A pity too, as the film was a serio-comic depiction of vaudeville and it's denizens. To be sure, there were flashes of a "big city" revue, since one figured in the plot-line, but the heart and soul of the film centered around just plain show folk... The Trouper, the Old Timer, The Gold Digger, The Baby Doll, The Vamp, and The Feeder. (Whatever that was!)
Not widely distributed, judging by period newspaper accounts, the film did however enjoy a long run (October of 1928 to mid-1929) although largely relegated to second-string bargain and "dime" theaters, providing perhaps the perfect audience for what looked to be an unpretentious and earnest little film. The picture also offered a theme song, "No One But Me," which I wish I could offer here, but can't --- at least not yet.
What I can offer instead is a mysterious little recording dating from 1926 anywhere to 1930, of which I have no information nor detail, not even a title. Found on the tag end of a reel tape many years ago, this intricately orchestrated melody has entertained and perplexed me since first hearing it, and I'm hopeful a reader might be able to identify it. For means of identification, I've titled it "A Jazz Cocktail," which seems to fit the concoction well enough. The poster to the right, for the lost 1926 Fox film "A Trip to Chinatown" is here to give you something to look at while listening, and also because the image seems to suit the recording. A bit. Somewhat?
"A Jazz Cocktail" (Unidentified 78rpm Disc)
Those attending the midnight premiere of "The Desert Song" in Lima, Ohio on August 3rd of 1929 were in for a long night. Like so many films of the period, "The Desert Song" exists today as a tattered shadow of itself, and certainly not as the part-color film which premiered at a length of approximately two hours and fifteen minutes. Naturally, some of this time-frame would have been given over to intermission, overture and exit music... but that still leaves roughly forty minutes of footage unaccounted for in the dismal prints that survive today.
That aside, "The Desert Song" was a classic example of a film that the critics hated, but audiences loved and flocked to see, time and again. Problem is, most books tend to ignore public reaction to the film and instead focus only upon critical reviews and then simply join in on the gloomy chorus, resulting in what amounts to an unfair representation of the film as it was originally received --- not by critics, but by the most trusty of all popularity barometers, the paying public.
There's no getting around the fact that the film is a long haul when seen today, (what we have today is the much shortened reissue print) but under the right circumstances (and I'm thinking back here to a long ago screening at a Syracuse CineFest) the film is as charming as it is tuneful and entertaining. John Boles, while always John Boles, is sturdy, reliable stuff --- and Myrna Loy, Johnny Arthur and Louise Fazenda routinely pop up at regular intervals when things become a bit too turgid.
Syndicated reviews such as the one to the left are typical, although this one points up the interesting fact that at this relatively early date (April of 1929) critics (and audiences) alike were still very much in the midst of adapting themselves to the new medium. With a lifetime behind them of attending stage performances and silent films, there was no small degree of difficulty in mentally (and physically) combining the two elements into one new unified whole. As such, familar reference points from the stage and silent screen were absent in this new medium--- or beyond the grasp of description at least. You're urged to read the review (which can be enlarged, of course) for a better description than I'm capable of.
Unfortunately for female lead in "The Desert Song," Carlotta King, there was criticism aplenty, and the innocent looking publicity placement to the right helped to kick off the sort of juicy public disagreement between star and studio that would be the main feature on television "news" magazines today.
In the press release, appearing in newspapers just before and as "The Desert Song" opened around the country, all was well and good --- with the Warners publicity department playing up the old "star is born" angle by mentioning (or fabricating) the story that King was discovered via singing on the radio. Had the film been met with laurels and kisses by critics, the story would end there.
However, when reviewers began to either blame King for the film's presumed flaws, or dismiss her entirely, the actress stepped forward to defend herself... unwisely, perhaps.
Two months after the above press release appeared, the one to the left was published, and in a show of emotion that far exceeded what she displayed in the film, Carlotta King defiantly insisted "I am not a radio singer and never was," and then rather weakly qualifies this bold statement with "I don't believe I ever sang over the radio more than five or six times in my whole life." Digging herself in even further, the actress goes for the sympathy angle and continues, "I read many criticisms on 'The Desert Song' in which the writers stated that the reason my acting was so poor was because I was just a radio singer. That is not so."
The article goes on to mention that, not incidentally, she is now under the caring wing of Metro Goldwyn Mayer --- suggesting that Waner Bros. just didn't understand or appreciate her, and that it would be Uncle Louis (B. Mayer) to rescue, nurture and allow her star to ascend.
