01 April 2007

"Why Bring That Up?"

The veil of time lifts --- and we behold performer Mr. Edgar Atchison Ely, circa 1897, in character as "The Future Dude." With little effort, we can picture Mr. Ely sitting at a writing desk in a hotel lobby or room --- or perhaps on a train speeding towards his next play date, opening a pasteboard box fresh from Robinson & Roe, Photographers. As would most any entertainer --- then or now --- envisioning their presumed success and audience adulation, he can't resist inscribing the card to an admirer, which he does in a somewhat shaky but elegant hand of the sort simply doesn't exist anymore.

Then, perhaps admiring the effect but regretting writing across the image portion of the card --- and also wisely remembering his employers, he inscribes the card again along the bottom --- exhaling in despair as his pen malfunctions midway through.

Imagined though this scenario is --- for the card could have been pre-inscribed and then signed again in the presence of a friend or fan who then tacked it up somewhere as the two upper pinholes suggest it was --- it's much in keeping with the luminous aura that still radiates from the image some 110 years later. We smile at Ely's outlandish costume --- a broad, over sized straw boater --- a monocle, the high wing-tipped collar, a bouquet serving as a grossly enlarged boutonniere, and his suit coat --- a modified, padded, woman's top coat. But, it's Ely's luminous gentle smile and merry soft eyes that linger with us longest, and what ultimately prompted me to see what I could discover of Mr. Ely as he was in the dwindling years of the 19th century.

One of the earliest glimpses we have of Edgar Ely originates from February of 1893 --- well before the creation of his "Future Dude" performing persona, and we find him in Decatur, Illinois --- part of the troupe performing "Miss Helyett," a David Belasco penned comedic play that opened at New York City's Star Theater in 1891 and ran for approximately 150 performances. Although the star was Mrs. (Louise) Leslie Carter, the real lure of the show (in addition to the double entendre title!) was the second act appearance of Miss Lottie Collins ("the one and only original") and her performance of "Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay." a melody which we all seem to have heard somewhere and sometime. In a way, this bright and slightly risque tune seems in perfect harmony with Edgar Ely's mirthful expression --- so it's fitting that we hear it again, along with him --- for the first time in a very long time indeed. "Ta-Ra Ra Boom-De-Ay!" (Piano Transcription)

"A smart and stylish girl you see,
Belle of good society --
not too strict but rather free,
yet as right as right can be!

Never forward, never bold,
not too hot and not too cold --
but the very thing, I'm told,
that in your arms you'd like to hold!

Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay,
Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay, etc.

I'm not extravagantly shy,
and when a nice young man is nigh,
for his heart I have a try --
and faint away with a tearful cry!

When the good young man in haste,
will support me 'round the waist,
I don't come to, while thus embraced,
Till of my lips he steals a taste!"

It's easy to see why the song was a minor sensation in its day --- the lyrics point a gently wagging finger at pompous audiences critical of a girl bounding about the stage, holding up her skirts and flashing a shapely limb --- and then being so impudent as to remind them of the fact that she's precisely the sort of girl that most of the men attending (flanked by their presumably shocked wives) would like to (at the least) spend a bit of time with!

By February of 1895, Edgar Ely is in Trenton, New Jersey. He's jumped ship on "Miss Heylett" and other road companies of Broadway successes. There's still no "Future Dude" in evidence, but Ely has joined up with the Baldwins. Professor & Mrs. Baldwin presented exhibitions of "somnomancy" in theaters and opera houses across the country --- the highlight of an elaborate pre-packaged Baldwin entertainment extravaganza that included songs (by Edgar Ely,) cabinet manifestations, an entire one-act play and "very beautiful mandolin playing by Senor Emannuel Lopez."

But... "somnomancy?" In a prepared press release reprinted in countless newspapers wherever the Baldwin Troupe was booked, we have no less than Professor Baldwin's own explanation, in the wonderful, florid language of another world:

"It is a new word, coined to give a name to the most singular and peculiar feature ever shown the public. It is different from anything hitherto seen. People desiring to test the matter merely think intently of a question on any subject of past, present or future. This question is not mentioned to anyone. Mrs. Baldwin, while in the somnomiatic state, gives an accurate answer and then correctly states the question, which up to that time is absolutely unknown to anyone but the person thinking of it. Somnomancy is totally unlike the so-called clairvoyancy or second sight as produced by illusionists, and is undeniably the greatest, meteoric bewilderment ever presented to the world at large."

In other words, a mind-reading routine --- an entertainment tradition that continues to this day in the guise of "ghost whisperers" and other self proclaimed savants who portend communication with "the other side." What fools we all are --- but what fun! Surprisingly, Mrs. Baldwin was a rather bold one --- giving extremely direct answers to questions posed to her that had little chance of panning out, but in a day and time free of investigative reporters and when a small town was a world unto itself, what did it matter? Go for it! And, she did. A sampling of her answers to questions from Trenton, New Jersey residents makes for fascinating reading:

To Frank Trux: Your girl flirts.
To George Moll: Your ring was stolen six years ago.
To John Brown: The man did not commit suicide, and the little boy is dead in Chicago.
To Samuel Spencer: The diamonds were taken by a tall, light young man.
To J.H. Dapper: You will always live comfortably, but will never get rich.
To Mr. Barrett: Caleb Anderson was insane when he committed suicide.

