30 November 2006

"Don't Put Your Record Money Into Any Other!"

In the 1929 news photo to the left, two stylish young ladies are seen pretending to listen to what was, by then, seen as a relic of another day --- the standard mechanical horn phonograph. Perched atop another dusty floor-standing talking machine, in a room strewn with suitcases, trunks and litter, the story behind the image is lost to time but the meaning is clear. In a mere slip of time, less than twenty years, a machine that would have been the pride of its owner was now a mere curiosity and ripe for ridicule at that.

Despite my passion for vintage film, I've yet to entirely part from the interest that first nurtured it --- that of recorded sound. While researching and viewing film product of the first thirty years of the last century can be a daunting and oftentimes impossible quest, the medium that grew up alongside it remains surprisingly accessible. Good thing too, since more often than not, it provides clues, solace and
negligible compensation for early musical films that remain lost or inaccessible. But, even more than that, the sheer volume of material recorded for the phonograph provides a seemingly endless opportunity to be entertained, amused, touched and educated in a way that the written word or visual image usually cannot. It's a moment in time, locked forever in a black sliver, waiting to be unleashed for whomever cares to listen.

Newspaper readers on a Sunday morning in October of 1914 couldn't help but notice the dramatic full page advertisement pictured to the right, which offered an
irresistible lure to a dance-mad public. For a mere thirty-five cents, one could learn to dance all the modern dances --- the One Step, the Maxixe, the Tango and the Hesitation! And, to sweep away whatever doubts may have existed, you'd be taught by no less a personage than one Mr. G. Hepburn Wilson (M.B.,) of The Salon De Danse of New York City, "the foremost authority on modern dances in the United States." A classic gimmick that would last for decades, from the One Step to The Hustle, it's no small wonder that readers responded in great numbers. A series of similar ads would appear in the following weeks for other dance instruction records, and each ad would display an ever increasing tally of how many responded to the previous ad. By the end, the total was well into the thousands and while it's doubtful anyone mastered the intricate steps via the stern recorded instructions and impossibly convoluted printed instructions, we can listen in on what could have been heard in many a home as 1914 drew to a stiffly syncopated close.

Columbia Graphophone Instruction Disc: "The One Step" (1914)

The arrival of the "Double Disc" (two-sided) record came rather early in the game, although later than one might suppose, given the simple logic involved. When Columbia entered the field around late 1913, they did so with a slew of ready made advertisements filtered out to local dealers for placement in newspapers and with in-store promotional material that, in retrospect, was rather forward-thinking. If you were to wander into a music store or phonograph specialty shop, you might see a clerk dart over to the store's largest and most expensive model and within moments, you'd hear:

Columbia Double Disc Demonstration Record (1914)

Listened to in context of the day, it's an effective piece of audio advertising that promises what it delivers, via an exceptionally well recorded demonstration that which, even today, should impress the listener with musical instruments that sound precisely as they're described. Notice the unsubtle dig at the rival Edison Company product!

A great leap ahead, it's 1926 and "The Cocoanuts" is doing boom business on Broadway. Before long, the Marx Brothers would travel with the show across the country, big city and tank town alike, before returning to the main stem for their next production, "Animal Crackers." As December of 1928 ended, news items heralded the fact that "The Cocoanuts" would begin production as a talking film at Paramount's Astoria studio on February 1st of 1929. Recorded by the Victor Light Opera Company in 1926, only three of the tunes within the medley would make it to the filmed version, "Florida," "The Monkey Doodle Do" (vocalized here by Billy Murray, and lamentably brief) and "Tango Melody," which would be relegated to background scoring for the talking film.

Selections from "The Cocoanuts" (1926)

At this great distance from the first appearance of Victor Herbert's musical fantasy "Babes In Toyland" (1903), I find it astonishing that there has yet to be a release of a recorded version of the full score, especially as so much of the material has long since become a part of American popular culture, helped along largely by the fine film version with Laurel & Hardy. (RKO announced a version for the 1930 season that would have likely featured Wheeler & Woolsey and Bebe Daniels --- a mid-boggling notion!) Supposedly, the brilliant John McGlynn, who resurrected Ziegfeld's "Show Boat" in a matchless multi-CD recording, recorded a painstakingly period authentic re-creation of "Babes In Toyland," but its release remains in limbo for a variety of reasons, none of them having to do with anything Victor Herbert could have ever imagined when he first wrote it. The medley heard here dates from 1927, is by The Victor Light Opera Company, and is sure to bring a smile, a sigh or both to most listeners.

Selections from "Babes in Toyland" (1927)

The Minstrel Show, or rather the living memory of it, lingered long enough to make it an infrequent but important part of music and film, from its inclusion in Metro's "Hollywood Revue of 1929," Fox's "Happy Days" and on through 1934's "Kid Millions" (Goldwyn). A staple on the phonograph from its earliest moments, recorded minstrel shows often stretched over the length of four cylinders, and the popularity of recorded minstrel shows would continue well into the acoustic and electrical eras.

From 1929, a double-disc recording, "The Victor Minstrels of 1929," that while inducing an uncomfortable cringe or two, is an assembly of masters of their art: Billy Murray, Henry Burr, Frank Crumit, James Stanley --- a couple of whom likely experienced the odd sort of deja vu that would have come from having had recorded almost precisely the same material for Edison's wax cylinders in another place and time that, by 1929, was a world away in more ways than one.

