24 January 2007

A Ladder of Roses

Early talking films, when thought of, discussed, described or written about --- if at all, that is --- are invariably contaminated by notions born of later films and printed industry recollections that, while colorful, forsake truth in favor of a good story. This fictional realm of the early sound film is one populated by grotesquely attired and made-up "flappers" (always clad in beaded gowns, and with a sequined headband from which emerges a single feathered plume) being wooed by suitors who stiffly emote with flailing arms and a pronounced stutter, or a burly hero who speaks with a lisp.

These flickering images are then depicted as being thrown upon a small screen, from which the sound that emerges is not only as thin and harsh as Edison's first tin covered cylinder, but (for greater comic effect) running moments ahead or behind the action on the screen --- or, for even greater laughs, the action on the screen is somehow accompanied by the wrong soundtrack entirely. "Oh, those crazy early talkies!" or something much like it is then the closing pronouncement.

Forgiving though I am to films of the early sound period, I also believe myself to be just as critical, with no blind eye nor deaf ear to flaws and inadequacies on either side of the camera. (There's no shortage of books that treat the early sound films as pathetic forerunners to "real" movies --- which is why I tend to avoid discussing films or performers I genuinely dislike. My intent is to intrigue and pique the interest of the reader enough to the point where they might be moved to explore these films on their own and reach their own conclusion, rather than to veer them away --- via personal opinion or agenda --- from a corner of film history kept perpetually dark and cobwebbed with neglect.)

Therefore, it may come as a surprise to learn that although many an hour has been spent combing through period printed matter, the instances where an account emerges of early talkie "trouble"or difficulties of the sort detailed earlier, are so few and so scarce as to be virtually nonexistent.

Instead, when the early sound film is called to task, it's invariably a complaint of the sound being reproduced too loudly --- or not loud enough. This frequent gripe is as interesting as it is understandable, considering that it would take some time for unaccustomed ears to come to terms with voices being amplified as loudly as live music. We must not forget that audiences up to that time had only heard the human voice projected from the stage without any amplification other than that afforded by the theater's acoustics --- so imagine (or try to imagine!) the first time experience of hearing dialogue blasting forth from the stage with the power of a full orchestra!

The early Technicolor films are also a frequent target for discontent, with complaints of "not especially clear," and "dim" being common complaints. I suspect that these flaws could probably be traced to unskilled or careless projection, where lazy attention to focus or below-spec illumination would surely turn even a top notch two-strip Technicolor print into little more than foggy murk.

But, through it all, printed accounts of the heroine speaking with the villain's voice (or vice verso) seem to exist only in the minds of humorists and screenwriters. So then, when I do come across a surprisingly detailed mention of a specific problem, it's nothing short of an event --- and one well worth sharing!

Following the premiere of Mary Pickford's first talking film, "Coquette," at Sumter, South Carolina's Rex Theater on March 22nd of 1929 --- a much publicized and anticipated event, as well as the perfect venue for this southern melodrama --- the morning newspaper contained the following forlorn little item, penned by the management of the Rex:

"Due to the very poor recording of the talking in the first four reels of Mary Pickford's picture, 'Coquette,' the Rex management thought it advisable to change the picture and substitute a new program for showing today and tomorrow. The management regrets that this chance was necessary. However, regardless of the popularity of Miss Pickford, and the quality of 'Coquette,' unless the talking sequences are satisfactory, the picture has little entertainment value. The trouble was in the recording, and not in the theater's sound equipment for reproducing."

No amount of special "Coquette" Ice Cream (a stomach lurching concoction of chopped red, green and yellow "Rubyette" grapes blended into a grape flavored ice cream base) could disguise the fact that there was a problem with some prints being released for exhibition. (The ice cream ad's proclamation that "you'll enjoy it as much as the movie" seems more hopeful than decisive in this light.)

Nearly a full month later, the indignant manager of another South Carolina theater (in Florence, S.C.,) was compelled to place this item in the morning newspaper, in which he included the Sumter public note. Although the chronology is somewhat muddled, his wording --- clumsy though it be, is fascinating:

"I was in New York last week. Had I been here, I would not have attempted to run 'Coquette' with such poor recording. As I understood we had. We were the first in the state to play the picture and therefore had no report on the recording. I have learned that other houses had the same trouble we did, and I am printing below a copy from an advertisement run in Sumter regarding the picture which should be sufficient proof that it was the fault of the recording and not our equipment. You could not wish for better reproduction than we gave you on 'The Broadway Melody' and are giving you this week with 'Lady of the Pavements.' Respectfully, J.M. O'Dowd."

For all the ruffled feathers, we can assume the problem was isolated to prints shipped for distribution in South Carolina, as there's no mention to be found of similar problems with the film anywhere else. "Coquette" was a tremendous success, satisfying the burning curiosity of millions of patrons who virtually grew up along with Pickford and the movies themselves, but had never heard her speak. It would be Pickford's last great triumph, for once the wrapping paper had been removed and the contents observed, well --- that was that. Perhaps it's for that reason that the film still manages to thrill despite itself, for if you can see and hear it through the eyes and ears of 1929 audiences, there's still more than a trace still remaining of what so thrilled audiences of the day.

There's little, if any, of that excitement evident in the theme song written for the film by no less a talent than Irving Berlin, for no matter the rendition, the theme song has always struck me as an inordinately meandering and tuneless bit of nothing --- a melody that fails to conjure up images of Pickford, the film's setting, or even 1929 music for that matter. But, with all due respect, here's composer, organist (and accordionist!) John Gart playing the theme song to "Coquette" on the Morton Wonder Organ at the Loew's Valencia Theater (New Jersey,) recorded for Edison on March 27th of 1929. If you please, Mr. Gart...

