05 May 2007

"Crook Talk" & Other Diversions

"I handed the moll my rod and the ice, and told her to ditch it so that the pointed-toe dick couldn't give me the rap!"

So says actor Monte Blue in the late 1929 Warner Bros. crook drama, "Skin Deep." Directed by Ray Enright, the six-reel talkie appears to have long since vanished, although a surviving set of Vitaphone discs for the film's foreign release version allows us some faint notion of the film's mood and pace.

Based upon "Lucky Damage," a short story by Marc Edmund Jones, and first filmed by Thomas Ince for a 1922 silent version starring Milton Sills and released by First National, newspapers in May of 1929 carried an item mentioning that Warner Bros. had successfully "acquired the motion picture rights to the property as a vehicle for Monte Blue," a simple deal indeed given the association between First National and Warners at the time.

In conjunction with the 1929's film release in Fresno, California, a local newspaper prepared a thumbnail biographical sketch of actor Monte Blue which is well worth repeating here --- if only to indicate that this vague figure was once a major box office star, and ought to be remembered today for far more than his later small "heavy" roles in low-budget Westerns, the realm in which his name invariably turns up today, and then only in passing... if that.

"Monte Blue, star of Warner Bros. Vitaphone production 'Skin Deep,' now at the Fresno Theater, is a man of many thrilling adventures. Some day he promises to write a book about them, but in the meantime the interesting facts of his life deserve publication."

"Monte Blue, well remembered as Fresno's Raisin Day King, was born in Indianapolis, Indiana (in 1887) with Cherokee Indian blood in his veins. Monte had a hard fight for life, but developed the unconquerable enthusiasm and good-fellowship for which he is famous."

"His early experience took him all over the United States as soldier, lumberjack, miner, cow puncher, factory hand and superintendent, Indian agent, locomotive fireman, 'bindlestiff,' ditch digger and traveling man."

"Falling by accident under the spell of D.W. Griffith, Monte worked with him as script clerk, actor and stunt man in 'Intolerance,' 'The Birth of a Nation,' and other pictures. The role of Danton in Griffith's 'Orphans of the Storm' first brought him fame."

"Several good mountain-boy parts in such pictures as 'The Jucklins' increased his popularity and Warner Bros. gave him his chance at feature leads and stardom soon after they began screen work in Hollywood. His Vitaphone pictures have been 'Conquest' and 'The Greyhound Limited.'"

The 1929 talking version of "Skin Deep," arrived in theaters in September of that year, and despite having one of those brain-throb inducing convoluted plots, was deemed "swift moving" by The New York Times, and equally well received elsewhere. Indeed, the film was still being booked into theaters as late as October of 1930 --- indicating the film had nimble legs at a time when far more prestigious films would regularly premiere and vanish within weeks.

Via fragments of the film's Vitaphone discs prepared for a foreign release version of the film (which retained only mere scraps of incidental dialogue, with a newly recorded musical score and foreign language inter-titles replacing the original soundtrack,) let's re-visit "Skin Deep" as best we can, relying on extant plot details and audio clues:

"A big city's underworld -- sinister and treacherous rival gang leaders with their ruthless followers ready to kill at a moment's notice -- darkened streets with death hiding in every shadow -- painted molls hanging on the arms of their favored gunmen -- watchful detectives silently smoking cigarettes and watching -- the whole air is tense and seems charged."

Not so as the film opens however, with a ribald and comparatively light hearted party sequence at, it is presumed, gangland king Joe Daley's (Monte Blue) lair. Here, the film's opening titles utilize the film's lilting theme song, "I Came To You," before giving way to a celebration in full swing featuring a young lady finishing up a hot dance number. Two of the film's cast members can be heard at the conclusion of this audio fragment --- George E. Stone as Daley's underling, "Dippy," and Monte Blue as Daley. It's here that the camera would have revealed that gangster Daley has a decidedly ugly visage --- heavily scarred and with grotesquely misshapen nose.

"Skin Deep" - Excerpt 1

Excerpt #2: Joe Daley is serenaded by combination showgirl and moll Sadie Rogers (Betty Compson) with a chorus of "I Came To You," and as an exceptionally hot (but unidentified!) tune kicks in, we learn that the gold-digging Sadie has decided to accept Daley's marriage proposal, and is of the belief that a lavish life style and endless supply of cash will serve to wash away any and all misgivings about Joe's physical shortcomings --- although, of course, she doesn't tell him quite that.