"Victor Minstrel Show of 1929" - Part 1

"Victor Minstrel Show of 1929" - Part 2

For veteran phonograph artist Billy Murray, who recorded innumerable cylinders and records with Ada Jones, an initial impression of his late 1920's pairing of much younger Aileen Stanley may be that its an odd match, and yet the old master and the youthful girl managed to record a series of discs that not only succeeded but hold up beautifully today, if only for the fact that they really seem to be enjoying one another --- playing off each other like polished vaudevillians who'd been teamed for decades.

Out of all their recordings, I think this is the most memorable. Dating from 1926, "
Whaddya Say We Get Together?" is formed almost like a miniature vaudeville routine, with spoken introductions blending seamlessly into song --- and a lovely, wistful one at that.
To close out this post, and to return to our starting point of 1929, an item of interest to early musical fans with a good ear. A portion of "The Wedding of the Painted Doll" sequence from Metro's "The Broadway Melody," with a difference --- although whether minor, negligible or huge is left to the listener. Those familiar with the film from television, laser disc, videotape, cable and DVD incarnations are hearing a soundtrack far removed from the way it originally sounded, and even further away from what audiences of 1929 heard when it played in theaters equipped for the rival sound-on-disc process. Decades of transferring between magnetic and optical formats, careless noise-filtering and various tinkering "improvements" to meet the demand of modern listeners who demand utter flat, dead silence between each spoken syllable often does vastly more damage than good to these vintage soundtracks. While not perfect --- but what could be of this age? --- see if you can't detect something a bit more alive, a bit more vital, immediate and "full" in this fragment of audio from disc. If you can, you're in the right place. If you can't, you're still in the right place!


29 November 2006

Ace of Spades

If it's a remarkable feat for a musical number in an early sound film to "stop the show," then what are the chances of someone achieving the nearly impossible: stopping the show within a showstopping musical number?

Yet, that's precisely what happens during the "Turn On The Heat" production number sequence in the 1929 Fox film "Sunny Side Up" when unexpectedly, the camera cuts away from the manic jazz frenzy led by Sharon Lynn --- to focus on two of the film's auxiliary performers, Marjorie White and Frank Richardson. The pair, posing as party servants, have been standing on the sidelines watching. Richardson merely says "Listen to this," (not so much to his partner as to the film audience) and then lets loose with a rooster's crow of a vocalization that cuts through seventy-plus years of film grain, murk, damage and hiss like a machete. You almost don't want the moment to end --- it's that good, and that pure and so exhilarating --- and then you're kept waiting throughout the rest of the film to see if Richardson is given another such moment, but it never comes.

Well, actually it does -- but only as part of the "Sunny Side Up" end-credit exit music tag. Richardson isn't seen, he's just heard --- and he's not quite the strutting chanticleer here because this tune doesn't call for it, but in retrospect, Fox couldn't have left audiences who'd just seen the film with a better departing musical souvenir.

"Sunny Side Up" (1929) Exit Music Tag

Here, to the right, is an early glimpse of Frank Richardson's career on the move. It's 1923, and Richardson --- at twenty-five, has already had a career that's filled seventeen of those years. Born in Philadelphia, he'd later say he wanted to go on the stage almost as soon as he could walk and talk. Maybe so, but it wasn't until he learned to sing and developed himself into something of a boy soprano that he'd get his chance to step on a stage and exhibit the same strong presence he'd always possess. Someone took quick note, and before long the eight year old Richardson signed an engagement with Dumont's Minstrels, appearing as "The Wonder Boy Tenor."

Richardson would later join Emmet Welch's Minstrels at Atlantic City, New Jersey's Million Dollar Pier venue and then break out on his own, first with circus shows and then as master of ceremonies and entertainer in vaudeville and motion picture houses across the country.

When we next look in on Frank Richardson, in 1925, he was about to cut what he thought would be his last ties with his minstrel show lineage. Usually booking himself as "The Joy Boy of Song," he still relied heavily upon minstrel material and performance style in his act--- so much so that he sometimes billed himself as "The Ace of Spades," whenever he thought this title would have greater appeal.

By late 1926 though, his "Ace of Spades" persona was ready to be buried once and for all. According to a publicity placement likely composed and distributed by Richardson himself to newspapers in towns he was booked into: "Frank Richardson, the Joy Boy of Song, is no longer a blackface comedian. He will sing his songs 'natural,' which is the vaudeville slang for whiteface. One day Mr. Richardson, because of a delayed railroad schedule, reached a theatre where he was to play too late to make up. He went on in street clothes without the customary burnt cork. His act went better than it had ever gone before. Then and there he ceased to be a blackface comedian. In calling himself the Joy Boy of Song, Mr. Richardson merely announces that he is a singing comedian of a different type with individuality."

Richardson's "Ace of Spades" persona might have been buried then and there, but he little suspected it would come calling again, in less than four years time, and that he'd be donning the customary burnt cork for an entertainment medium that would present him to more people in more audiences in just a few weeks than he had ever played before in half a lifetime of show business.

By 1927 he'd be called before the Vitaphone cameras for a short subject titled "The Joy Boy of Song," that would be booked into theaters throughout most of 1928, so it must have seemed but a moment to the always busy performer before he was summoned to California, to Fox Studios and he'd spend a whirlwind-like two years in some of the most popular and highest earning musical films of the day.

