13 February 2007

Harlequinade

At first glance, the Warner Bros. 1932 film "Winner Take All" seems like just another boxing story --- but like almost all the studio's output during this period, even the most familiar or pedestrian of themes is often surrounded by production and story elements that seldom fail to baffle, surprise and delight. No matter that the main character is a secretary, salesman, nurse, doctor, taxi driver or a dairy employee --- presumably people like us, working lugs all, the world they exist in within these films is often as foreign and unreal a territory as the fictitious fairy-tale European cities seen in Paramount's glistening fluff or Metro's chromium and lacquered penthouse suites.

If you're an X-ray technician in a 1934 Warners film such as the incredible "Bedside," you'll find yourself treating nymphomaniacs feigning a twisted ankle one moment, and a morphine addict faking an asthma attack in order to get a fix the next. Even the most mundane of professions are rife with danger at every turn in the Warner Bros. Pre-Code world. If you're a salesgirl, you'll find yourself lured into customer's beds with astonishing regularity, and if you manage a small corner pharmacy, you're likely to be strong-armed by gangsters into manufacturing knock-offs of brand name lipsticks one day, and life-saving medicine that kills rather than cures, the next.

"Winner Take All," while arguably not a good film then or now, nonetheless veers off into unexpected territory almost immediately. Cagney, here still so young as to have an odd element of male prettiness about him that makes his characterizations seem even more inadvertently complex --- playful and coy one moment, cold blooded and incredibly cruel the next, is a boxer sent out west for a rest cure. He boards a train and as it pulls out from New York City, the music that accompanies the onscreen montage of train wheels chugging across a map segues from "The Sidewalks of New York" to "Beyond the Blue Horizon," a tune most closely associated with the Paramount film of two years earlier, "Monte Carlo."

The odd becomes even odder in the following scene, where we find Cagney ensconced at "Dr. William Bett's Rosario Ranch & Hot Springs," where the nighttime atmosphere is anything but restful, what with the constant mournful yelps and yowling of desert coyotes. Investigating the source of the wailing chorus, Cagney finds not a pack of roving mammals, but a typically pensive Marion Nixon on the outside patio instead, and there is a glimmer of recognition between the two.

It's here, that Cagney learns that he once encountered Nixon not behind a lunch counter as he supposes, but at Texas Guinan's infamous speakeasy where Nixon admits to having once worked. It's this moment in the film that results in "Winner Take All" being discussed here, for it's at this juncture that viewers can see all they're ever likely to see of the much sought after early 1929 talkie, "Queen of the Night Clubs," which starred the legendary Texas Guinan.

Utilized to introduce a brief flash-back depicting Marion Nixon as a speakeasy singer (she warbles a bit of "Was That the Human Thing to Do?" which dates from 1932 and not 1929, however) our glimpse of footage from "Queen of the Night Clubs" amounts to a scant 13 seconds or so of splendid looking but mute footage (the soundtrack has been replaced to accommodate a musical lead-in to Nixon's little song) consisting of seven quick shots (six actually, with one being split into two) in which we see Texas Guinan holding reign above a festive crowd in her re-created nightclub (publicity items claimed the set was an exact duplication of her night-club's main floor --- which perhaps it was, albeit far more brightly lit and dramatically less smoke-filled!) as well as equally quick flashes of dancing girls, "Georgie" Raft leading the club's band, and a glimpse of Arthur Housman at a table which dissolves into 1932's "Winner Take All Footage." To the credit of the 1932 film, more than a bit of care was taken in matching the new footage with the old, with props from the 1929 film (a tablecloth and lamp) being dug out to ensure a fairly seamless transition despite the sudden absence of ziggurat wall designs in the 1932 re-creation.

Depending on your taste, the poster for "Queen of the Night Clubs" depicted right may seem either attractive or hideous, and the film itself was received in much the same way --- with reviews pointing neither one way or another, and box office returns decent but unremarkable.

