If you've seen numerous musical films of the period, then you've probably found yourself smiling, frowning, chuckling or rolling your eyes at the staging, settings and dancing contained within these films --- all reasonable reactions for the modern viewer who, from this distant point in time away from 1929 and 1930, has indeed "seen it all" before --- many times, and in just as many guises.
The one element that remains a constant when it comes to early musical films is that of surprise, I believe. While you more or less know what to expect when viewing musicals of the 30's or 40's,
there's often no telling what's about to happen when an early musical suddenly shifts into Technicolor footage, an orchestra leader raises his arms, and a shimmering curtain begins to stir, raise, part, spark into flame or be revealed to be cascading jets of water.
Even the most low-key of musical sequences in seemingly unspectacular musical films of the period can, and often does, suddenly switch gears into something else so entirely unexpected that the viewer, caught off guard, can't help but think "Well, how about that!" and, thereby hooked, stick around to see how it all plays out rather than begin fumbling for the fast-forward button.
Ingenuity, that's what it's all about. Ingenuity that, when combined with the spirit of enthusiasm and experimentation that came with the arrival of sound (and Technicolor), allowed for some of the most memorable (and some of the most bizarre) dance sequences imaginable to be put onto film for seemingly no other reason than that it hadn't been done before, or done in quite this way before --- and certainly not for motion pictures.
Today, we prefer to believe (for we've been told so, for decades) that the "vintage film musical" period began and ended with Busby Berkeley's landmark series of films for Warners' in the 1930's, and that Berkeley paved the way for all that would come after, but this simply isn't true --- just easier to understand and, perhaps, repeat in print or in documentaries when necessary. Truth be told, in the realm of the film musical, it was the likes of Larry Ceballos, Sammy Lee, Pearl Eaton, John Murray Anderson and many others who paved the way for Busby Berkeley.
Had not the musical film experienced a surge that resulted in deluge and then abandonment after two or so years, I have to question whether or not Berkeley's work (magnificently clever though it is) would have had the same impact it did (and continues to today) when it reappeared after the moratorium, seeming so fresh, new and vibrant after a period of endless unrelenting talk set in drawing rooms, newspaper offices, police stations, apartments and gangster hide-outs. While that's a question that's best not explored here, the fact does remain however that nearly every presumed innovation in Busby Berkeley's musical set pieces can be traced to earlier film musical work by others. Then too, and to be perfectly fair, it should be noted that the first wave of musical films mined heavily from the massive stockpile of Broadway, vaudeville and minstrel show presentations that preceded it by decades --- so it might not be a question of who "invented" it, but just who got the chance to do it first in sound films.
So, in the end, while it may be counter-productive to nitpick as to "Who did it first?" and "Who did it best?", these early musical films are best served by spotlighting the work of those who have been forgotten or overlooked by modern day viewers who, through no fault of their own, have come to believe that the film musical began with the arrival of "42nd Street" in 1932.
Courtesy of a surprisingly detailed and amusingly cautionary syndicated newspaper feature dating from December of 1929 titled "Dance Your Way Into the Movies," by one Alice L. Tildesley, we learn a bit of Larry Ceballos' (1897-1978) early days, and precious little of Sammy Lee's (1890-1968), but it's a worthwhile read for early film musical buffs to be sure.
One of Larry Ceballos' earliest film works was a 1928 two-reel, all-Technicolor short for Warner Bros. & Vitaphone titled "Larry Ceballos' Roof Garden Revue," which has remarkably beaten all odds by having its visual and sound disc elements hold on just long enough to experience interest, discovery, restoration, preservation and very (very!) limited presentation to well-informed prospective audiences lucky enough to be in the right city, on the right day and at the right hour --- a dubious and rather inglorious fate that many recently restored early sound films share: nearly complete lack of exhibition, promotion and marketing to an eager yet, apparently invisible, audience.
As I was one of those prospective audience members for whom the planets refused to align, I've never seen the film --- I've only heard it, via a transcription of disc material that I first encountered long before any serious effort existed to rescue films of this period.
"Larry Ceballos' Roof Garden Revue" consists of three portions. The first, consisting of spirited choreography performed by a male and female singing and dancing chorus and adagio specialty dancers which accompanies the tunes "Over the Garden Wall" and "It Was the Dawn of Love" (see still below,) and the second featuring a comedic rendition of the "Pretty Little Bom Bom Maid From Old Bombay" performed by the duo of Bailey & Barnum. Lastly, a precision dance routine set to "The Doll Dance," which would be revamped, re-staged and musically altered for inclusion in the Warners 1929 revue "Show of Shows" in a sequence titled "Larry Ceballos' Black & White Girls."
Offered here, audio transcriptions of disc source material that predates the source audio utilized for the restoration by over a decade and, as a musical bonus, an exceptionally lush version of "It Was the Dawn of Love" performed by Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra that was also recorded in 1928.