Unfortunately, we currently have no way of knowing what Frank Richardson's debut performance in "Fox Movietone Follies of 1929" looked or sounded like, but he couldn't have been given a better tune, the cheeky "Walking With Susie," just right for the strutting, cocksure Richardson's barrel-chested ringing voice and demeanor.

In "Sunny Side Up," he's given more to say than he's given to sing --- but he pulls it off, and in a role (that of a braggart ham) that could just as easily prompt audience dislike as much as acceptance, he wins the day --- largely because he's an endearing, gentle sort of braggart ham who, the viewer feels sure, probably believes less in his boasts than anyone else. Interestingly, it's the secondary roles in "Sunny Side Up," enacted by Richardson, White and Lynn that linger long after Gaynor & Farrell's sticky affectation wears off. As for El Brendel, well.... that's something else entirely!

The fact remains that "Sunny Side Up," was and is a remarkable film that impressed audiences so upon its original release that it was only one of very, very few early sound films that would be revived, most of them musicals incidentally --- by popular demand --- well after its premiere, in this case well into the last months of 1933.

Richardson's first two successes proved a hard act to follow, although he'd briefly have a chance to shine again in Fox's minstrel-themed "Happy Days," where he's billed and presented as himself, singing the infinitely catchy tune "Mona." How Richardson and his highly recognizable voice eluded the phonograph companies is any one's guess, so while we don't have a 78rpm commercial recording of his performance, I offer the two next best things. First, an extract of Richardson's performance from the film "Happy Days" itself, and then George Olsen's equally fine commercial rendition of the same tune, released late in 1929 on Victor Records with Fran Frey providing the warbling in lieu of Richardson.

"Mona" (1930) Frank Richardson

"Mona" (1930) George Olsen & His Music

Following "Happy Days," Richardson would still have one more film appearance to put in before he could finally cast off and bury his "Ace of Spades" persona, although after he did just that, following end of work on "New Movietone Follies of 1930," his film career would evaporate along with it --- an irony that couldn't have escaped him entirely.

Still, for his farewell film, Richardson is given what amounts to a reprise of his role in "Sunny Side Up," and considering he's again partnered with Marjorie White, their work together in the film almost plays like a continuation of the earlier film, presuming they left their pals Gaynor and Farrell alone to gaze into one anothers eyes undisturbed while White and Richardson got on with their lives and struck out in show business. Released and/or previewed in some areas under the ghastly title "Svenson's Wild Party," "New Movietone Follies of 1930" is a weak film only when compared to what we know of its earlier 1929 incarnation. As it stands --- on its own, it's fast, slick, polished, risque, funny, tuneful and filled with ingenuity in direction and photography of the sort that makes its current senseless imprisonment in vaults all the more lamentable.

In this audio excerpt, Frank Richardson bids noble farewell to the screen musical via his crack-the-roof-plaster rendition of "Here Comes Emily Brown," and exits as proudly and as confident as he entered --- leaving off with a high note in which traces of Boy Tenor and Minstrel Man are still very much in evidence, and resonate even now.

Afterward: Richardson returned to vaudeville, where he can be found appearing as a performer or master of ceremonies up through the mid-1930's. In 1934 he'd be named in a breach of promise lawsuit for $100,000.00 by lover Joan Williams, when she discovered he was already --- and had long been, married to Adele Richardson. Happily, in a case that was already starting to set reporters and gossip columnists drooling, Adele Richardson simply stepped out of the picture --- leaving a clear field for Joan Williams who, rather surprisingly, eagerly dropped her lawsuit and married Richardson almost immediately.

Thereafter,throughout the 1940's and 1950's, there's precious little mention of Richardson. He could have chosen to retire, or he could have worked sporadically --- perhaps even contributing his talents to wartime entertainment requirements. I simply don't know.

In February of 1962, on a page filled with movie ads a world away from his own films --- with titles like "Wild For Kicks" and "The Day the Sky Exploded," there could be found this simple, two sentence obituary for the entertainer, who died in the city of his birth of a heart attack.


28 November 2006

"On A Frequency of Nine Million Drinks A Day"

If it isn't frustrating enough to discover that some of the most intriguing motion pictures of the early sound era are apparently lost forever, then it's even more discouraging to learn that virtually the entire output of a medium that walked hand-in-hand with the talkies as they both took their first tentative steps --- radio, is also gone for good.

Whereas there's always the outside chance that a print, or portions of a print, or even just sound discs may turn up for any number of missing early sound films, the bulk of the radio programming that was churned out --- live --- on a daily basis during this same period is not only gone, but gone beyond recall. Oh, I like to think that all that sound is reverberating somewhere in deep space around about now, and perhaps even being listened to. If so, we can only hope it's all being documented, archived and preserved far better than anyone on this planet thought necessary.

On the evening of March 19th of 1930, it's likely that most radio listeners were tuning into Old Gold Paul Whiteman hour, where they would have had the chance to hear two featured players from the Universal revue film "King of Jazz," performing songs from that production, backed by the magnificent Whiteman orchestra. Similarly, a set of tunes from Fannie Brice's second (and last) starring vehicle, "Be Yourself" would also be given the Whiteman treatment. Glorious sounds, lost to time the moment they were transmitted --- or perhaps transcribed to disc for use within the same week, and then filed away --- and then? (It's honestly almost painful to browse radio broadcast schedules of the period, noting all the shows that were direct products of various film studios or countless others that used material from then current films as content. Why, there's even instances of "direct transmission" from movie theaters, teasing and luring radio audiences by broadcasting entire reels of sound from early talkies. How many innumerable gaps in the shadowy history of this period in entertainment could be filled if only this material had been retained and archived!)