Theme Song of the Photoplay "Coquette" (1929)

Leaving behind magnolia blossoms, dainty dishes filled with delicately tinted grape ice-cream, let's move on and away.

Traveling backwards in time and northward in direction, we arrive at New York City in the summer of 1915.

Behold, the magnificent Hippodrome! (Clicking on the image to the right will produce a large photo of impressive depth and clarity.) By 1915, the massive theatrical venue was a mere 10 years old, and still 23 years away from it's lamentable but inevitable destruction in 1939. The 5,000+ seat theatrical gargantuan bravely fought a losing battle with new and modern Times Square theaters just blocks away --- until finally falling to progress, cowering from the same machinery and hands that once brought it to life.

In the summer of 1915, production was underway for what would be vast success by the standards of the day, the musical revue "Hip Hip Hooray," which would go on to play for 425 performances before closing nearly a year later, in June of 1916.

Just before the production closed --- and began to tour the country in necessarily smaller sized touring companies, a remarkable recording was made for Columbia in mid June of 1916. Vaguely titled "New York Hippodrome Rehearsal," the recording reached out and captured --- for all time --- a small and unimportant sliver of entertainment history that would normally pass into time unnoticed, but seems somehow magical for the fact that it's with us today.

Robert H. Burnside, staging director of "Hip Hip Hooray" as well as lyricist, was enough of a personality and recognized name to warrant a featured speaking recording and given the realm of this blog, I can't help but see him as something of a Ragtime era Busby Berkeley. In the recording, in which he exchanges scripted gags with what is presumed to be some of the actual chorus girls from the show, there's more than a hefty dose of similar chatter to be found in Warners promotional films for various musicals of the 1930's --- stale jokes and puns included!

Once you get past the unremarkable dialogue exchange, there's a gem to be discovered. With only a minute left of recording time, Burnside instructs the chorus to rehearse the melody "The Ladder of Roses," and it's here where the thick veil of time that separates us from 1916 is suddenly lifted. Through all the surface noise and haze, it's remarkably easy to envision these voices rising from the center of the cavernous Hippodrome --- the performing area festooned with colored lights and flowers, ladders dropping from the ceiling -- also draped with roses --- being climbed by dancers in synchronized movement, as lyrics are sung that are so sweet, and so of their day and time that they defy groans, rolling eyes and the usual sort of criticism:

"So come along, it's not far away,
let's spend a happy day,
in that beautiful land!

And pass away the happy hours,
amidst the sunshine and the flowers!

For it's a land where all is new,
wonderful gardens too,
joy waits for all far up above!

So let's climb up the ladder of roses,
and we'll soon reach the garden of Love!"

To be sure, "Ladder of Roses" was recorded by others, and in far more complete versions too --- but there's something so immediate and so real about this almost painfully worn peculiar disc that I've no desire to seek out other renditions. It exists as a perfect moment here and here alone, forever.

"New York Hippodrome Rehearsal" (1916)

The history of the New York Hippodrome has yet to be fully examined in any book I've yet read, but the venue is described --- so magnificently that one is all but transported inside of it --- in Jim Steinmeyer's 2003 book (and verbal time machine) "Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear." I can't recommend it highly enough and suspect that if you're a regular reader of these pages you'll not only want to read it, but need to!

We'll remain in New York City for this next item, but will move ahead in time to the summer of 1929, where a curious sight has brought traffic and business to a near complete halt within the vicinity of the Woolworth Building. This regal structure (pictured right) which once dominated the skyline and is now buried deep within it, seemed to be almost a target for the Curtis-Robin airplane that swooped down and circled several times through the man-made canyon between it and the nearby Telephone Building, but the only danger that day was that of the tricky currents and unpredictable air pockets that surrounded the buildings of Lower Manhattan, then as now.

Piloted by one Captain Francis Brady of the Curtis Field in Valley Stream, Long Island, a period newspaper explains that "the dangerous exhibition was staged for the benefit of motion picture cameras from the Paramount Long Island studio mounted atop the Telephone Building, where scenes for the production of 'Applause' were filmed. Signallers stationed near the camera wig-wagged directions to the pilot, keeping him within range of the cameras at all times."

"The solo mission of the plane was to supply atmosphere for the dramatic action played in the foreground by Joan Peers and Henry Wadsworth, two of the players who support Helen Morgan in this all-talking Paramount screen play. The plane used by Captain Brady is a sister ship of the Spirit of St. Louis Robin aircraft which recently shattered all endurance flight records."

For all the elaborate preparation, the sequence as it appears on film is fleeting at best --- as is other location photography, but when combined they help to elevate "Applause" to something quite unusual and equally spectacular for a 1929 motion picture.

"Applause" is one of very few early talkies that has been given the attention, analysis and distribution it deserves and therefore I won't detail it's history here. The widely available Kino DVD edition of the film offers a beautiful transfer and while somewhat lacking in the Extras department (the film is a virtual warehouse of early talkie, entertainment and New York City history begging to be explored by a commentary track but it's without one) it's as perfect a presentation --- or nearly so --- as one could hope for. Let's pause for a moment.

An image of a little girl, caught in a graceful but dramatic pose, dancing on a lawn, somewhere in Chicago of 1917. A phonograph is likely somewhere nearby, providing the music ("Narcissus," perhaps?) for her performance. A make-shift costume that includes beads borrowed from her mother, rabbit's feet strung to a belt of sorts, a metal arm cuff and a headband all signify that this child has some degree of talent, and that she --- or her parents, have very definite plans for her future, and her success.

