06 April 2008

Mountains of Manhattan

From a May 1927 press release for the Gotham production "Mountains of Manhattan" ---

"There is nothing more spectacular or fascinating than the world famous skyline of New York City and the producers have taken a keen psychological advantage of this and utilized it for the background of a very strong drama."

"The title of the picture, too, is most appropriate as it applies to the towering pinnacles of concrete and steel which form the 'Mountains of Manhattan.'"

"The story deals with the rise of Jerry Nolan, who is typical of the present day American artisan. Jerry has ambitions which are fired by the skyscrapers on which he works. He studies new methods of engineering and then when opportunities present themselves, he is smart and capable enough to seize them."

"Charles Delaney portrays the role of Jerry, and he is exactly what the imagination would depict as the right type. Dorothy Devore is both daring and charming in the role of the boss builder. An old favorite, Kate Price, hits the bull's eye in every scene."

"The scenes of action photographed atop a 27-story skyscraper are the limit of nerve and daring. Not the least nervy of the company was the cameraman who placed his machine in some of the most unusual places. James P. Hogan both acts in and directs the picture, which will satisfy anyone's desire for entertainment of a different nature."

By every indication a lost film, it's unlikely that the product could ever hope to live up to it's description (at first glance seeming so intriguingly similar to "The Fountainhead," wouldn't you say?) or, indeed, the marvelous poster art depicted above. One aspect of the film not mentioned in the press release --- and one that immediately deflates any expectations of greatness --- can be found at the bottom of the print ad at the right, which reveals a key plot element: "An Irish mother adopts a Jewish orphan. See Kate Price in one of her characteristic Irish roles."

Similarly, the July 1927 Paul Whiteman recording of "Manhattan Mary" doesn't live up to the promise of it's wonderful 40 second syncopated introduction --- but perhaps this fact does indeed make the tune a happy companion to our glimpse of "Mountains of Manhattan."

"Manhattan Mary" (1927) Paul Whiteman & His Orchestra

The George White produced Broadway musical production "Manhattan Mary" was a showcase for the decidedly unique talents of Ed Wynn (co-starring with Ona Munson) and ran at the (Times Square) Apollo Theater from September of 1927 to May of 1928 --- clocking in at a then highly respectable 264 performances. The property would ultimately reach the Paramount talking screen in 1930 as "Follow the Leader," with Ginger Rogers enacting the Ona Munson role and Lou Holtz carried over from the Broadway cast.
Despite the trimming of a good deal of the show's original ten-plus melodies, "Follow the Leader" does indeed seem more a filmed stage production than anything else --- but is well worth your while should a print present itself to you. ("Follow the Leader," like so many other early Paramount talkies, survives intact but is apparently deemed valueless and therefore kept from public view or access.)

A glimpse of Paul Whiteman and band members in Central Park --- circa 1920 --- serves to usher in another tune from "Manhattan Mary," this one titled "Broadway," which would later serve as opening title music for the 1930 "Follow the Leader."

"Broadway" (1927) - Paul Whiteman

While these pages have noted that I'm not anywhere as enamored with Whiteman's fine work as the vast majority of vintage music buffs seem to be, there's no denying his impact upon the public of his day --- and I suppose if any one music ensemble served to mould and bookend the decade of the 1920's, then surely Whiteman's did. Typical of the Whiteman touch is his handling of two melodies from The Ziegfeld Follies of 1927, which are offered here next. Both should be well familiar to readers of these pages, but --- again, typically --- Whiteman can't resist modifying the arrangements to the point where the simple exuberance and melody-line inherent in the tunes is morphed into quite something else. Always more than a bit grandiose, Paul Whiteman always seemed in danger of pouncing upon something like "Happy Birthday To You" and deeming it suitable material for expansion into a 20 minute concert. God Bless Paul Whiteman.