That same Winter evening in 1930, a movie or music fan turning their radio dial might have happened upon a swirling string orchestra rendering "I'm A Dreamer" from the 1929 Fox film "Sunny Side Up," and liked what they heard enough to settle back and let the radio dial alone.

Within moments though, these very same listeners might be back at their dial again --- but this time to tune away from a stilted, scripted interview of sports figure Ty Cobb. Likewise, this same broadcast that might, and surely did, attract casual sports enthusiasts, youngsters and rabid baseball fans alike probably --- within moments --- furrowed brows and sent hands scrambling for the dial when it was immediately followed by an oh-so-dainty rendition of "Wild Rose" from the 1929 Warners film version of "Sally." What were they listening to? What was this?

It was, for approximately four months, "The Coca-Cola Top-Notchers," a radio show that combined sweet music, soft drink sales and sports into one unwieldy and unappetizing oil and water concoction.

The premiere broadcast, dating from 19 March 1930 has survived, as does the one that followed, from the 26th of that month. The latter show refers to upcoming broadcasts which either aren't in circulation or haven't survived, but there's no evidence to suggest the show continued any later than late May or early June of 1930.

Additionally, the premiere broadcast is likely not only the oldest surviving, complete and non-transcribed radio shows in existence, but also the oldest musical-variety show existing in a complete format. The second show even includes a station ID break, for WEEI in Boston, which is preceded by a series of chimes: one of the earliest surviving recordings of the NBC chimes, though not the familiar G-E-C chime which evolved shortly thereafter.

NBC Chime - WEEI Boston - 26 March 1930

Surviving advertisements for the show (for which there appears only to have been two or three basic designs) and both show announcer Graham McNamee, emphasize the most unusual aspect of the show, which was made one of its selling points: An "all-string" orchestra, led by Leonard Joy, at the time a well known recording artist (and musical director at Paramount) that would bridge interview segments by Grantland Rice, a respected sportswriter of the era, with various figures from the world of sport

Graham McNamee was one of NBC's leading announcers of the 1920's and 30's, and after The Coca-Cola Top-Notchers, he would go on to be Ed Wynn's foil on "The Texaco Fire Chief," a show that enjoyed tremendous popularity and the staying-power that eluded the Coca-Cola effort.

In the surviving episodes of Top-Notchers, McNamee manages to work in the commercials for Coca-Cola fairly well, even with the crude sledgehammer-like copy he was given, no doubt by the D'Arcy advertising agency.

With apologies to sports historians, what all but kills "The Top-Notchers" are, unfortunately, the sports interviews. The interview with longtime Detroit Tigers star Ty Cobb, is a trial to listen to, as it's painfully obvious that Cobb is reading from a script that attempts and fails to create an illusion of impromptu conversation. Cobb is, however, quite a bit cleaned up from the terrifying figure that he often presented to rival ballplayers and others who got into his way.

The second surviving show includes an interview with Stewart Maiden, the mentor of golf champion Bobby Jones, although at this distance in time, the interview is largely of archaeological interest to golf fans.

Interestingly, both guests have Georgia connections of one kind or another. Ty Cobb was, of course, known as "The Georgia Peach," and just happened to be a significant investor in Coca-Cola, having bought stock during a reorganization of the company at the end of the Great War, which made him a wealthy man. Bobby Jones had close ties to Augusta National, the famed golf course where the Masters tournament was (and still is) played. Do you get the sense that the first two guests were chosen with an eye toward what would appeal to Coca-Cola executives?

The program musical interludes are, for lack of any other way to describe them, incredibly odd. For one thing, Leonard Joy's arrangements (for the "all string orchestra") seem to be not so much of 1930, but very nearly of the lush orchestrations of the 1950's and even 1960's --- almost bordering on the sound of "Light FM" muzak-type radio. Therefore, it comes as a jolt to suddenly realize that these swirling, soaring strings that might be at home in any elevator, supermarket or shopping mall circa 1975 are playing tunes from musical films of 1929 and 1930.

In the example of the premiere broadcast, offered below complete and intact (and apologies for the very mediocre sound quality!), musical selections include "I'm A Dreamer" ("from that famous talkie, 'Sunny Side Up,' says announcer McNamee,) the sentimental standard "My Gal Sal," "My Sweeter than Sweet" from the Paramount film "Sweetie," "Rosita," a tango, "Wild Rose," from the Warner Bros. film version of "Sally," "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life," (which was featured in the 1929 RKO film "Syncopation,") and finally, "I'm Following You" from the Duncan Sisters' starring Metro vehicle, "It's A Great Life."

A solid, enjoyable parade of melody --- but again, there's something about the orchestration and arrangement that doesn't spell 1930 so much as 1960. Delightfully odd perhaps to us, but how I wish we knew what listeners of 1930 made of this.

As noted earlier, the show simply pulled up stakes and vanished by June of 1930. But why? Mark Pendergrast's book, "For God, Country and Coca-Cola" refers to the program, indicating that it had a budget of $400,000, a significant expenditure for 1930. With the looming Depression, this may have been too much for a show with the kind of production value that it had, even for a company that weathered the economic storm like Coca-Cola.

