09 June 2007

"Wonderful Days and Arabian Nights"

Let's open this entry with an electrifying, albeit sadly brief, stretch of melody from the 1930 Paramount film "Love Among the Millionaires":

"Rarin' to Go!" (1930) Clara Bow, Mitzi Green

"Motorcars are kind of tame,
although you're stepping on High...

I want to glide an aereoplane,
and fly 'er up to the sky!

Who wants to be a bird in a cage?
This is the great electrical age!

Turn on the juice,
I'm on the loose,
I'm rarin' to go!"

It's so typical a mid-1929/mid-1930 Paramount screen moment --- unexpected and exhilarating, springing up out of barren, familiar territory and then, it's all over much too quickly and the viewer is left wondering if any similar moment is to come --- but it seldom, if ever, does.

The sequence is aptly described in The New York Times' review of the film: "With characteristic abandon, Clara Bow becomes the clown, although one is to understand that there are tears and heartbreak beneath the make-up, when she arises at her fiances party and sings rowdily so that the son of the railroad president will know that he is making a mistake in offering to marry this girl, a common waitress."

Bow's character in the film, "Pepper," is also victim of a well-intended but cruel trick that prompts her sudden explosion of song: her drink has been spiked by two hapless suitors, Richard "Skeets" Gallagher and Stu Erwin. Her increasingly dodgy behavior at a society garden party is about to be cut short when she breaks into song, prefacing her impromptu performance with a ribald laugh and near-hysterical proclamation of the sort that would, decades later, be mastered by SCTV's Catherine O'Hara's impersonation of a hapless, lewd and alcoholic entertainer modeled on 1960's pixie Joey Heatherton. The whole sequence strikes me as delightfully uncharacteristic of Bow, and a credit to her somewhat debated acting ability as well, --- for Bow manages to make it very clear that, tipsy or not, she's laying it all on especially thick for the benefit of those present.

And oh, that wonderful Leonard Joy orchestration that accompanies the song! There's a lot going on in this incredibly busy little arrangement --- sudden shifts in tempo, slide-whistles, coconut shells, bass drums, blaring horns, swirling strings --- and the disorienting effect is heightened by the accompanying visual, consisting of one medium shot of Bow's performance, dotted with a series of quick, angular shots depicting the reaction of attending guests --- bored, scornful, shocked, smug and perhaps a bit envious.

Despite the sparks Bow sets off during the song, she's eclipsed a scant moment later by the young supporting player, Mitzi Green, who portrays her kid sister, Penelope. Viewing the scene from her bedroom window (her limp straight bob festooned with curling papers that are doomed to failure from the start) she turns up on the garden patio at the conclusion of Bow's chorus to question Erwin and Gallagher, and effortlessly transforms herself --- if not physically then bodily and spiritually, into Clara Bow for a reprise. Her posture, motions and even vocal inflections are an utterly spot-on replication of Bow --- and the effect is magical.

The New York Times took notice too:

"Mitzi Green, a 9 year-old girl, as Penelope, has continued to win laurels since her appearance in "Sweetie" (the reviewer actually meant to cite "Honey") and "Paramount on Parade." Little Miss Green's imitation of Miss Bow singing "Rarin' to Go" compares favorably with the star's performance if the reaction of yesterday's audience is any criterion." One can just imagine the whoops and howls of delight from surprised and delighted audiences as this moment flashed on the screen!

A remarkable child, although with each year that pushes us further and further away from the world in which she lived and worked, her talent becomes --- sadly, less obvious. Doubtless, her impersonations of Charles Mack (of Moran & Mack) and George Arliss are meaningless to most viewers, but for others (such as the readers of these pages) they're nothing less than brilliant --- especially since the child uses no props other than her exceptionally versatile voice, mobile face and lithe little frame, which she bends and twists into the desired form with uncanny accuracy. Indeed, it's impossible not to watch these transformations without laughing, because the effect is so startling and bizarre in the form of a youngster.

Mitzi Green's parents were vaudevillians, Joe Keno and Rosie Green -- serviceable, undistinguished troupers. In 1924, when Mitzi was four, the team shared the bill with an actress named Sadie Burt, who was enchanted instead of perturbed when she happened to catch Mitzi mimicking her backstage. That evening, as the story goes, Sadie Burt led the child onto the stage for what amounted to her show business debut.

