26 June 2007

"Eyes Front - Ears Wide Open - and Listen!"

The magnificent bit of artwork at the left is detail from an insert poster for the 1928 Fox thriller "A Thief in the Dark," which is one of countless films that appeared at the end of the silent era with little fanfare, did whatever box-office business it was expected to do, and then simply vanished into the chasm of lost films from which few ever manage to climb out from, or even wave a feeble hand from some dark corner on the globe to confirm it's survival and signal for help.

"A Thief in the Dark" doesn't appear to have been especially memorable, or profitable either for that matter, but it does seem to have been finely crafted and wonderful entertainment for the scant few weeks the Spring and Summer of 1928 that it flitted across cinema screens before leaving this world, presumably forever.

Archive database descriptions of the film, as per normal, effectively strip away the aura of mystery and intrigue that both Fox and the film itself manufactured, so let's instead attempt to restore some of that initial enthusiasm and "buzz" that surrounded the film by reading a compilation of contemporary newspaper press releases to learn more of 1928's "A Thief in the Dark:"

"Jewel thieves, ghosts, secret stairways, hidden passageways, swishing panels and spiritualistic materializations, coupled with hilarious comedy situations all go to make up 'A Thief in the Dark,' Fox Films' circus comedy melodrama.

The story is from the pens of Albert Ray, who directed the film, and Kenneth Hawks, Fox Supervisor. Together, they paint a vivid picture of a gang of side-show crooks who attempt to steal a fortune in jewels from an eccentric old recluse and his pretty granddaughter."

I wouldn't need one word more to convince my to reserve a seat in advance for a screening, but for the skeptical among us, let's continue...

"Thirty trick sets, designed by Harry Oliver, the Fox art and technical director, were created under his direction for the Albert Ray production in which thrills and chills alternate with laughter and suspense."

Oliver was chosen to head the corps of technicians who set the stage for this mystery photoplay because of a theatrical background that fitted him for the job. Before coming to moving pictures fifteen years ago, he spent six years backstage at theaters, 'pulling the strings' scores of times for the late Harry Houdini and the late Harry Kellar, world renowned magicians."

"If the hoo-doo numeral '13' is considered unlucky by some, Director Albert Ray fears it not. He began shooting on February 13th, and during that first scene, a black cat walked across the set. Turning around while the cameras paused, Ray happened to look into the eyes of a visitor on the set --- and those eyes were crossed, hardly a good omen to some showmen. To top this off, there are 13 players with important roles in this picture, and one of them is handled by Gwen Lee, who is one of the 13 Wampas Baby Stars for 1928."

The cast of "A Thief in the Dark" featured Michael Vavitch as 'Professor Xeno,' the turbaned mystic depicted in the poster (who meets a spectacularly gruesome end in the film when a jewel case, wired with explosives, blows up in his face,) along with George Meeker, Doris Hill, Gwen Lee, Noah Young and Marjorie Beebe. Photographed by Arthur Edeson ("All Quiet on the Western Front") and with titles by William Kernell, "A Thief in the Dark" clocked in at six reels at a time when enough of its content existed to fill a reel, that is.

While we can only imagine what the "8-Piece Augmented Orchestra" mentioned in the cinema ad to the left would have done with a film so ripe for an inventive musical score and all manner of sound effects, we'll instead content ourselves with a bit of period music that may not evoke exploding jewel boxes and sliding wall panels, but nonetheless indicates what a treat "A Thief in the Dark" likely was for ears as well as eyes:

"Oriental Moonlight" (1928) Paul Specht & His Orchestra

George Grossmith Jr.'s 1915 recording of "Murders," which somehow or other figured into the stage musical "To-Night's the Night" (Shubert Theater, December 1914 - March 1915) is as well suited to the next position in this entry as anything I can think of. Mournful, weird and so darkly humorous as to just barely qualify for that categorization altogether, it's a recording which you'll likely never want to listen to more than once --- but also one you won't easily forget.

Darting ahead two years, we arrive at "The Passing Show of 1917" in place at New York's Winter Garden theater, and housing a cast of names now --- for the most part --vaguely familiar at best, among them: Fred Ardath, Nat Carr, Irene Franklin, DeWolf Hopper, Marilyn Miller, Yvette Rugel (she of the badly deteriorated Metrotone short subject) and Charles "Chic" Sale.