Another possibility is corporate unease with the show. Pendergrast notes that the tyrannical president of Coca-Cola, Robert Woodruff, hated the initial theme music Leonard Joy composed for the show, forcing a change from the original tango-influenced theme to the ethereal (drippy) waltz melody that replaced it. Ironically, this latter version would provide the signature tune for many other Coca-Cola sponsored shows on the radio, according to Pendergast. Coca-Cola's obsession with wholesome, upbeat theme and content for its radio shows may have also been a factor which made it difficult to sustain an early effort such as the Top-Notchers; certainly, the D'Arcy advertising firm was subjected to all manner of headaches in managing radio shows throughout the 1930's.

So, if you're seeking a half hour of "refreshing rest," I can't guarantee that you'll find it in listening to this oddly fascinating example of early radio, marketing cross-promotion and sports history --- but as it's one of our very few chances to listen in on 1930 radio precisely as it was originally transmitted, can you resist?

"The Top Notchers" - 19 March 1930

A puzzle: The sheet music for "Sally" (WB-1929) pictured to the left, heralds a song ("After Business Hours") that's nowhere to be found in surviving prints of the film. Has anyone thoughts or information?

Special thanks to friend and supporter, Eric O. Costello of New York City, for his contributions to this post!


27 November 2006

The Soul of an Adventuress

Prolific though ordinary popular vocalists of the 1920's, when remembered... if at all, usually lurk in the shadows cast by others in their profession who arrived somewhat earlier or later, or those who have been granted the mighty title of "Jazz Legend," either by fans or by record companies seeking a marketing hook.

Then too, there are those singers who would unknowingly catapult themselves to fame in the far distant future by choosing to retire early in their career, or just happening to unexpectedly die --- both mundane acts that can, with the passage of time, be looked upon as something spectacular or profound for no good reason.

Or, there's that most revered of all career moves: one could kill themselves with alcohol and/or drugs ---and if they somehow smash their car into a tree or wall in the process, so much the better grist for the mill.

And then there are singers who had the desire, need, talent and popularity required to slowly work their way through the cavalcade of changes in music and technology that would spring up throughout the early 1900's --- each one presenting a challenge of some sort, a hurdle to either overcome or to be used as a marker for the end of a career.

Vaughn DeLeath is, at least for me, the undiluted and largely unadorned essence of the 1920's female vocalist. Some, and indeed most do, opt for the likes of the vastly talented Ruth Etting or Annette Hanshaw, but you always know what you're going to get with these two singers before you hear any of their recordings for the first time --- and that's precisely why I find them dull.

Not so with DeLeath, who never really developed or locked herself into one single performing style, whether intentional on her part or not. Effortlessly switching between Torch Singer, Child, Red Hot Momma, The Loving Wife, The Heartbroken Sweetheart, Every body's Mother and Every one's Mammy, to Concert Singer and then to Female Crooner --- she simply became whatever type of woman was needed for the song, and then she'd give it her all --- and often then some. For that reason, before listening to a VDL recording for the first time, there's just no telling whom you'll encounter --- and I deem that something wonderful.

I won't detail DeLeath's life or recording career, as all that information can be readily found elsewhere on the Internet, but a few basic facts are in order. Born in 1894 (Mount Pulaski, Illinois), she began her vocal performing career as the Great War ended. In the oft-told tale, she was called upon by radio pioneer Lee De Forrest in 1920 to vocalize for his early "wireless telephone" experiments, thus gaining the title of "First Lady of Radio," a medium she would remain close to until her death in 1943. In addition to a few Broadway roles in the mid-1920's, she also participated in early television experiments that would include a twice weekly telecast for CBS in 1931 --- although exactly who was tuning in, or was able to, isn't clear.

What is clear, however, is that DeLeath is most easily and best encountered via the many, many (many!) 78rpm recordings she produced throughout the 1920's, on just about every major (and not-so-major) label imaginable.

Here's Vaughn DeLeath in late January of 1927, at her best --- or very nearly so, performing "Crazy Words, Crazy Tune." It's interesting to note that the song's catch-phrase, "Vo-doh-de-oh-doh" was precisely that: a short lived catch phrase that initially amused and then irritated the public. It's ironic then, that the phrase would be forever after trotted out to evoke the decade when, in fact, it mercifully flamed up and burnt away all within the space of a few months. The sort of song that allowed each individual performer to play with the lyrics as they liked, Vaughn DeLeath injects an already topical song with additional topical references --- putting the listener squarely within the time frame in which it was recorded.

Infrequently mentioned in the press, except in ads heralding new record releases or radio broadcasts, here's an example of the latter. In this radio schedule for 8 October 1928, she's listed as appearing on the "Eskimos" (Clicquot Club Eskimos, I'm guessing) show airing on WGV, a Schenectady NY radio station (lower right column) that, an hour later, is mysteriously listed as offering a "television transmission."

A few months earlier, a syndicated column geared to the ladies mentions VDL's passion for collecting earrings --- a topic that would pop up in similar columns throughout the 20's and 30's, and undoubtedly a real passion for the singer. "It is her ambition to acquire the largest and most representative collection of ear ornaments outside a museum. She wrote somebody 'It's really remarkable what earrings will do to one's personality. A pair of long slender black ornaments, almost long enough to touch the shoulder, will transform a Sunday school teacher into a woman with the soul of an adventuress'."