"Larry Ceballos Roof Garden Revue" (1928) Act 1
"Larry Ceballos Roof Garden Revue (1928) Act 2
"Larry Ceballos Roof Garden Revue" (1928) Act 3
"It Was the Dawn of Love" (1928)
Those who enjoy knowing such things should note that actress Lyda Roberti, who'd rise to fame in the early 1930's (primarily at Paramount) before her early death in 1938, can be heard distinctly (she had a style all her own, as those familiar with her know!) as a vocalist in the first act rendition of "It Was the Dawn of Love."
While Larry Cabellos was no slouch when it came to surrounding familiar dance routines in incredibly diverse and unusual settings (as in "Li Po Li" from "The Show of Shows" pictured at the top of this post,) Metro's Sammy Lee seems to have the creative edge here --- although Metro's bottomless wallet was doubtless an important factor that encouraged experimentation. What follows are two prime examples of Sammy Lee's work at it's ultimate surreal and tuneful best.
Although "It's A Great Life" (MGM-1929) has aired (albeit infrequently) on cable, when it does it's without it's final Technicolor sequence that serves as the film's musical finale. The footage, quite the best Technicolor footage in the entire film, does exist --- but for some inexplicable reason has not been restored to its proper place within the film it originates from.
Rather, if you happen to tune in between airings of a 1940's gangster film and a 1990's Japanese animated epic, you might just be lucky enough to catch this remarkable bit of footage.
Originally presented as a feverish hallucination of a bedridden and ill "Babe Hogan" (Vivian Duncan,) the sequence (titled "Sailing On A Sunbeam") opens with film supporting player Lawrence Gray providing a vocal rendition, which then gives way to a bevy of chorines that emerge from either side of the screen and join to form a stage-wide dance line.
An interesting effect occurs here as the lighting changes, putting the dancers into half-shadow against a brightly illuminated backdrop scrim of stylized willowy tree branches. A shift in tempo, and Rosetta and Vivian Duncan appear and take center stage to warble the melody, into which is cleverly worked a refrain of another song from the film, "I'm Following You."
As their vocal ends, the number takes a wild turn of the sort that only seemed to happen in musicals of 1929 and 1930. Suiting the action to the song title, the sisters Duncan are lifted heavenward on a puffy cloud --- higher, and higher, until they're surrounded by shimmering Art Deco sunbeams that (are you ready?) come into play by the chorines gathered on surrounding clouds, who leap onto them and, quite literally, sail downwards --- to points unknown (the one jarring aspect of the number), on slides representing sunbeams. Improbable and absurd, yet there it is --- joyful, exuberant, proud, and as entertaining as all heck. (Just don't look for it in TCM's next scheduled airing of "It's A Great Life" somewhere around 2009 --- tune in between airings of John Wayne films next month for a better chance of seeing it.)
"Sailing on a Sunbeam" (1929)
Closing out this imperfect post (for what could be more frustrating than not being able to see the work of a choreographer at the moment it's being discussed?) is another of Sammy Lee's inventive efforts, "The Woman in the Shoe" from the 1929 Metro film "Lord Byron of Broadway."
For years, this Technicolor musical sequence could only be seen as part of a 1933 short subject featuring Ted Healy and the Three Stooges ("Nertzery Rhymes") which drew upon old, presumably forgotten or unreleased footage (from the abandoned "March of Time" of 1930) for it's musical segments. Happily, the sequence hasn't been inexplicably orphaned as the Duncan Sisters footage has, and can be seen today in it's rightful place in the film it originally accompanied --- looking and sounding mighty fine too.
The delightful sort of timeless musical sequence that I always wished would be resurrected and staged as part of Radio City Music Hall's Christmas show, "The Woman in the Shoe" first presents us with a forlorn boot populated by an understandably weary gal and her battling brood.
Visited by a magic-wand toting Prince, the footwear is transformed into a decidedly 1929 style high-heeled shoe, and the drudge now appears as a slender elegant figure brandishing a feathered fan. (Curiously, the woman's children seem to have vanished completely --- suggesting her wish had an unexpected edge to it.) Vocalized by the tremendously talented Ethelind Terry (star of the Ziegfeld stage production of "Rio Rita") the tune forms the musical backdrop for presentation of familiar fairy-tale characters (most of them offering food, oddly) and a line of dancing girls costumed as "Four and Twenty Blackbirds." Far from as bile inducing as it may sound when described, it's tremendously tuneful and, dare I say, adorable.
"The Woman in the Shoe" (1930) Ethelind Terry
Ethelind Terry experienced the sort of publicity most stars today only dream of, just prior to her joining the production of "Lord Byron of Broadway," and these chronological newspaper reprints tell the story all by themselves. The post concludes with an interesting 1930 article in which Larry Ceballos discusses the challenge involved in choreographing dance for the talking picture medium.