Clearly, the concept of "Notoriety = Celebrity" was already much in place by 1929, and while not carried to the sickening extreme it is today, (where it seems the more despicable one's behavior, the more one is admired, revered, lauded and embraced by the media and public alike) the early decades of the 20th Century --- and earlier, were filled with cases of acquitted murderers and all manner of society dregs being paraded across vaudeville stages as "celebrities," drawing crowds equal to those for persons of genuine worth and quality.

Of course, Texas Guinan's only crime (that I know of) was in being the over-the-top, rather ingenious character that she was in real life, but after a decade of nearly constant mention in newspapers --- always seemingly in connection with a sensational albeit largely toothless scandal of some sort --- she was thought justifiably ripe for presentation in a talking film that, while fictionalized (her character is named "Tex Malone" in the film) surely struck viewers as being as real and contemporary as last week's headlines.

In actuality, "Queen of the Night Clubs" wasn't Guinan's first appearance on the talking screen, as she could be seen in a lengthy segment from a late 1928 (I believe) Fox Movietone newsreel, that survives today but is usually overlooked by historians and authors. The nightclub we see in the newsreel --- the real one --- is a dark, dangerous looking place --- claustrophobic, cluttered, featureless, seen in half shadows and swirls of cigarette smoke, littered with confetti and serpentine streamers. Guinan herself is far from the glittering and groomed blonde we see in the 1929 film, here being overly powdered and carelessly painted, wearing an unflattering and shapeless dress from which emerge thick, flabby arms --- and a metallic headpiece atop a mane of wild, frizzy hair. No less a personage than Harry K. Thaw (murderer of Stanford White in 1906) is introduced via a title card as one of Guinan's stellar patrons --- looking old, ill, sullen and vastly uncomfortable as he shoots deadly glances at the Movietone camera lens.

We also get a bit of the club's floor show --- twenty or so graceless girls attempting a dance step on the postage-stamp sized dance floor, their arms and legs hitting chairs (and patrons) in the process, before scampering away as Guinan instructs the patrons with her trademark line, to give them "a great big hand." They do, and also fling table items at the departing dancers, with one large unidentifiable item hitting one of the girls on the head.

This wondrous bit of footage concludes with Guinan seen standing against a wall with a very plump blonde woman encased in white furs who says nothing but nods, grins and laughs in all the right spots during Guinan's well rehearsed patter. Although not introduced by Guinan or title card, the woman is Mae West, in what is probably her first appearance on film, and in a sound film --- a small but vital bit of film history that seems to have escaped most, if not all of West's many biographers.

Scrubbed clean though "Queen of the Night Clubs" is from the somewhat sordid reality of the 1928 Fox Movietone reel, I can only describe the prevailing atmosphere of the 1929 film (to be fair, it can only be evaluated today via script, images and surviving Vitaphone discs) as unpleasant, at best. It's neither a crime story, moral tale, courtroom drama, murder mystery or musical film --- although all elements are tossed in without any being really fully explored or exploited, and if the one selling point can be said to be the personality of Texas Guinan, then it's understandable why the film's success was acceptable but unspectacular, very much of the flare-up and sputter-out sort.


Once curiosity as to how Texas Guinan looked, talked and moved was satisfied, there wasn't much left to hold the attention --- and the wildly improbable and somewhat convoluted dramatic story that unfolds further frustrates matters.

Tex Malone (Guinan) is a nightclub hostess in the employ of two shifty characters, Nick (Jimmie Phillips) and Andy (Arthur Housman.) When their club shutters under mysterious circumstances, she leaves them to open her own club in partnership with Don Holland (John Davidson) creating hard feelings. Hiring talent for the new club, Malone and Holland audition vaudevillians Bee Walters (Lila lee) and Eddie Parr (Eddie Foy, Jr.) but opt to only hire Bee. Reluctant to leave her partner, Bee is soon persuaded by Malone and Holland's promise of fame and wealth, as heard in this excerpt:

"Queen of the Night Clubs" - Excerpt #1

Bee Walters is a success, and Tex Malone's club thrives. A bit of revelry can be heard here as Malone makes her grand entrance onto the stage floor, and introduces her both her business partner, Don Holland, and "the hottest little dancer in the whole world, Georgie Raft" who then proceeds to do some stepping to "Sweet Georgia Brown" as the scene ends and dissolves to a title card bridge.

