23 March 2007

Sinners and Saints

There's something oddly beautiful about this portion of a surviving poster for the 1928 First National silent comedy "Vamping Venus," isn't there? In fact, I can't look at it without feeling that the apparent damage to this fragile artifact (the film itself is believed lost) is somehow perfectly in keeping with the film's primary setting of ancient Greece --- turning this bit of wonderful 1928 artwork into something more akin to a Pompeian wall mural than the original artist could have ever possibly intended or envisioned.

Released in mid-1928 and still being booked across the country as late as May of 1929, First National's silent and otherwise un-synchronized "Vamping Venus" was described rather thinly and thus in one contemporary publicity placement:

"'Vamping Venus' opens in New York of today and jumps back to ancient Greece, taking the characters in the modern sequences and showing them as mortals and immortals of the olden days. Charlie Murray, who plays a New York politician, becomes the political dictator of Greece. Louise Fazenda, who plays his nagging wife, is Circe, the enchantress, in the Grecian scenes. Thelma Todd is a cabaret dancer in New York and becomes Venus. Russ Powell, the cabaret proprietor, becomes Bacchus. Joe Bonomo, the strongman in the cabaret, is Hercules. Spec O'Donnell, a messenger boy, becomes Mercury, and other characters take like parts."

"The comedy situations in such a story are unlimited, and the fun riots merrily throughout the picture. It is a natural spot for Murray and Miss Fazenda, famed as fun makers for the screen, and both take advantage of every situation that gives cause for mirth. Directed by Eddie Cline, it's from an original story by Bernard McConville, and was adapted for the screen by Howard J. Green. While humor predominates, the picture boasts an artistic background seldom seen in a comedy. There are magnificent sets, hundreds of players and a story that holds interest from start to finish."

From the AFI catalogue description, we're able to add some detail and coloring to the above framework --- serving to make an already interesting concept (so ripe for sight gags!) and damn near perfect cast seem even more a loss:

"Irish American Michael Cassidy (Murray) sneaks out one evening to join his buddies at their annual dinner at the Silver Spoon night club. There, he is knocked unconscious by Simonides (Bonomo,) strongman in a troupe of performers, who resents Cassidy's flirting with Madame Vanezlos (Todd,) another member of the troupe. Cassidy dreams of himself as King of Ireland, cavorting in ancient Greece among the gods and goddesses: Venus, Circe and Hercules. In time, he becomes ruler of the country by introducing many marvels of modern machinery. Then, a rebellion is started against Cassidy and his buzzers, telephones, tanks, and machine guns. In the midst of the battle, Cassidy sees Hercules abducting Venus, and rescues her with the aid of his troops. Cassidy regains consciousness and realizes it was all a dream."

The dream-like quality of the comedy surely bordered on the hallucinatory when viewed in a Havre, Montana theater in March of 1929 as advertised to the right. In addition to "Vamping Venus" and a Paramount newsreel, audiences were treated to a "Tiffany Color Classic," and "The Health Twins at Work," a one-reel animation effort that seems to have been one off entry first distributed to theaters in April of 1929 when that month was tagged "Early Diagnosis Month,"in at least some parts of the country. Here, The Health Twins had their hands full and work cut out for them, as they could be seen "cleaning up such diseases as tuberculosis, infantile diarrhea, diphtheria and venereal disease." For patrons who craved higher and finer motion pictures, antics in ancient Greece and sickrooms alike would be replaced in a few days by Corrine Griffith & Charles Ray in "The Garden of Eden," (a fine picture that's still with us and in magnificent form too --- although I can't help but wish fate had been kinder to celluloid images depicting of The King of Ireland scampering about ancient Greece!)

If descriptions of "Vamping Venus" are enough to set film buff hearts fluttering, the image at the right is the sort that puts these loyal hearts in very real danger of stopping completely.

Shortly after the midnight hour struck, ushering in October 24th of 1929, a fire of unknown origin broke out in a film negative storage room of Consolidated Film Laboratories, Inc. in Hollywood, California. Despite the late/early hour, the building contained dozens of employees --- an around the clock staff kept on site to maintain the production level of prints and negatives that had skyrocketed with the introduction of the talkies.

Consolidated employee Annette Anderson, was busy at a film polishing machine, when an explosion in a nearby storeroom rocked the building. Within seconds, flames began to shoot out from the area and crawl along the ceilings and walls towards the seemingly endless supply of combustible celluloid that the building contained that would feed the fire and create a conflagration of epic proportions.