Time has clouded the ways and means, but two years later, and the young Chicago lawn dancer is officially in show business, and part of the touring company of a production titled "The Masquerader," --- an unusually serious drama dealing with drug addiction. As reviewed in a Reno, Nevada newspaper (right) in October of 1919, the production was a success as were the performances: "there is not a member of the company whose work is slighted, while in little Joan Peers there is a child player of notable ability."

The "notable ability" evident in 1919 remained with little Joan Peers, for our next view of the young lady is that of a motion picture actress arriving back home in Chicago for a visit, and the film she appeared in --- Paramount's "Applause" of 1929, is in theaters across the country.

While much of America viewed "Applause" with mixed reaction, the film and Peers' performance as the convent raised daughter of fading burlesque queen Helen Morgan have long since found a vast and appreciative audience, one that isn't put off and baffled --- as 1929 audiences seemed to be --- by a raw, tragic and oftentimes painful story of show business that seemed so out of step with the glittering, fanciful musical films it did battle with for screen space originally.

While not a musical in the conventional sense, "Applause" contains enough music for two or three conventional films. Drawing from the music of the three periods of time in which the film is set --- roughly 1909, 1915 and 1929, the music is supplied by theater orchestras, phonographs, restaurant dance bands and street barrel organs. Heard are "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "Everybody's Doin' It Now," "Pretty Baby," "Smiles," "A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight," "Doin' the Raccoon," "That's Him Now," as well as Morgan's uniquely presented accapella vocalization of "What Wouldn't I Do For That Man."

The film's scenes that depict Joan Peers as a convent student (featuring Dorothy Cummings, who played a role of even greater holy quality in "King of Kings") utilize "Ave Maria" to memorable effect --- that quick montage of skies, trees, lake, ducks and convent members never fails to amaze me --- with some interiors and most exteriors of the "convent" filmed on the H.H. Will estate in Roslyn, Long Island. Noted one period publicity placement, "In order to achieve absolute fidelity to the religious procedure in this phase of the screen play, Father Edward J. Brophy, pastor of the Long Island City Roman Catholic parish has been retained by the studio as technical advisor."

In case you're wondering about the sheet music pictured to the left, the somewhat bizarre and decidedly raucus tune, "Yaaka Hula Hickey Dula" is what we hear as Joan Peers first ventures into the seedy New York City burlesque house in which her mother works --- the music being pounded out as a hula-skirt attired dancer gracelessly shifts across the stage, with banana curls flying and her gold teeth catching the beam of the footlights. It's a view of run-down, low-brow burlesque at it's degenerate best --- (that is until Helen Morgan and chorus peel off their brassieres during the following number) and the tune fits the moment perfectly.

Offered here, in a 1916 rendition by Collins & Harlan, "Yaaka Hula Hickey Dula" isn't quite so tawdry as it would be in 1929, and while the tune (and performance) meanders a bit, listen for the final moment or so, when the duo veers off into a mesmerizing, trance-like refrain of nonsense pseudo-foreign lyrics.

"Yaaka Hula Hickey Dula" (1916)

Another tune that plays an important role in the film, for it's heard during key dramatic moments as well as during it's still moving finale, is "Give Your Little Baby Lots of Loving." As recorded here for Edison by the "Seven Blue Babies" (with an unusual female vocal), it's an all-around unusual recording that will strike familiar chords with those who've seen the film.

"Give Your Little Baby Lots of Loving" (1929)

For Joan Peers, her film debut in "Applause," didn't result in stardom of any great degree. While perfect as the confused, fragile convent girl facing fearful odds in the big city, her personality (however endearing) limited her to largely similar roles --- and by late 1931, after eight films, she left the movies behind her. She would pass away in San Francisco on July 11th of 1975 -- aged 66, and it's curious to find "Applause" making it's television premiere on at least one TV station that very same day.

As a final audio offering associated with "Applause," here's a rendition of the tune that's played on a wailing phonograph as Joan Peers is reluctantly taught to emulate her mother's dance moves by Helen Morgans lecherous boyfriend. The plaintive melody and lyrics of "Sweetheart of All My Dreams," so at odds with the smarmy feel of the scene --- and therefore a clever choice --- is performed here by an unusually subdued Johnny Marvin.

"Sweetheart of All My Dreams" (1929)

If ever there was a tune that, when heard, manages to encapsulate the feel and mood of the day in which it was composed, it's "Poor Butterfly," which arrived not in the 1920's as is usually supposed, but in 1916. Listened to today, you can virtually feel and hear the influences of the decade that was waning and the one that was gathering on the horizon --- slightly ragtime waltz, slightly early 20's sweetly lyrical --- and the combination is grand. Showcased in "The Big Show," which ran at the aforementioned New York City Hippodrome (still bravely holding on) for 425 performances from August of 1916 to May of 1917, the melody is unashamedly sentimental, encapsulating the familiar "Madam Butterfly" scenario of a doomed and one-sided love affair.

"Poor Butterfly" took off like a skyrocket --- and within months there was no escaping the tune, as it trundled forth from orchestras, bands, phonographs and the throats of countless performers, amateur and professional alike.

There aren't many similar documented cases, but the swift and widespread popularity of the tune resulted in a mild backlash of sorts, which can be seen in the sheet music to the right. ("The Maine Stein Song" would share a fate a decade or so later.) The artwork on "If I Catch the Guy Who Wrote Poor Butterfly" is terrific --- picturing a hapless victim of the tune unsucessfully attempting to escape the melody --- and readers are urged to click on the image to note some of the small, but wonderful details.

If "Poor Butterfly" was guilty of over exposure in 1916, it's surely forgiven that sin by now, and it's offered here in two versions. The first, a vocal by Charles Harrison (please forgive the very rough audio!) and the second a bit more of a sprightly rendition by noted violinist Fritz Kreisler, who momentarily turned away from heavy classical pieces to lend his brilliance to a tune that had caught the world's fancy for a few years, oh so very long ago.