"Queen of the Night Clubs" - Excerpt #2


Time passes and resentment between most of the film's players continues to ferment and bubble. Bee Walter's boyfriend, Eddie, becomes jealous of Don Holland's attention to his girl, and is heard publicly threatening him at the club one evening --- a nasty scene that Tex Malone alternately revels in and then squashes, as heard here in the following excerpt. This selection also includes the audio for the footage seen in "Winner Take All," which surrounds Malone's cry of "The winner, by a nose!" The jaunty tune that is heard as the clip opens, serving as musical accompaniment for the night club dancers, is "Cinderella," which dates (I believe) from 1920 --- and an odd choice for the film indeed.

"Queen of the Night Clubs" - Excerpt #3


Plot developments arise fast and thickly at this point, but before the film takes a darkly melodramatic turn from which it never recovers, Tex Malone performs the closest thing to a song in the film, a little bit of patter titled "It's Tough to Be a Hostess on Old Broadway," which can be heard in the following excerpt. The tune that's heard as the clip opens is "Collegianna," which dates from 1926 or 1927.

"Queen of the Night Clubs" - Excerpt #4

Don Holland puts the moves on Bee Walters in Tex Malone's office, and suddenly a shot rings out and Holland falls dead at Bee's feet, prompting her to faint. In walks Bee's boyfriend, Eddie --- and a moment later, Tex Malone --- who finds Eddie holding a gun and Holland laying dead. Guinan actually enacts a bit of frenzied hysteria rather well ("You dirty little rat, you cheap little ham! You'll burn for this!" she tells Eddie) but quickly composes herself enough to use the telephone to report the murder and, when the sound of approaching sirens signal the arrival of the police, she has Eddie hidden in a couch. This wild little scene can be heard in the next extract, which opens with the sound of a somewhat muffled gunshot:

"Queen of the Nightclubs" - Excerpt # 5


Tex Malone tries to divert attention from her office and the concealed suspect, but the Inspector and police eventually get around to investigating , and there they find the cowering Eddie, and haul him off. ("So you'd kill a man for a cheap, double crossing skirt, would ya?" snarls the loutish Inspector.)

You may be wondering (or not) why Tex is so protective of "the little rat" that killed her business partner. Well, it turns out that she was told, by Eddie's father (played by famed entertainer and one-time partner of Nora Bayes, Jack Norworth) that Eddie is her long-lost son, but she chooses to keep this fact to herself, the better to advance a plot to prove Eddie's innocence at the upcoming murder trial.

Despite the sensational aspect of the case, the murder trial moves along swiftly. After cross-examining Bee Walters and other associates of Tex Malone, the grand dame herself takes the stand for a second time (the first instance being unseen) and after spouting a Mae West type quip that she doesn't quite pull off, she's faced with photographic evidence from the Prosecutor proving that she's Eddie's mother --- a shocking moment indeed, which is depicted to the right and which may be heard here:

"Queen of the Night Clubs" - Excerpt #6

This revelation has little bearing on Eddie's guilt or innocence however, but his lawyer (the silky voiced John Miljan) has the matter well in hand, and using a bit of trickery and such highly cutting edge (for 1929) tools such as flash photography and print enlargements, he forces witness Nick Martin (Jimmie Phillips) to admit that it was his partner Andy (Arthur Housman) who fired the deadly shot at Don Holland. A courtroom shuffle --- screams, and Tex Malone's former bosses are ripe for delivery to the hoosegow, on stretchers. All that's left now is a wrap-up sequence set in Malone's nightclub, and you may experience these two final moments of the film for yourself, via the following concluding excerpt:

"Queen of the Night Clubs" - Excerpt #7

Arriving in theaters in mid-March of 1929, and still being booked into smaller houses around the country eight months later, "Queen of the Night Clubs" received surprisingly good reviews from critics who had yet to be bludgeoned by countless films of similar setting and content that were being readied for release, and therefore was greeted with good natured generosity instead of being savaged as it likely would have been a few months later. Said the New York Times' Mordaunt Hall, "Texas Guinan is in her element in the Vitaphone production... now on view at the Mark Strand Theatre. It is a somewhat entertaining thriller, with a murder or so, frowning plotters, a silly hoofer and a none-too-gifted woman who, nevertheless, appears to be worth her weight in gold as an entertainer in a nightclub. "

"Miss Guinan's voice is more powerful than melodious. It is the voice that is accustomed to ordering guests to buy and buy and give little girls a hand. Following the murder, one which must happen in every night club on the screen, Miss Guinan, as Texas Malone, admits on the witness stand that she knows more about Scotch than English, a joke that was thought to have sunk into oblivion."