February again, this time of 1897, and the Baldwins are in Fort Wayne, Indiana --- but there's been some slight alterations to the act. The Professor and Mrs. Baldwin are now "Samri & Mrs. Baldwin: The White Mahatmas." Senor Emannuel Lopez and his Mandolin are gone, but Edgar Ely is still with them --- now with his "Future Dude" persona in place, and he's joined by the "greatest of all finger whistlers," Louis M. Granat, comedienne Georgia Gardner, the pianist Edward Braham, the mimic Kate Russell and one "Baby Nick Russell," either a midget or the infant offspring of one of the troupe members.

Precise details as to Edgar Ely's contribution are maddeningly absent from any period account of the troupe's performance, although I suppose we can assume he joined forces with Georgia Gardner in what was described as a "comedietta," and that it was here that his "Future Dude" character was trotted out --- perhaps wooing a skeptical maiden of 1897 with his puzzling and queer ways of 1920 --- and it would be here that his singing ability would be put to use too, for as at least one account described, "Mr. Ely possesses an exceptionally fine, clear and sweet singing voice." But I think we already knew that from his photograph, didn't we?

Apparently, "The Future Dude" caught on --- and if Edgar Ely can be said to have ever hit the big time, then it was here --- in the New York City of 1901, that he did. He's playing at the venue that first presented projected motion pictures to New Yorkers (now the site of Macy's Department store.) It's June --- and Ely's "Future Dude" is a full blown musical comedy sketch of some sort, and although he shares the bill with acrobats, mimics, monologists and musicians, he seems to be top billed and enjoying the rewards of years of hard work. Trouping.

Our last and departing view of Edgar Ely --- before the mists of time swallow him up again ---
occurs nearly a full decade later. It's April of 1909, and New York City's New Amsterdam Theater is staging a revival of the 1881 comic opera "The Mascot," with Raymond Hitchcock in the lead. Edgar Ely is in support as a character named "Frederick."

As reported in the New York Times, "One of the largest audiences ever seen in the New Amsterdam theater attended the performance, which was received with enthusiasm. There were encores without numbers and no end of curtain calls for Mr. Hitchcock and other members of the cast. The old opera is handsomely staged and from the first to last is capitally presented. The piece looks good for a run."

The show would close after 32 performances, and Edgar Ely's name would vanish from newspapers with it --- but (let's hope?) on a high note and with the sound of applause ringing in his ears.

Let's turn our attention, momentarily, to the 1928 Fox film "Four Sons," a magnificent John Ford late-silent era effort that's still very much with us --- yet largely kept from exhibition and view. An unusual anti-war film in that actual scenes of war, battle, troops and such are kept to an absolute minimum --- I suppose it can almost be considered a "home-front" melodrama, with the home front in this case being Bavaria. With achingly beautiful cinematography (by Charles Clarke and George Schneiderman,)perfectly naturalistic and underplayed performances (for the most part) by a large cast that included Margaret Mann, James Hall, George Meeker and Albert Gran, and a wonderful synchronized score arranged by S.L. "Roxy" Rothafel, it's a huge sweeping panoramic yet simple and intimate story of how the passage of time and effects of war nearly decimates one family. Moments of light comedy, heart-wrenching emotion --- shifting of scenes between Bavaria and New York City, and through it all one of the most underrated performances of all time --- that of Margaret Mann as the "Little Mother," "Four Sons" is a film that deserves to be reinstated as an early jewel in the Fox Studio crown, and yet... it's the old, and expected story.

Within the elaborate Movietone score, which featured sounds of trains, church bells, chimes, subways, street traffic, the delighted cries and hand-clapping of folks dancers, gun-shots and one spoken word that comes at the climax of the film's dramatic storyline, there's also a lovely, lilting theme song of sorts, the Erno Rapee & Lew Pollack composition "Little Mother."

Offered here are two renditions of the melody... the first as it is performed by an unknown male vocalist within the film's final moment before continuing on as exit music (truncated at some point by someone who saw no need for a soundtrack after the picture portion of the film ceased) and the second, an appropriately tearful rendition by Vaughn DeLeath who unnecessarily takes the tune's sentimentality to an even greater depth by sending the "Little Mother" to an early grave, whereas we leave her alive and well in the film!

"Little Mother" (1928) Movietone extract

"Little Mother" (1928) Vaughn DeLeath

In early January of 1929, newspapers carried a syndicated item heralding the fact that the comedy team of Moran and Mack, "The Two Black Crows," had been signed by Paramount to make two feature length talking pictures at the studio's Hollywood facilities.

For the public of 1929, this was big news, akin to learning that the number one pop star of 2007 would soon be appearing in films. Okay, bad example... but the fact is that Moran & Mack's "Two Black Crows" were familiar to nearly every home with a phonograph or radio --- and their series of phonograph records (unusual in that they were issued throughout 1927 and 1928 simply as "Part 1," "Part 2" --- eight parts in all) had become amongst the best selling phonograph records of all time, and certainly for the company that had produced them, Columbia. For the team, it was a long, hard and well-deserved climb to fame that started long before the two creators of Amos & Andy (to which Moran and Mack are unfairly often compared --- for there is no similarity between the two teams beyond the obvious) even knew one another existed.

