24 December 2006

A Yuletide Frolic

Christmas Day marks the three month anniversary of "Vitaphone Varieties," and I'd like to take a moment to especially thank all of it's readers and many supporters, who have been an incredible source of encouragement and inspiration for the author of these pages.

Equal thanks, however, must go to the films, performers, music and recordings explored in these pages --- all which have proven, beyond my wildest expectations, that they still possess the power to intrigue, enlighten and entertain. This, at a time when it seemed they'd been all but forgotten and that all there was to learn about them had already been written.

The early Talkies, while resigned to forever lurk in the deep shadows behind the era of the silent film and the product of the 1930's, are still very much with us --- a bit forlorn and tattered perhaps, but patiently waiting to spring to life once again, whenever given the chance to do so.

The ultimate credit, then, must go to you --- the readers of this work, for allowing these distant voices and lost chords of another day, time and place to be heard and appreciated again... and anew.

For this holiday offering, and until "Vitaphone Varieties" returns on New Year's Day of 2007, a diverse selection of what I hope will be audible cheer!

From 1932, a two-sided British 78rpm recording entitled "Gracie's Christmas Party," in which the beloved British entertainer, Gracie Fields, welcomes listeners into her home on Christmas Eve for an evocative bit of melody and mirth. Gracie's rendition of "Singing in the Bathtub," from "The Show of Shows" (WB-1929) is but one of many pleasures to be found in this lovely artifact of a more innocent time, lost beyond recall.

"Gracie's Christmas Party" (1932)

While the allure of child performer Davey Lee is difficult to appreciate today, there's no denying his place in film history as the first true child star of the sound era.

Between 1928 and 1930, Lee appeared with Al Jolson in "The Singing Fool" and "Say It With Songs," and as a supporting player in "Frozen River," "Skin Deep and "The Squealer," but in 1929 would be given his own starring vehicle "Sonny Boy." As could be expected, Lee's popularity was as tremendous as it was ultimately short lived. Before a momentarily charmed public turned its attention elsewhere, the boy was utilized for advertising campaigns, public service announcements, all manner of film cross promotional advertising, and was the feature character in a number of children's books and at least one commercial 78rpm recording.

For Christmas of 1929, the Brunswick two-sided recording of "Sonny Boy's Bear Story" was deemed an appropriate gift item for the kiddies, but as to how often they were allowed to listen to the recording on the family's phonograph is very much a matter of debate and tolerance, as you'll discover here.

"Sonny Boy's Bear Story" (1929) Davey Lee

Rather astonishing, but former child actor Davey Lee has his own small but charming web site --- surely the only such instance for any Vitaphone era performer, and well worth a visit. The link: "Sonny Boy Lives Here"

From 1931, an example of an idea that came either too late or too early in the game to be effective! Although Victor's first entry into the realm of the long-playing record was met with critical acclaim, it wasn't enough to lure the financially conscious public into the phonograph dealer's showroom. Had the device arrived four or even three years earlier, the outcome might have been rather different --- but as it was, 1931 wasn't the right time for entertainment luxury items. While the content of this demonstration disc (one side of which is offered here) is technically acceptable and certainly entertaining, it's interesting to note that most of the selections hearken back to an earlier day --- 1928, 1929 and 1930 specifically, and that despite the selling point being that this new process allows for greater "elbow room" for the performers, all that listeners heard here were, primarily, much abbreviated renditions of selections that could be heard, in full, on standard 78rpm recordings! A noble misfire.

With Frank Crumit as the Master of Ceremonies and performances by The Revelers, pianists Arden & Ohman and Nathaniel Shilkret leading the Victor Orchestra, here's a "right idea, wrong time" bit of phonograph history.

"Victor Artist's Party" (1931)

Nothing about the history of the early talking films is set in stone, and the fact that much of it seems to be badly in need of reevaluation is made apparent by the wealth of misinformation surrounding the 1928 film "My Man," which featured multi-talented entertainer Fannie Brice.