Musical revues came fast and steadily during the Great War, and as with most entertainments of this sort, became dated quickly and forgotten even quicker than that. The break-out song in the production seems to have been "Meet Me at the Station," and other entries sound especially intriguing from this vantage point: "Father Knickerbocker," "The Telephone Girl," "Faster and Faster," and "The Wail of the Chorus Girl."

The young ladies seen below on a Fifth Avenue bus circa 1917, identified as "Winter Garden Girls," may well have been actively involved with "The Passing Show" --- and, look closely at the girl in the front row, second from left. Something about her frame, the bit of face that can be seen, and the tilt of her head, suggests this may be Marilyn Miller. If so, all would be familiar with the recording that follows next.

Performed here by Arthur Fields, this 1917 recording of "My Yokohama Girl" is unusual in that Mr. Fields is joined by a small backing chorus of female voices that, by their unexpected inclusion, succeed in allowing for what is likely a fairly accurate reproduction of the tune as originally performed in the stage production. Granted, the lyrics are dreadful ("Hickey-hoy, ship ahoy") as well as somewhat bizarre (the young Japanese maiden places a "brown hand" in that of her serenading sailor,) but it's all of such a distant time, place and way of life and thought that criticism is quite beside the point.

"My Yokohama Girl" (1917) Arthur Fields & Chorus

Of the performers listed above who participated in "The Passing Show of 1917," we have special reason to explore one a bit closer here: Fred Ardath. "Who?" is a justifiable reaction for this name all but swallowed by the mists of time, but let's reach in and see what we can find....

Here's Fred Ardath in June of 1920, a featured member of "The Big Pantages Broadway Follies," as then being presented in Oakland, California. The large and varied cast, which included a "Quaint English comedienne," aerialists, and "Ebony hued entertainers" seems to all place second behind the "Beauty Chorus of 35," which made use of an illuminated runway that stretched "over the heads of the audience."

Throughout the early to mid-1920's, Fred Ardath (for whom, maddeningly, I could locate no photographic image --- poor, good or otherwise!) gradually developed two performance characters that he would alternate between for the rest of his career, which was not only long and successful but incredibly varied. Early on, a home-spun "rube" character named "Hiram" emerged, for whom he created a handful of vaudeville sketches that he'd re-work and re-title as needed. His second character, which became the one he would most often be identified, would follow soon after --- an inebriated souse who was forever doing battle with his suspicious wife, and his less-than-helpful friends and associates.

The always interesting blog "Library Dust," calls attention to a sad and crushing little 1921 letter found in a thrift-shop that mentions Fred Ardath in passing, and his comedy appears to have provided a bright moment in an otherwise dismal motor-trip by two young men from Ohio to California:

"Our trip taken as a whole was wonderful in respect to the things we seen but now that we are here I wish we hadn't come because I feel so roten (sic) have a headache & my tongues coated & there is no work hardly. Fred & I have spent the last 2 days looking for it & can't find a thing & we're almost broke already.

Yesterday Mrs. Brown took us out to see Ardath at the Crescent in Hollywood, then we had dinner our there. We have seen a few movie stars but I felt so roten (sp) I couldn't appreciate seeing them. If we don't find something to do in the next couple days, I'll go crazy. I think I'll be tired of the place in about two weeks and wish I were home, but I'll stick it out or bust."

Returning to Mr. Ardath, we look in on him again in November of 1927 and find him appearing in Davenport, Iowa --- joined by Earl Hall and Grace Osborne, who began appearing with him in mid-1924. The vaudeville sketch, "Men Among Men" (featuring his inebriate character) is --- by 1927, a particular audience favorite and one which he'd been performing for quite some time by that point, with little variation, across the country. Indeed, as many times as one finds the act listed throughout the mid to late 1920's, there's often also a warmly composed nod to Ardath that welcomes both him and his character back to a stage he performed upon previously, indicating that the sketch, his character and his supporting players had the sort of long-lasting "legs" most vaudevillians fervently hoped for.