An early glimpse of the relatively new team of Gus Moran & Charles Mack, seen here at the left booked into the Grand Opera House of Galveston, Texas in the first week of February, 1919 --- sharing the bill with Billie Burke and famed opera tenor Carl Jorn. As the ad proclaims, big time vaudeville indeed.

By April of the following year, 1920, the team has joined the Keith vaudeville circuit, and we see them here in Syracuse, New York --- as an "Extra Added Attraction" on a bill that seems to badly need one. It should be noted that the following week, Helen Keller ("Blind - Deaf - Formerly DUMB") would appear on the same vaudeville stage --- an uncomfortable truth that, for a good long time, would be side-stepped in accounts of her remarkable life.

Years of hard work upon vaudeville stages across the country would follow --- years used to refine and polish old material and introduce the new. The team appeared in an edition of "The Ziegfeld Follies of 1920" and in Ziegfeld's 1926 revue "No Foolin'" as well as in Earl Carroll's Vanities (1926-1927.) So, when technology and new mediums beckoned, the team gamely stepped up to the radio and then phonograph microphones --- little realizing that the phonograph recording they made in March of 1927 for Columbia would become one of the company's best selling products and, indeed, the biggest selling phonograph record of the decade.

Large, nearly full page ads such as the one depicted left (from July of 1927) are typical of the sort that heralded the release of a new Moran and Mack record. Prepared by Columbia and distributed to dealers at the regional level for insertion of pertinent local information, it's interesting to note that form and figure are given to Moran & Mack which, aside from getting it physically quite wrong save for the black face element, is evidence of just how firmly entrenched the team was in popular culture of the day. The ad also doesn't lose the chance to boast that the team's first recorded effort "has had a greater sale than any phonograph record in the last ten years," and then wisely advises readers that a new record is coming soon. In a 1927 version of the Amazon.com Pre-Order, customers are advised to leave their name with their dealer to receive snail mail notification when stock hits. For those readers heretofore unfamiliar with Moran & Mack, it should now be clear that the duo was a major entertainment phenomena indeed!

No amount of prose can replace the experience of sampling Moran & Mack's meteoric Columbia discs, so let's do that right here and now, if you so choose to listen.

I loathe hand-wringing apologies for the sense and sensibilities of another day, so if you're expecting any words of caution, look elsewhere for them and you'll find plenty. Instead, it will suffice to say that Moran and Mack were a much beloved product of their day and to criticize or analyze is quite beside the point. We can't re-write history to suit current beliefs, and wishing won't make it so.

Rather, I deem it more important and certainly more productive to point out that Moran & Mack's success was aided in a big way by the relatively new electrical recording process "New - Electrically - Without Scratch," which allowed for every sigh, gulp and breath to be heard with the sort of clarity and immediacy that was all but impossible beforehand. Via the Columbia Viva-Tonal Process, Moran & Mack weren't merely mechanically reproduced voices --- they were as real as real could be, right there in your own home. They became fast friends. Here then, as recorded in 1927 and 1928:

"Moran & Mack, The Two Black Crows" - Part 1

"Moran & Mack, The Two Black Crows" - Part 2

"Moran & Mack, The Two Black Crows" - Part 3

"Moran & Mack, The Two Black Crows" - Part 4

"Moran & Mack, The Two Black Crows" - Part 5

"Moran & Mack, The Two Black Crows" - Part 6

"Moran & Mack, The Two Black Crows" - Part 7

"Moran & Mack, The Two Black Crows" - Part 8

As production of their Paramount feature-length talking film was underway in mid-1929 --- the film was titled "Backstage Blues" at this point, newspaper readers learned something of the history behind the voices they were familiar with via phonograph records. Since you may have just listened to one or more of these recordings, let's pause a moment and peer over the shoulder of a newspaper reader of the day for this surprisingly scholarly period examination of something we'd now normally not acknowledge as having ever existed:

"'The Two Black Crows,' as they are familiarly known, both spent their early lives in the southern part of Kansas --- Mack in White Cloud and Moran in Elwood. They know the dialect of this section as probably no other white men know it, inasmuch as they spent years carefully studying the Negro language. "

"'The drawl that we use is a mental device and not an impediment,' explained Mack, who is the spokesman for the team. 'The type of Negro we studied stalls at the beginning of every sentence, particularly when he is answering a question. He does this because he is canny. He wants to be careful and sure before he speaks. As a rule, he starts by repeating part of the question asked him, injects a few 'wells' and then gets underway with long pauses between words and a dragging out of the syllables which he speaks. He does this because all the time he is framing the words he is about to speak."

"At this moment, Moran interrupted: 'When you know the secret of this change in tempo you can readily see why unrelieved drawling is tiresome,' he remarked. 'Take for example the joke we tell about the dog who wouldn't eat meat. Throughout the dialogue leading up to the joke, we employ the drawl because Mack is stalling for an answer. However, when we get to the point where it is almost impossible to listen any longer without knowing the answer, Mack can't get 'because we don't give him any' out fast enough."

"Moran and Mack both went on the stage about 25 years ago, each doing their own blackface act. But it was not until 1917 that they decided to team together. They were playing in 'Over the Top' in New York. When the show closed, each were out of jobs so they decided to work up a team act and go into vaudeville. Two years ago they became nationally prominent through their first phonograph record. More than 3,000,000 records were sold in the first year."