Al Lund, a 35 year old mechanic at Consolidated, attempted to halt the flames early on, but was soon overcome by the lethal concoction of fumes unleashed from the burning, bubbling and smoldering prints and negatives. Somehow managing to stagger into the street via a service door in the building, he collapsed and was pronounced dead by the fire department rescue squad that arrived on the scene.

One Mrs. Irene Beardsley, a Consolidated employee from Glendale, was rescued from the building but deemed so badly burned she wasn't expected to survive. J.G. Neiman, who kept his head and successfully rescued twenty girls from their various work stations within the building, was critically burned himself and like all others removed from the building, was rushed to Hollywood Emergency Hospital for treatment.

A second explosion followed, taking the roof of the building off with it, and sending inky black acrid smoke and flame high into the air, carried upwards by the release of inflammable gases released from the burning prints and negatives. At the height of the blaze, firemen found themselves unable to even approach the building, such was the intensity of flame and heat. Finally, after five hours, the blaze was brought under control and finally extinguished.

Not including the total loss of the $400,000 building, films estimated at a value approaching $6 Million dollars were lost too --- titles completed or in production by nearly all the major Hollywood studios. Among them, negatives for RKO's "Rio Rita" and "Seven Keys to Baldpate," Metro's "Hallelujah!" and "Untamed," and United Artists' "Taming of the Shrew." The following month, newspapers carried this item:

"Hollywood is chuckling at a rather cruel joke that came out of the ashes of the tragic and costly Consolidated Film Laboratories fire. To that once busy plant, many independent producers sent their precious negative for developing and printing. For a year, Consolidated has been doing this work for a picture that has become notorious for the length of time it has taken to film it. First reports following the disastrous blaze had it that 30,000 feet of negative for this picture had been destroyed. 'That's no loss,' remarked the wit. 'Only the credit titles burned.'"

Loss turns to gain, and here's as serviceable a cue as any to take a moment to mention an upcoming program of restored 1926-1930 Vitaphone short subjects that will be warily sharing the bill with a Columbia feature film of 1929 at New York City's "Film Forum" on Sunday, April 15th.

It seems to have been a good long time since the Film Forum last hosted a comparable Vitaphone program, and although it would have been lovely to have the shorts accompanied by such restored but impossibly elusive titles like the all-Technicolor 1930 "Under A Texas Moon" or "Viennese Nights," any such screening in New York City is good news indeed.

Past Vitaphone shows were exceptionally well attended, and trust me when I say that there's nothing --- absolutely nothing --- that approaches the pleasure of seeing these films in the company of a large and appreciative audience. The warmth and applause that greets each performer on the screen serves to make the image brighten and shimmer that much more, and the experience is almost other-worldly for die-hard early talkie buffs such as myself.

A complete list of scheduled music and comedy geared Vitaphone short subjects can be accessed via the Film Forum web site via this link, and the detailed notes (supplied by Vitaphone Project founder Ron Hutchinson) makes for fine reading indeed. In addition, here you'll find details regarding show times and directions for those unfamiliar with the great Film Forum theater. Far flung and widespread as readers of these pages seem to be, I don't expect many of you to be able to attend --- but for those that do, hope to see you there!

The Columbia feature selected for this program is 1929's "Song of Love," a starring vehicle for noted female performer, vaudevillian and recording artist Belle Baker. Prepared ad copy for a 1930 newspaper placement leaves little doubt as to the film's many (many!) merits:

"Belle Baker, the greatest vaudeville star on the American stage, made her motion picture debut yesterday in Columbia's 'Song of Love,' a back-stage drama written especially for her. Ralph Graves and David Durand play the leading roles in support of her. The audience followed with heart-throbbing interest, this story of the small-time vaudeville team, 'The Three Gibsons,' Tom, Anna and their little boy Buddy. Miss Baker's simplicity and her portrayal of mother love and her rendition of songs with a throb swayed the audience from laughter to tears and from tears to laughter."

"The part of the boy, Buddy, in the hands of David Durand, offers the youngster the biggest role of his youthful career. He acts with the sympathetic understand of an experienced trouper. Ralph Graves enacts his part with artistry."

"Miss Baker sings not only the number especially composed for this picture, but renders as well many hits that have brought her world-wide recognition. Erle C. Kenton, director, deserves special credit for his work on this production. See this picture --- it's great --- especially Belle Baker. She is without a doubt a sensation. As a singer, she is wonderful. As an emotional actress, she is great. The combination is incomparable."

Nearly a dozen restored Vitaphone shorts, and a chance to see what promises to be an emotional roller coaster of a 1929 Columbia feature film --- now that's a combination that is indeed incomparable. Mark your calendar, Tri-State early talkie fans!