By January of 1926, Keno and Green were still plugging along, playing vaudeville dates such as the one depicted to the left, in Fresno, California:

"Keno and Green are headliners of the new program in the Orpheum show that will make its appearance in conjunction with the melodrama 'The Scarlet Saint.' This popular pair have long been known to regular patrons of vaudeville. Keno is a sure-fire comedian and eccentric dancer, and with his clever partner they put over their stuff to the amusement of all."

As the summer of 1926 arrived, Keno and Green would find themselves on the same bill with Moran & Mack in Brighton Beach (Brooklyn,) New York, and Mitzi fiercely studied the pair. That same week, an actor's benefit was given in Freeport, Long Island, and when Mitzi saw that children were to be featured on the program, she insisted upon doing a "Two Black Crows" skit. With the aid of her quick-thinking father, the two worked up an impromptu act for the benefit. A vaudeville scout saw the child perform, and signed her --- on the spot --- for a prolonged tour, which stretched --- over some two and a half years, from the East to West coasts --- and then, logically, to Hollywood just as sound arrived.

Mitzi Green's first screen appearance was in Paramount's late 1929 talkie "The Marriage Playground," by every indication a wonderful, risque and fast-moving film (based upon, surprisingly, Edith Wharton's novel "The Children".) With her first film, Green's rambunctious persona was already in place, but it would really be allowed to soar to places few children had ever been allowed to in her next picture, 1930's "Honey."

("Honey," a remarkable film in of itself, will be explored fully in a future post --- so I'll refrain from detailing Green's contribution at this point.)

1930 also had Green as Becky Thatcher in "Tom Sawyer" opposite Jackie Coogan, a role for which she wasn't especially suited --- but, given the choice of young actresses of the day, surely the best choice. (What's become of the 1930 version of "Tom Sawyer," I wonder? Once a television staple, it seems to have been escorted off into the same dark corner of perpetual limbo as most Paramount films of the period --- awaiting --- what?)

Green's contributions to "Paramount on Parade" were limited, but memorable. She looked considerably more comfortable than a sweltering, sweat-stained and somewhat over-upholstered Helen Kane in a schoolroom boop-oop-a-doo sketch, and had a chance to step before the curtains as herself, to trot out a series of star impersonations.

But, as the first wave of screen musicals ebbed, there seemed to be little use for the versatile song-belter and comedienne, and she foundered in supporting roles in which she performed expertly, although not being given the opportunity to do what she did best.

She'd re-emerge in late 1932, like musical films themselves, a bit older but even more refined and polished, in the decidedly odd first screen translation of "Girl Crazy," and "Transatlantic Merry Go Round" in 1934, but it would soon be the stage -- not the screen, where her career would shift to and ultimately flourish. Still, it would be her fleeting but larger-than-life screen appearances in 1929 and 1930 that would ultimately survive the longest and they still have an aura of electricity, surprise, freshness and playfulness about them that --- no matter the varying degrees of physical "health" or state of enforced seclusion these films currently exist in --- will have stood the test of time.

Two 78rpm selections from "Paramount on Parade" are offered here, before moving on to our next selection...

"All I Want Is Just One Girl" (1930)
Gus Arnheim & the Coconut Grove Orchestra

"Sweeping the Clouds Away" (1929)
Coon Sander's Orchestra

April 5th of 1925 - A syndicated newspaper fashion column:

"Rolled stockings have become so generally worn that the half stocking, which comes almost to the knee, will undoubtedly be popular this summer. It is not unusual to see middle-aged women wearing rolled stockings in New York City. One wonders if they are worn for comfort or for the purpose of displaying the cunning little garters which are so popular. Flappers match their garters with the shade of their frock, and always these garters are the most exquisite things!"

Clearly, regrettable modes of fashion are not a product of our own generation, and there's some comfort in that fact, I suppose. The fashion trend would wane by the end of 1925 with the arrival of cooler weather, but lingered long enough to prompt not one --- but two tribute recordings of "Roll 'Em Girls" that utilized Billy Murray's fine Irish pipes.

The first, recorded in early November of 1925, is Billy Murray's show from start to finish, while he turns up to warble the chorus (and opening line -- cleverly rolling his "R's") on the Jack Shilkret Orchestra on the second, recorded on December 31st of 1925. A fine, fine start to a mid-1920's New Year's Eve indeed!