With the October premiere of Moran & Mack's finished Paramount production, now titled "Why Bring That Up?" audiences not only turned out in droves for the film, but (surprisingly, considering the way these things usually go) also continued to buy the team's phonograph records (an additional three records would be released in 1929) and crowded around their radio sets for the team's Sunday night broadcasts over CBS which had begun in late 1928.

An interesting news item, from November of 1928 points up the popularity of the team over the airwaves, as well as serving as a neat bit of radio history:

"The matter of three hours, the difference in time between the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards, which since the inception of radio has been considered an insurmountable barrier to coast-to-coast broadcasts, has been proved a fallacy by the Two Black Crows, in their regular Sunday night broadcasts by stations associated with the Columbia Broadcasting System, which are heard by audiences all over the country. They have proved, provided the entertainment offered is sufficiently worthwhile, that Eastern listeners will remain up later and Western listeners will turn on their radios before the usual time."

"In the case in point, Moran and Mack appear at 9:00 Sunday night and are heard by Pacific Coast listeners at 6:00 in the afternoon. Fan mail received by these two entertainers from all parts of the country demonstrates conclusively that their audience is as large proportionately on the Pacific Coast at 6:00 as on the East Coast at 9:00."

And what of their Paramount film? Long unseen, often reported to be lost (a largely complete nitrate print resides comfortably albeit uneasily at UCLA) we can however if not "see" it right now, then vicariously experience it via the film's surviving sound elements.

Adapted, Directed and with Dialogue by George Abbott (yes, that George Abbott) what first becomes evident about "Why Bring That Up?" is how well recorded a film it was, a fact evident even in the problematic and vastly less than pristine surviving audio. Then, as we follow along with the story, we learn that no small attempt was made to have elements of real life enter the film's scenario --- up to and including the decision to allow the team to retain their real names as their character names. It's not, by a long shot, a typical 1929 backstage musical. In mood and content, it's closer to Paramount's exceptional "Dance of Life" of the same year --- but that's where the similarity ends. The performances, the settings and the situations are among the most naturalistic I've yet encountered in a 1929 musical film and I really can't compare it to anything else --- only perhaps "Applause," if hard pressed to do so. It's impossible to judge what "Why Bring That Up?" looked like, but the audio provides some clues as to camera movements and set-ups, and suggests that it was unafraid to have the camera (and microphone) pan across groups of people to catch the dialogue of each, or to have two people engaged in conversation while a group of performers sang and danced behind them --- and it all works, a credit to the careful and inventive recording by engineer Harry D. Mills.

Excerpt 1: The film opens in Paris, Ohio, where George Moran is playing a vaudeville date with a troubled partner who is using bottles to nurse a broken heart, rendering him useless. Unable to play that evening's performance and hungry, Moran happens upon Charles Mack waiting tables at the town lunch counter. The two strike up a friendship (Moran has heard "Bill Fields" speak admiringly of Mack) and when Moran learns that Mack has show business aspirations he invites him to replace his alcohol sodden partner.

"Why Bring That Up?" - Excerpt 1

Excerpt 2: The two return to the vaudeville house to rehearse, where they encounter Betty (Evelyn Brent, enacting perhaps the nastiest piece of work she ever did --- and brilliantly so!) the woman who sent Moran's ex-partner over the edge. Betty is the sort who believes she has every man she meets wrapped around her finger, and indeed she does --- but one of the few exceptions is Irving (Harry Green) with whom she shares a bit of inconsequential character setting dialogue. The team's rehearsal is interrupted by Betty's (dubbed) warbling from the next dressing room. The sound of her voice brings Moran to the brink, and he confronts her in order to vent his anger and set her straight --- but we correctly assume that when Betty invites him into her dressing room, this isn't exactly what will transpire. It doesn't. Moran is her next victim --- although he doesn't yet realize it.

"Why Bring That Up?" - Excerpt 2

The team appear on the Paris, Ohio stage that night --- and are a hit, as expected. There's little point in excerpting the performance sequence since it (as does all of their on-screen performance material in the film) almost precisely duplicates their tried and true phonograph routines, but it's worth mentioning that these two extended sequences last nearly for a full reel in length each, and are unusual in that the routines were filmed with a "live" faux audience, who's laughter gives the material punch and verve --- an element that can best be described as a 1929 laugh track.

Excerpt 3: The film moves ahead five years at this point. Moran and Mack are in New York City, with preparations underway for their new stage revue, "The Early Birds." With them is Irving, who serves as team manager, confidant and press agent combined. As this sequence begins, one of the film's two musical numbers is being rehearsed, "Do I Know What I'm Doing?" and dialogue is mixed with the crooning of the cast rehearsal behind (and sometimes in front of) it. The rehearsal is paused as Irving presents Moran & Mack with a token of the cast's appreciation on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the pairing. A dark cloud shrouds the happy moment --- Betty has skulked into town, with claws out and in the company of a concealed boyfriend (and mastermind of evil-doing.) Look out, boys!

"Why Bring That Up?" - Excerpt 3

Excerpt 4: Betty turns the old siren song onto Moran, and instantly clinches no less a part in the production than the lead female singer, a fact she and her cohort delight over. A piano rendition of the film's other musical offering, "Shoo Shoo Boogie Boo" can be heard here.