For those who can't attend, or would enjoy a sample of Miss Baker's performance, here's a recording of one of the numerous and similarly themed songs from "Song of Love," performed as only Belle Baker could --- the sort of voice you find immediately appealing or off-putting, but either way, certainly quite unlike any other female vocalist of the period.

"I'll Still Go On Wanting You" (1929) From "Song of Love"

When you've composed yourself enough to resist the temptation to wring your hands and dab at the corner of your eye, we'll move along to this post's spotlight feature...

Mention "Weary River" to even the most forgiving of film buffs, and an unexpected critical outburst may follow --- or, less frequently, a warm smile and mild praise for the film. Either way though, chances are that at some point, the film's title tune and the frequency with which it is performed will be mentioned, and usually not in complimentary terms.

Best to admit straight away that I'm very fond of "Weary River," both the film and the song --- so I make no apologies for what follows: a loving overview of a technically accomplished and, more importantly, endearing film that, despite some difficult moments, manages to largely crackle with energy, innovation and a film that virtually pinpoints --- as do the few other surviving silent and sound hybrids, that pivotal moment in film history when silence gave way to sound and there'd be no turning back.

In November of 1928, newspaper movie gossip and news columns informed readers that Maurice Chevalier had just arrived in Hollywood and that his first picture would be "Innocents of Paris," that MGM was preparing "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" for filming, that Jack Holt had just completed "Avalanche" and was about to start on the Zane Grey based film "Sunset Pass," and also that Richard Barthelmess was about to start work on "Weary River," his next picture for First National, with "Scarlet Seas" having been his last. (See post "Somewhere East of Catalina" - December 2006 for details.)

Unlike "Scarlet Seas," which had been a silent film that was also available in a sound version synchronized with an orchestral score in addition to vocal and sound effects, "Weary River" appears to have been planned from the start as a film that would contain singing and dialogue sequences.

Based upon an original story by Courtney Ryley Cooper, with a screenplay by Bradley King, Dialogue by Tom Geraghty and direction by the always capable Frank Lloyd, the film's casting and production proceeded smoothly and quietly, but generated a January 1929 press announcement concerning one addition to the cast:

"Some movie stars like to have a different leading lady in every picture, but Richard Barthelmess has discarded that custom by selecting Betty Compson twice in a row."

Whether or not Compson was Barthelmess' personal choice is doubtful, but there's no denying it was an effective combination --- and one that would seem even more so in the audible portions of "Weary River." Others may sing the praise of Garbo and Gilbert or Gaynor and Farrell, but the short-lived combination of Compson and Barthelmess strikes me as near perfection. Compson was blonde, lithe, brittle and skilled enough to allow every emotion flicker across her expressive face without seeming calculated or absurd, whereas Barthelmess --- dark, thick set, grave and always smoldering somewhere just beneath the surface, needed just such a contrasting personality to point up his uniquely quiet and studied style and screen persona. Therefore, the few fleeting moments in "Weary River," when Compson's character manages to elicit a grin, a bit of a toothy smile, or even a playful wink from Barthelmess seem almost magical --- but also entirely natural.

Newspapers of January 20th 1929 announced the completion of "Weary River," and added: "Richard Barthelmess is one film star who believes in travel between pictures. The First National favorite, having completed his talking picture 'Weary River,' has departed for Havana, Cuba, for a vacation of a few weeks before starting his next vehicle. A South Seas yacht tour was his last vacation between pictures, and before that, a trip through Europe."

Barthelmess' love for the ocean and the art of seafaring had surely made "Scarlet Seas" a particular pleasure for the actor, and his passion would remain for the rest of his life while also prompting him to enlist in the Navy upon leaving films in 1942. He'd retire from service as a Lieutenant Commander. All that was a long way off however, from his portrayal of the darkly brooding bootlegger "Jerry Larrabee," his character in "Weary River."

The film opens with the art title depicted left, drawn skillfully enough to perfectly capture the essence of Barthelmess' character in the film and the actor's physical presence itself --- the folded arms, the stance of someone misunderstood and rather indignant about it too --- standing on a precipice, the darkness being penetrated by light emanating from a curtain being drawn back by a cloaked figure (Fate? Father Time? Death?) to reveal a brighter day or perhaps a glimpse of his future?