"Ooh! Maybe It's You" (1927)
From The Ziegfeld Follies of 1927

"Shaking the Blues Away" (1927)

From The Ziegfeld Follies of 1927

Yes, there are five waterlogged musicians bobbing and struggling in the water in the photo at right to "Welcome Home Paul Whiteman" (from a trip abroad) --- and they've waggishly billed themselves as the "Submarine Unit" of the United Orchestras league. One wonders what they were playing, how it sounded, and if they survived the publicity stunt!

From a syndicated July 1930 news feature titled "Small Towners Crash Big Time Radio" (reproduced intact at the close of this post) ---

"Take, if you wish, Jesse Crawford (left.) If and when you are in New York City, you'll find Crawford and his wife at the organ of the Paramount Theater several times a day."

"Today, Jesse Crawford has his choice of dressing rooms in one of the most ornate of the film cathedrals. His income runs into thousands a week. He has an expensive apartment on Park Avenue. He was one of the first to make phonograph records of organ music, and the sale of these alone would keep him comfortably quartered. When his theater routine is finished, he can run up to a little studio on an upper floor. There he has his private broadcasting room, one of the few such in America. In this room is another organ, specially provided by the broadcasting company."

"Yet, Crawford came from an orphanage. Twenty three years ago, he was turned over to the home of Our Lady of Lourdes at Woodland, California. It was part of the routine of the orphanage that the children take a daily lesson on a none-too-sturdy piano in the practice room."

"'And I can thank Sister Antonia for my start in life,' he narrates. 'After she had taught me all the simple pieces one gives a youngster, she knew she had done all she personally could. She told me one day that I knew more than she did, and that I must go on -- I must not stop."

"'My time at the orphanage was up. I had to go out and make a living. And I turned to the piano. I started wandering on foot from town to town until I came to a little suburb of Spokane, Washington, and I got a job in a little nickelodeon. I got $5 a week, but I kept the job for three years. In those days I could just about live and eat on that, but it gave me a chance to do the practicing and study that I needed.'"

"'And it was a great chance, for I could follow the action of the pictures with music, I could learn the technique of synchronization which later came in so handy.' He quit his job and took one at $10 a week. But this theater had an organ, not a piano. He had no training in this instrument. He had no instructor. He had to figure it out for himself, and for two years he labored."

"At the end of two years, he had mastered it. Theater producers in the larger cities had heard of him, and one day he found a golden offer of $250 a week to go to Los Angeles. The asylum kid was doing pretty well, thank you."

"About seven years ago, he happened to drop in at a dance given by an organists' society. And there he met Helen -- who six months later became Mrs. Crawford. Like himself, she had struggled for years to get ahead. Since her fourteenth birthday she had been playing in movie theaters. There was a real novelty in a husband and wife doing their duets on the same organ."

"Up Park Avenue, in one of those swanky, expensive apartment belts, you'll find a tiny organ in the Crawford nursery. There, Jessie Jr. thumps and pounds to her heart's content, with her mother giving her daily instructions. One of these years, there may be the first family trio in organ playing history."

Jesse Crawford would depart this world in 1962, at a time when theater organs and organists seemed a distant and antiquated relic of another day even though a small clutch of both still clung to a handful of quickly vanishing movie palaces. To hear one, in such a theater as Radio City Music Hall or Brooklyn's Loew's Kings --- as I did, many times, as a youngster --- was to experience something I couldn't then begin to define or categorize. In writing these words now though, it's astonishingly easy to again feel the rush of warm almost living air as you pushed open the heavy padded doors leading from the lobby into the vast auditorium while the organist was at work --- and, as you walked down the sloping carpeted aisle, you'd feel the low notes of the organ (bathed in rose amber hues from the left side of the screen) reverberating in your young bones --- in your teeth --- your ears, and skull. Dizzying, disorienting --- joyous.

Selections from MONTE CARLO (1930)
and THE LOVE PARADE (1929) - Jesse Crawford Organ Rolls

(Note: I've never heard a circulating copy of Crawford's organ roll transcription of "Love Parade" selections that wasn't marred by missing bytes that cause a couple of odd skips. If anyone has an intact version that they'd be willing to share, it'd be most appreciated!)