"Roll 'Em Girls" - Billy Murray, Vocal with Orchestra

"Roll 'Em Girls" - Jack Shilkret Orchestra, with Billy Murray

An ash barrel awaiting pick-up, somewhere on New York City's lower East Side. Although barely discernible, writing (in English and Hebrew) on the sign attached to a store door advertises current attractions at Poole's (Yiddish) Theater.

Such is the setting --- more or less, for one of first talking films produced by the Hal Roach Studio, the rather remarkable "Hurdy Gurdy," released on June 5th of 1929, and filmed the first week of April, following Laurel & Hardy's "Unaccustomed As We Are."

If indeed Hal Roach personally wrote and directed "Hurdy Gurdy" (as he claimed, and title credits indicate) then he had much to be proud of, for it's actually a far more polished and sophisticated production than the Laurel & Hardy effort which --- while entertaining, seems somewhat halting and a bit difficult to warm up to owing to the harsh recording quality and an otherwise barren soundtrack in which pauses between dialogue seem unduly long stretches.

Not so with "Hurdy Gurdy," which --- while so dialogue heavy, never seems especially static, owing to no small amount of clever and interesting photography (by George Stevens) and a wall-to-wall soft incidental score (LeRoy Shield?) performed exclusively on pipe organ, save for a brief opening moment in which the titular hurdy-gurdy (hand cranked barrel organ) is actually heard.

There's much that's so unusual about this little film, not least of all the film's setting --- a sweltering summer day in New York City's Lower East Side, somewhere in the vicinity of Orchard & Delancey Street --- a melting pot of ethnic groups then as now. Long before air conditioning, the people of the city took to the streets, rooftops, front stoops, back and side area-ways, and fire escapes of their homes to seek scant relief from the heat.

Our view is that of two landings of fire-escapes overlooking an apartment building alley, on which are deposited the residents of the dwelling, all of different ethnic backgrounds: German, Irish, Jewish, and Italian.

Edgar Kennedy (the Irish policeman, of course) is newly arrived home, and attempts to rest and cool off in a chair on the fire-escape are thwarted by the cross conversation from neighbors flying over his head (child-rearing tips, political arguments) and a house-cat on the landing above him who upsets a bottle of milk which trickles down onto his head and pillow (Kennedy seems to indicate he believes it to be a less savory liquid than milk!) and the arrival of the neighborhood ice-man (Eddie Dunn) hawking his product.

There's more than just heat to deal with in Thelma Todd's apartment above, as indicated by a departing medical man who informs the fretting Todd that the prognosis for an off-screen patient isn't hopeful unless there's a change in the weather. He further advises her to "use a lot of ice, then with luck, you have a chance. Otherwise, there's no hope."

A clever and usually overlooked bit of subliminal audio trickery comes into place during this sequence (and others set within Todd's apartment) in the form of "Sonny Boy" (from WB's 1928 "The Singing Fool") being played as part of the background scoring. Audiences viewing "Hurdy Gurdy" were only too aware of the unhappy aura that prompted Jolson's performance of "Sonny Boy" in the WB film, and the choice to utilize the tune here acts to strengthen the surprise closing gag for this two-reeler.

The nearly constant deliveries of ice to Thelma Todd's apartment by ice-man Eddie Dunn prompts no end of speculation by the neighbors (all of whom suspect "Blondie" of being of less than pure virtue,) and some interesting and highly amusing theories are voiced --- which are better heard than explained:

Dialogue Excerpt #1 (1929)

It's a beautifully simple yet accurate bit of nonsense, and if you are of a certain age and have resided in a New York apartment building, a still very familiar one too --- although the accents are now of quite a different and arguably less melodic variety.

Just as Miss Todd and the ice-man replace barbs with signs of genuine affection, Max Davidson is elected to creep up the fire escape ladder to peek in their apartment window. He does so at an unfortunate moment --- just as Todd emerges from the patient's room exclaiming "I thought he was dead!" Davidson duly reports to the eager neighbors that someone is dead upstairs, and by the time the news flits across all the building's fire escapes, it's been decided that someone has been horribly murdered. Kennedy the Cop is reluctantly called into action, and after donning his uniform jacket, he bursts into the Todd apartment with neighbors in tow --- all hoping for a grisly scene and armed with rolling pins, spatulas, wine bottles and ice-picks.

Despite Todd's pleading, Kennedy enters the room where the corpse is expected to be --- and instead encounters something vastly different. Instead of a heat prostrated child, as we might expect, it turns out that Todd has been keeping a trained seal in her bathtub ("He's part of my act. We dive into a tank together down at the Hippodrome. Last winter, he was sick and we didn't make much money, so I had to keep him up here.") Well, it could happen.