It's interesting to contemplate what Mr. Ardath thought when he was asked by Warner Bros. in late 1927 to perform his "Men Among Men" sketch for the Vitaphone cameras, for he did precisely the same thing some three years earlier for the DeForest Phonofilms system for a two-reeler titled "His Night Out," which surely utilized the same comedic drunk character. Ardath likely didn't realize that "canning" one's vaudeville act would ultimately be a disastrous career move for many stage performers but --- happily and surprisingly, Ardath was somehow immune to the the expected results of such an ill-advised move.

Indeed, a mid-October 1929 article (left) detailing the shrinking number of venues for vaudevillians goes out of its way to mention Ardath's odd symbiotic relationship with the Vitaphone, stating:

"And so the jobless vaudevillian today must turn to other fields, amusement or commercial, if he would not starve. Some are turning to radio, others to night clubs, and more to musical comedy. You of course read that "so-and-so is making a talking short," but those vaudevillians who make more than one are comparatively few. Once an act has been 'canned, its vaudeville value depreciates, the experience of Fred Ardath (at Loew's last week) to the contrary, not withstanding."

So then, in late 1928 and early 1929, Mr. Ardath found himself in the curious position of performing his vaudeville act upon the stage in one theater, and from the synchronized screen in another --- sometimes within blocks from one to the other. Whether or not he took the odd circumstance as firm proof of his success or an omen of an ill-wind is something we'll never know.

At the right, we see Ardath in October 1929 Syracuse, New York, contentedly performing the "Men Among Men" sketch that had been canned by Vitaphone in late 1927, accompanying a screening of United Artists' "Three Live Ghosts" and a personal appearance by former Our Gang member "Sunshine Sammy," for whom the same luck Ardath enjoyed must have seemed enviable indeed.

Via the kind generosity of blog reader and Vitaphone disc collector Doug Gerbino, we have with us the audio of Ardath's Vitaphone rendition of "Men Among Men," released to theaters in November of 1927, featuring Mr. Ardath, Earl Hall and Grace Osborne:

"Men Among Men" (1927) Fred Ardath & Co.

Other Vitaphone appearances would follow through 1929, one other featuring his inebriate character ("These Dry Days") and two others that appear to have utilized his earlier rube character, Hiram ("The Corner Store" and "The Singing Bee," a re-working of his early vaudeville sketch "The Singing School.")

In May of 1929, Ardath appeared in the Broadway comedy "Chippies," along with another graduate of the early Vitaphone, Cullen Landis, who had appeared in 1928's "The Lights of New York." Lasting for a mere five performances before closing, Ardath returned to vaudeville and, apparently other pursuits, when that medium faded away too. His name re-emerges at the dawn of the 1950's, appearing in a "Lights Out" television broadcast in May of 1951 ("The Lost Will of Dr. Rant") and then, a few months later, he was portraying "Lefty" in a Broadway revival of Mae West's "Diamond Lil," which struggled on for 67 performances before shuttering.

Ardath would pass on in 1955, leaving behind a career that spanned nearly five decades and touched upon just about every entertainment medium known to man during that time. While that itself isn't uncommon among performers of Ardath's vintage, it's nonetheless fascinating to contemplate any life that reaches from the day of the horse-and-carriage to the space-age. Somehow, if he were to know we were listening to his work here, I tend to think he'd be especially pleased --- but not especially surprised!

Any early talkie buff worth his or her salt knows that 1929's "Interference" was Paramount's first all-talking feature length film, but the designation of "First Sound Film" for Paramount was held by the long vanished Richard Dix baseball-themed film "Warming Up" (Dir. Fred Newmeyer) which arrived on screens in mid-summer of 1928.

Historically important though "Interference" is, there's no getting away from the fact that it's a rather mean-spirited, claustrophobic film --- and one so vastly unlike its breezy, gentle synchronized ancestor of just a few months earlier, "Warming Up."

Here's what Paramount's overly wordy publicity department had to say:

"The cheering of the crowd at the ball game, the inevitable 'kill the ump!' The spontaneous hand-clapping and foot-stomping as the gathered assemblage voices its 'We want Bee-Line,' and the dull thud with which the ball drops into the catcher's mitt all will be realistically presented when Richard Dix's most recent starring picture, 'Warming Up,' is shown."