The film's introductory sequence, similar in concept and execution to the opening of "The Singing Fool," is a heady mixture of music and image although not quite so exhilarating nor delightfully dizzyingly giddy as the Jolson counterpart. Arriving at a speak-easy masquerading as a "Literary Club," are Jerry Larrabee (Barthelmess) and his gal Alice (Compson,) in the company of another couple. The camera tracks their entry into the club and we follow them to their specially reserved table, while activity swirls about the foursome in the form of fawning club management, serving staff and revel bent patrons --- dining, drinking and dancing.

We soon learn that Jerry and Alice are more than just an amorous couple out for a good time, and our suspicions --- already aroused by the pair's elegance and unusual clamoring by the club staff to see that their every whim is met --- are confirmed when Jerry is called to the telephone just moments after placing their dinner order.

For the sake of anyone within earshot, Jerry pretends the telephone call to be of a light romantic nature, but in fact the caller is a member of his gang --- a tough, hatchet faced hood --- and Jerry is wanted at an important meeting. Now. Returning to his table to take leave of his party, Alice's expression indicates his departure isn't entirely so much unexpected as simply a dreaded common occurrence. Her eyes follow Jerry as he leaves the dining area, wistful --- worried, but most of all? Sadly resigned.

The film's synchronized music and effects score is deserving of special attention, for it's here --- without benefit of visual accompaniment, that the convoluted yet almost seamless blending of musical and sound elements can best be appreciated.

I'm always awed by these surviving early Part-Talkers, for they're so beautifully executed that they seem almost the product of an industry that tried sound and reverted to semi-silence rather than the other way around. This first extract carries us from the opening of the film through our last stopping point in the story --- with Jerry leaving the club to attend to "business," with gradual shifts in musical tempo indicating the growing tension and trouble that clouds and eventually ruins the evening for the pair.

Excerpt #1

Arriving at his gang's usual watering hole, Jerry is advised by his mates that his gangland rival, Spadoni (Louis Natheaux) attempted to strong-arm their way into Jerry's territory earlier that evening, and an innocent bystander was shot in the process. Following the advice he gives to his gang, to "lay low," Jerry returns to Alice's apartment --- which he shares, or at least occupies, a good deal of the time. Stepping off the elevator, it's at this point that the film's musical score unobtrusively begins to retreat in preparation for the film's first dialogue sequence.

The sound of Jerry's key turning in the apartment door lock isn't the first sound effect heard in the film (the chatter of club patrons and the whine of a motorcar engine were heard earlier) but --- even today --- there's a sense of palpable excitement that comes with this simple sound effect, and if you're especially imaginative, you can almost sense 1929 audiences holding their breath at this moment in the film when music ceases, and a slight shift in the tonal quality of the soundtrack hints at what's about to happen: a vastly popular film actor speaking from the screen for the first time. (Compson was, I believe, heard not many months earlier in "The Barker," but this vehicle would allow her far more dialogue, if not dramatic range.)

Jerry is greeted by a negligee clad Alice, and the two share light banter and a cigarette before Alice asks Jerry --- who is leafing through sheet music at the piano --- to sing something, just for her. Seating himself, and with a sly grin, Jerry breaks into a chorus of "Frankie and Johnny," which Alice dismisses as "grand opera." Joke over, Jerry then sings the song he intended to all along, "It's Up To You." (Composed by Grant and Silvers, as is the film's title tune.)

While "It's Up To You" is performed, the film cuts between views of Jerry at the piano and Alice, who all but collapses onto a sofa and, listening to him sing, bites her lower lip and gazes at him with nearly orgasmic lust. Song concluded, Alice bounds from the sofa and falls into Jerry's arms, declaring --- with wavering voice, that when he sings, what it does to her is "nobody's business." The pair embrace, then rise --- and the brief moment that follows is quite the closest thing to definite eroticism in "Weary River," or any Barthelmess film for that matter. The Vitaphone score kicks in, reprising "It's Up To You" in a languid, almost drunken tempo as Jerry pulls Alice's body into his and they begin to dance a slow, grinding fox-trot to the tune --- him pulling her closer with each step, leading her towards the open doorway behind them which has a bed in full view. To our jaded eyes, it's a moment that often produces laughs --- but it's also a moment that isn't soon forgotten either. There's just something about it.

Excerpt #2

It's here we must pause a moment, and acknowledge the minor controversy that swirled about "Weary River" when it was made public that Barthelmess' singing voice was not his own, but rather that of one John Murray. After a brief flurry of press generated outrage, the matter swiftly evolved from one of audience deception into genuine interest of just how the feat was accomplished and what mechanics were involved. By January of 1930, typical newspaper capsule reviews of the film (see below left) dealt with the incident in a matter-of-fact way that indicated voice doubling --- while not precisely approved of, was not of deep concern either.