"Why Bring That Up?" - Excerpt 4

Excerpt 5: Welcome though she may be by George Moran, she's recognized as the plague she is by the show's other chorus girls. ("I hope you're not in this troupe!" one chorine says, to which Brent darkly replies "Hope some more and see what it gets you.") A rehearsal of "Shoo Shoo Boogie Boo" is interrupted by a blood curdling scream signaling a hair-pulling cat-fight in the dressing rooms, with the result being Betty given her own dressing room by a love-blind Moran.
The rehearsal dissolves into an opening night performance --- during which Betty's cohort enters the theater, the better to plan their next move. A great bit of dialogue by the all-seeing Irving and the evil boyfriend ensues.

"Why Bring That Up?" - Excerpt 5

A hefty bit of footage follows, during which Moran and Mack bring to life their entire "In the Jail House" routine (the commercial 78rpm recording is offered at the conclusion of this entry) and the new revue becomes a firm hit. Skipping ahead a few months, it becomes clear to Irving and just about everyone except Charles Mack that his partner is being crushed both emotionally and financially by Betty, with Moran very nearly draining the team's joint funds in an effort to keep Betty happy and content. All along, of course, Betty is sharing the wealth with her boyfriend and living in high style too.

Excerpt 6: At last, Irving can take no more and brings Mack to his senses in the hopes that he can succeed where others have failed --- to release his love smitten partner from the clutches of the vampire-like Betty. A production number-style rendition of "Shoo Shoo Boogie Boo" is partly heard here, but like the other song, is never fully realized --- suggesting that this surviving audio has been shorn of both musical sequences (perhaps both originally in Technicolor) which would explain the trimmed running time of the audio (a bit over 8 reels) as opposed to the original 10 reel length running time the film was copyrighted at. Mack confronts Betty, revealing he's onto her scheme and offering her the chance to beat it and quit while she's ahead. Being officially fired matters little to the ruthless Betty, for she plays her last card when she's alone with Moran: she accuses his partner of putting the moves on her in an attempt to drive the final wedge in between the two pals. Moran and Mack have it out --- their argument is overheard by Betty's boyfriend, who uses the excited atmosphere to swing a large vase over Mack's noggin just as Moran exits --- leaving an unconscious Mack laying on the floor for a stagehand to find some time later. The plan? Near as I can ascertain, it's that Mack would be found dead, Moran would be accused, and Betty and Boyfriend would scoop up all the jack before skipping town in search of their next victim.

"Why Bring That Up?" - Excerpt 6

Excerpt 7: Mack is found --- but not dead, and Betty (and boyfriend) skip town, but without any bounty. The unconscious Mack slips into a coma the next day, and Moran is summoned to the hospital by Irving where he meets with the Doctor in a last ditch effort to "strike a spark of recognition" in the comatose Mack. This scene, surprisingly touching despite the absurdity of it all, and which runs to the conclusion of the film, may be listened to here:

"Why Bring That Up?" - Excerpt 7

Following the success of "Why Bring That Up?," Moran and Mack fulfilled the second of their two picture deal for Paramount with 1930's "Anybody's War," but by now --- although later than we expected, the bloom had withered and the public's curiosity and appetite for Moran and Mack had been more than satisfied. At least one ad for "Anybody's War" proclaimed: "You'll Laugh Till You're Black in the Face, Too!"

With film fame and income evaporating, it was time for the team to move on. But to where? Although Charles Mack had fallen victim to a real estate ghoul (a September 1929 article details that Mack had bought a tract of land --- near Newhall, California --- that he envisioned being built into a town, but only one lone house stood on the acreage and it was owned by his "Why Bring That Up?" co-star Harry Green!) thoughts of settling down didn't appear to enter their thoughts.

A return to vaudeville was in order, but nothing was the same as it was before --- nor would it ever be for the team. A much publicized late 1929 dispute between the duo had already created a rift that would continue to expand. Just as production had begun on "Anybody's War" (then titled "Two Black Crows in the A.E.F.," George Moran walked out. It's really all nonsense in retrospect, but as someone's bound to wonder why I didn't mention it, here goes:

It seems that when Moran & Mack first teamed up, Moran had been asked to use the name of "Swor," which was that of Mack's previous partner. Moran said that he refused, and for one year they worked under the team name of Swan and Mack. (I could find no billing for the team as such.) At that time, Max Hart suggested the name of "Moran & Mack" be used by the team --- and so they did. Moran's complaint was that in 1928 he changed his name legally from George Searcy to George Moran, and that at the same time the name of Mack was made legal from Mack's own name, which was Charles E. Selders. So what's the problem? Well, Charles Mack had a brother --- Bert Swor (who appeared with them in "Why Bring That Up?" as the stage manager) and Moran was fearful that should he leave the team, that Mack would misrepresent Burt Swor as the original "Moran," thereby allowing the team to be billed as Moran & Mack. Like I said, nonsense. Would anyone care? Probably not. But --- as we'll see, by this time, Moran... and Mack, had little to worry about on this count.

Appearing on theater stages in streamlined vaudeville performances that accompanied feature films, all went relatively smoothly for the duo between 1930 and 1932, but with the encouraging return to the screen in 1933 via a scant few two-reelers for Educational (titles include "Blue Black Birds," "As the Crows Fly" and "Hot Hoofs"), so began the beginning of the end. The year dawned with Mack bringing a lawsuit against his former confidential secretary, Alice Polk --- an eerie real-life personification of the Evelyn Brent character in "Why Bring That Up?" --- claiming she embezzled some $11,000 from his personal account. Miss Polk had recently lost a "sensational suit" against one Mr. R.H. Nicholson, a wealthy contractor, proving she didn't quite have the fictional Betty's knack for ill-gotten gain.

