What a Life (1930)

A musical parody on prison reform in which a prison warden gives his cellblocks the look of a summer resort in order to stave off reformers.


John G. Adolfi


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Cast overview:
Virginia Sale ... Head Prison Reformer


A musical parody on prison reform in which a prison warden gives his cellblocks the look of a summer resort in order to stave off reformers.

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


Short | Comedy | Musical







Release Date:

15 March 1930 (USA) See more »

Company Credits

Production Co:

Warner Bros. See more »
Show more on IMDbPro »

Technical Specs

Sound Mix:

Mono (Vitaphone)

Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
See full technical specs »

Did You Know?


Vitaphone production reel #3849. See more »


Hello Baby
Music by Michael Cleary
Lyrics by Herb Magidson and Ned Washington
Sung at the show
See more »

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User Reviews

Or, The Sing Sing Movietone Follies of 1930
26 June 2011 | by wmorrow59See all my reviews

The creators of this entertaining short deserve Brownie points for coming up with such an original premise. Set in a prison, the generically titled What a Life initially seems to be a satire aimed at correctional institute reform, a topic very much in the news after a grisly riot at New York's Auburn Prison in 1929. After touring the facility a delegation of severely dressed, puritanical-looking reformers announce that they are appalled at the conditions there. A stern lady who acts as the group's spokesperson rebukes the warden, telling him that he's crushed the prisoners spirits "instead of making them into good, useful members of society." When she threatens to report her displeasure to the governor the warden pleads for time to upgrade conditions, and is given one month to do so. After the group leaves the official reveals his true feelings, remarking to a guard that, if anything, the inmates are pampered.

So far, although the reformers are portrayed as prissy caricatures it's not entirely clear whether the film is meant to be a comedy, but this uncertainty is quickly dispelled when the delegation returns to the prison a month later. Now the place is bedecked with lace curtains and full of comfy chairs. The men knit, eat ice cream cones and sip tea, while the guards act as servants and address the convicts as "Sir." Most amusingly, there is a stock ticker handy so that the more prosperous-looking inmates can follow returns and place calls to their brokers! (It's significant that the Wall Street Crash occurred barely six months before this film was released.) The reformers are suitably impressed. And then the warden ushers them into the prison's auditorium, at which point the film's true purpose is finally revealed: from here onward, we're watching a Vitaphone vaudeville show.

The show-within-a-show features a blonde tap dancer with feathery cuffs, a pianist who sings "Hello Baby!" while a different blonde taps ballet-style on her toes, and a quartet of male dancers who perform a precision routine in unison. There's an amusing moment when the stern-looking reformer lady attempts to join the show by trilling an operatic number, nearly causing a mass walk-out. This actress, the most prominent player in the short, was Virginia Sale, sister of comedian Chic Sale. Virginia was cursed with a face that caused her to be forever cast as humorless shrews: a glance at her IMDb credits reveals such roles as Hatchet Faced Woman, several Old Maids, and even The Gargoyle. But based on her performance here she doesn't seem so unappealing, in fact I find her kind of cute. And perhaps her face was more a blessing than a curse, because Sale worked prolifically in movies and then TV for almost fifty years.

The most memorable moment in What a Life may come as a surprise to viewers unfamiliar with the freewheeling material that was possible before the Production Code crackdown of 1934. "Pansy" gags were a staple of early talkies, and this short features a real lulu. After the new reforms have been instituted we meet a pair of convicts who seem quite chummy. They're dressed for golf and on their way to the links when one of them, Algy by name, is summoned to the warden's office. When he's informed that his sentence is up and that he's free to go, Algy is deeply upset. But after he accidentally knocks a wastebasket over the warden's head his sentence is extended by ten years, and he's ecstatic. He actually exclaims "Oh goody goody goody," kisses the warden's cheek, and scampers out of the office shouting "I'll tell the boys!" You go, Algy.

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