"Skin Deep" - Excerpt 2

Except #3: The pair are married --- and the mind boggles at visualization of this moment! Monte Blue's scarred face and putty nose grotesquely matched with his trademark broad dimpled grin --- and Betty Compson, done up to the nines in bridal regalia, her cupid bow lips and brilliant eyes flashing from beneath a wedding veil, as the pair deliver their sacred vows --- Monte in it for the long haul, and Compson barely hiding a self-satisfied smirk!

"Skin Deep" - Excerpt 3
Marriage transforms Joe Daley, and much to his new bride's dismay, he vows to go straight. So straight, in fact, that he announces his intent to return a plundered $100,000 to the District Attorney to prove he means business. Rather than see her cash cow curl up and die before she can lead it to the slaughterhouse personally, Sadie makes tracks for Daley's rival, Blackie Culver (John Davidson) and the two concoct a scheme to frame Joe --- making it seem that he was responsible for the theft. Their scheme works so well that Joe is sent up the river for five years, without ever being tipped off as to whom was behind it all. The next audio excerpt (#4) is difficult to place, except that it occurs somewhere within all this unfolding plot. If I had to venture a guess, this music accompanied Sadie and Blackie's clandestine meeting --- a playful romp at that, until a ringing telephone brings news that requires immediate action.

"Skin Deep" - Excerpt 4

Joe serves his time behind bars dutifully, strengthened and encouraged by the deceitful Sadie's visits, who is about to play the second act of the scheme she and Blackie have carefully prepared. On one of her visits to the prison, she tells Joe that the District Attorney (John Bowers) who sent Joe up the river has taken certain liberties with her, effectively spoiling the goods before Joe can get to them upon his release. She convinces him that he must make a break for it and escape, figuring all the while that at best he'll be killed in the process --- or at worst, returned to the nick for a much extended stay. Joe --- poor, misguided Joe with his big putty nose, agrees.

In the following excerpt, (#5) the night for the escape arrives -- and we first see Joe carefully watching the clock for the appointed moment (details of the escape are unclear from our imperfect vantage point and surviving materials at hand) before cutting to Sadie, Blackie and gang elsewhere, confidently making merry as the critical moment draws near.

"Skin Deep" - Excerpt 5

Excerpt #6: The escape! Sirens blare --- prison searchlights pierce the night sky! Machine guns spew lead at a darting figure with a prominent nose! Joe makes use of a motorcycle to expedite his break out, and is doing alright --- successfully eluding his would be captors, until he spins out and flips over into a ditch, quite literally at the heels of pretty young Elsa Landon (Alice Day,) daughter of brilliant but reclusive Dr. Bruce Landon, Plastic Surgeon supreme (Tully Marshall) who gained extensive experience during the Great War but who has since sought to escape the horrors of that time by living his life in an out-of-the-way community with his loving daughter.

"Skin Deep" - Excerpt 6

In the hands of Elsa and her doctor father, Joe is nursed back to health in the bucolic setting, and Doctor Landon takes it upon himself to transform Joe's irregular face --- perhaps believing it damaged in the accident --- transforming him into the dashing Monte Blue of 1929, a far cry from the twisted visage once attached to Joe Daley.

Excerpt 7: Joe falls for Elsa, and she does likewise --- as the pair share a tender moment, perhaps in a canoe on a lake --- as Elsa warbles "I Came To You" to Joe, accompanying herself on the ukulele. The vocal, left intact from the original release, may or may not have been sung by Alice Day, but as it concludes, the audio switches to the "new" orchestral score prepared for the foreign release print, and sweetly reprises the tune at a point where dialogue would have been heard.

"Skin Deep" - Excerpt 7

The New York Times review used the term "swift moving" to describe "Skin Deep," and highly accurate it seems to be too. Taking advantage of his new, improved and conveniently unrecognizable face, Joe returns to the city --- intent on revenge for any number of misdeeds done to him --- and learns, once and for all, of Sadie's true nature and intent. Joe surprises Sadie with a visit, and in this excerpt -- #8, is met by his pet dog Mugs, who's intuitive recognition of Joe --- new face and all, reveals that this handsome stranger is actually well known to both Sadie and Blackie.

"Skin Deep" - Excerpt 8

An attempt to silence Joe before anything else happens doesn't come off quite as planned, and a bullet that Blackie fires at Joe instead finds a home within Sadie's anatomy and as she breathes her last and the outlook isn't bright for Blackie either, Joe departs this sordid world once and for all, and makes track for his little bit of heaven where Elsa awaits him.