"'Warming Up' is the first picture released by Paramount to have a sound accompaniment. Through the Movietone process, effects have been created to enhance the entertainment value of the film by giving the picture realism. According to those who saw it at special previews, one can shut his eyes and actually believe that he is at the baseball game, when such familiar phrases as 'ice cold drinks' and 'you can't tell the players without a score-card' drift through the auditorium."

"In addition to having the sound effects, the picture will be presented with a synchronized musical accompaniment. The score was arranged by Nathaniel Finston, general music director of Publix Theaters Corporation, and his four composer assistants. It is played by the New York Paramount theater, ace home of the Publix chain orchestra. Another novelty will come with the introduction of two songs written especially for this production, the one a love theme, 'Out of the Dawn,' and the other 'I'm Just Wild About A Baseball Game.'"

Mordaunt Hall, the film reviewer for The New York Times, had this to say:

"'Warming Up' is Paramount's first synchronized offering, so the audience is privileged not only to see but also to hear the game. The synchrnoizing is such, however, that the smack of a ball against a bat is heard some time before (the pitcher) has finished winding up. Mr. Dix's synchronization is better because the balls he throws aren't hit. However, there is plenty of noise in the exciting parts, and music when it isn't so exciting."

"If the comedy were a little more general, the plot of the picture a little less Horatio Alger and the timing of the sound a bit more accurate, it would be a much better affair."

(Opinions of Mr. Hall himself are as varied as his output, but its observations and writing like that which prompts me to cherish him.)

"Out of the Dawn" (1928) Theme Song of "Warming Up"

The crowds depicted here lining up outside New York City's Roxy Theater on a brisk February day in 1927 for Madge Bellamy's "Ankles Preferred" (Fox) would turn out in equal numbers a year later to hear her talk and sing in "Mother Knows Best," which was Fox's first talkie (albeit a silent & sound hybrid) and --- like "Warming Up" and "Ankles Preferred," not known to exist today.

A pity, for "Mother Knows Best" (directed by John Blystone) seems to have been an incredible affair, to say the least.

Largely silent, with a synchronized Movietone score dotted with sound and vocal effects, and two extended talking sequences (dialogue by Eugene Walter) that appeared within the second half of the film, the content of the nine-reel "Mothers Knows Best" (based upon an Edna Ferber short story published in 1927) indicates the title is intentionally misleading, for the Mother in both the story and the film all but ruins her daughter's life in an attempt to secure the somewhat moderately talented child's fame.

Louise Dresser portrays the ambitious "Ma Quail," who makes a habit of dipping into the cash register in her husband's (Lucien Littlefield) drugstore in order to finance dancing and singing lessons for the light of her life, her little daughter, Sally (played by Dawn O'Day as a child and Madge Bellamy as a young lady.)

The years flit by, and Sally graduates from class pageants to amateur nights, lodge hall presentations, vaudeville and ultimately Broadway --- all under the careful eye of "Ma," who guards her creation carefully, lest she show some sign of independence or self-thought. Pending disaster arrives in the form of a young man (Barry Norton) for whom Sally has romantic inclinations, but Ma Quail steps right in and drives him away, allowing her human gravy train to keep chugging along unhindered.

Sally's pining for the boy soon expands into a full blown nervous breakdown, and this unexpected speed-bump, combined with the sage advice from a plain speaking doctor (who tips Ma off to the fact that she's effectively destroying her daughter's life) prompts a weakened Ma to reunite Sally with her young man, and lo-and-behold, Sally perks right back up again and resumes her dazzling career... but presumably with Ma kept at a safe distance.