Looking at "Weary River" today, it's actually difficult to believe anyone was fooled by the deception beyond, perhaps, a scant twenty seconds or so into "It's Up To You." It's at this point that Barthelmess (mouthing the words while Murray sang off camera) fails to move on to the next line of the lyrics and clearly mouths the wrong word before catching himself and then moving ahead correctly. It's an incredibly sloppy error that baffles by the fact that it went unnoticed during production, screening of dailies and even preview screenings (if there were any) when it would have been so easy a flaw to correct. Indeed, it's truly the only element that spoils the illusion, for Murray's voice suits Barthelmess --- if not entirely, then certainly for the most part.

When last we left out pair, they were working their way slowly but absolutely towards Compson's bed chamber, but the ringing of a doorbell halts the seduction. In little more time than it takes to describe the scene, Jerry is told by the visiting plainclothesman that the passer-by who was shot in the gun-play earlier that evening positively identified Jerry as the gunman, and to that end, Jerry is wanted "downtown." Asking Alice to keep his drink cold and promising to return shortly, Jerry instead finds himself cuffed and led away. The scene switches to a courtroom verdict sentencing him to one-to-ten years in the state penitentary, "Lannering Prison," and a montage depicts Jerry being photographed, finger-printed, fitted out with a prison uniform (that includes a modest bow-tie) and led into a bath room, where he's ordered to strip and bathe. Willingly going along with all dehumanizing prison procedure up to this point, Jerry deems the guard's instructions to disrobe (in front of others!) to be the ultimate outrage, and blurts out "Like hell I will!" (silently, of course) before being tackled by the guards in a frenzied struggle which Barthelmess apparently wins, for he's...

... led into the Warden's office, disheveled and indignant, but still clad in his street attire. The kindly Warden (played by William Holden --- and no, it isn't) has seen many of Jerry's ilk before, and offers some sage advice to "play ball," and otherwise look upon this experience as not the end, but the beginning. Led to the office window by the Warden, Jerry is asked to take notice of two prisoners who've just departed --- with $5 apiece of state money in their pockets to start life anew. Sensing that there's a definite end to this gig, Jerry departs the office with head bowed in resignation.

A title card informs us that the passage of time mellows Jerry, who works his way through prison jute mill and laundry obediently, and is awarded "pleasanter accommodations" --- a shared cell with a window. The prison Warden is visited by Alice, armed with a permit to visit Jerry. Sizing her up correctly, the Warden advises her to keep away from Jerry --- that she can do him no good.
Alice is unconvinced, but a conveniently timed prison execution (by hanging) of a former gangster (who presumably enjoyed frequent visits by his moll) finally sways her and she departs, asking the Warden not to let Jerry ever know she was there.

Jerry Larrabee's musical skill is soon put to good use --- he's seen leading the prison orchestra in a classical piece during Sunday church service, during which the prison Chaplain (Edwards Davis) thanks Jerry for his contribution and then delivers an inspirational sermon that hits home with Prisoner #46039 as well as providing him with the lyrics for a new song he's compelled to compose shortly thereafter.

Excerpt #3

The sermon contained within the film --- and the film itself for that matter, seems to have struck a chord with religious figures at the time if contemporary newspaper accounts are to be believed, with "Weary River" receiving frequent mention in articles debating the moral content of talking films. One such column, in a Chillicothe, MO newspaper from August of 1929 used "Weary River" to argue in favor of talkie houses operating on Sundays: "American opinion has fast left behind the idea that there is anything harmful or disgraceful in a clean theater. Some of the great church men in the country have realized the value in the talking picture in helping them to teach their own divine doctrines. Recently, a famous pastor said, 'I have never preached a sermon stronger than the film 'Weary River.' If there are devout men who can say such things sincerely, can we be honest and farseeing in our objections to Chillicothe theaters opening for Sunday performances?"

A short while later, another prison concert is underway with Jerry again acting as maestro and the whole affair being broadcast live over the radio. At the night club Alice is attending, a (Brunswick) radio is hauled out onto the stage, and within moments the club patrons are listening to their old pal Jerry leading a jazzy refrain.

Excerpt #4

Alice is understandably surprised... but that's nothing compared to her reaction when the resident prison radio announcer (a genial Richard Cramer, three years before scaring the daylights out of Laurel & Hardy fans in "Scram!") informs listeners that Jerry Larrabee will now sing his own composition, "Weary River," for the first of four times throughout the film's length.