"This story is told in such a way as to arouse curiosity as to how it is going to finish. The denouement, however, is by no means as imaginative as one anticipates. The author appears to have been floundering around trying to find a way out and then ended his yarn as best he could. And this, at best, is amateurishly forced."

This author is also floundering around, trying to find a way to leave "Queen of the Night Clubs" and move on to our surrounding program for this entry, so I'll attempt to do so by informing readers that a wealth of material on Texas Guinan --- her life, many careers (including silent screen actress in Westerns!) and untimely death (in early November of 1933) is yours for the asking on the Internet, via a number of beautifully designed and lovingly researched web sites and blog pages. It's for this reason that I strayed from offering biographical details of Miss Guinan, as others have done it before... and better, than I could easily attempt in this space.

So, we'll leave Texas Guinan in her night club, where she'll always remain --- captured in print, newsreel, sound discs and a few seconds of film that managed to survive as, quite literally in this case, mute testimony to her fame, notoriety and utter uniqueness as an American original.

The tune "Beyond the Blue Horizon," isn't usually connected with James Cagney's pugnacious visage peering out from a train window at passing tenements as it is in Warner Bros.' 1932 "Winner Take All," and no matter how typically Warner Brothers this moment is, the melody shall always be affixed to Jeanette MacDonald and Paramount's "Monte Carlo" of 1930. The ad for the film to the right, from a Helena, Montana theater, isn't exceptional in any way save for the fact that prospective audiences for the forthcoming screening of Greta Garbo's "Romance" were assured that "Complete election returns by direct Western Union wire will be given during the showing!" It's telling commentary that today, one would usually attend the theater to escape election returns while in 1930 audiences seemed to not only expect but demand them --- even smack dab in the middle of their chosen film.

Here's a strident, somewhat dramatic orchestration of "Beyond the Blue Horizon," courtesy of Harry Hudson and his Band, recorded in the UK early in 1931.

"Beyond the Blue Horizon" (1931) - Harry Hudson & His Band

We'll stay put in the UK and with Harry Hudson for the next offering,
"The Harlequinade," which served as the "B-Side" for a 1930 recording of "The Woman in the Shoe" from the MGM film "Lord Byon of Broadway" that can be found earlier in these pages. Although never used as such, to my knowledge, the tune has always struck me as seeming to be perfect material for use as a Technicolor sequence in an MGM musical, but alas the tune doesn't appear to have made it to these shores much, if at all --- until now, that is!

"The Harlequinade" (1930) Harry Hudson & His Band

It might possibly surprise some reader to learn that renowned composer Dimitri Tiomkin contributed to a number of early MGM talkies, among them "Our Blushing Brides" (music for the fashion show sequence,) "The Rogue Song" and "Lord Byron of Broadway." While his composition for the latter film, "Blue Daughter of Heaven" seems dreadfully disconnected from the film proper, it's one of very few early Technicolor musical sequences that I'd rather listen to than see, for it's photographed unimaginatively and is almost vertigo inducing --- all swirling platforms and swirling chorus girls set against a stark backdrop, with little to attract the eye save for the simple, somewhat modernistic, vaguely Asian costumes the girls wear. That aside, the sequence is happily with us today, and can be seen in beautifully preserved prints of "Lord Byron of Broadway" as well as in an abbreviated form within the bizarre two-reeler "Roast Beef and Movies," of 1934 (which also contains a truncated presentation of the Technicolor musical number "Dust" from 1930's "Children of Pleasure.")