As the film closes, Todd and Dunn step onto the fire-escape where, prompted by a cool breeze, break into a refrain of "My Gal Sal," as Kennedy scolds his ghoulish neighbors.

Dialogue Excerpt #2 (1929)

The incidental score for "Hurdy Gurdy" is impressively rich, utilizing: "The Sidewalks of New York," "In the Good Old Summertime," "Ach du Lieber Augustine," "Please Go Away and Let Me Sleep," "Back In Your Own Backyard," "Rose of Washington Square," "Jimmy Valentine," "Oh Marie," "Stars & Stripes Forever," two traditional Jewish melodies, "Where Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone," and "The Wearing of the Green."

Most frequently heard, however, are the aforementioned "Sonny Boy" and a light romantic foxtrot titled "If I Had You," which accompanies most of Todd & Dunn's dialogue exchanges. So then, suiting the music to the word, here are renditions of both tunes. Gene Austin doesn't allow his recording to veer off into extreme bathos, and Rudy Vallee puts over "If I Had You" with a sense of urgency and conviction I find interesting.

"Sonny Boy" - Gene Austin (1928)

"If I Had You" - Rudy Vallee (1929)

To accompany the wonderful image to the right,
photographed on 6 July 1912 within the vicinity of the setting for "Hurdy Gurdy," we have a straight-forward piano rendition of "The Sidewalks of New York," and an interesting Edison cylinder titled "Street Piano Medley," in which the sound of the hurdy-gurdy competes with some mildly comedic dialogue. All that's missing here is a monkey in brass-button festooned jacket.

"The Sidewalks of New York" (1893)

"Street Piano Medley" (1908)

Charles "Buddy" Rogers is so intently listening to his new Majestic radio and phonograph combination that he likely won't mind if we peer into the record cabinet and pull out a few back numbers...

There's no reason to shy away from the grandly named Meyer Davis LeParadis Band, for the vocalist is old friend Billy Murray (again!) and the two offerings on this 1925 disc are:

"All Aboard For Heaven" and "Let It Rain"

The Revelers are in fine voice and style for a September 1925 recording of "Oh Miss Hannah," which is as good --- if not better than the Whiteman version of the tune.

Libby Holman may have introduced "Moanin' Low" in 1929's "The Little Show," but its Sophie Tucker's performance from June of that year that suggests these blues are something more than just a bad hangover.

Before Skeets Gallagher flicks his cigarette ash into Lillian Roth's mouth (a posed publicity still for Paramount's 1930 "Honey") we'll listen to two 78rpm sides submitted by a loyal reader of these pages who prefers to remain anonymous. The previous entry ("Banj-o-Reno") offered Irving Kaufman's skilled handling of "That's Why I Love You," and it becomes apparent just how effective it is when we hear the usually superb Franklyn Baur not quite knowing what to do with the tune, as in this 1926 recording:

"That's Why I Love You" (1926)

Still keeping an eye on Gallagher & Roth, we also have a much appreciated orchestral rendition of a 1921 tune that impressed a good many readers, Con Conrad's "Moonlight," which was featured in the 17 March 2007 entry, "Temples of Mystery." This time around, the tune is given a masterful spin by The Yerkes S.S. Flotilla Orchestra --- and so much period atmosphere and feeling is embedded in these grooves that it prompts the sentimental heart to quicken and eyes to moisten. Hey, watch out Lillian!

"Moonlight" (1921) The Yerkes S.S. Flotilla Orchestra

We've one last item to explore for this post, but while we wait for Lillian Roth to clean up a bit and Skeets Gallagher to skulk off in search of another victim, we can't resist including a tune that had already begun to sprout whiskers by the time it was featured in 1927's "The Jazz Singer," and which is an especially fine dancer number when the lyrics aren't heard:

"Dirty Hands, Dirty Face" (1923) Selvin's Dance Orchestra

An appropriate vaguely exotic mood which is required for the final post entry is ushered in a bit early by Nathaniel Shilkret's terrific late 1926 recording of "The Riff Song" from the then current stage presentation of Romberg's "The Desert Song." The drum, drum, drum of hoof beats in the sand...