"Poor butterfly, 'neath the blossoms waiting,
Poor butterfly, for she loved him so!

The moments pass into hours,
the hours pass into years,
and as she smiles through her tears,
she murmers low:

'The moon and I, know that he be faithful,
I'm sure he'll come to me by and by ---
But if he don't come back, then I never sigh or cry.
I just must die.' Poor butterfly!"

"Poor Butterfly" (1916) Vocal by Charles Harrison

"Poor Butterfly" (1917) Fritz Kreisler, Violin with Orchestra

There's not many darkly unpleasant corners of phonograph history, but one commercial recording dating from 1904 is interesting because of --- and despite of, it's content. The gentleman pictured to the right is famed Shakespearean actor John McCullough --- born in Ireland in 1837, and appearing on the American (and worldwide) stage from 1857 onward. On one evening in 1884, he suffered a mental collapse while on stage in Chicago, and thought drunk by the audience, was mercilessly booed and heckled. Suffering from a (then) undiagnosed case of "general paresis" (caused by syphilis infection) he was later committed to an insane asylum, where he would die in 1885 at the age of 48.

The news media of the day eagerly followed every aspect of McCullough's condition (except the true cause and likely outcome) throughout his institutionalism, and period newspapers of the day are filled with reports of his various improvements and set-backs, as well as discussions of his dwindling finances and pleas that those who had borrowed money from him in the past now step forward and return the favor. Even the actor's autopsy was fully described in detail not usually attributed to 1885 newspaper reporting, and it (reprinted left) makes for interesting if not pleasant reading for the curious.

Nearly twenty years after the actor's demise, his name and tragic end had become inseparable and had apparently so firmly entered the realm of popular culture that a 1904 Edison cylinder recording was released titled "The Ravings of John McCullough," passing itself off as a dramatized reading of the poor man's actual ranting from inside the asylum where he spent his last year in mental and physical agony. Entertainment it's not --- a shadowy corner of entertainment history? Yes.

"The Ravings of John McCullough" (1904)

A far more notable Edison achievement --- and one that isn't explored, studied and researched anywhere as much as it ought to be, is his introduction of talking pictures via the Kinetophone.

Throughout the period of 1912 to late 1915, audiences worldwide witnessed motion pictures synchronized with dialogue and music, but technically acceptable though the results, the element of sufficient amplification couldn't be overcome as yet, and the noble effort soon passed into nothingness so complete that by the time the Vitaphone and Movietone had arrived, it wasn't uncommon to see these devices heralded with nary a mention of their forerunner, to which they owed everything.

Amazingly, considering the hit or miss survival status of silent films and early talkies alike, we have a couple of Edison's early sound films with us today. Although a glaring absence from the otherwise superb multi-DVD set of Edison's work issued a short time ago, these films --- when seen, are enchanting and propose so many "What if?" questions concerning the history and progress of cinema and sound films that to watch them is almost a sensory overload. We tell ourselves we shouldn't be able to hear performers speaking from a 1914 film --- but there they are, in front of us --- sounding not much better nor worse than the earliest of late 1920's sound experiments.

Two Edison Kinetophone films for which we have the sound elements but not the picture (the same problem that plagues so many 1926-1930 films) with us are "The Five Bachelors" (advertised left, in Kingston, Jamaica of all places) and "The Old Violin," (advertised below in the same unlikely outpost of cinema technology.)

Opening with synchronized pop of a champagne cork, "The Five Bachelors" is presented as a meeting of five gents who have vowed to avoid marriage, and judging by the amount of harmonizing and good cheer, seem to be having a fine time while at it.

"The Five Bachelors" (1912)

"The Old Violin" (1914) covers more familiar territory, adding voice to a dramatic situation that would be explored, with minor variance, in numerous films of the period. An elderly musician reprimands a youngster --- a servant in his house, for playing ragtime on his piano. While accompanying the old man on the piano while he plays violin, it is discovered the child is an orphan, left alone in the world with nothing except the violin it's dead mother had left it. The old man asks to see the old violin and --- you've guessed it, a great light dawns with the realization that his young servant is actually his granddaughter.

Expertly recorded, and a touching if not trite little story, "The Old Violin" could easily be the surviving disc to a 1927 Vitaphone one-reeler had we not known of it's origin. The mind reels at what might have been had technology kept pace with Edison's capacity for invention --- but it was not to be.

"The Old Violin" (1914)

Perhaps researchers and cinema archaeologists ought to turn an eye towards Kingston, Jamaica and other similar last-stops for films distribution? One never knows, after all!

We'll now move ahead in time towards more familiar and comfortable ground...

Here's someone and something I deem special. Vocalist Marion Harris might not turn heads throughout her long career in the way Ruth Etting did, but she had an almost timeless quality to her voice that's exceedingly difficult to explain. So much so, that it's probably best you simply listen to her and see for yourself. Here, performing a tune you'll likely never forget once you've first heard it, "Left All Alone Blues" from the 1920 stage offering "The Night Boat," with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Anne Caldwell.

"Left All Alone Again Blues" (1920)

And, while the melody is still with you --- and if you liked it as much as I hope you did, here's a precise and careful modern-era re-creation, sans voice, of the same piece. (The full lyrics for the tune are reproduced at the conclusion of this post.)

"Left All Alone Again Blues" (Modern Re-Creation)

Although officially a "blues" song, and "blues" singer, Marion Harris' "Left All Alone Again Blues" blends pathos and humor into Kern's beautiful melody that intertwines and weaves itself through Caldwell's lyrics so perfectly that at times the melody and lyrics seem almost too good for one another --- with each deserving of undivided attention. Repeated listening will fix that!