Newspaper readers learned, later that same month, that George Moran (adding another alias to the mix, "John P. Hearne") planned to be married within the week to one Miss Mamie Harrison, a 19 year old Dallas, Texas resident. The wedding was to take place in Mexico, and that Charles Mack and his wife would serve as best man and matron of honor. Following the wedding, the foursome would return to Hollywood, where the team were to begin work on their next two-reeler. In 1932, Moran and Mack had linked up with Mack Sennett for the production of their third and final feature film, "Hypnotized." It's a sad fact that failure tends to attract failure, and this gathering --- now with a 19 year old and a foundering comedy legend in the mix, was a boatload of broken dreams ripe and waiting for the disaster that would soon unfold.

On the night of January 12th, 1934, Moran & Mack were motoring back to the West Coast from New York, where they had filmed and finished "The Freeze Out," the first of six planned two-reel comedies. Up front in the closed auto was Mrs. Charles Mack (who was driving) and alongside her, Producer Mack Sennett. In the rear of the auto, Charles Mack's 18 year old daughter sat in the middle --- flanked by Moran & Mack on either side.

The auto was traveling on the Apache Trail, a stretch of road some six miles east of Mesa, Arizona. As Moran would state in a newspaper interview, "We were traveling about 45mph. Suddenly, a tire blew out and I think it was a rear tire. The car lurched into a ditch and turned over three or four times --- I can't remember, it all happened so suddenly. When I came to, I found myself crawling through the top of the car. I reached for Mary Jane to help her out and then we saw Charley, pinned beneath the back seat."

Mary Jane escaped virtually unscathed, as did Mack Sennett. Moran had suffered abrasions about the legs, with his head and tongue both badly cut. Mrs. Mack, the driver, had numerous abrasions on her head and body. Charles Mack was near death. "He knew his time had come," said Moran, "from the moment we lifted his crushed body from beneath the machine."

Despite the presumably sparsely populated location, help arrived quickly and all involved were rushed to a Mesa, Arizona hospital. Within two hours of the accident, Charles Mack, aged 46, was dead.

As Mack's body was wheeled from what newspapers termed "the death room," Moran was seen stroking his partner's face and muttering over and over again "What's the matter kid? What's the matter, pal? Goodbye Honey, The end is here, Pal --- Good-bye!"

Newspaper editors with a sharp memory recalled the team's first Paramount film: "Ironically, the death scene was almost a parallel to a section of the first motion picture of the team, 'Why Bring That Up?,' produced several years ago. In that scene, Moran stood at the bedside of the dying Mack and bade him goodbye. But last night, there were no grinding cameras, no brilliant klieg lights and no microphones as Moran gripped Mack's hand in a last farewell."

Digging back a bit further, it was then discovered and quickly revealed that it was the second time in Moran's career that death had reached in and taken one of his partners. Jack Noble, associated with Moran before he joined Mack, was killed in an automobile mishap in Texas. A surprisingly clear-thinking Moran stated, "Left alone then, as I am now, I was forced to look about for a new partner, and Mr. Mack appeared on the scene. But this is the end of The Two Black Crows, and I guess it is the end of my career before the public. The task to go on now seems just too big."

After leaving the hospital, the dazed surviving members of the auto wreck repaired to a local hotel to gather themselves and arrange for the shipment of Mack's body home to Los Angeles. The following morning, New Mexico newspaper readers likely spotted the oddly worded, airy little news/publicity item depicted right.

Other newspaper readers would soon learn that William S. Hart was slated to read the last rights for Charles Mack, as announced by friends of the family --- adding that Mack and Hart were friends of many years standing. The services were scheduled to be conducted from the "beautiful Charles Mack home in Newhall, California" --- if not on the land he had bought in 1929, then very close to it --- and that actor Noah Beery, another close friend of Charles Mack's, would sing at the service. (I know what you fans of "Golden Dawn" want to say --- but don't.)

Among the pallbearers, active and honorary, were George Moran, actors Harry Carey, W.C. Fields, Hoot Gibson, Lew Cody, and Rex Bell, Theater chain legend Alexander Pantages, one Dr. A. H. Giannini and Jack Kearns, a prizefight manager.

For George Moran, his professional life effectively ended with the death of Charles Mack, just as he predicted it would. His personal life wouldn't fare much better. Although it's unclear what became of the Texas girl he married (if indeed he actually ever did) in Mexico in early 1933, he would be sued for divorce in 1937 by an earlier wife --- Mrs. Claire White Moran, a self-proclaimed former chorus girl who stated that they had been married in March of 1928, while both were appearing in a touring company of Earl Carroll's Vanities. Curiously, she claims that Moran didn't desert her until March of 1935 --- making the Tex-Mex affair even stranger --- and that they spawned a daughter, Angela, who was in mother's care in 1937 at the age of eight.