The surprise element in an otherwise familiar bit of fiction strikes me as Madge Bellamy, whom I never thought of as a particularly vivacious personality, nor someone I'd expect to be able to put over singing and dancing in a convincing manner. And yet, the highlight of "Mother Knows Best," judging by period reviews and hoopla, was a remarkable turn in which Bellamy pulled out all the stops and... well, let's allow someone who's seen the film step up here, our old and reliable friend, Mordaunt Hall:

"While Miss Bellamy's voice is none too strong, she acquits herself favorably in the sound passages. She is seen in imitations of Sir Harry Lauder, Al Jolson and that idol of the past, Anna Held. In these scenes, Miss Bellamy sings popular songs. Dressed in kilts and carrying a crooked cane, she renders (Lauder's) 'She's Ma Daisy.' Then, with her face blackened, she pours forth Mr. Jolson's 'Mammy,' and finally when, wearing those long dresses of yore, she sings (Anna Held's) 'I Just Can't Make My Eyes Behave.' While her vocal efforts are not to be compared to her acting, Miss Bellamy's attempts are the more pleasing for being subdued."

Mr. Hall of the New York Times then, bless him, turns the spotlight on Louise Dresser, an incredibly talented yet oddly under-appreciated actress:

"As the mother, Mrs. Quail... she is very real. She does not permit appearances to hinder the portrayal of her part, and on one occasion she is seen with her countenance covered with shining cold cream, and later is perceived suffering from a bad cold. In all her scenes, Miss Dresser supplies details that add to the realism of her acting. She leaves her bed to go to her daughter's stage dressing room, she actually looks as if she had a cold, for her hair is disheveled and her physiognomy is without rouge or powder."

The Fox publicity department had a field day with the multi-talented cast of "Mother Knows Best," and offered up some background information on the players to suggest that they were all "old troupers" either in reality or at heart:

"Miss Bellamy in her own life knew the 'small time' and the 'big time.' Before coming to Broadway to play in Frohman productions, she played in stock in various parts of the United States."

"Louise Dresser was famous twenty years ago on the vaudeville boards, singing "On the Banks of the Wabash" and other songs, and appeared on Broadway with William Collier, Weber & Fields, Raymond Hitchcock and others."

"Barry Norton, who's role is that of a 'single pianologist' was a concert pianist for a time before entering pictures. This Buenos Aires youth surprised Fox casting directors by his ability and deep baritone voice when he was given a test for the role. As the composer who is in love with Sally, he writes 'Sally of My Dreams,' the theme song of the production. This he sings on the stage of a theater to his own accompaniment on the piano, while Sally watches him from the wings."

"Albert Gran, who appears as Max Kingston, theatrical manager, received his early theatrical training in Norway and subsequently in Germany and England, where he was well known on the boards before getting to Hollywood."

An ad for a late January 1929 screening of "Mother Knows Best" in a Uniontown, Pennsylvania theater (the film would continue to be booked in smaller theaters around the country as late as June of 1929 following its December 1928 premiere) advises easily distracted patrons who might be unsure how to experience a talkie:

"Attention! Eyes Front - Ears Wide Open - and Listen to What You See On the Screen"

Miss Bellamy's hobbling about in a kilt aside, there was a lot to see in "Mother Knows Best" too:

"An interesting feature is that a replica of an old Fox vaudeville house was constructed at the company's West Coast Studios for several sequences, and old time vaudevillians, familiar with 'amateur night' doings of years ago, were selected to put on their former specialties."

Clearly, "Mother Knows Best" is the sort of film we much want to be with us today, but like so many of the most intriguing titles of the day, apparently had other thoughts about surviving into following decades and preferred to bow out, quietly, alone and unattended.

I wish I could offer a fragment of audio from Madge Bellamy's celebrity impersonation tour de force, but even that eludes us --- so we'll content ourselves with photos, clippings and two fine recordings of the film's theme song, "Sally of My Dreams," one suitably ethereal and other fine for dancing. I'll let you decide which is which.

"Sally of My Dreams" (1928) Earl Burtnett & His Orchestra

"Sally of My Dreams" (1928) The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra

And, just for fun, two recordings of material Madge Bellamy worked into her impressive performance repertoire in the film:

"I Just Can't Make My Eyes Behave" (1906) Ada Jones

"She's My Daisy" (1904) Sir Harry Lauder

A bit of an interlude before moving along to our next item in this double-length entry, which I hope will make up for what has been a sparse month in this blog --- but, by the same token, I trust indicates my maxim of "Quality over Quantity."

