09 November 2008

A Temple of Synchronization

No, "Vitaphone Varieties" hasn't fallen by the wayside --- nor has this writer!
True enough, recent posts have been scattered and erratic at best, and gone are the days of new additions that appeared with clockwork regularity in years past --- but I owe it to you, to the topic at hand and (I suppose) to myself, to try to maintain a monthly posting schedule.

Many thanks to the readers who have written, expressing concern, horror, anger and polite curiosity --- for these notes did much to hasten my return! I cannot hope for this blog to ever lay claim to being "100 Shows in One" as the glorious lobby-card for "Show of Shows" depicted above does, but we'll try our best! Oh yes, there will be a third annual "Yuletide Frolic" post in time for the holidays --- so check back!

For now, let's get to it. Forgive the somewhat rusty prose, pace and content of this post --- I'm limbering up after too long being away from the keyboard!

In late 1928, newspapers informed readers that "George Jessel has completed a sound drama with songs for Tiffany-Stahl, titled 'The Ghetto,' from an original story by Viola Brothers Shore." The film would reach screens in February of 1929 as "Lucky Boy."

A lengthy, syndicated publicity press release --- also from February of 1929 --- affords some interesting, albeit highly colored, background on the film --- and on Jessel himself, and is worth offering here in part:

"When Jessel started making 'Lucky Boy,' the Tiffany-Stahl feature production, he was up against some new and strange problems. The singing and talk sequences required more time in rehearsal than the lead role in a legitimate production. From the start, Jessel had his heart set on making 'Lucky Boy' something far greater than 'The Jazz Singer,' his brain child that wandered out into the world to make a tidy fortune for Jolson instead of Jessel. 'Lucky Boy,' therefore, had a grave responsibility as far as Jessel was concerned."

"The picture, portraying Jessel's life and seasoned with Jessel's subtitles and dialogue, was like a second son who must atone for a first-born's derelitcion. While the sound sequences were underway at the RCA Studio, Jessel was starring in 'The War Song,' a legitimate drama, at the National Theater (NYC - September to December of 1928) His role in this play was longer than 'Hamlet,' and he had to do much singing."

"One day, at the studio, a camera rebelled after Jessel had worked since 10 o'clock that morning. He was due on stage at at the National at 8:30 and it was almost 7. Jessel realized that if the scene was not taken the same day, it would flop. The cast was rehearsed and coaxed into the mood, the scenery had been set up after hours of work, and the musicians were soaked in the melody that Jessel was to sing. While the operator worked on the camera, Jessel jollied everyone along and watched the studio clock anxiously. Soon, everything was in readiness and Jessel mounted the stage. Singing with all h is heart and soul, he went through the first verse chorus of 'My Mother's Eyes,' the theme song of the picture, and not a Kleig light clicked, not an unwanted sound disturbed the perfect synchronization of Jessel's voice. Jessel started on the second stanza. The cameraman cut him short with 'Stop!' The film had buckled. Three times the cameraman made repairs, and three times Jessel sang, only to be cut short with 'Stop!'"

"He had been working all day, he had a night's work ahead of him. In exasperation, he made a dash for the door. 'Let me get out of here quick before I shoot myself" he whispered to the door attendant, but the door had hardly closed on him than he was back. The last attempt was tried. And, oddly, Jessel sang as he had never sung before, the musicians played as though to make the song immortal, and a charm lay on the camera. Instances like this occurred ime and again in the making of 'Lucky Boy,' as in the making of all sound pictures while the process is in its infancy. Jessel, by the sheer force of his personality, surmounted them all."

A far more accurate, yet no less charming overview of 'Lucky Boy' was offered by reviewer Wood Soanes in early March of 1929:

George Jessel, who played 'The Jazz Singer' on the stage and nearly played it on the screen, made his talking debut at the Vitaphone Theater yesterday in a Tiffany-Stahl production entitled 'Lucky Boy.' The picture is one that permits him to sing his songs, do one of his acts, and comport himself otherwise in a mild reflection of Jolson's second release, 'The Singing Fool,' as a youth who fights his way to musical-comedy fame and the hand of a society girl."

"But, 'Lucky Boy' is far from a satisfactory picture. Tiffany-Stahl apparently decided that Jessel's reputation in the theater was of sufficient importance to let him worry along with a cast of second-rate players, and burdened him further with bad photography and shoddy direction. It is questionable if even Jolson would have risen above the situations created by the producers in 'Lucky Boy,' and no-one has ever accused Jessel of being anything more than a fair to middlin' song-and-dance man who was carried into the limelight by the melodrama and sentiment of the stage version of 'The Jazz Singer.'"
"'Lucky Boy' is the story of a Jewish jeweler in the Bronx. The boy doesn't want to peer through a magnifying glass for the rest of his life. He believes he is an actor in the making. In this contention he receives support from his mother and indignant lectures from his father. So he runs away, becomes a star and has his father refer to him as 'My Boy,' with accent on the 'My.'"

"During the course of the scenario Jessel sings a number of songs, most of them current hits, a Mother song being used more or less as a theme number. Of his song and talk appearances, Jessel's bit in the amateur-night performance was far and away the best. He wrote the dialogue and titles himself, and that was another mistake."