1937 would mark another of many low points for Moran, and also perhaps one of the oddest of all unpleasant events that would plague the poor man in his post Moran & Mack years. On April 9th of 1937, wire services carried this story from Ypsilanti, Michigan:

"The unclaimed body of a man who fell dead on the street here yesterday was identified as that of William Moran, 63, surviving member of the popular comedy team Moran and Mack - known as 'The Two Black Crows.' The body, clothed in a threadbare suit and overcoat, was identified by Gene Yarnell, local theater owner. Moran apparently died from heart disease, the coroner said. Yarnell said Moran stopped to gossip with him the day before yesterday about 'old times' when he and his partner, who was killed several years ago in a California automobile accident, were known from coast to coast. Moran recently had been employed by the American Hawaiian Music Company of Detroit."

The following day, wire services hastily inserted this correction wherever there was a spare half-inch (or less) of news space to be found:

"Los Angeles" (UP) - George Moran, one of the "Two Black Crows" is working here on a WPA writers project, it was learned.

One could laugh were it not so sad, but we really have to wonder just what's sadder --- being presumed a dead former employee of the American Hawaiian Music Company of Detroit in Ypsilanti, Michigan? Or, being so desperate that you'd attempt to (successfully) pass yourself off as a washed-up entertainer who was in just marginally better condition than yourself?

Moran appeared in two 1940 films for Universal starring an old friend, Bill Fields --- and he can be seen as "Milton," the expressionless (and highly memorable) Indian that accompanies Fields in "My Little Chickadee" as well as in "The Bank Dick," as "Cozy Cochran."

After this, Moran settled in Oakland, California and took up meager permanent residence at the Harrison Hotel, where a friend, Rade Sadler, owned and managed the hotel coffee shop. There, he lived in virtual obscurity throughout the 1940's. As the end of decade drew near, it was said that Moran and Sadler held wildly improbable plans to revive "The Two Black Crows" for television.

On July 30th of 1949, wire services revealed that Moran was under treatment in an Oakland hospital charity ward --- suffering from a combination of diabetes and a possible stroke. He condition was described as serious, as indeed it was --- for he would pass away on August 1st, having lapsed into a coma following his now confirmed stroke, without regaining consciousness. At his bedside upon his death were his sister, Mrs. Charles Stephens (of Denver, Colorado) and his brother, Phillip Searcy (of Los Angeles.) Funeral services were held at the Oakland Grant D. Miller chapel, and afterwards his body was shipped to St. Joseph, Missouri for another service and burial in the family plot there.

Show-business tributes were few --- if there were any at all, that is --- and newspaper mentions even scarcer. It's odd that perhaps the nicest and most glowing of tributes should come from a sports editor --- one Blaine Davis, who authored a local Maine sports column.

He gets it just right, just so damned right --- even when his chronology is wrong, and he says it better than any fair-weather Hollywood "friend," or fading vintage columnist ever could have. It's a tribute Moran would have cherished, for it came from a member of his beloved audience:

"Memories came with a rush when we read of the death of George Moran, one of the Two Black Crows who were vaudeville stars about 30 years ago.

They forced us to be industrious when work was even more distasteful than it is now, for we had to earn the money to see the two-a-day at B.F. Keith's when vaudeville was in its hey-day here. The Two Black Crows were here about once a year, generally soon after Christmas, and it was one act we never missed if we could help it. Mostly, we made the admission price for their show by selling Christmas trees for two bits each but other times we polished the shoes of older, more affluent members of the family for a dime a pair, manicured lawns in the neighborhood, or did similar chores, all of which added up to a 15 cent seat in the rear rows at Keith's and a little nourishment to keep body and soul together until we could get home and stick our feet beneath the supper table.

Moran died in comparative poverty. He never made anything like the money his hilarious act would have been paid today. In the late years of his career he and Mack turned to radio when vaudeville died but they were old troupers to whom an audience was necessary and they never cared much for radio. The early crystal sets didn't give them much of a break either, and by the time amplification had been developed, they had retired. The phonograph records they made are museum pieces now.

Mack died about 15 years ago and Moran was reduced to an occasional job as entertainer at dinner parties. It is a matter of record that he appeared at more charity performances than any performer of his time. Yet when bad times came to him, he asked help from nobody.

Of those who tried to copy the Black Crows' act, only Amos and Andy enjoyed more than average success. Ironically, they make more in a year than the two originals were paid for a lifetime."

And, with a lifetime they paid. The both of them, Moran and Mack --- The Two Black Crows.

Before leaving Moran & Mack, and seeing as we're in for a penny as well as a pound, now is as good a point as any to offer the team's final two phonograph records --- from 1928 and1929, as well as two excellent renditions of the songs from "Why Bring That Up?" as recorded by Ethel Waters in 1929.

"The Two Black Crows in the Jail House" - Part One

"The Two Black Crows in the Jail House" - Part Two

"Esau Buck" (1929)


"Do I Know What I'm Doing?" - Ethel Waters

"Shoo Shoo Boogie Boo" - Ethel Waters

The team's one other recording, "The Two Black Crows in Hades," was featured in this blog's previous post --- giving you the entire Two Black Crows recording canon, such as it is.

Before closing this entry entirely, a few items to (perhaps?) whisk away any strays wisps of gloom that might prevail.