"Noah's Ark" (WB-1929) is a film that's been long overdue for a full exploration in these pages, although I believe I'm in the minority in considering it one of the most underrated and most important films of the early sound era. No matter, I'm always up for a challenge! Until that point however, it's worth mentioning that I find it interesting to see which audio items have the highest number of "hits," meaning which have been listened to the most. Among the top five most-listened-to offerings is, surprisingly, Nick Lucas' thready rendition of "Old Timer," one of two melodies featured prominently in the score of "Noah's Ark" (the other being "Heart O'Mine," which can be heard as the background melody in this dialogue sequence.)

TCM recently (and for no reason that was ever made clear) feverishly scanned their shelves for films that could be said to contain gay characters, themes and elements, and somehow managed to pare down the thousands of potential candidates to a few odd choices, many of them from the early sound era. Some of the choices made sense to me, but most did not. While I'm thankful that Van & Schenck's "They Learned About Women" (MGM-1930) escaped this form of manufactured exploitation, they nonetheless pegged "The Broadway Melody" (MGM-1929) on the basis of a wholly minor character's wee bit of dialogue in a couple of scenes amounting to perhaps two minutes of screen time. Again, it's unclear what the point of this whole exercise was --- except to point up that TCM is badly in need of a programmer (or at least someone on board who appreciates the gold mine of vintage film they have at hand) with some new ideas and a whole lot of respect for the product they air daily.

I fully expected "Noah's Ark" to be trotted out purely on the basis of the fleeting scene in which the song "Old Timer" is heard on the soundtrack, forming the background for a memorable, moving scene in which two separated buddies (George O'Brien and Guinn Williams) unexpectedly reunite in a hellish trench "somewhere in France" shortly before one is killed by an enemy bullet.

I suppose how the scene is interpreted is --- like most things --- best left to the viewer, but the combination of music and image is utterly masterful no matter what your preferred spin.

There's no controversy, real or imagined, attached to the next two musical offerings --- nor even a story, for that matter --- although I must admit to wondering just what there was about "My Electric Girl," a 1923 melody, which prompted it to be tagged "Europe's Great Sensation." Oh, it's a nice enough little early jazz tune --- but more than mindful of more than a few other compositions of the day, and one that could have just as easily been called "My Sahara Girl" or "Stout Wheat" with little or no effect upon the melody or overall feeling.

"My Electric Girl" (1923) Leo Reisman

The following rendition, however, of the theme-song of RKO's first official release, 1929's "Street Girl," is actually preferable to the rather stark presentation it's given in the film (a violin solo by Betty Compson that's softly reprised in incidental background scoring.)

Credit here goes to Mr. Ray Starita & His Ambassadors! Let's listen!

"My Dream Memory" (1929) Theme Song of "Street Girl"

A previous blog entry delved into Richard Barthelmess' first talking film, "Weary River" (See "Sinners and Saints," March 2007) so now is as good a time as any to explore his next film, "Drag," (Directed by Frank Lloyd) which arrived on screens in mid-Summer of 1929.

Straight off, it should be pointed out that the film had nothing to do with cross-dressing despite uneasy marquee billings and the wording on heralds such as the one depicted at the right. To be fair, the term "drag" had precisely the same double-meaning for citizens of 1929 that it does now --- although surely not in as many numbers --- and even Time Magazine was careful to confirm (in a roundabout way) that the Barthelmess film had nothing to do with the (then current) Mae West stage production of the same name which, I suppose, intentionally gloried in the title's double meaning. Now that that's cleared up...

Following the bit of controversy that swirled about the use of a voice double for Barthelmess in the part-talking"Weary River," Warner Bros. & First National confidently placed the wording "It's Better Than 'Weary River'" in many of their print ads for the 100% Talking "Drag," and assured prospective patrons that the actor...

... "Again registers a talking picture hit with 'Drag.' Following 'Weary River,' Barthelmess has done another fine dramatic portrait. His voice strengthens our belief in his even greater potentialities as a fine dramatic star of the first magnitude. The dialogue is written with subtlety and human understand, and the story is simply, effectively and logically told."

But what's it all about? Here you go...