In the final excerpt, (#9), Joe approaches his new home --- with loyal dog Mugs in tow, whistling the film's theme song. Elsa hears it, and recognizing her cue, dashes out to welcome home her soon to be husband. The music swells as the "End" title appears, the curtains close as the house lights rise and the Vitaphone orchestra swings into an up-tempo reprise of "I Came To You."

"Skin Deep" - Excerpt 9

Before leaving "Skin Deep," here's Henry Busse & His Orchestra's rendition of the film's theme song, which served as Exit Music to usher patrons out of the theater and, many years later, the film itself from this world.

"I Came To You" - (1929) Henry Busse & His Orchestra

A few loose strands from the previous post, which profiled actress and dancer Mary Eaton...

Incorporated into the heavily music laden score for "Glorifying the American Girl" were two period tunes of particular merit, "At Sundown" and "Doll Dance."

"At Sundown" can be heard as incidental scoring during a dressing room sequence in which Eaton opens a gift from her suitor, which finally reaches her after being shuffled about the country from post office to post office in an effort to reach her at the theater in which she's currently performing. We see her hands tear away the scribbled wrapping paper to reveal a handsome jewelry box, which she opens and tilts --- allowing her face to be reflected in the mirror inside the lid of the case.

"At Sundown" (1927) Clicquot Club Eskimos

Nacio Herb Brown's 1926 "Doll Dance" turns up in numerous films of the period, although primarily as background scoring, in such films as "Lord Byron of Broadway," and almost always in conjunction with a backstage setting, as in "Glorifying the American Girl" too. In a curious coincidence where the latter film is concerned, "Doll Dance" was made especially popular by it's introduction in "The Hollywood Music Box Revue," where it was danced by none other than Mary Eaton's exceptionally busy sister Doris, who --- in later life, would muddle facts a bit and claim that she introduced "Singin' in the Rain" in this production as opposed to "Doll Dance."

No matter, it's a grand tune that readers will surely recognize, and here's Nat Shilkret & the Victor Orchestra to prove it as we move on and away from the Sisters Eaton.

"Doll Dance" (1927) - Nat Shilkret & the Victor Orchestra

It isn't often I stray much beyond 1930 into the realm of Pre-Code films --- and I won't here either, save to offer three melodies from two of my personal favorite titles of the era.

"Three On A Match" (WB-1932) has long appealed to me on a number of different levels. There's a corker of a cast (Warren William, Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak & Bette Davis to name but a few) to begin with, and enough plot to fill three films --- all within a scant 70 or so minute running time that plays and feels like an epic melodrama.

Then too, before it's deserted midway through the film, "Three On A Match" utilizes a unique presentation technique to introduce the three principals as children, and then re-introduce them again as teenagers, and again as adults.

What could have easily been accomplished with simple stark title cards, the passage of years --- from 1918 to 1932 I believe, --- is indicated instead with montages of newsreel footage, newspaper headlines, sheet music covers, and other forms of media that document not only the sweeping changes that effect everyone, everywhere, but also the small incidental elements (such a popular music, clothing styles and technological innovations) that also mark time and with it, our lives as well.

I suspect I've given a typically wheezy explanation of an otherwise simple film device --- but those who've seen "Three On A Match" will know of what I speak, and not only how effective it is but also how memorable too.

Running through the score of "Three on A Match," is the film's title tune --- and for those familiar with (and fond of) the film, this recording by Russ Carlson and his Orchestra will be a treat, given how closely it approximates the orchestration used in the motion picture and also for the fact that the lyrics (having to do with a three-way love affair that goes awry, as they often do) are heard here too.

"Three On a Match" (1932) Russ Carlson Orch.

Nothing makes much sense in Paramount's 1933 "International House," nor is it supposed to, which is why guests at the Wu-Hu, China International House hotel can flick on their room radio and be entertained by the local radio station ("The Voice of Long Tongue") presenting Ah- Fooey and His Manly Mandarins playing that hotter than hot jazz tune, "Look What I've Got." It loses something without the beautifully timed visual of Peggy Hopkins Joyce and W. C. Fields undressing in the same room without being aware of one another's presence --- but is sure to bring a smile to listeners with a good memory for such things! The tune's lyrics (unheard in the film version) suggest that more than just casual thought went into choosing the melody to score the scene: "Look what he's got, look what she's got..." Brilliant, pre-code nonsense!