Usually cited as being largely silent with a few interpolated vocalizations (as in "The Jazz Singer") and that the film performed miserably outside of key cities that could boast audiences appropriately ethnic enough to patronize and appreciate the film, such wasn't the case.

Whether or not readers of a Lima, Ohio newspaper entered the puzzle contest to the right in order to win tickets to see "My Man" is unknown, but audiences turned out in droves nonetheless --- and not only in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, but in small cities and even smaller cinemas throughout the States, from late 1928 to mid 1929. Period reviews of the film are limited (many "reviews" are actually prefabricated publicity placements, but these become easy to detect in time!) but almost without exception, are tremendously positive. In fact, when a negative aspect concerning the film does appear, it's invariably in connection with the fact that the film does have brief periods of silence (a musical score with inter-titles --- perhaps 20% of the film's length) and that it wasn't designed as a full talkie.

Indeed, in more than one instance, the film was "held over" for the run of another full week --- a fact in direct contrast with the usually gloomy evaluations of the film one encounters in some books.

To be fair, the fact that precious little was thought to survive of the film for decades likely played a role in it's misrepresentation, but as bits and pieces of the film's Vitaphone disc soundtrack begin to emerge (only about 20% is still absent today) and fact gradually replaces opinion, the story changes.

Unfortunately, there's no getting around the fact that absolutely nothing is known to exist of the visual elements for "My Man," but hope springs eternal --- and films have a remarkable knack for turning up when least expected and from the most unexpected of sources too. I for one can't believe that a film so infused with the spirit and vibrancy of this most remarkable of all American entertainers would allow itself to remain lost forever --- if only for the fact that Brice herself would likely want nothing more than to set the record straight, once and for all.

Two excerpts from the surviving Vitaphone disc material for "My Man."

The first, a rendition of "I'd Rather Be Blue Over You," that begins simply at a piano as Brice puts her affection for an oblivious bloke (Guinn Williams) into song, and then opens up with full yet fleeting orchestra accompaniment.

"I'd Rather Be Blue..." (1928) Vitaphone Excerpt

The second, occurring on Fannie's wedding day, begins with an orchestral reprise of the above tune (one of the film's few silent sequences) and then explodes into an unusual and delightfully joyous rendition of the usually tear-laden song "My Man."

To close this holiday edition of "Vitaphone Varieties," which will return on New Year's Day of 2007, a moment of subdued romanticism from a film not usually thought of in either term --- "The Gold Diggers of Broadway" (WB-1929,) in which Nick Lucas provides the vocal incentive for William Bakewell to tuck a reluctant Helen Foster into bed and then, gentleman that he is, leave her to her dreams!

"Go to Bed" (1929) Nick Lucas

Until January 1st, "Happy Holidays!"


22 December 2006

"Don't Tell Your Right Name!"

"Don't tell your right name!" cries a helpful voice just as an after-hours entertainment establishment (shall we say) is unexpectedly raided in the opening moments of the 1927 Vitaphone short subject, "The Night Court."

Directed by Brian Foy, and filmed on an adjacent Warner Bros. sound stage while "The Jazz Singer" was being lensed and recorded in the Summer of 1927, "The Night Court" has the distinction of being the first sound film set within a courtroom, albeit of the nocturnal variety, a theme and setting that would loom large in the early talkies, featured in such films as "On Trial," "Tenderloin," "Queen of the Night Clubs," and "The Trial of Mary Dugan," and "Madam X," to name but a very few.

Make no mistake, despite the title and setting, "The Night Court" is pure musical frivolity --- a befuddled and clueless old Judge, a slick Broadway lawyer (William Demarest,) a free-spirited female jazz singer (Dottie Lewis,) an "exotic" dancer ("Joyzelle," who'd later gain everlasting cinematic fame as intergalactic dancer "Loo Loo" in Fox's 1930 "Just Imagine,) and a court-room filled with viewers, patrons, policemen and reporters all doing their best to hide their mirth at the absurd proceedings.