Surprisingly, "Lucky Boy" is still with us today, although a bit truncated from its original length and looking and sounding every bit its age, but it's worth seeking out. To compare Jessel to Jolson is quite beside the point, as both performers have personalities and a screen presence that one either admires or loathes --- seldom a middle ground --- but it's very difficult indeed to imagine "The Jazz Singer" without the manic energy that Jolson provided and makes it interesting to watch in even the most difficult of that film's moments, and there are many such stretches. No, "The Jazz Singer" with Jessel would have been a very different film, and perhaps so would have film history.

Of the "5 Song Hits 5" mentioned in the ad at left, we have two versions of the film's theme song with us --- one from Jessel's commercial 78rpm release of the tune, and the other an excerpt from the film's soundtrack itself:

"My Mother's Eyes" (1929-78rpm)

"My Mother's Eyes" (1929 soundtrack excerpt)

Curiously, the flipside of the 78rpm release version of "My Mother's Eyes" contains a tune that seems as though it was surely intended for inclusion in Jessel's film, but it's nowhere to be found in the print of the film that I screened --- nor is there mention of it in any press release. It'd be interesting if anyone can shed any light on the minor mystery surrounding:

"When the Curtain Comes Down" (1929-78rpm)

Chester Bahn, Dramatic Critic of the Syracuse Herald, wrote this magnificent, perceptive and evocative review of "The Lights of New York" in late August of 1928:

"In 1915, the Strand, throwing open its doors to Syracuse screen fans, became the city's first deluxe cinema house. In 1927, the Strand introduced the Vitaphone, becoming the city's first temple of synchronization. Yesterday, the renovated and refurnished Strand passed still another milestone of achievement with the local premiere of the first all-dialogue sound drama - Warners' Vitaphoned 'Lights of New York.' Of these three distinct contributions to the city's progress in cinematic entertainment, I am inclined to unhesitatingly award the palm to 'Lights of New York.'"

"The advent of Vitaphone more than a year ago was an omen. The Strand's current headliner may be accepted as its fulfillment, in part at least. To those who with the obvious flaws of preceding sound pictures in mind have dubiously queried 'Can the wide gap between stage and screen technique be spanned?,' Warners' primary attempt to substitute dialog for subtitle makes an affirmative answer in no uncertain fashion."

"Not, of course, that 'Lights of New York' is perfect. Even the most enthusiastic publicity purveyor in the Warner livery would hardly dare claim that. But those faults which are more in evidence are not so much the result of faulty technique as they are of faulty mechanics -- failure of a voice to register, for example. And that, I believe, is of the utmost significance."

"One of the most interesting of all speculative sound subjects has been the effect the introduction of dialog sequences would have upon tempo. A favorite assertion has been that such sequences would so retard action as to make suspense and climactic moments well nigh impossible -- that scenes would drag wearily along. 'Lights of New York' also goes far to nail that as a canard -- not all the way perhaps, but far enough to make an intelligent conclusion possible. The picture, with its liberal use of speech and its minimum of subtitle, is packed with suspense. Nor is there any appreciable loss of 'punch' where the spoken word supplements the conventional screen climax."

"The story itself is old-fashioned melodrama, done a la 'Broadway.' The plot, aside from its setting, is easy recognizable by any veteran of the Grand Opera House galleries. The dialog, introduced is, in the main, sensible. Occasionally, there are lapses, but they are not too frequent so as to annoy. From the standpoint of settings, the picture is well done, with perhaps one exception. A Central Park scene is so unreal, so obviously studio, that it reminds of the cinema's earliest days."

"Histrionically, the picture is average. Warners' publicity spotlights the name of Helene Costello, but there is little in her characterization of Kitty Lewis or in her handling of dialog to warrant it. Cullen Landis, the male lead, makes a fair impression, but he is no Conrad Nagel by any means. The best work, I should say, was done by Gladys Brockwell as Molly Thompson, and by Robert Elliot as Detective Crosby. Wheeler Oakman's heavy is cast in the 10-20-30 mold."

While we await someone to inform this department just what "the 10-20-30 mold" refers to, listen to this excerpt from the original trailer disc as spoken by Warners' player John Miljan. The scripting may strike you as either incredibly pompous or eerily wonderful, but either way you'll remember this one:

Excerpt from "Lights of New York" trailer disc (1928)

By the time Ted Lewis' "Is Everybody Happy?" was trundling towards local screens in time for Thanksgiving of 1929, Lewis himself acted as pitchman for the film --- which may or may not have had audience members firmly resolve to make holiday dinner a quick affair in order to get to their local talkie house in time for the evening show.

Like so many of the more intriguing personality films of the day, nary a frame of film seems to have survived from "Is Everybody Happy?" despite the plethora of audio that lays in wait to perhaps some day rejoin the image.

"Is Everybody Happy?" (Trailer Disc)

Until we meet again next month --

Thank You!

"Sonny Boy" - From "The Singing Fool" (1928) - Vitaphone Disc Excerpt