"Look What I've Got" (1932) Paul Whiteman & His Orchestra

Well in keeping with the opium hallucination quality of the film, is Baby Rose Marie's lusty vocalization of "My Bluebird's Singing the Blues." Ordinarily, a youngster warbling about doomed romances is dodgy at best and difficult to pull off, but not so with Baby Rose Marie, who appears to have been born carrying a torch instead of a rattle.

Her performance of the tune on this Brunswick recording is, I believe, actually better than the version performed on film.

"My Bluebird's Singing the Blues" (1932)

The Friedlander/Conrad stage musical "Mercenary Mary" proved to be a hit when opening at New York City's Longacre Theater in April of 1925. Said one review, "'Mercenary Mary' could open in the Panama Canal zone in July and do capacity business throughout the summer."

Never revived and little remembered today (although I suspect those involved with the creation of a current hit Broadway parody of 20's stage musicals might have studied it somewhat) even the cast seems unremarkable today save for the inclusion of John Boles as one of the male leads.

No matter, just listen to this two sided medley of tunes from the production (recorded here for the British presentation) and what you have is a time capsule of what seems to be all musical comedies of the decade rolled into one incredible confection.

As heard in this recording, are the tunes: "I'm A Little Bit Fonder of You," "I Am Thinking of You," "Dipping in the Moonlight," "Tie a Bit Of String Around Your Finger," "Mercenary Mary," "Over My Shoulder," "Honey, I'm In Love With You," and "Shake Your Daddy."

Gems from "Mercenary Mary" - Part 1 (1925) and Part 2

A phonograph curiosity from 1916 -

"The most artistic and practical casing for the phonograph that has been devised as yet is a drawing-room lamp with a broad, swelling base in which the mechanism is concealed."

"Instead of the conventional horn, the carrier of the sound waves is found in the stem of the lamp, which ends in a trumpet-shaped ground glass shade."

"The manufacturer claims that the sound waves are affected by the heat waves from the lamp, which are thrown off in every direction, and tend to diffuse the sound, giving it a peculiar softness and mellowness of tone."

As soon as I can locate a manufacturer, I'll be happy to begin taking orders!

We'll never know what tune was being played as this female dance instructor attempted to teach the latest steps to five burly but seemingly game athletes, but it could well have been:

"Blue Baby" (1927) George Olsen & His Music

Likewise, the couple daintily stepping across the printed linoleum may have just been listening to "My Sing Song Girl" (1930) --- their smiles prompted --- as ours are, the busily intricate LeRoy Shield orchestration that recalls his masterful compositions (also utilizing xylophones and such) for numerous Hal Roach comedies of the period.

"My Sing Song Girl" (1930) LeRoy Shield & the Victor Orchestra

It's always nice to encounter recordings that while not new by any means, are new to me --- and that they both feature Vaughn DeLeath, who should be an old friend to regular readers by now, makes it that much more a pleasure.

"Kentucky Babe" (1927) Vaughn DeLeath

"Joy Bells" (1927) Harold Leonard & the Waldorf Astoria Orchestra

While one doesn't usually associate particular music with the silent masterpiece "The Crowd," the film does indeed contain an important music cue and --- lo and behold, it's not only acknowledged and carried out by the wonderful Carl Davis score for the film, but he also recognizes its value and utilizes it elsewhere in the film during key sequences. Few things are more irksome than to have blatant musical cues ignored by (shall we say) "young composers" who feel they can do better with a kazoo or glass harp, and therefore this brand of innovation has relieved countless silent films of not only theme songs written especially for them, but little notations of time and period that were deemed important enough to include in the film frame itself. Happily, so important a film as "The Crowd" was in fine hands indeed when a newly recorded score was prepared, and it's certainly evident in a near perfect union of image and music. Herewith, a double dip:

"There's Everything Nice About You" (1927)
Vocal version by Johnny Marvin --- and,

Orchestral version by Nat Shilkret & the Victor Orch.

While we have Johnny Marvin with us, he'd like to perform two melodies from the 1929 Fox musical "Sunny Side Up," which he'll do so --- beautifully, right now...

"I'm A Dreamer (Aren't We All?)" (1929) Johnny Marvin

"If I Had A Talking Picture Of You" (1929) Johnny Marvin

Once, and not all that long ago in the grand scheme of things, Paramount's "Monte Carlo" could be found regularly on local New York television stations. It's since gone to that great vault where all of it's Paramount companions are kept under careful watch, lest someone see them again. The memories linger on however, as does the music. This recording, by Jesse Crawford, preserved on what amounts to a mechanical player piano roll but played on a theater organ, will stir you to the soul --- maybe a bit. Perhaps?