That "Sunday school teacher with the soul of an adventuress" may have well been herself, for either she kept her personal life extraordinarily private or, most likely, she led a typically normal and uneventful one. Then too, there's no getting away from the fact that DeLeath was quite rotund and the whole business with the earrings strikes me as the sort of passion a woman like herself might nurture --- her focus being placed on delicate, fragile and decorative items that can be changed at whim whereas her figure wasn't and couldn't. A reach perhaps, but then again maybe not. Whatever the case, this mention of her hobby can be thought of as a deceptively simple "human touch" worth remembering.

From September of 1927, an equally deceptively simple tune that, at the last moment, throws the listener an unexpected curve. If, while listening, you find it all too impossibly saccharine to continue, I urge you to hold out --- at least once, for that last verse.

Exceptionally busy throughout 1928 and 1929, the arrival of film musicals offered up a wealth of new recording material and DeLeath jumped right in, most often successfully --- and sometimes less so.

From Paramount's 1929 Chorus Girl On a College Campus themed musical, "Sweetie," comes VDL's rendition of "He's So Unusual." Deftly recorded by Helen Kane (who was also featured in the film,) I prefer DeLeath's version for a number of reasons, not the least of which is her ability to make it quite clear that the young man in question isn't sweetie material for her or, for that matter, any other woman.

DeLeath had her share of really bad recordings to be sure, and while the tune "Singing in the Bathtub" from SHOW OF SHOWS (WB-1929) would seem a natural for her, this is a misfire from the first groove. Thinly orchestrated with an arrangement seemingly done on the fly, DeLeath just doesn't know what to do with herself here and pulls out every trick in the book in an attempt to get it go somewhere, which it never does. Worst of all, she switches the line "a ring around the bathtub is a rainbow to me" into "a rainbow from me," putting a different and nauseating spin on the title event.

Although DeLeath recorded two superb versions of tunes from the first all-Technicolor film musical ON WITH THE SHOW (WB-1929), "Am I Blue?" and "Birmingham Bertha" which have been widely circulated and issued on CD (imperfectly, I believe --with overly heavy noise reduction virtually eliminating the original upper sonics and creating a weird gurgling effect in the process) she would also partake in a double-sided Edison "Needle Cut" electric recording of a medley from the same film, joining other vocalists as "The Edison All Star Ensemble." Not surprisingly, she's given the two same tunes to handle here too as part of the medley --- which she does expertly.

As the 1930's dawned like a cold dark hangover after the frivolity of the 1920's, change was afoot everywhere. In the world explored in these pages, the musical film was being shunned, singing styles had altered to reflect the mood of the day, Edison's recording days were finished, and vaudeville was in it's death throes. Radio work kept DeLeath busily and gainfully employed, and she was as yet still enough of a personality to permit a syndicated column such as this one from June of 1931, entitled "How I Make My Husband Happy," with the husband in question being one Livingston (aka Leo) Geer, an artist. It all reads like prefabricated fluff, which it probably was.

Sketchy though its outlook was, vaudeville is also where we frequently find DeLeath throughout the early and mid-1930's, small-time bookings mostly, such as at the Upstate New York "State Theater," in February of 1934.

By 1938, newspaper writers (and readers) weren't content with just content exclusively about marriage balms and earring collections, and DeLeath couldn't have been overly pleased with one of many articles such as this one, that mentions that both she and Kate Smith "have not permitted corpulence to bar them from the spotlight," not unlike the later mention of a beauty pageant winner who lost her legs in an auto accident but found success by modeling for magazine covers, presumably only from the waist up.

Five years after making her artist husband happy in 1931, DeLeath apparently opted to make herself happy instead and changed partners in 1936, marrying "orchestra leader" Bernard Rosenbloom. An additional five years down the road, however, the match-up of vocalist and musician would fall away too, as mentioned here in a 1941 news item.

Around the time of her 1936 marriage to Mr. Rosenbloom, DeLeath was still a regular on the radio dial. Here, in a fragment from one of very few surviving transcription discs, DeLeath is introduced by an announcer and then sings "With All My Heart," a tune from the 1935 Broadway show "Her Master's Voice" which was filmed by Paramount in 1936 with Edward Everett Horton and Peggy Conklin as stars. At first, DeLeath seems a world away from the vibrant, rollicking voice of a few years earlier --- but just as you think she's given up the ghost, she opens up that gloriously mellow voice full throttle for the song's finish.

Vaughn DeLeath - Radio Transcription Disc Excerpt

The unhappy news began filtering through wire services on 27 May 1943, prefaced by "teaser" items such as this one, variations of which still are used today and invariably prompt a collective "Uh-oh!" from sympathetic readers.

In Buffalo, New York where she was appearing on Red Cross charity broadcasts, Vaughn DeLeath expired in her room at the city's Statler Hotel, aged 49 --- with a few years shaved off for print.

As with everything, what once was eventually departs and traces that it left behind are either discarded, picked apart, forgotten or destroyed. A mere two months after DeLeath's death and we find no happy reminiscences of the performer or her music, but instead we do find this unseemly news item sent out on the news wire:

No mention, mercifully perhaps, of what became of a lifetime's worth of scrapbooks, mementos and records --- that is, if she retained any. Surely though, a few? Likewise, we'll never know what became of the beloved collection of ear ornaments that once belonged to "a Sunday school teacher with the soul of an adventuress." For all we know, they could still be adorning the ears of women in Bridgeport, Connecticut --- and beyond, today. I like to think so.