Marion Harris also turns up in Ramon Novarro's first all-talking film, "Devil May Care," which was released at the tag end of 1929 and was in general distribution throughout much of 1930. Here's a moment of "Devil May Care" in which Harris effortlessly steals the show with a painfully lovely melody titled "If He Cared," which when heard on it's own --- removed from all that surrounds it, is melody and lyric of no time and place -- and of every time and place.

"If He Cared" (1929) - Marion Harris

Speaking of performances captured on film that, through the talent embedded within them, manage to transcend the medium and time itself, it's well worth mentioning one Mr. Jack Pepper.

Once husband to Ginger Rogers, with whom he performed in vaudeville, Jack Pepper is best known to audiences today via his appearance in a handful of Metro Goldwyn Mayer "Metrotone" short subjects of the early sound era, in which he served as master of ceremonies for miniature vaudeville revues that featured talent ranging from the obscure and wonderful, to well known and dreadful. Slight of build, awkward, gangling, and undoubtedly clever although lacking polish, it comes as a surprise then --- amidst groan inducing one-liners and ukulele strumming of the Cliff Edward and Johnny Marvin variety, to find Jack Pepper put over the tune "Girl of My Dreams" in so simple and pure a fashion that it tears at the heart while bringing a smile to the face at the same time. You can listen to it here, sounding a good deal better, I believe, than it does elsewhere, the victim of apathetic mastering by people with little thought and even less "feel" for the product they work with.

"Girl of My Dreams" (1928) - Jack Pepper

The arrival of the first all-Technicolor, all-talking film, "On With the Show," was important enough an event in some quarters to result in the closing of a theater to the general public in order to facilitate a "test showing" of the print --- presumably to make certain the multi-hued images were seen to their best advantage. Clearly a theater manager of the sort film buffs can only dream of! A dream indeed, for the fact that the film was being screened "by invitation" for a select few suggests that a publicity gimmick was at work here, to whet the appetites of film-going locals, but whatever the case, it's a mighty nice story.

Also mighty nice is this rendition of "Am I Blue?" from the film, performed here by a relatively unknown vocalist named Helen Richards, recorded for the Banner label in June of 1929. There was some question to her actual identity --- some guessed Vaughn DeLeath --- which she certainly isn't, but whoever she is, she makes for exceptionally fine listening.

"Am I Blue?" (1929) Helen Richards

We'll have to make due with this one-sheet from the Nancy Carroll and Charles "Buddy" Rogers film "Illusion" to illustrate our next item --- a hotter than hot number from the 1929 Paramount film "Close Harmony" that teamed Carroll and Rogers again --- this time in an all talkie.

"I Wanna Go Places and Do Things" is one you'll want to crank up I suspect, while wondering why the film (which survives in beautiful condition) is yet another case of art being held prisoner and away from the public for no discernable reason other than greed and litigation combined with a hefty dose of ignorance. No matter, we can dance while waiting. (And waiting.) Here's Jesse Stafford and his Orchestra, from February of 1929...

"I Wanna Go Places and Do Things" (1929)

Long before he found amusement park and media operations to amuse himself, a certain mouse could be seen in newspapers acting as something of a publicity advance man, hawking forthcoming films --- all of them deemed quite good, of course --- but the combination of adult theatrical language coming from this little fellow's pen (always prefaced with "Dear Folks") is best filed away under Things We Never Expected To See.

The mouse gives the gloved thumbs-up to Fox's 1930 science-fiction-musical-comedy "Just Imagine," and we'll celebrate that fact by offering another roll-back-the-rugs recording, this time of the film's "Never Swat A Fly," performed here by Abe Lyman and His California Orchestra in February of 1930.

"Never Swat A Fly" (1930)

Rounding out this post, a selection from a film lost in the shadows of time --- and gone from this world. "The Rainbow Man," (1929 --- produced by Sono Art and released by Paramount) seems to have gotten such uniform critical praise that it's loss is especially sad. Receiving long bookings and return engagements the country over, there must have been something special to it all --- but alas we'll never know for certain. Here is the film's theme song, "Rainbow Man," as performed by The Rounders for bargain label, Domino in 1929.

"Rainbow Man" (1929)

Appearing in at least two early musicals which are lost or awaiting discovery, "Married in Hollywood" and "Cameo Kirby," J. Harold Murray --- for all his talent, is now largely forgotten. Arriving in film following his sterling work in the stage version of "Rio Rita." Murray had a remarkably powerful voice that seemed somehow at odds with his slight stature and fair hair and eyes, and perhaps this resulted in his inability to secure a niche for himself once the first cycle of screen musicals had ended. We can learn a bit of J. Harold Murray's pre-screen life via a syndicated press release:

"A youthful ambition to wear a gaudy uniform is partly responsible for J. Harold Murray's present eminence as one of the foremost baritones on the singing screen and stage. As assistant porter at a small resort hotel at Old Orchard Beach, Maine, the widowed Mrs. Murray's boy envied the head porter, who took all the tips in addition to being impressive in gold braid, but at 14 the star of the Eckel's "Women Everywhere" decided that there wasn't any future in portering and set out to be a sailor, but reached the rock after his chosen ship had sailed. The lane to success turned from the sea to the land, and he became a singer of illustrated songs in theaters. He soon became dissatisfied with hte supply of songs available on the colored slides and started to write better ones." "

"Almost before he knew it, he was song writer, plugger and music publisher all rolled into one. His first worth-while stage opportunity came in 1921, when he jumped from vaudeville into a musical comedy role with Willie and Eugene Howard in 'The Passing Show of 1921.' His stage roles include the leads in 'The Whirl of New York,' 'Vogues,' 'China Rose,' 'Captain Jinks' and 'Rio Rita.'"