By the by, and while hardly news at this point --- I can't resist directing praise in the direction of Criterion DVD for their recent release of four early Paramount musicals that happened to be directed by Ernst Lubitsch. While there's no getting around the fact that were it not for Lubitsch's involvement these films would likely now remain out of view and out of circulation, I suppose we should be grateful that a marketing "hook" was happily attached to these four films and that allowed them to be considered as viable DVD candidates.

To Criterion's credit, although the discs are bare bones affairs --- no extras of any sort aside from well researched liner notes and optional subtitles --- the four films ("The Love Parade," "Monte Carlo," "The Smiling Lieutenant" and "One Hour With You") look AND sound simply wonderful --- and this despite numerous problems inherent in the original materials, particularly on "Monte Carlo." While Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald might not be everyone's idea of early talkie heaven, these discs offer far, far more than just the talents of this pair. So, if your interests run along the lines of pre-code Hollywood --- or the technical aspects of early sound, or an appreciation of just how fine a product Paramount was turning out when sound was still something of a novelty, you're urged to pick up this DVD set. As always, praise and comment counts for little in the DVD world. Sales, however, counts for much. Cast your vote for more early sound product not with words, but with your purchase.

We've always time and space enough for two 78rpm melodies from "Monte Carlo" ---

"Beyond the Blue Horizon" (1930) is performed by Van Phillips and His Orchestra, with vocal by Jack Plant, as released on Columbia's French label --- and in flipping this virtual 78rpm disc over, we have: "Always in All Ways."

The fellow at right --- his impeccable appearance marred only by an uncooperative cowlick --- is Rudy Wiedoeft, bandleader and musician, who's mastery of the saxophone is a key element in his best recordings.

As with so many unbelievably talented artists of the 'teens and early twenties, recording technology was such that the product they produced could only hint at what their instruments (be they mechanical or vocal) truly sounded like.

Add to that the fact that the bulk of acoustic 78rpm records one casually encounters are often in vastly less than pristine condition to begin with, and then improperly reproduced once again --- and, well, the results are often unhappy indeed.

I'm pleased to present two recordings of the same tune --- one familiar to these pages, "When Buddha Smiles" by Rudy Wiedoeft's Californians that, lo and behold, sound remarkably fine today. One recorded for Brunswick and the other for the more humble Regal label, Wiedoeft has two quite different but equally stirring arrangements for both. Let's spend a few minutes --- or more, in 1921:

"When Buddha Smiles" (1921-Brunswick) Rudy Wiedoeft's Californians

"When Buddha Smiles" (1921-Regal) Rudy Wiedoeft's Californians

and --- before Mr. Wiedoeft and company returns to the happy land from whence they came:

"Say It With Music" (1921) and "The Sheik of Araby" (1921) and "Suez" (1922)

Perched atop one of Manhattan's concrete mountains --- about two feet above a tar roof --- are The Six Brown Brothers, circa 1919. The saxophone was their instrument of choice as well, but --- as you can see --- to see the group perform was surely a treat or at least an experience not soon forgotten. It's easy to imagine them amusing the adults and terrifying the children while performing lightly manic tunes that allowed for on-stage tomfoolery. In a way, it's easy to detect similarities between The Six Brown Brothers and such modern day musical curiosities as The Blue Man Group, although there's no doubt which group possessed genuine musical talent in the truest sense of the term. It can be supposed that one was a group of musicians with a questionable gimmick, and the other a gimmick with questionable "musicians." No matter -- here's The Six Brown Brothers performing:

"Peter Gink" (1919) and "The Darktown Strutter's Ball" (1917)

The wistful lady at right is no stranger to these pages, for recording and performing artist Aileen Stanley (1897-1982) has figured here many times over --- and with good reason, not the least of which is my personal affection for her simple and (dare I say) pure approach to recording. I suspect she holds the same place of esteem in my heart as she does for many others who appreciate and gather up vintage music. Perhaps not so much that she possessed any remarkable degree of vocal talent --- for she doesn't really, but her personality and warmth hits like the proverbial ton of bricks whenever she's listened to and, what's more, lingers too. Once heard, never forgotten.