Compson is enchanted, moved, touched and spellbound by "Weary River," and so is anyone else who happened to be listening in, for the prison radio station (?) is immediately inundated with telephone calls and telegrams, demanding that Jerry sing the tune again, and right now too!

Excerpt 5

For the second rendition of the tune, Jerry omits the somewhat sticky opening verse and instead jumps right into the catchy refrain (see if you can't get it out of your head for weeks --- or forever --- after seeing the film) and the tune is soon carried to the heights of popularity, driven largely by the fact it's the work of a gangster and a convict, a fact which eludes Jerry. For now.

The success of "Weary River" serves to somewhat abbreviate Jerry's prison stint, and he bids farewell to the Warden only to be whisked off by a vaudeville manager, eager to cash in on Jerry's name value while still possible. Dubbed "The Master of Melody," Jerry's opening night in vaudeville should be a joyous occasion, but just before stepping on stage, a loutish hoofer boasts at having "knocked the handcuffs off the audience" for him. Barthelmess, only seconds before beaming with excitement and pride, is crushed by the careless jest --- and the look on his face is utterly heartbreaking --- but he makes his entrance gamely, is greeted warmly by the vaudeville theater audience (which includes Alice) and limbers up by playing a stray movement from the 1928 Fredie Grofe composition "Metropolis: A Blue Fantasie," (which was also put to good use in the 1929 Universal film "Broadway.")

With his confidence regained, Jerry announces "Weary River," but in the silence that follows a theater patron loudly (and badly dubbed) informs her companion, "You know, I understand that man's a convict." Barthelmess almost seems to collapse in upon himself at hearing the comment. Enthusiasm and confidence now completely dashed, Jerry's rendition of the song is weak --- thin, wavering.

Excerpt #6

Shooting glances at the audience while performing, all he sees are unimpressed and bored patrons --- prompting the sudden return of the "old" Jerry Larrabee, who continues and finishes the song with a sneer of contempt, nearly spitting the words at an audience he now despises. After leaving the stage to scattered applause (led primarily by Alice) we expect Jerry to chuck the whole gig --- especially after being told by his manager how terrible he was --- but instead Jerry promises to do better the next time and departs the theater, only to be met by his adoring fans skulking about the theater alley --- all ex-convicts and tramps, and all looking for a hand-out from their Old Pal. Jerry is at first disgusted, but when reminded of the fact that he's no better than them --- just luckier, Jerry spreads some wealth across the outstretched palms before walking off alone into the darkness --- spied from a distance by Alice.

Time passes, and with it so does public curiosity and Jerry's vaudeville career. No matter his attire, an invisible "Prisoner #46039" still hangs heavily about his neck. At loose ends one evening, he enters his old pub and within moments is basking in the warmth of recognition and acceptance from his old gang, receiving back-slaps, hugs and a jigger of aged Scotch in such a way as to leave little doubt that Jerry realizes this is his family, his home and his life.

The happy reunion is tainted by the news that the person Jerry supposedly shot was actually paid off by his rival Spadoni to take the bullet and finger him as the gunman. Now smoldering in a way that Barthelmess did magnificently, he vows revenge. His inner rage is suddenly softened however by a nearby player piano that breaks into "It's Up To You" (we can only assume Jerry arranged sale and publication while in prison) and his thoughts turn to the inspiration for the song, Alice. Not giving her the benefit of the doubt, he asks his pal who she's now hooked up with, and is surprised to learn that, in fact, she's been going it solo all this time --- but that Spadoni is making a play for her.

Jerry makes tracks for Alice's forlorn little flat, and as heard in the following two excerpts (which begins with Alice's tune being heard on the pub player piano) a roller-coaster of a reunion follows:

Excerpt #7 and Excerpt #8

Declaring himself "back for keeps," (Jerry tosses his hat on Alice's bed to drive the point home) and back in the racket, he's clearly not the man Alice expected --- and, voice-doubling aside, certainly not the same man she heard singing over the radio. Confused and defensive, Jerry rakes her over the coals for not coming to see him, but learns the truth (and the Warden's involvement) from a tearful Alice --- prompting him to unleash a torrent of pent-up emotion that clears the air between them and leads Jerry to suggest another attempt at going straight once and for all by marrying the loyal Alice. Once again however, the ringing of a doorbell throws a wrench into the works.

The interloper this time is Jerry's mob pal, Blackie (George E. Stone) urging him to get on down to their hangout, because Spadoni's been tipped off about Jerry's vow of revenge and intends to beat him to it by coming down to the pub and taking Jerry "for a ride" of the one-way ticket to the morgue variety. Despite Alice's impassioned pleas, Jerry puts marriage plans on the back burner and slinks away with Blackie.