Selections from "Monte Carlo" (1930)

Before closing this post, we again look in on our athletic team (members of the Washington, D.C. Palace Club basketball team) and our instructor seems to have done the trick, perhaps aided by this ethereal 1926 recording of "Maybe" from the stage musical "Oh, Kay!" --- performed by Jesse Crawford and Nat Shilkret leading the Victor Orchestra. Dance on, fellows --- dance on.

"Maybe?" (1926) Jesse Crawford & Orchestra



A novelty in December 1929, now almost
an enforced rule in museums and archives, it seems.

January, 1924

October of 1929, and other more
pressing issues would soon hold sway.

Ironwood, Michigan - 15 May 1930
Anyone check this theater's basement recently?
Connellsville, Pennsylvania - 3 August 1930
They did, indeed, pause the film program to
pipe in the "Amos 'n Andy" radio broadcast.
Manitoba, Canada - 11 October 1930
Can anyone offer any information on this one?

Read more about the Phono Lamp here.
Thanks to reader Mark for the link!

Until next time!


Clarence said...

"Splinters" was a British comedy released in 1929, according to it's IMDb page. I'd guess it's the 'Great British Super-Talkie'. Incidentally, Carroll Gibbons & the Savoy Orpheans released concurrently with the film selections from it on HMV in the British market (under the name 'Carroll Gibbons and His Masters Voice Orch.').
As for the Gem of Song and Color, "In The Mountains", I have no clue. Nor do I know anything about The British Dumbells...which might not be a bad thing. lol
Love & Peace, Clarence

Jeff Cohen said...

Ah, now I >must< ask if any of our British readers --- and there's dozens --- might have an .mp3 of that rather awesome sounding medley! Serves to remind me to put together a long planned post on the 1930 British revue "Elstree Calling," which is a magnificent film to behold when seen in a top notch print (as I've been lucky enough to.) Soon!

Thanks for the comments as always, Clarence --- and love your avatar, btw! :)

Crook Talkin' Jeff

Mark said...

Hello, Jeff:

Thanks for your well-written, achingly nostalgic blog (I'm thinking especially of your recent post on Mary Eaton).

I'm surprised the article you posted on the phonograph in the lamp did not mention the likely name of the device, the Phonolamp. If it is indeed the same device, the manufacturer also issued records to go with it, and you can see a label scan here:


Best, Mark

bearden said...

I love it when you give us these glimpses of otherwise vanished films via the vitaphone soundtrack! I'm also glad to see George E. Stone (or Georgie as he still was then) already well launched on his cinematic life of crime. I just saw him silent in The Racket, there was a picture of him on your site "part-talkie" in Weary River, here he is talking in Skin Deep - he was reformed by the time of the Boston Blackie flicks and I recently saw him 30 years later in Some Like it Hot. If you looked "ethnic" in those days, you were shuffled off to the criminal side of the street!

Jeff Cohen said...

Mark - Thanks for the additional info. and link re: Phono Lamp, which I've incorporated into the blog. How I'd love to hear what it sounded like! This is just the sort of thing you'd expect to see cheap reproductions made of and sold on QVC! :)

Bearden: TCM seems to be running a slew of Columbia "Boston Blackie" films of late. Great fun to see the two leads --- both products of the silent and early sound era, doing just fine in WWII-era film, even if Chester Morris seems to grow shorter with each passing title!

Thank-you both for writing!


east side said...

What a coincidence -- I just burned my vhs copy of "3 on a Match" to DVD last Friday!

What did Rose Marie do between her "kid singer" days and the Dick Van Dyke Show?

Anonymous said...

"No fast skating allowed" reads the sign on the wall behind the Charleston learning basketball team, and no fast skimming is allowable here.

There is just so much wonderful stuff here to absorb and appreciate.

Dennis Doherty

Jeff Cohen said...

East Side: She did a whole bunch of things, and you've just given me a fine idea for an inclusion in the next post. Watch for it! ;)

Dennis: You know, I looked at that sign six ways 'til Sunday and still couldn't figure out the word 'skating'! Much obliged!

Thanks to you both!


the sobsister said...

Excellent entries for May. Kudos on a well-researched, enjoyable site. I look forward to your next posting.