The next film for Miss King? It would be MGM's super revue for 1930, "The March of Time." Abandoned in mid-production. Carlotta King would never appear in another film, but perhaps this played some role in allowing the actress to survive (if internet data is correct) to the astounding age of 102, before passing away in 2000.
Before leaving "The Desert Song," it's worth noting that the article to the left indicates that color footage in the film was limited, entirely it appears, to sequences set outdoors in whatever sandy stretch was dressed and utilized as a "desert," while the article to the right details what may well have been the first instance of a plagiarism lawsuit filed against a talking film. If nothing else, that particular court date must have had some degree of temptation for a then very much "at liberty" Miss King!
Offered here, the original Vitaphone overture disc for "The Desert Song," which while purely orchestral, has a certain stately magnificence (or, depending on your view, pomposity) all it's own.
Either way, this as what audiences heard while settling down into their upholstered seats for two hours and fifteen minutes of the screen's first operetta, and it's beyond lovely for that.
"The Desert Song" (1929) Vitaphone Overture Disc
Some twenty odd years before "The Desert Song," there was a musical stage production called "Piff, Paff, Pouf!" which, among other things, featured the startling "Radium Dance," and which opened at New York City's Casino Theater (where "Florodora" changed musical history in 1900.) Break-out star of the show was one Miss Grace Cameron, who nearly stole the show with a wickedly sly song called "Since Dolly Dimple Made A Hit," one of those tunes filled with period references of names and places that have since passed into legend, but which were all alive and vital at the time Miss Cameron breathed into a recording horn in 1904 --- and through her, and because of her, can be almost magically resurrected today in a way that mere words fail to do.
Grace Cameron's hit tune would cause the actress no small amount of trouble in addition to creating fame however, as the April of 1905 article to the left indicates --- as well as giving us our first glimpse of the performer herself, looking unconcerned, confident and worldly, with more than a bit of fun about her too, don't you think? Seems that the owner of "Piff! Paff! Pouf!," Maurice Whitney didn't much cotton to not having a hand in the till where the popular tune "Dolly Dimple"
was concerned, and filed a lawsuit in
New York alleging that the words and music was his property alone, and therefore Miss Cameron had no right to perform (and gain from) the melody. How this lawsuit ended is anyone's guess --- although payment of some sort likely salved any supposed wounds on Mr. Whitney's part.
At this point in time, I believe we can safely avoid awakening Mr. Whitney's legal team and listen... quietly... to Grace Cameron performing this most remarkable, clever and witty tune just as she did in 1904, replicated here in a 1912 recording. Shall we? This will be a treat for Broadway and New York historians alike, I suspect!
"Since Dolly Dimple Made a Hit" (1904)
Proving just how complex and intertwined show folk history can often be, I was surprised to learn that appearing with Grace Cameron in the cast of "Piff! Paff! Pouf!" was Kathryn Osterman, mother of vaudevillian Jack Osterman, who's interesting and ultimately sad life was detailed in an earlier post ("Talking It Over"). Kathryn Osterman was also present and inordinately blase about the matter when Jack Osterman's widow took her own life in 1950. (See article right.) "A tear today, a smile tomorrow," or so they say. What say you?
Before chasing away gloom for the remainder of this post, it's always healthy (and fun) to wallow in it for a bit, so here's an entirely appropriate recording by the then quite ripe Sophie Tucker that was recorded in 1922, and which is titled:
"Complainin' - It's Human Nature" (1922)
Why be downhearted when we can instead listen to the undeniably powerful and talented Newell Alton, organist and vocalist of the Capitol Cinema in Australia, scatter any remaining frowns with a rendition of "Sing A Little Love Song" from the 1929 Universal spectacular "Broadway?" Why indeed? The stage is yours, Mr. Alton... and adjust your speakers or headphones accordingly, readers!
"Sing A Little Love Song" (1929) Newell Alton
Likewise, the equally strident melody "Song of the Dawn," from Universal's 1930 revue "The King of Jazz" is not without the ability to whisk away melancholy, and this Paul Whiteman rendition (with Bing Crosby backed with an unusual full vocal chorus) is just as effective as it is in the film.
"Song of the Dawn" (1930)
British renditions of familiar melodies from early musicals seem to enjoy a particular degree of popularity in these pages, a fact which pleases me, as it's nice to move beyond the usual suspects when covering these topics.
From Paramount's ethereal "The Love Parade," a 1929 film which seems to appear once every decade despite it surviving in astonishingly lovely prints, comes this two sided medley of tunes from the production, recorded in the UK that same year and released on the Broadcast label. (The somewhat off-kilter rendition of "Nobody's Using It Now" that leads off Side 2 is a must even for those who aren't particularly fond of this picture!)