"'Drag' concerns a young newspaperman (Barthelmess) who goes to a small town to take over the local newspaper. He is also ambitious to become a composer of operettas. In the small town, he meets a young girl and finds himself engaged, then married to her."

"But, unwittingly, he also finds himself supporting her own family (which consists of Lucien Littlefield, Katherine Ward and Tom Dugan.) How they keep dragging the young man down, how he struggles against it, how he finds sympathy and encouragement from an unexpected source --- these form the framework of the story."

"The unexpected source, by the way, is that very charming dark-haired beauty, Lila Lee, while Alice Day, blonde and appealing as ever, plays the wife whose love for her relations is greater than her love for her husband."

"The ending of 'Drag' is tuneful and colorful when 'The Love Prince,' a musical play, is introduced as the work of the hero, written while beating his wings against the walls of destiny in the small town. The chief musical hit is 'My Song of the Nile,' and there is also a most catchy song called 'I'm Too Young to Be Careful.' Doubtless, they will soon be sung from coast to coast like 'Weary River.'"

Adapted from a novel by author William Dudley Pelley, a vastly interesting person in his own right (his Wikipedia entry makes for fascinating reading,) and directed, as noted, by Frank Lloyd, it's difficult to determine why the film was so poorly received upon release and has, over the decades, acquired a heavy negative aura that clings to it still, despite the film being long, long unavailable for appraisal. (Various reports of a print existing in an unnamed archive appear to be wishful thinking at best.)

Certainly, the cast was fine and skilled --- the authorship respectable, and the direction above suspicion. What was it then? A clue, of sorts, emerges in Mordaunt Hall's review for the New York Times:

"A talking picture in which the greeting 'Hello' is spoken so often that it becomes laughable, was presented last night at Warner's Theater. In this feature, known as 'Drag,' Richard Barthelmess figures as a young man who is imposed upon in an utterly absurd fashion by his wife's parents and her brother. Mr. Carroll (Barthelmess) looks to be an intelligent young man, but judging by what he endures while living in a little town known as Paris, Vermont, he is not as sensible as one gathers."

"Mr. Barthelmess acquits himself favorably. Allie Parker, as played by Alice Day, is sufficiently attractive and unsympathetic so as to make the character natural. Lucien Littlefield, through the story and Frank Lloyd's stolid direction, is an exaggerated type. Lila Lee does well as Dot, but the young woman appears to have graduated from a big city before going to Paris (Vermont) judging by her ability to juggle with words."

Here's what Lila Lee (pictured left) had to say about her experience in early talkies and as a participant of "Drag" itself in an excerpt from a taped interview she gave in 1959:

Lila Lee - 1959 Interview with Joan & Robert Franklin

And, here's a younger Lila Lee, in an excerpt from "Honky Tonk" (WB-1929) speaking in the "big city" tones that Mordaunt Hall found (justifiably) out of place for the semi-rural setting of "Drag."

Lila Lee - Except from "Honky Tonk" (1929)

But I digress...

Given the evidence at hand, I suppose we can conclude that audiences (and critics) had no particular trouble with the performers, director, production or even the film's hauntingly odd and curiously placed theme song (which indeed did become as big a phonograph, radio and sheet music hit as "Weary River") but simply found the combination of the elements to be unsettling and patently false. Although Richard Barthelmess' character did manage to ultimately free himself from the stranglehold of the Parker family, it's not impossible to imagine audience impatience with his seeming gullibility and tight-lipped grim determination --- to do nothing about his predicament. With all this unhappiness surrounding Barthelmess, and the soundtrack peppered with countless greetings of "Hello," when audiences hoped to hear him say "Goodbye!" --- perhaps, in the end, they wanted to see some of the fire he displayed in "Scarlet Seas" and "Weary River" without having to again wait for the final reel for that moment of supreme satisfaction.

I'll readily admit I'm partial to Mr. Barthelmess, and therefore wish more of "Drag" was present in 2007 than mere rumors and sets of Vitaphone discs that will likely never be called upon for the purpose of which they were created.