As the appointed hour for Jerry's demise arrives -- midnight --, he and his gang position themselves around the dive, concealed weapons at the ready for whoever might enter. Barely escaping death without realizing it (or does he?) the prison warden saunters in and sits down at Jerry's table, explaining away his odd presence by requesting that Jerry make a special guest appearance on the prison's radio show (a regularly scheduled event, it seems) the following evening. Jerry agrees in order to get the Warden up and out, but at that moment there's movement at the pub's front door and it swings open!

Lights are switched off and the scene is momentarily illuminated by pistol shots coming from every corner of the dive just as police cars pull up and blue coats enter the scene, halting the action. When the lights are switched on, a slick haired figure lays dead, face down, alongside the bar rail. Is it...??? The camera swings around, revealing a very much alive Jerry who was kept from firing a single shot in the altercation by the kindly and level-headed warden. With nothing more than a weapons charge facing him, Jerry learns that it was at Alice's request that the warden appeared --- but she's had enough and is leaving him forever.

With Spadoni removed, and little else to do except brood on his lot in life, Jerry shows up at the prison radio station the following evening as planned, ready to trot out his old song, which is performed at this point with orchestra accompaniment for the first and only time in the film.

Excerpt #9

Fickle audiences being what they are, the switchboard again lights up just like old times, except that one of the callers is none other than Alice, who not only apparently moved over night, but was listening in from her new apartment. She tells Jerry that she recognized the same redeeming qualities in his voice that she believed were lost, and begs him to come to her if he wants to. Does he! Jerry dashes out of the radio station (the film's geography is muddy --- this time the radio station isn't in the prison but in the middle of the city) and in a welcomed bit of on location filming, he's seen dashing through crowded nighttime city streets (accompanied by an interestingly paced, thumping, orchestral rendition of "It's Up To You") before it dawns on him that he has no idea where Alice was calling from, and hightails it back to the radio station.

He's met at the entrance by the prison Warden, and a concerned policeman itching for an arrest --- but is instead sent on his way to Alice's correct address by the kindly, level-headed and accommodating warden, who holds off the cop while delivering the film's clumsy final line --- spoken above the swelling title melody: "Let him alone, he's going to see his sweetheart, that's all --- and they don't want to be bothered by any blue coated cupids."

Excerpt #10

As could be expected, "Weary River" was well received by critics and public alike at a point when the combined novelty of sound and the first appearance of the Barthelmess voice could wash away any film flaws. (In the photo the right, a NYC theater marquee for the film, can be seen, albeit just barely.)

"Weary River" continued to play around the country well into 1930, in both sound and silent versions, as indicated by the ad below for a Lima, Ohio theater in a hopefully worded ad that urged patrons not to "miss the silent version of the year's outstanding picture."

Then as now, you're only as good as your last picture --- and within a few months, most ad copy for Barthelmess' next and all-talking film, "Drag," flatly stated it to be a better picture than "Weary River." Whether or not it was isn't easily ascertained, for "Drag" is considered quite lost, leaving only recordings of the theme song ("My Song of the Nile") and innumerable copies of the tune's sheet music to delight E-Bay vendors and buyers for all time to come: "Richard Barthelmess in Drag!!!"

In what may be the only sobering note connected with "Weary River," the author of the original story, Courtney Ryley Cooper, would commit suicide in a New York City hotel in September of 1940, supposedly having been morose and despondent over the fact that he was snubbed by Washington officials when he approached them with what he believed to be vital information concerning Nazi German activities that he happened upon while in Mexico. Curiously, while his wife claimed he had conferred with his "close friend," J. Edgar Hoover not long before he was found dead, the FBI denied any connection with Cooper or that Mr. Hoover had even met with him. An uncharacteristically curt suicide note hinted at nothing of the talent that the man possessed, reading simply: "In my clothes is $43 in cash. I think my bill is about $32. Give the hotel $32."

Changing gears, and topping off this post (delivered a few days later than I anticipated!) a couple of lighter items!

The delightful 1929 image of Hal Roach's "Our Gang" cast was utilized in connection with an advertisement for the "Rolmonica," a mechanical device that combined the elements of the harmonica with that of a player piano. By threading a punched paper roll into the machine, and then blowing through the mouthpiece while turning a tiny hand-crank, mechanized music was produced. Judging by period newspaper advertisements, the device seems to have appeared in late 1928 and burned hot through 1929 and 1930, when it apparently fell from fashion and the beautifully simple but effective concept appears to have been entirely forgotten and never revived --- at least to my present knowledge.