It's impossible to read of Moran & Mack without recalling a similarly early and sad end to the teaming of Van & Schenck --- details of which can be found in an earlier post. Here's an interesting pre-production bit of studio publicity for the team's first (and last) full length talking feature. The baseball theme that would remain in the finished film is in evidence, but the title is still being grasped at. Temporarily dubbed "The Pennant Winning Battery," the film that would reach screens as "They Learned About Women" in early 1930 was given the same clumsy title that was used for Van & Schenck's Movietone short of 1927 --- in which the team performed "Chinese Firecrackers," an ugly little Irving Berlin composition from The Ziegfeld Follies of 1920 (in which Moran & Mack had appeared) and "Way Down South in Heaven." Their performance in that five minutes of (mostly!) glorious harmony of the goose-bump raising sort is offered here:

Van & Schenck - (1927)

Rather than ponder the silent version of "The Broadway Melody" which is being promoted here at our left (and which I'd dearly love to see despite it all) a reader's request for a full audio version of "Wedding of the Painted Doll" reminded me of the fact that surviving Vitaphone-type sound discs for the film reveal small, subtle differences from the version readily available today on DVD. With that in mind, here's three excerpts from original sound discs for "Broadway Melody."

The opening title sequence is some 30 odd seconds longer in the disc version, primary cause being the deletion of Victor Herbert's "In Old New York" (from "The Red Mill") from the commonly circulated print:

Opening Titles & Credits

Although identical in both the disc and DVD versions, "Wedding of the Painted Doll" does sound a tad brighter in the disc version:

"Wedding of the Painted Doll" - Vocal by James Burrows

And lastly, although the loss is arguable, Bessie Love and Anita Page's performance of "The Boy Friend" is missing an entire orchestral bridge in the print we're familiar with. It can be heard, complete and as originally performed, via the disc version here:

"The Boy Friend" - Bessie Love & Anita Page


Advertisement Disc - Circa 1930

Selmer Jackson, cast member "Why Bring That Up?"

Film on Radio - 28 April 1929

Glass Advertising Slide - 1927

Easy Corrective Surgery - February 1930

Window Card for "Why Bring That Up?" - 1929

Glass Advertising Slide - 1928

Imagination Run Wild - Poster Art - 1927

The Vitagraph (and later Vitaphone) Studio Smokestack - Brooklyn, New York
(I see it nearly every day, reminding me to write... write... write...)

See the Movie, Eat the Fine Baked Products

Sheet Music - The Ziegfeld Follies of 1920

Oh, but if I only could...



Clarence said...

As always, thank you for this post & for this blog. It's a joy to read. Although I was originally hooked by the audio files you share with the world, the images, newspaper clippings, &, first and foremost, the wonderful prose kjeeps this on my 'A-List'.

Given your final image (the closing of the 1939-40 New York World's Fair), I thought this might interest you. In the "Moving Pictures" section of Archive.org, there are a number of reels taken by amateurs at that fair. It is a fascinating glimpse into history (particularly since my Dad & Grandfather went, via train, from Meridian, MS to the fair. This link is to a search of the "Moving Pictures" section for 'world fair' so it includes other fairs, such as the 1964-65 edition in New York.

Again, thanks for sharing your passion and talents with us.
Love & Peace, Clarence Jones

Jeff Cohen said...

Thanks for the note, Clarence. I was quite beginning to think the Moran & Mack focus of the post had either stunned readers or sent them into deep slumber! Feedback indicating reader likes and dislikes is often the only indication I have of what to include or avoid, after all.

I've seen most, if not all of that extraordinary Worlds Fair footage, and it begs to be properly assembled into a DVD package with appropriate commentary --- it's a vast warehouse of 1939 history that nobody seems to know what to do with, sadly.

That closing image, sent to me by a good friend, is one of my favorites. It speaks volumes by it's simplicity.

Thanks again --- but the thanks goes to the readers as far as I'm concerned. :)


East Side said...

I remember Leonard Maltin's paperback on comedy teams had a chapter on Moran Mack, and quoted from a 1932 review of "Hypnotized." I believe it said, "There is a certain academic interest in seeing 'Hypnotized,' because until you have, you cannot realize how bad a motion picture can be." Frankly, that's enough a reason to track down a copy.

The BBC series on American silent movies, "Hollywood," featured a scene (presumably the climax, but I don't know for sure) from "Four Brothers." It was incredibly moving. I'd love to see the whole thing sometime.

Joe said...

Jeff: An interesting variety of items in this post. I wonder if there exists a 1920 newspaper column by someone who remembered the Future Dude. I remember back in 1980 that the Richelieu Theater in San Francisco showed Fox's "Just Imagine", which was set in 1880, 1920, and 1980. The audience enjoyed the vision of 1980. Then we got in our flying cars and went home. Well, I took a flying 38 Geary bus.

Moran's pallbearer, Doctor A. H. Giannini, was the brother of A. P. (Amadeo Pietro) Giannini, the founder of Bank of America. A. H. left the practise of medicine to represent the bank in many deals with the film industry. He made the deal to finance Disney's "Snow White".

Joe Thompson ;0)

Joe said...

Jeff: I finally had time to sit down and listen to the Two Black Crows recordings. I like the piano accompaniment. I see on one web site that Luckey Roberts played on some of the records.

Joe Thompson ;0)

Rob Farr said...

There must be an explanation regarding why Charlie Mack has virtually no screen time in Hypnotized. He has a cameo at the beginning just so it can be advertised as a Moran and Mack film, then disappears. Did the two have a falling out? And in other Hypnotized lore, apparently W.C. Fields was to have played the Ernest Torrance role, but smelled a turkey and got out. Imdb lists no less that 14 writers, a sure sign of trouble.

pq ribber said...

Delicious stuff!!