J. Harold Murray left the screen in 1934, and eventually settled back east, in Killingworth, Connecticut where he passed away due to kidney disease, aged 49, in December of 1940. At the time of his death, he was president of the New England Brewing Company, and had also operated a sawmill for many years.

Here, from his featured appearance in the 1930 Fox film "Happy Days," is J. Harold Murray's rousing "A Toast to the Girl I Love," which features an interesting optical effect that allowed Murray to be seen in the center of the screen as the surrounding four corners dissolved into smaller screens that illustrate the song's lyrics.

"A Toast to the Girl I Love" (1930)

We'll conclude with a suitably snappy rendition of "Clap 'Yo Hands" (from the stage musical "Oh Kay!") recorded in 1927 by the always impeccably hot British band, Harry Bidgood and His Broadcasters. This, if nothing else, should serve to clear away any stray remnants of inane asylums, orphans, theaters reduced to rubble, and weeping butterflies! A pint of "Coquette" ice cream is up for grabs, but we'll hold onto that ladder of roses, I think. Until next time!


19 January 2007

"Out For A Racket"

Quicker than the woman to our left can change the needle on her 1909 Victor phonograph, we'll be changing topics too --- exploring a variety of film, music... and film musical items. She looks as though she's keen on playing "Oh But Could These Freckled Hands Once Again Gather Wheat," so let's take our leave, shall we?

A previous post ("Show Folks") contained a poster image for a now lost 1926 silent Fox film, "A Trip to Chinatown," which received no little attention for it's vivid artwork.

Although the film title sounded vaguely familiar to me at the time, I somehow failed to connect it with it's incredibly noble heritage, that being an 1891 New York production which held the record for the longest running stage presentation for many years, presumably until "Florodora" arrived at the dawn of the new century.

While it's a safe bet that the 1891 musical comedy extravaganza was somewhat altered for it's 1926 film incarnation, a description of the film's narrative (via a Pathe press release disguised as a review) gives us some clue to a stage production that's even further beyond human recall than it's vanished cinema counterpart.

"San Francisco's Chinatown is the pivot for the fun-making of the brilliant comedy drama which we saw yesterday at the Strand theater. You will recognize from its title that it is adapted from Charles Hoyt's justly celebrated play which is probably known in every hamlet, town and city of the country."

"The entertainment value of the picture is several hundred paces ahead of the the stage piece. It is one hilarious howl from start to finish. The story is concerned with the complications that arise when a beautiful widow invites a young millionaire, who imagines himself an invalid, to take her on a sight-seeing trip though the Chinese quarter. At least the widow thinks she has invited him, but in reality has been talking on the phone to his frisky old Uncle."

"When the couples arrive in Chinatown and discover the mix-up, things grow more complicated each minute. In the end, everything is straightened out but not until you are worn out from laughing."

"Much of the action is laid in San Francisco's romantic Chinatown, reproduced with the utmost fidelity, and many of the interiors are gorgeous in the extreme. It is said to be the only costly five-reel comedy ever produced. Thousands of extras were necessary for the revelry scenes in Chinatown."

One element of the original stage production that the 1926 film couldn't boast or replace with costumes, scenery and clever situations was music and song. And what an astonishing, odd and eccentric array of music it was! From the bucolic "Reuben and Cynthia," to the minstrel themed "Push 'Dem Clouds Away" and "Keep a Knockin'," to standard set pieces like "The Widow" and "The Chaperone," to the intriguingly titled "Out for a Racket," and most surprising of all, two melodies which escaped oblivion and remain widely known to this day, "The Bowery" and "After the Ball."

Here's a somewhat overly animated vocal rendition of "The Bowery," which for all it's popularity doesn't seem to have been widely recorded at all --- hence this re-creation of much more recent vintage, alas.

"The Bowery" - From "A Trip to Chinatown"

Before moving on, I can't easily resist offering two other melodies that have long become interwoven into the fabric of New York City's musical history, "The Sidewalks of New York" and "The Daughter of Rosie O'Grady."

The former tune is heard here in a lovely, lilting rendition dating from 1928 by Nat Shilkret & the Victor Orchestra, and the latter in a period 1918 recording which is sure to strike a familiar chord among Warner Bros. animation buffs.

"The Sidewalks of New York" (1928)

"The Daughter of Rosie O'Grady" (1918)

As mentioned elsewhere and earlier in these pages, the 1933 Metro film "Broadway to Hollywood" utilized Technicolor footage from the abandoned 1930 musical revue "March of Time." Originally intended to be the finale of the 1930 film, and sharing the same title, was a massive production number that eventually turned up at midpoint in the 1933 motion picture. As described in a contemporary newspaper account, "Five hundred dancers in the largest singing and dancing chorus ever assembled appear in the biggest set ever constructed in the great spectacle that furnishes the dramatic climax to the cavalcade of the stage. The spectacle is staged on a flight of two hundred steps proceeding apparently to the sky, where a gigantic figure of Father Time is silhouetted."

Opening with the fading of a swirling, colored "mist of time" effect, the golden stairs are quickly revealed in all their glittering (and steep!) glory --- and then what follows is a passing cavalcade of popular American music of the past, accompanied by dancers, singers and entertainers appearing at the top of the set --- emerging from the robes of the looming figure of Father Time, and then working their way down the stair set. Although rather simple in presentation, it's wildly effective --- especially in terms of the musical arrangement, that incorporates tunes like "My Blushin' Rosie," "Bedelia," "Hiawatha," and "A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight." Best of all, it's in this one sequence that we see legendary entertainers originally signed for the 1930 revue but absent in the 1933 film, such as Marie Dressler, Weber & Fields, and Fay Templeton.