From a Bridgeport, Connecticut newspaper of March 10th, 1926:

"Aileen Stanley, singing comedienne who closes her return engagement at the Palace Theater here today, has been booked for a tour of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and finishing in Sweden and France, it was announced last night by her manager, Robert Buttenuth, who accompanies her as pianist. The foreign tour will start as soon as Miss Stanley's present booking is concluded."

"She is well known in Bridgeport, and during her last appearance here, she prevented disorder in the Palace Theater by improvising songs and entertainment when the whole city was plunged into darkness by a fire in the United Illuminating Company power house. Theater manager M. L. Saunders said he regarded her as 'the greatest individual star ever to appear at the Palace.'"

"The Australian and New Zealand engagement for Miss Stanley follows her appearance in London last year, when she was booked at the same time in three different places: The Picadilly Hotel, The Kit Kat Club and the Alahambra Theater. With Walter C. Kelly, "The Virginia Judge," she appeared on the program of the Fourth of July Celebration of the American Society in London, and on June 26th of 1925, broadcast several of her songs from a London radio station."

An interesting artifact of Aileen Stanley's appearance at London's Kit Kat Club in 1925 is this promotional disc apparently distributed to patrons upon exiting, slyly reminding them that her talents could be enjoyed anytime with the purchase of a gramophone disc!

Kit Kat Club Promotional Disc (1925)

Quite of Aileen Stanley's best solo recordings, the total effect is somewhat hampered by a very worn disc, but still worthy enough to share with you. In "Broken Hearted," she relates the unexpected but all too common result in introducing a dear friend to someone who's something a bit more than just a friend.

"Broken Hearted" (1927)

And, here's Miss Stanley's January 1929 recording of a melody that would soon find memorable use in Paramount's talking motion picture "Applause":

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

By 1937, Aileen Stanley had taken up residence in the United Kingdom and we hear from her via the syndicated George Ross gossip column, "In New York":

"For the first time since the Coronation hullabaloo ended, cables Aileen Stanley from London, Albion's night life is booming again."

"During the regal festivities, reports Aileen, members of the British nobility and their friends kept aloof at their homes during the long evenings. But their absence at the night clubs wasn't apparent, for the foreign visitors kept business humming."

"When the visitors departed, however, a sudden lull rock-a-byed the cafes into a deep slumber; and proprietors wailed and moaned in British accents. Now, at long last, says Aileen, the night life in London is on the upturn, with Dukes, Earls and Barons and their respective ladies at the ringside again."

"American talent, as usual, is preferred to domestic talent, both in the music halls and supper clubs."

"I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm" (1938) Aileen Stanley

Seeing as we're visiting with voices familiar to us, I hasten to offer two fine --- somewhat improved --- transcriptions of the melodies that are so beautifully woven into the soundtrack of the 1929 part-talking Warner Bros. epic, "Noah's Ark" --- performed here by Nick Lucas:

"Old Timer" (1929) Nick Lucas

"Heart O' Mine" (1929) Nick Lucas

Before we approach the final elements of this particular post --- and I must apologize for letting the month of March get away from me (life has been busy for me, but in the best of all possible ways!) --- I must direct attention to some of the wonders of both image and sound that can be found, at least for now, on YouTube.

On the one hand, the greater bulk of early talkie material that survives is unavailable to the casual student of the genre --- closely guarded and kept by public and private institutions alike, seemingly unsure of the material's value (both historical and financial) yet intent upon making it as difficult as possible for these films to enjoy the second life they so richly deserve. And yet --- on so vast a depository as YouTube, there are treasures to be seen --- things we ought not be seeing --- yet, there they are.