Arriving in theaters in late 1927, where it was sometimes advertised as "William Demarest & Co.," as in the ad to the right, the film proved immensely popular with audiences eager for fully synchronized speech and song, and would continue to be booked into cinemas across the country until the late summer of 1928 when it bowed out and retired into the shadows, seemingly forever --- until the relatively recent discovery of both the film's picture and sound elements resulted in restoration, preservation and extremely limited and select exhibition of the one-off variety (the old, old story yet again!)

"The Night Court" utilizes two popular melodies of the day, "When Erastus Plays His Old Kazoo" which is heard at the start and close of the film as dance music, and "I Ain't That Kind of A Baby," which is vocalized in strident fashion by Dottie (or Dolly?) Lewis. Both tunes are grand examples of 1927 popular music and for that reason (although one isn't really needed in this case --- they're that good!) two stand-alone versions are offered here for each melody.

Alex Jackson & His Orchestra (pictured right) does the honors for "When Erastus Plays His Old Kazoo," recorded in October of 1927,
and elusive female vocalist Esther Walker leaves little doubt as to where she stands in her spirited, full throttle rendition of "I Ain't That Kind of a Baby," recorded for Victor in September of that same year.

"When Erastus Plays His Old Kazoo" (1927)

"I Ain't That Kind of a Baby" (1927)

Divided into two sections to facilitate easier listening, here's "The Night Court" itself --- with some audio correction in place to repair the damage that well intentioned but overly enthusiastic "noise filtering" inflicts upon Vitaphone disc material which, if largely left alone, offers surprising sonics both low and high. (Much as I eagerly anticipate films like "The Jazz Singer" arriving on DVD, I shudder at how diminished the original Vitaphone disc audio will likely be by an attempt to "clean it up.")

"The Night Court" (1927) Part 1

"The Night Court" (1927) Part 2

For a night court of a somewhat different variety --- but one well suited to this post, here's a gem of an audio relic for the more open-minded and less sensitive of readers: "Hollywood Night Court," recorded in 1930. In what would come to be termed "blue" or "party records," simple concepts like a court-room scene would be enacted for a 78rpm recording with all manner of risque dialogue and double entendre of the sort that necessitated the disc being sold strictly under-the-counter. Although tame by modern standards, there's surprises aplenty here for the uninitiated in this dark corner of 78rpm recording history and for that reason listener discretion is advised.

"Hollywood Night Court" (1930)

To close out this post on a higher level --- or to at least attempt to, let's leave with the memory of the beaming fellow to our left. That's mandolin player extraordinaire, Bernardo De Pace, who was featured in a 1928 Vitaphone short subject that, although a dazzling performance piece, prompted one reviewer to matter-of-factly indicate that it wasn't always a love-fest between audiences and Vitaphone product: "Bernardo De Pace is an accomplished mandolinist, but his free flowing grimaces make him hard to enjoy."

We need not worry about such matters here, for as Mr. De Pace performs "That's Why I Love You" we adjourn this post and return readers to the protective custody of the waning days of 2006.

"That's Why I Love You" (1928)

Court & Bernardo De Pace Photos Courtesy The Daily News Collection of the Chicago Historical Society

21 December 2006

Of Magnascope and Vocalite

Those attending the 1930 grand opening of the Strand Theater in Shreveport, Louisiana (transformed from stage to cinema house) would be treated to a film presentation that surely impressed many of those in the audience as being the absolute height of sophisticated cinema technology.

If that statement doesn't impress you, then pause to consider that the average forty year old member of that audience would have already experienced, first hand, the rise of cinema from virtually it's inception onwards --- a thirty year span that carried with it such incredibly vast changes and advances in technology, method, style and presentation that it's difficult (if not impossible) to even seek comparisons to the emergence and advance of any entertainment medium (aside from the Internet, of course!) in our own recent past.

"The Cuckoos" (RKO-1930) offered audiences sound and Technicolor sequences, but the management of the Strand theater (now on the Register of Historic Places, and fully restored) went one step better with the installation a Mangascope screen and projection apparatus that, basically, enlarged the image from a viewing area of roughly 18x24' to anywhere from 18x34' all the way up to 22x38' --- filling the entire proscenium area with a motion picture image.