Looking for something hotter? Look no further than the two selections that follow!From Rodger's & Hart's "Spring Is Here," (Warners-1930) the one tune that also rouses the whole film to life midway through, "Crying for the Carolines." Performed in the film by the Brox Sisters, who appear to have wandered into the film's garden party to sing and then leave far too soon and too early, it's performed here by the British artists, Alfredo's Band... and despite likely never having been any closer to the Carolines than the West End, you sure wouldn't know it!
"Crying for the Carolines" (1930)
There's a musical sequence in the likewise uneven "Love in the Rough" (Metro-1930) that is staged so unusually and effectively that it seems as though we're not watching a film at all so much as seeing, from a distance, a group of youthful men and women entertaining themselves on the patio of a country club. The tune, "I'm Doing That Thing," starts out simply with Dorothy Jordan accompanying a ukulele wielding fellow --- and then others take up simple instruments, while others (The Biltmore Trio) join in on the vocal --- and then the tune is picked up by an unseen orchestra while everyone present breaks into a dance that's carefully choreographed to not look choreographed at all. It's a sequence that exhilarates, and should you note the film scheduled on cable, you're urged to catch it for this bit of footage alone. Performed here by Morris Elwin and his Orchestra, with a vocal by Van Phillips, recorded in the UK in late-1930. Roll up the rugs, and grab a golf club for a partner.
"I'm Doing That Thing" (1930)
Sooner or later I'll be giving "Noah's Ark" (WB-1928) the full attention it deserves, despite the knowledge that I'm among a very small minority who believe it to be one of the most underrated, under-appreciated and overlooked films of the early sound era. So, either consider yourself warned or, more hopefully, intrigued.
In the meantime, you might enjoy hearing one of the two "modern day" melodies that drift throughout the intricate score. One, the love theme, was "Heart O' Mine," and the other, (also a love theme, in a sense) was "Old Timer," which serves as the theme for the two pals who's lives are predestined and intertwined throughout history.
This rendition of "Old Timer", one of very few recorded (if not the only one?) is by Nick Lucas, shortly before he'd find his Forever in singing of sunshine and tulips. Not to everyone's taste I'm sure, but for those that love the film as I do, it's just grand... just perfect.
"Old Timer" (1929)
By the by, should anyone have the flip-side, "Heart O' Mine," do let me know!
While we're with Mr. Lucas, I've a chance to fulfill a request for his rendition of "In a Kitchenette" from "The Gold Diggers of Broadway," and hasten to do so now.
"In A Kitchenette" (1929)
The selections from "Sunny Side Up" in the last post proved more popular than I imagined, and it's heartening to learn that the film has a far wider base of fans than I once thought. Now, if only the folks at Fox DVD could be convinced, it might get the respectful treatment it so rightfully deserves.
Here's yet another medley from the film, this time by the
Victor Light Opera Company, who recorded this sprightly number in early 1930. (The Revelers, I believe, handle "Turn on the Heat" here.)
Vocal Gems from "Sunny Side Up" (Fox-1929)
Also very much within the realm of "sprightly" recordings, is this rendition of "Who?" from Jerome Kern & Marilyn Miller's "Sunny" of 1926, which would arrive on the screen, somewhat deflated and after-the-fact, in mid-1930. Recorded here by a group calling themselves "The Gaiety Musical Comedy Chorus," who it seems would later be reincarnated as the odd present-day vocal group "Chanticleer," turn in a rendition unlike any other you're likely to hear. 'Nuff said.
"Who?" from "Sunny" (1926)
To close out this entry of "Vitaphone Varieties," let's listen in on the closing moments of 1928's "My Man," the lost Fannie Brice feature film. As someone once perceptively pointed out to me, these final moments are different from most films of this period in that here we have a dramatic situation that, while left unresolved, still provides a powerful and firm ending to the film --- unlike other early sound efforts which simply end abruptly (often over a silent "end" title.) We'll probably never know for sure, but here --- as Brice is resigned to the loss of her love, and faces and uncertain future, is brightened by her sympathetic manager's advice. I envision the camera moving in close on Brice's expressive face, her eyes filled with tears, bravely smiling. Her confidence swells, and with it the orchestra, for what must have been a remarkably forward-thinking finale to an equally remarkable (and misjudged) film.
Closing Moment - "My Man" (1928)
Finally, there's no need for me to bid Good-Night when The Blue Mountaineers (UK-1933) can do it for me, and far better too, with
"Big Ben Is Saying Good Night" (1933)
Until next time!