Now, for obvious reasons, I cannot direct you to links --- lest I inadvertently aid in the swift yanking of the offending material. So instead --- use some of the same ingenuity in utilizing YouTube's simple search box (maddening though it can be) that the posters do when putting up these clips and describing them, and you might happen upon surviving fragments of Technicolor sequences from "Glorifying the American Girl," or entire scenes from "Viennese Nights," painstaking reconstructions of sound and image from the jaw-dropping 1929 musical "Broadway" and --- quite literally --- hundreds of clips from early talking and musical productions that we'd be hard pressed to encounter anywhere else without a sledge-hammer and acetylene torch.

It's heartening that so much effort is put into making this material available --- by just plain folks such as you and I --- in the hopes that it can be shared and enjoyed before one of YouTube's regular housecleaning regimes removes everything but seemingly the inane and sleazy. These efforts should, in a perfect world, suggest to the title holders that there's a far larger desire by the general public to see this material than they might expect --- and that I'm certain each and every one of them would happily dash out and buy a commercially released DVD and triumphantly hit the Delete key for each and every of their posts were that the case. But -- at least for now --- it's not about desire or history or artistic value, it's all about profits. Let's hope that the new way of thinking about early sound films that evidently has resulted in a minor flood of titles on DVD we never expected to see will continue to flourish and sweep away the cobwebs clinging to these films for many years to come.

To close this entry, a word of explanation about the following audio is in order. Now, you wouldn't think YouTube would be the best place to post 78rpm disc audio --- and, for the most part it isn't. An electric era 78rpm recording, played on a 1918 acoustic phonograph is a problem to begin with. More problems arise when the record playing on the phonograph is recorded with a video camera. It might look mighty swell indeed on YouTube --- that spinning disc and the ornate wooden phonograph --- but invariably, it sounds awful --- and that's being polite.

Happily, some YouTube folks take the high road and give these recordings their due, by preparing high quality .mp3 transfers of the discs, and then painstakingly transferring them to the video format --- enhancing the music with still images and informative text.

One such YouTube poster has a keen appreciation of music originating from early sound films, and in avoiding all the usual bands and performers we encounter ten times over elsewhere. With his kind permission to do so, here's a selection (converted to standard mp3) of some of his most interesting uploads --- and you're urged to seek him out on YouTube as well. A quick search of any of these titles will easily direct you to his home page --- which you'll spend many happy hours exploring and listening to!

"Any Time's the Time To Fall in Love" - Chester Gaylord
From "Paramount on Parade" (1930)

"How Am I To Know?" - Chester Gaylord
From "Dynamite" (1929)

"Nobody But You" - Chester Gaylord
From "The Hollywood Revue" (1929)

"Under A Texas Moon" - Chester Gaylord

Theme Song of the 1930 Technicolor Motion Picture

"My Troubles Are Over" (1929) - Chester Gaylord

"The Web of Love" (1929) - Oscar Grogan

From "The Great Gabbo" (1929)

"With A Song in My Heart" - Franklyn Baur
From "Spring Is Here" (1930)

"I Loved You Then As I Love You Now" - Louis Wick
From "Our Dancing Daughters" (1928)

"Just a Bundle of Old Love Letters" - Lewis James
From "Lord Byron of Broadway" (1929)

"Just a Bundle of Old Love Letters" - The High Hatters

From "Lord Byron of Broadway" (1929)

Chester Gaylord for Lucky Strike

Where is the transcription disc for this!?!?!
13 March 1930

Olive Shay has her moment outside of New York's Pennsylvania Station
From "Glorifying the American Girl" (1929)

Jesse Crawford & Co.

Local Boy Makes Good
6 November 1929

9 July 1929

Hard to Say Which One Has More News Value
29 August 1929

Marilyn Miller and noble companion, circa 1920
Enjoy the Spring Season!
Until Next Time!