While the end result would likely be short of perfect, and would probably be deemed very poor indeed today (where so much as a stray hair in the projection gate is cause for alarm that warrants a multi-thousand dollar restoration project), the original effect and experience was probably more memorable than technically superb for the theater patrons of 1929 and 1930. Then too, without knowledge of what the future would bring, the present often seems just fine. Black and White television, circa 1965 comes to mind here. Before venturing on, it should be pointed out that Magnascope is not to be confused with the Fox Grandeur process, which involved a wide 70mm film stock and was quite superior --- but that's a topic for another post, certainly!

As cited in many books, the Magnascope process was utilized for exhibition of well known Paramount silent films like "Old Ironsides" (1926) and "Wings" (1927), but it came as a surprise to learn that Magnascope was very much in evidence throughout the early sound era and, remarkably, lasted into the 1940's where it was being used in some Paramount theaters. Truly, cause to reassess what we know --- or think we know --- about the film-going experience of 1929 and 1930 when we learn that otherwise familiar titles (both Paramount product and not) such as "Glorifying the American Girl," "Sally," "The Gold Diggers of Broadway," "Whoopee!," and "Paramount On Parade" were exhibited on these enlarged screens in theaters around and quite distant from major cities. For the film buff or historian, it's actually quite an exciting notion to ponder, especially given the content and pictorial beauty of these films.

Even as the first cycle of film musicals began to wind down, Maganscope was still being touted and installed in new theaters, such at The Baywood ("San Mateo's Theatre Moderne") where in 1931, "Reaching For the Moon" was projected in the process for audiences fast growing weary of musical films. Indeed, surviving as sad testament to this shift in public acceptance of the musical film format, "Reaching For the Moon" would arrive on screens --- enlarged or not --- greatly altered from the film first envisioned, with all but one of it's Irving Berlin melodies either cut completely or relegated to background music scoring. (And this, if press accounts are to be believed, down from the twenty tunes Berlin originally composed for the film!)

But, in the end, neither Magnascope nor "Vocalite Screens" (a screen coated with glass beading to improve brilliance while also allowing sound to better permeate it from loudspeaker horns placed behind it) nor the combination of the two (which was fairly common) could stem the tide from turning against the musical film nor lure audiences into theaters a year or so later when their primary concern was putting food on the table. Still, for a while at least --- it seemed that there was no limit to the heights the still new talking, singing and dancing picture would soar --- not unlike the Icarus of myth, flying blindly into the pastel rays of an early Technicolor sun.

To accompany this post, a few audio items of related interest to films mentioned in this post (much as I'd like to make available free fabric swatches of Vocalite screens, I cannot!)

An orchestra and vocal medley from "Paramount on Parade," for which I can find no information other than that it was a 78rpm commercial recording released in the US and UK alike.

Medley - "Paramount on Parade" (1930)

An extract from a Vitaphone (type) sound disc that was originally thought to be an overture disc for "Whoopee," but which is probably actually sound accompaniment to an unidentified period cartoon that simply made free use of a few melodies from the film. Whatever it is, it's a terrific orchestration!

Medley - "Whoopee!" (1930)

Lastly, originating from sound disc source material, the one surviving tune from "Reaching For the Moon," (the lovely title tune can only be heard during the titles and as incidental scoring) in which the voices of Bebe Daniels, Douglas Fairbanks, Bing Crosby, June MacCloy and Claude Allister (as the magnificently named Sir Horace Partington Chelmsford) can all be heard in a shipboard jazz party/musical sequence entitled "Low Down," a rousing, sparkling delight that hints at what other similar melodic moments the film might have contained had things been a bit different in late 1930.

"Low Down" (1930)


19 December 2006

The Dancing Masters

If you've seen at least one or two early musical films from either Metro or Warner Bros., then chances are you've seen the work of choreographers Larry Ceballos and Sammy Lee.

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.