"Blue Daughter of Heaven" (1930) Vocal by James Burrows, Music by Dimitri Tiomkin

Recorded by the Capitol Dance Orchestra for the British label Eldorado in 1930, "Fantastique" is one of those period tunes that you feel certain you've heard somewhere before yet can't quite precisely place --- and the tune then lingers on in your head for far longer than you expected. So, consider yourself warned --- and you might wish to view the lovely girls and their balloons in the image to the right while you puzzle it all out.

"Fantastique" (193o) The Capitol Dance Orchestra

The recent DVD release of MGM's "Dancing Lady" not only features the aforementioned "Roast Beef and Movies," but overall comes as a pleasant surprise to those accustomed to the lackluster print with flat, muddy sound that's been making the rounds seemingly forever.

While claims that the film had been "completely restored" for DVD release were overly hopeful --- it's still missing some footage involving The Stooges and a picture puzzle of Adolph Hitler that was cut for the film's re-release, and the sound elements vary widely in fidelity from reel to reel, it's nonetheless a vast improvement from what we've had in the past.

I've never been overly fond of the film, as I'm apparently one of very few who finds little "magic" in the combination of Crawford and Gable, and truth be told I think the film could would have been given a much needed shot of adreniline and humanity had Lee Tracy enacted the Gable role, as originally announced he would. The film's early scenes, set in a seedy burlesque house, a night court and small apartment are the only elements of the film that ring true, and they're absorbing because of that. There's many reels left to play out before the film finishes however, and by the time the concluding musical numbers arrive they come in the form of musical fantasy that offers little contrast, and certainly no relief, from the 80 or so minutes of dramatic fantasy and artificiality that precedes them. That said, the film was wildly popular and remains so today too, although perhaps not for the right reasons.

The music that works best in the film, in my opinion, are it's more sedate moments. Heard during the film's opening burlesque house sequence, is "Hold Your Man," which was featured in numerous other films --- but perhaps never quite so effectively as here, when warbled by an older and plumper Winnie Lightner than we're accustomed to seeing (and who largely vanishes from the film after the first reel, sadly.) This 1933 recording, by Larry Murphy's Oklahoma Band, is oddly perfect somehow.

"Hold Your Man" (1933) Larry Murphy's Oklahoma Band

A more conventional overview of all the major tunes featured in "Dancing Lady" figures in the lushly orchestrated medley that follows, in which can be heard "Let's Go Bavarian," "My Dancing Lady," "Everything I Have Is Yours," and "Rhythm of the Day."

Medley from "Dancing Lady" (1933)

Just for fun, let's flip the disc over for an equally polished medley of tunes from "Footlight Parade," which includes "Shanghai Lil," "Honeymoon Hotel," "By A Waterfall," and "Sitting On a Backyard Fence."

Medley from "Footlight Parade" (1933)

In case you're wondering, I'm not being intentionally elusive as to the recording artist for these two medleys --- I simply don't know. Recorded onto reel-to-reel tape years ago, and unaccompanied by notes of any sort, this disc is one of only very few I've been unable to identify via the few excellent and indispensible 78rpm databases that can be found on the Internet. So, should any reader be able to identify this disc, I'd much appreciate hearing from you.\

Rounding out this post, a good an opportunity as any to offer two additional recordings that I've been unable to identify, try as I might.

The first, a delightfully comedic British recording entitled "Shopping On Saturday Night" that appears to date from about 1930 to 1932, is the sort of cleverly written tune that requires careful listening to appreciate. The vocalist details a Saturday evening shopping expedition with his wife, and manages to work in references to cracked eggs, greasy faces and bony fingers and still remain brightly charming. The opening montage of various marketplace vendor ethnic voices is unusual to say the least, especially the final pidgin English voice that cheerfully pipes up "Hoot-Mon, Char-lie!"

"Shopping On Saturday Night" (UK-Circa 1930)


Finally, an electrical recording circa 1926-1930 of a very old tune with roots fading into dim folklore, "The Gypsy's Warning," that relates the experience of a young woman who visits a gypsy to have her fortune told and learns more than she probably wished to know. It's the sort of tune that conjures up images of velvet flocked wallpaper and gaslight, violets and crinoline, and horse-hair stuffed furniture upon which to merely faint or perhaps waste away and fade into nothingness. Being of sturdy constitution, I shall do neither, and will return with another entry before the end of this week!