This entire Technicolor sequence, as well as two others, are completely absent from the print that airs on Turner Classic Movies --- although the footage exists in privately held prints of the film.

Although a poor substitute for seeing and hearing this remarkable and important bit of American entertainment history captured on film, here are period recordings of two songs featured in the production number's medley --- a vocal version of "Bedelia," rather wheezy in terms of audio but a nice book-end for the orchestral version featured in the previous post, and "Hiawatha" --- which allowed for a fantastic array of chorus girls dressed in feathers (and not much else) in the 1930 "March of Time" sequence.

"Bedelia" (1903) Edward M. Favor, Vocal

"Hiawatha" (1903) The London Regimental Band

As a postscript to "A Trip to Chinatown," it's interesting to note that the musical comedy, once deemed widely known "in every town, hamlet and city of the country" had so faded from memory by 1939 that it was included in an intriguing radio series (now equally forgotten!) titled "Lost Plays," where the production was "excavated" for a July 1939 broadcast featuring dialogue and music from the original production.

Readers who optimistically noted that last week's scheduled airing on TCM of "Rio Rita" was given the proper 150 minute time-slot have learned by now that what was actually transmitted turned out to be the familiar, truncated 1932 re-release version --- with lots of extra air-time at the end for non-related filler.

As a salve, here's as nice a musical rendition of the film's title tune as I've yet heard --- set to a tango rhythm --- recorded in 1926 by "The Floridians" for the Brunswick label.

"Rio Rita" (1926)

Those attending the December 12th screening of "Sweetie" (1929) in Centralia, Washington were treated to a free box of Mary Arliss' "Sweeter Than Sweet" chocolates, courtesy of the Stahl Drug Company --- and also had a chance at winning the $90.00 toilet case on display in the theater's lobby.

While such incentives aren't needed today for anyone curious to view this gently endearing 1929 Paramount film, a home-made time machine might come in handy however, as the film (which exists in beautiful condition) is just one of many early Paramount talkies being kept from public view by it's present guardians. No small wonder then that Jack Oakie looks baffled in the "Sweetie" publicity still to the right!

The film's title tune, warbled by Stanley Smith and Nancy Carroll in the film, proved immensely popular in late 1929 and for those who've never heard it, here's your chance --- via two similar yet decidedly different period recordings.

First up, here's "Sammy Fain, the Singing Composer" doing his level best on the dime-store "Velvet Tone" label, although in the end it's the unknown violinist who delivers the stand-out performance:

"My Sweeter Than Sweet" (1929) Sammy Fain

Offering a somewhat smoother handling of the title tune from "Sweetie," here's the Ipana Troubadours, as recorded on October 11th of 1929:

"My Sweeter Than Sweet" (1929) Ipana Troubadours

It's always a treat to happen upon a newspaper item that reveals a bit of forgotten history connected with early musical films --- fragments of popular culture that invariably manage to escape inclusion in books that cover the period.

The enterprising manager of Schine's Ohio Theater ("The Theater Beautiful") in Lima, Ohio made novel use of his theater's stage and the installed Vitaphone sound equipment in May and June of 1929.

Patrons who visited the theater on Saturday evenings were given the chance to dance upon the theater's stage --- accompanied by music played on the Vitaphone reproducing horns --- and then, after a half hour of dancing, were treated to a "surprise" Vitaphone feature and a stage show as well. While we'll never know what patrons danced to on the Ohio Theater's "immense stage," it could have been something much like this --- a musical rendition of "I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling," as recorded by the Warner Bros. studio orchestra for the foreign export version soundtrack that accompanied the (now lost) 1929 Dorothy Mackaill film "Hard To Get."

"I've Got A Feeling I'm Falling" (1929) Warner Bros. Orchestra

Delightful though this concept of a "Vitaphone Dance" may be today, it was doubtless met with incredible and justifiable fury by the legions of theater musicians who were either facing or already experiencing unemployment due to talking and singing films. For them, the sound of the Vitaphone was akin to the Crack of Doom.

In late 1929, The American Federation of Musicians sponsored a series of newspaper advertisements designed to be placed on the same page as film listings and ads. A noble effort to gain public sympathy and call attention to their very real plight --- although doomed to failure --- they weren't helped by the fact that these fascinating placements were written in a style that virtually guaranteed they'd be either completely ignored or, if read at all, would probably baffle and confuse rather than inform the readers of small-town newspapers in which they appeared.

Referencing "Janus, the Two Headed God," or "The Weeping Muse," just wouldn't fly in the rural hinterlands of America in 1929, and on the occasion when facts were stated plainly, the small, plain, text-filled notices fought a losing battle against the eye-catching graphic based ads for films they appeared alongside of on the printed page.

By the time the last ad in the series appeared, just before Christmas of 1929, the group appears to have given up the ghost altogether, in an ad that simply features an image of Santa Claus and a "Merry Christmas" greeting. (One ad in the series is pictured to the left, with others in the series offered at the conclusion of this post.)

Often working entirely without musicians, the German vocal group "The Comedian Harmonists," enjoyed tremendous popularity in their homeland from the 1920's through the early 1930's --- until the prevailing political climate and gathering war clouds closed the door on frivolity for some time to come. Although their primary material were tunes of their own country, the influence of the American musical couldn't be avoided either, and the group would record somewhat altered but readily recognizable versions of such melodies as "Happy Days Are Here Again," "Tea For Two," and "Wedding of the Painted Doll."

Pictured to the right, "The Comedian Harmonists" look very much as one would expect them to in this portrait from the mid-1920's, and their utterly unique vocal style can be heard in the following 1929 recording of "Puppenhochzeit," which is, actually....

"The Wedding of the Painted Doll" (1929)

There's an enchanting, dream-like quality to this rendition that transcends both time and language. Ethereal and unforgettable.

