladies’ man (the Brazilian actor Raul Roulien) who has dodged the disease thanks to his jealous fiancée (Gloria Stuart). After being dumped, Carlos — who is a pilot as well as a polo player — sets off on a trans-Pacific solo flight, is forced to land on an uninhabited island and disappears for five years.
Carlos’s re-emergence into a manless world sets off an international furor. He is abducted by a group of female gangsters led by a cigar-smoking Dorothy Burgess (who had just been seen competing with Jean Harlow for the affections of Clark Gable in “Hold Your Man”). Her gang puts Carlos up for auction only to be raided by the police, who claim him as “government property.” He is given a ticker-tape parade, during which he sings the movie’s title song, but he is not yet free to marry.
Slow to start, “It’s Great to Be Alive” profits from the presence of the acerbic character actress Edna May Oliver, in a role that requires her to be variously the world’s greatest scientist (at one point introducing a short-lived “synthetic man”) and the diplomat presiding over a world congress to decide Carlos’s fate.
Some reviews complained that the movie failed to live up to its premise. (The Hays Office denuded the script of numerous innuendos.) Others recalled an earlier version of the same story, “The Last Man on Earth,” a silent film from 1924 also restored by and screening at MoMA.
While “The Last Man on Earth” may take longer to hit its stride than “It’s Great to Be Alive,” once it vaults from the present to the future post-masculitis world of 1950, it is less decorous and more suggestive of changing social norms. Again, the male protagonist (Earle Foxe) is captured by lady gangsters (“a real live bimbo!” one exclaims). Here, however, he seems to have no idea what these females would like to do to — or with — him.
Mr. Foxe cowers as he is surrounded by a prancing horde of pert young gang members in skimpy sunsuits. The scene might almost be a documentary of rambunctious on-set behavior, and the movie veers still closer to exploitation territory when the “Senatoress from Massachusetts” and the “Senatoress from California” engage in a prolonged boxing match for possession of this sorry specimen’s hand.