To my mind, one of DeLeath's most effective recordings is the one that follows, "Lonely Lights Along the Shore," which dates from 1927. It's bound to hit home at least to some degree for most of you, and while the sonics are a bit dodgy, it's Vaughn DeLeath at her purest, unadorned best.


"For the Last Time Anywhere!"

By the time it was barely eight years old, "Fox Movietone Follies of 1929," an extraordinarily popular film that was seen by hundreds of thousands of people, seemingly vanished from this earth --- completely and thoroughly.

Although countless other Fox titles were lost in a catastrophic film storage facility fire in 1937, many of these films have since been discovered elsewhere and have, in some cases almost miraculously, struggled back to life again --- aided by passionate individuals, archives and organizations around the globe. However, it appears that "Fox Movietone Follies of 1929" died a violent and rather final death in that celluloid inferno of 1937.

Indeed, it's because that the film has left so precious little of itself behind that it tends to receive perfunctory mention at best in most explorations of the early musical or sound film and, even worse, is often so poorly described and misrepresented that each new book or article further obscures and mangles the film's fleeting but brilliant life.

Despite the title, "Fox Movietone Follies of 1929" wasn't the plot-less, all-star revue film it's often thought to be. Although MGM's "Broadway Melody" (a musical with backstage sequences) would reach screens in February of 1929, the arrival of "FMF29" two months later, signalled the arrival of the first sound film to be set entirely within a theater, the first "backstage musical" in the truest sense, which played on the screen in what amounts to a "real time" format --- long before that term existed --- and similar to the way "On With the Show" (WB-1929) is also constructed.

Simply, "Fox Movietone Follies of 1929" details one hectic day and opening night of a lavish musical revue, beset with problems stemming from romantic intrigue, creditors and investors demanding satisfaction, and a spiteful leading lady and her hopeful understudy. Approximately eight reels in length, the first two reels of the film are given over to plot and character exposition, which then gives way to a series of incredibly elaborate musical revue sequences. Between these sequences, the thread of the plot is picked up and advanced, until all is well by the film's finale with personal problems solved and the success of the apparent. Yes, of course we've seen this all before --- but it should be remembered that it was done here for the first time in a sound film.

The first of the film's musical sequences, which also serves as the opening of the show-within-the-movie, presents chorus girls as the various notes of a musical scale:

"DOn't expect an opening chorus
RAise your eyes and don't ignore us!
MEdiocre shows start with them,
FOllies have a newer rhythm!
SO we have no opening chorus,
LOts of shows did that before us!
SEE dear public how we know you,
DOn't get nervous, now we'll show you!"

Attention is then turned, somehow, to the lower limbs of the musically attired chorines, who proclaim:

"Legs - Legs! We're hot for plenty of speed,
We've got the thing you need,
Legs - Legs! No face could ever replace,
A pair of beautiful legs!
Legs - Legs! Hips - Lips! Eyes - Hair!
No face could ever replace,
a beautiful pair of legs!"

Another musical sequence immediately follows, a fantasy with dress mannequins springing to life, titled "Why Can't I Be Like You?," which served to introduce Dixie Lee, who had been recently featured in the Broadway production of "Good News." (The All Movie Guide cites "The Varsity Drag" as being performed in FMF29 --- it isn't.) As described in 1929 reports of the film:

"Strolling down Fifth Avenue, she (Dixie Lee) is struck by a marvelous display of gowns on models in a modiste's window. She stops to inspect them, wondering why she never can get clothes like those she sees in the window. She sings, 'Why Can't I Be Like You?' based on this theme, and is astounded when the models come to life and parade for her inspection."

Although the song was published as sheet music, it was never commercially recorded. For that reason, the words are offered here:

"I love to window shop, I always have to stop ---
and look at beautiful ladies.
Each time that I compare
their clothes with what I wear,
It makes me sigh -- I want to cry.

Why can't I be like you, and look the way you do?
To me you always seem too lovely for words,
Lovely feathers make lovely birds,

A yard of silk and lace, add to your charm and grace.
You're in my dreams, but my dreams never come true,
Why can't I be like you?"

Four tunes from FMF29 would gain widespread popularity via radio, commercial recordings, piano rolls and printed sheet music. The first, "That's You, Baby" had a unique presentation, with the setting being a beach and seaside amusement pier --- where the tune is performed by two couples, Sharon Lynn & David Percey, and Sue Carol & David Rollins. The "double duet" effect is heightened by the camera alternately cutting between each player and each pair as the lyrics are sung. Observing all this musical romancing are two small youngsters (one of which was Jackie Cooper,) who then perform a chorus of their own before they're joined in by the two couples and then a large singing and dancing chorus. (The concept of having children singing an adult love song proved popular with audiences, and would result in it being utilized, in a nearly identical manner, for "If I Had A Talking Picture of You" in a later 1929 Fox musical, "Sunny Side Up.")
For the second musical hit from the film, "The Breakaway," the approach used here was to have the tune performed in a two contrasting but loosely connected settings. Opening with a close shot of "little colored girl" rhythmically chanting "Breakaway! Breakaway! Breakaway! Bing-bing! Dottin' yo' eye! Bing-Bing! Dottin' yo' eye! Breakaway! Breakaway!," the camera pulls back to reveal a city street setting and a large chorus. Performer Sue Carol enters, and with an exuberant cry of "Hey Kids!," that cues the orchestra, she continues:

"Hey, flappers - this way, flappers, I'll floor ya --
with a new dance, oh what a new dance,
hotter than hot, and it's got new tricks in it!
I'm fixin' it for ya, So you can learn every new turn,
Oh here is the high spot!"