It's interesting to note that in one 1929 entry in the Hal Roach series, "Lazy Days," a Rolmonica appears on screen, manipulated by Farina's sister Linoleum to play "Turkey in the Straw" with the least amount of effort possible --- a deflating balloon is attached to the mouthpiece in lieu of lung activity.

Early musicals were well represented in the Rolmonica (and deluxe 16-Note Chromatic Rolmonica) catalogue, with well over 40 tunes represented that originate from all the major studio's output of the period. In addition to being sold via novelty catalogues such as this one, from the legendary Johnson-Smith Company, the devices were also a featured item in department stores throughout the country at Christmas time of 1929, although marketing uncertainty (priced for an adult but best suited to children) as well as national economic concerns likely contributed to the item's swift exit from Christmas lists by 1931.

To close this entry, a glimpse at a decidedly unusual 1930 musical short subject.

Produced by Warner Bros. and similarly titled the studio's vastly more memorable forthcoming "Merry Melodies" animation efforts, "Spooney Melodies" (also a Leon Schlesinger production) featured Milton Charles, The Singing Organist in the short-lived series of what are believed to be five 1930-1931 entries.

An odd combination of limited animation (that can be interpreted as either avant garde or just horribly inappropriate and confounding) and live action film of Milton Charles singing and playing the theater organ, I can't help but wonder if the one surviving entry from the series, "Crying for the Carolines" (from the 1930 film "Spring Is Here") is representative or not.

The already somber song is reduced to a funereal pace --- sounding grimmer than ever on a pipe organ, while obscure images flit across the screen to "illustrate" the song. Some of these images make sense (trees, city skylines labeled "big town") but others, such as the ancient greek ship that floats above buildings one moment and is reflected in what looks to be a mirrored Christmas ornament the next, defy explanation. When Mr. Charles appears, the tone of the film is made darker still by his dour expression and lazy eye --- and an odd purring voice that's better heard than described.

Milton Charles - "Crying for the Carolines"

Despite or because of Mr. Charles' unique presence and obvious musical talent (his career began in the mid-1920's, and included song-writing in addition to organ playing) this entry in the series was booked throughout much of the country during the summer of 1930, frequently accompanying RKO's "Dixiana."

A proposed series of similar short subjects for Fox never materialized, but Charles remained a much in demand theater organist and recording artist as well, recording for Columbia in early 1930. An ad for one of his recordings can be seen at the right, with Charles performing "My Mother's Eyes," a song that originated in the 1929 George Jessel picture "Lucky Boy," but which was now being attributed to the film "War Song."

His career continued through the 1940's, during which he enjoyed a wartime radio stint --- playing melodies mostly of earlier days, titles supposedly requested by servicemen who had written in. One such example of his broadcast work can be heard here:

Milton Charles - 1945 Broadcast Transcription

In one unusual combination of recordings advertised in January of 1929, buyers had a choice of Milton Charles providing the organ accompaniment for Guy Lombardo's spin on "High Up On a Hilltop" or "The Two Black Crows in Hades," a double-sided comedic trip to the netherworld led by Charles Mack and George Moran, which is our final official offering for this particular entry.

The Two Black Crows in Hades - Part One

The Two Black Crows in Hades - Part Two

Audio Addendum:

Earlier blog posts featured various renditions of the title tune from "Weary River," but if by any chance you still can't get enough of the tune at this point, I've gathered the links together here for your convenience and also suggest a cool cloth applied to the forehead at regular intervals.

Victor Records Cross-Promotion Disc (1929)

Theater Organ rendition by John Cart (1929)

Joe Venuti and His New Yorkers (1929)

Until next time --- and hopefully right on schedule!


Barthelmess on Radio - 1938

Newspaper "MovieTest" - Fresno, California - August 1929

Good News and Bad - July 1929

Theater Lobby Allure
Costume worn by "Spirit of Water" character in "Madam Satan" (1930)
loses something on this brave woman!

Extra Rolls for 10 cents Each

A Rolmonica for Christmas?

Ad for obscure "Synchrotone" Process

More "Synchrotone"

Adding to Your Movie Going Comfort...

Poster Art - "The Dawn Patrol" - 1930

Poster Art - "The Noose" (1928)

Warner Bros., Vitaphone & Brunswick

"Weary River" lyrics submitted to newspaper as an original poem, 1951

Compson, in the throes of Barthelmess induced ecstasy...

Well, it could happen... (November 1929)