"The Riff Song" (1926) Nat Shilkret & the Victor Orchestra

From a 3 March 1930 review of "South Sea Rose" (Fox) by Wood Soanes:

"Life for Lenore Ulric in the talking pictures is nothing if not depressing. In her first start, "Frozen Justice," she was the unhappy wife of an Eskimo chief, a vivacious lass whose warm blood was chilled by the icy reaches of the Arctic, where she had been deserted by her sea captain father."

"Now, she is at the Grand Lake Theater (Oakland, California) for the first part of this week, as a comely and unhappy French lass, the daughter of an explorer father, who has been left all by her lonesome on a South Sea Island. Of course, there are other people around, but they are natives and Rosalie feels unhappy."

'"South Sea Rose' has a story that is not unalike 'Frozen Justice,' except in the matter of climate. We find her being taken advantage of once again by a lusty seafaring gentleman, but this time she has a happy ending to her romantic adventures provided by Charles Bickford as a stalwart companion."

"The new picture makes for fair to middling entertainment, the faults being more of authorship than of acting. We follow the adventures of Rosalie when she is kidnapped from a convent in the South Seas and married on the High Seas to a young ruffian."

"But, 'South Sea Rose' doesn't seem to get anywhere. The story makes four or five starts towards importance, but never succeeds in convincing the spectator that is is anything more real than a mild fairy tale. Miss Ulric does a song and dance bit, looks attractive, and uses her peculiarly attractive voice to advantage."

"The sound reproduction at Grand-Lake yesterday was frequently blurry and in a fashion that indicated faulty projection more than inferior recording."

Sometimes, like this time, I don't need add anything at all. But, before closing, here's George Olsen & His Music performing the film's self-titled theme song, "South Sea Rose," with a vocal by Ethel Shutta.

Until next time --- and sooner than last time --- Aloha!


Follow the fashion, Dance to the Record,
and See the Movie! (Paramount-1927)

A "sunbeam chorus" this week,
a frustrated Lenore Ulric next week.
Uniontown, Pennsylvania - 4 January 1930

From "Illustrated World,"
December of 1916

Publicity now worth gold,
but shame in July of 1930.

Insert Droll Caption Here

The more things change....
24 July 1930

"Hurdy Gurdy" adorns a screening of
"The Lady Lies" - Decatur, Illinios,
21 October 1929

One never was, sadly ---
while the other almost wasn't.

Mitzi Green, Jackie Coogan and
a newly arrived live alligator - 1930

Mixed Messages for DeMille's "The Godless Girl"
Davenport, Iowa - 1928
(The silent version is slated for DVD release as part of
the third entry in the "Treasures from American Film Archives" series,
as is Paramount's 1929 "Redskin.")

Street Organ Grinder (Hurdy Gurdy Man) - circa 1890

Mitzi Green meets the Paramount Publicity Department - 1930

Insert Poster - 1930

Lobby Card - 1930

In addition to the heat, intrigue!
Lenore Ulric is well out of things, it seems.

A momentarily cheerful "South Sea Rose" (1930)

Advertising Banner - circa 1929

Verse 1: Down in front of Casey's, Old brown wooden stoop,
On a summer's evening, We formed a merry group;
Boys and girls together, We would sing and waltz,
While the "Ginnie"* played the organ on the sidewalks of New York.
* A Ginnie is a barrel organ or street organ, such as organ grinders might use.

Chorus: East side, West side, All around the town
The tots sang "ring a rosie," "London Bridge is falling down;"
Boys and girls together, Me and Mamie Rorke
Tripped the light fantastic, On the sidewalks of New York.

Verse 2: That's where Johnny Casey, And little Jimmy Crows,
With Jakey Krause the baker, Who always had the dough,
Pretty Nellie Shannon, With a dude as light as cork,
First picked up the waltz step on the sidewalks of New York.

Verse 3: Things have changed since those times, Some are upt in "G,"
Others they are wand'rers. But they all feel just like me,
They would part with all they've got, Could they but once more walk,
With their best girl and have a twirl, On the sidewalks of New York.



John Seal said...

You may already be aware of this, but Oakland's Grand Lake Theatre remains in operation to this day. It was twinned in the late '80s, but by and large still retains its architectural integrity. I'm there at least once a month, and it's a popular family destination, especially on the weekend, when the Mighty Wurlitzer gets played.

Anonymous said...

Hey Jeff,

As usual there is just so much wonderful stuff to absorb: it's like drowning in honey.

Thanks for providing so much pleasure,
Dennis Doherty