Texas Guinan, circa 1923
Photo courtesy of reader Anthony Morelli














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12 comments:

Anna said...

My favourite post so far! Thanks especially for the Footlight Parade Medley.

I agree that the Gable/Crawford thing never struck me much either. Lee Tracy would have improved many an early 1930s movie - speaking of Tracy, his Blessed Event (1932) features some great songs sung by Dick Powell. I'd love to know if Powell's 'Too Many Tears' and 'How Can You Say No, When All the World is Saying Yes' exist to this day.

East Side said...

That Texas Guinan newsreel sounds wild! Is it available on the, er, gray market?

Jeff Cohen said...

The Fox Movietone News reel that contained the lengthy Guinan segment was once readily available from Blackhawk Films, so I'd imagine that it still turns up to this day on EBay in 8mm and 16mm format --- fairly useless formats in this day and age, I'm afraid. A vast amount of Fox Movietone News material exists in stunning condition but, inexplicably, has never been thought even a likely candidate for release on DVD, a format which would lend itself beautifully to these 8-10 minute fragments of history and culture. One would think that sales to educational institutions alone would make this a no-brainer, but... it's the old, old story.

Jeff

Judge Joseph F. Crater said...

It is, perhaps, worth pointing out that a caricature of Tex Guinan makes a somewhat unexpected appearence in one of the van Beuren "Tom and Jerry" cartoons of the same era, in which the two dimwits venture under the waves, and meet up with, among other things, a Guinan mermaid, who greets the duo (and us) with a "Hello, Suckers!" and "Give the little lady a big hand!"

East Side said...

I only just got around to enlarging that "Queen of the Nightclubs" at from Sheboygan, with the Police Quartet Vitaphone short. I saw that short at the Film Forum's Vitaphone festival last year. The audience kind of giggled at the beginning -- the set-up is admittedly phony -- but were duly impressed by the end. Those guys were terrific, complex singers. I wish Warners or UCLA or SOMEOBDY would release a Vitaphone box set. I'd put my money down, no ptoblem.

bearden said...

Thanks for all those British selections! There is something about pre-World War II British popular music which sounds so authentically "English" - in contrast to the postwar attempts to sound as though the singers came from the Mississippi Delta!

That and two(!) color pictures of that cute litte redhead Jimmy!

Another great posting!

Jeff Cohen said...

East Side: Word comes that THE JAZZ SINGER is scheduled for release on DVD as part of Warners' 85th Anniversary, and if the contents and presentation approach the original plans that were announced a number of years ago --- before the release was shelved --- then we can expect the film to be accompanied by a number of Vitaphone short subjects, likely duplicating the Vitaphone program that surrounded "The Jazz Singer" at the time of it's original release. A great opportunity exists here for WB to do something special, but all we can do is hope that the release doesn't fall victim to apathy or, even more likely, pressure from "special interest groups" that would prefer the film never sees the light of day again.

Jeff

Jeff Cohen said...

Bearden -- Always enjoy presenting British 78rpm material whenever I can, as they're a nice change from the usual.

As for Cagney, I think a "cute little redhead" would be the last thing he'd wish to be described or remembered as, but it's credit to his wide appeal, I suppose!

Jeff

Gene McCluney said...

Texas Guinan was also featured in the Russ Colombo film "Broadway Thru A Keyhole" from 1932-33.

Douglas said...

Does anyone know where sheet music (or even a halfway decent recording) of "It's Tough to Be a Hostess on Old Broadway" can be found? As much as I like the obvious popular music from the '20's, I'm more interested in the obscure lesser-known pieces. Any help would be great!

Miami Nightlife said...

Thanks for updating such an insightful and detailed post. The entire post has brought the history and culture which was practiced earlier. Keep up the spirit of posting such informative blogs. Looking forward for more insightful posts!

patrix springer said...

Re:"Dancing Lady/Footlight Parade" Medley Records: The crooner on those discs sounds like Sam Browne for sure. The band might be that of Jack Hylton's Orchestra.