The Ironwood Amusement Corporation, which owned and managed both the Rex and Ironwood theaters, were celebrating their first anniversary of presenting sound films in May of 1930, and marked the event with placement of this full page advertisement in local newspapers. Interestingly, "Vitaphone" is used here in a generic sense --- as a word indicating sound films in general. Although Warners and First National product were heavily booked at both theaters, neither studio is represented in their anniversary week booking.

Happily, The Ironwood Theater still exists today (sister theater "Rex" seems to have met a sadder fate earlier on) and it's always nice to see a present day image of a theater previously familiar only via period advertisements.

In belated celebration of the Ironwood's Sound Anniversary (and in homage to the defunt Rex) here's two views of The Ironwood as it looks today --- well maintained, completely intact, and appearing very much as anyone's idea of a small town American movie house looked in 1930 --- only smaller, perhaps.

The late 1929 Warners' musical comedy "So Long Letty" played the Ironwood, and patrons likely left whistling one or more of the film's many catchy theme songs --- which included "My Strongest Weakness" and "One Little Yes."

As audio accompaniment while you view the images and explore the elaborate 1930 Ironwood ad, here's a musical sequence from "So Long Letty" via Vitaphone disc. The setting is a party in Letty's disfunctional bungalow, and includes Charlotte Greenwood's rendition of "My Strongest Weakness" and Grant Withers joins up with diminutive Marion Byron for "One Little Yes."
Also heard are Patsy Ruth Miller smothering Bert Roach
with domestic niceties, prompting some brutal dialogue
from Greenwood's remourseful husband.

Party sequence from "So Long Letty" (1929)

Also offered, a 78rpm version of "My Strongest Weakness," as interpreted by the Ipana Troubadors, a recording pseudnom for Sam Lanin & His Orchestra.

"My Strongest Weakness" (1929) Ipana Troubadors

Here's as good a place as any to also offer a much improved audio transfer of George Olsen's marvelous rendition of "Mona," from the 1930 Fox film "Happy Days." If you like the tune --- and what's not to like? --- go for it!

"Mona" (1930) From "Happy Days"

Having arrived some thirty-odd years too late to witness the arrival of sound films firsthand, I was still fortunate enough to experience cinema for the first time (and many, many times thereafter) at a movie palace that arrived in 1929. The Loew's Kings, on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, New York was still as awe-inspiring as ever in the early 1960's, and it was here that I was taken to see "Mary Poppins" in 1964. Unable to quite understand the concept or mechanics of cinema, I nonetheless enjoyed what I saw --- so much so, that after a few days of my non-stop toddler babble about the film, my exasperated Mom finally asked if I'd like to see it again. Again? But how? Wasn't "Mary Poppins" just a one shot performance of some sort? I was then told, in terms I could understand, that a movie was something which could be seen again and again --- that it would be unchanged and always as it first appeared, forever. It was at that moment that I understood what a movie was --- if not how it worked, then what it meant, and I was hooked from then on. In retrospect, perhaps that moment of revealation is also the origin for my passionate feelings about film preservation. I've long since learned that movies do not remain unchanged, "always and forever," unless they're assisted and tended to, and I suspect that's also why, to this very day, learning that a film has been lost to neglect or folly strikes me as an unpardonable sin of some sort --- as though we've not kept an unspoken promise to preserve our past for future generations.

Had Rodgers & Hart composed a tune called "Brooklyn," I'd insert it here --- but as they didn't, we'll settle for the glorious "Manhattan" instead and remain content with various Brooklyn locales that gain mention within the song's clever lyrics. "Manhattan" was a featured number in the 1929 Paramount two-reeler "Makers of Melody" that starred the composers themselves, and offered up spirited versions of "The Girl Friend" and "Blue Room" as well. It's a nifty and fascinating little film that deserves to be seen and heard far more than it has, if only for the fact it's managed to survive at all.

"Manhattan" (1929)

Seeing as "Makers of Melody" accompanied bookings of RKO's "The Vagabond Lover" in some theaters at least, as indicated by the above ad, the languid love theme of the Rudy Vallee film deserves inclusion here too. No, not the title tune --- but the often overlooked "Then I'll Be Reminded Of You," which remains as pretty and sentimental tune today as it was when first emoted and vocalized by Vallee to a clearly smitten Sally Blane in the 1929 film.

"Then I'll Be Reminded Of You" (1929)

Before closing this post, let's recall the image of the young woman changing needles on her phonograph which opened this post. Had both she and her Victrola lasted until November of 1929, and had she grown tired of her collection of two or three records, she would have doubtless taken notice of the promotion detailed to the left.

Patrons could bring in their old, tired recordings of "Bedelia" and "At A Georgia Camp Meeting" and recieve a store credit of ten cents per disc toward the purchase of something a bit more modern. The only requirement was that the discs be unbroken, and that (oddly) each old disc was first defaced by scratching a large "X" across the label and presumably some of the grooves.

Any record collectors who have Victor discs with an "X" engraved across the label now know from whence they came! I'm hoping a saavy vintage record collector out there might explain this odd practice. Defaced discs were clearly unsaleable, but what was the reasoning behind this? Anyone know?

We'll close out this post (in which no tragic and early demises were reported!) with a prevue of coming attractions for the 1931 Warner Bros. All Technicolor Film "Fifty Million Frenchmen" which arrived on screens --- in the midst of the backlash against musicals --- with all the wonderful Cole Porter melodies relegated to background incidental scoring. Seen today, without the witty Porter lyrics and without the salmon, aqua and rose hues of the original Technicolor print, there's not much left save for Olsen and Johnson, and that's as good an exit cue as I can think of. Until next time!