Indeed, the one element of "Drag" that we need never fear for is its theme song, "My Song of the Nile." Understanding of the tune's placement in the film doesn't make it seem quite so bizarre a musical choice as initially thought, now does it? (Or does it?) Then too, this plaintive little melody, which speaks of "pyramids of dreams," and "moonbeams on the sand," carries a simple message that transcends change and time itself: "Love, love, love while you may! Too soon youth fades away! So come, come, sing for a while --" We may not sing, but we're listening... and here's a selection from which to choose:

"My Song of the Nile" (1929) Nick Lucas

"My Song of the Nile" (1929) Newell Alton, Cinema Organ and Vocal

"My Song of the Nile" (1929) Ben Selvin & His Orchestra

I now have the great pleasure to present, probably for the first time anywhere since early 1930 (when bookings for "Drag" finally petered out) the original Vitaphone exit-music disc for the film. Heartfelt thanks and equal gratitude are extended to Doug Gerbino, for supplying the disc --- and to George Moore, who coaxed and tweaked the best possible sound out of the badly worn disc --- and did a fine job at that.

"Drag" - Exit Music Disc (Organ & Vocal)

Oh! If the vocalist sounds a bit familiar, he should. It's none other than John Murray, who supplied the singing voice for Barthelmess in "Weary River" earlier that year! To listen is to drift off to a different and rather pleasant place...

Before closing this entry, there's time enough to fill a couple of requests --- something I enjoy doing, wherever possible.

The announced forthcoming release of Paramount's 1929 Technicolor film "Redskin" to DVD is as exciting as it is troubling. Given the fact that there aren't any plans that I'm aware of to release DeMille's "Godless Girl" (included in the same set of films) with an alternate audio feature that would utilize the sychronized music and effects track the feature would be widely released with, I'm hoping against hope that the original audio track for "Redskin" is left intact, or at least made available as an alternate. I hasten to admit that the score isn't exceptionally good --- and that the film's theme song is borderline dreadful by today's standards --- but the current mode of "fixing" or "updating" original music for any reason, strikes me incredibly unnecessary. The otherwise beautiful recent release of "Piccadilly" was made all but unwatchable (to me, at least) by what I felt was an outrageously inappropriate new musical score. No chance for redemption or even choice either, because the original synchronized score was tossed aside completely for the DVD release.

Ok --- sermon over! To calm and soothe, here's Irving Kaufman (going under the name of Tom Frawley!) belting out the theme song for "Redskin," the melody of which we may (or may not) hear when this eye-full of vintage1929 Technicolor film makes its bow on DVD, and as for "The Godless Girl," I hope I'm proven good 'n wrong!

"Redskin" - Bert Lown & His Orchestra, vocal by Irving Kaufman

Finally, there's nothing to be said about these two musical offerings from Universal's 1929 masterpiece "Broadway" that probably hasn't been said elsewhere in earlier posts --- except that these particular versions haven't been put up on the blog shelf for your inspection until now. The first is a bit of whomever provided Glenn Tryon's voice warbling "Sing A Little Love Song" as it was performed in the film, and the second is probably the best rendition of the film's peppiest number, "Hittin' the Ceiling" that was released on 78rpm.

"Sing A Little Love Song" (1929) Glenn Tryon's Voice Double

"Hittin' the Ceiling" (1929) Paul Specht & His Orchestra

"We all know the power of song --
it can right most any wrong,
It can cheer us when we're broken hearted.

But the greatest song we sing,
is a love song that can bring
someone near us
even though we're parted...."

Until Next Time!

See the Talkie - Buy the Record!
Galveston, Texas - March 1929

The Multi-Talented Madge Bellamy

Mr. George Grossmith, Jr. (right) in a lighter mode

Wedding Bells for Lila Lee,
but trouble ahead...
5 October 1930

Lila Lee bravely battles "tuberculosis"
April 1931

And wins!
April 1931

"Mysteries of Movie Making"
3 Pages - 1917

Short Story Collection by Edna Ferber, 1927

The old, old story...
"Mother Knows Best" (1928)

"The Mysterious Masked Countess"
Wish we knew what she sang!
September of 1928


"The Sacred Flame"
Conrad Nagel & Lila Lee
Modesto, California - June 1930

Lila Lee and Paint Dabbed Cacti