The scene then switches to that of a schoolroom filled with students. A bookish professor surprises his class by suddenly piping up:

"Dear students, I'm here students ---
To make you follow this rule,
When you leave school, go out to work, and never shirk!
Take others before others can take you!
Do as you're told, 'till you grow old,
Don't break away!

Sue Carol appears on the scene again (she was apparently en route to school in the first segment,) who leads the students in a chorus. Then, as the camera moves in close on Carol, she looks directly into the camera (thereby addressing audiences in both the imaginary theater and the audience watching the film) and says:

"Hey, how would you all like to learn how to do the Breakaway? You wouldn't?
How would YOU like to learn?
Come on, come on, three times upon your heels - that's it! Come on, try it!
Aw, Daddy, come on - that's it! See? Just as easy - come on YOU try it!
You ready? You ready, Arthur?"

The "Arthur" here is Arthur Kay, as the theater's orchestra leader. He replies, "For you? Always!" and the tune is given another and final closing rendition by all, including the little girl from the opening moments of the segment who wanders in to sing a verse by herself.

At this point, we have an opportunity to get as close to "Fox Movietone Follies of 1929" as we'll ever likely be able to. A fragment of audio from the actual film's soundtrack which somehow managed to beat the odds and survive on disc --- long separated from the footage it once accompanied to theaters only equipped to handle the Vitaphone sound-on-disc system.

Here, we can listen in on a bit of plot advancement. The setting is the girls' dressing room, immediately following the conclusion of the last number, "Breakaway," (although "That's You Baby" can be faintly heard in the background scoring.) Despite everything having gone smoothly so far, the chorus girls have issues with the new owner, George Shelby --- which they lay on thick, purely for the benefit Lila Beaumont (Lola Lane) who's divided in her allegiance to George and to the show. She suddenly explodes in anger, allowing catty star of the show, Ann (Sharon Lynn) to really twist the knife. Unfortunately, George walks in during Lila's outburst and deems her as the resident troublemaker --- a fact which delights Ann, who then plays it up for all she's worth.

This is followed by one of the film's color sequences (there appears to have been at least two), a moody, elaborate tableaux /piece called "Pearl of Old Japan" that evolves into a surreal "underwater" ballet involving sunken pirate galleons and skeletons --- surely a visual feast in pastel hues! --- with the onscreen action being directed and described via vocalization (by David Percey) of the mournful lyrics:

"Pearl of Old Japan" (1929) - Soundtrack Excerpt

"There's a legend in Japan, of a maiden and her man,
He fished for pearls they say, and disappeared one day,
She's left alone to pray and plan!
Pearl of old Japan, do all you can - to find your man.
If you have a notion he's under the sea,
show him your devotion --- go under the sea!
Throw all else aside, search far and wide,
where treasures hide.
And in the wreckage of a sunken galleon,
you are sure to find your man,
poor Pearl of old Japan!"

For the third pop-music hit the film would turn out, the jaunty "Walking With Susie" is first sung by iron lunged Frank Richardson, then given a song and dance treatment by what's described as a "colored troupe," and then finally by Richardson again for the finale. How the number was staged, or in what setting, is unclear --- but given the spirited "bumpin' and thumpin'" mentioned in the lyrics, it was doubtless anything but sedate. The tune's seldom heard opening verse, as performed in the film:

"Every day I take a walk, it's Sunday.
From Monday to Sunday not one day I miss,
every little walk that I can squeeze in...
this season, it pleasin' --- the reason is this...."

"Walking With Susie" (1929) Milt Shaw & His Detroiters

At last, the plot elements --- such as they are, converge and reach a head just prior to the film's last big number. Prickly show star Ann (Sharon Lynn), is still finding things to gripe over --- in this case the simple costume for "Big City Blues," designed to depict the plain workaday outfit of any number of nameless people who find themselves alone and friendless at holiday time, in an intolerably cheerful city filled with loving families and friends. Of course, she completely misses the point and after refusing to "make a fool of myself by repeating a costume," she very nearly stops the show cold --- until a furious Lila Beaumont snatches the costume away and dons it herself before stepping out on the stage.

In a vast departure from preceding musical sequences, "Big City Blues" presents us with the lone pathetic figure of a woman, huddled beneath a city street lamp --- snow falling about her. The commercial 78rpm recording offered by Annette Hanshaw, is perhaps the only one out of many renditions of the tune that appears to perfectly capture the mood and tone of the piece, as well as including all of the lyrics as they appeared in the screen version. According to contemporary reports, while the song was performed, to underscore the isolation of the singer and her lament, the screen displayed "occasional flashes of joyous holiday crowds, adding tremendously to the dramatic effect." Indeed, yes!
The star's understudy, Lila Beaumont scores a hit --- just in time to allow her to join in on the show and film's big musical finale, which masterfully blended all of the film's melodies (save for "Pearl of Old Japan"!) into one sequence --- brief snatches of each song performed by those who originated them, with Lila replacing the sulking Ann, as the show concludes with full orchestra and chorus basking in thunderous applause.

As George Shelby embraces his sweetheart, he's immediately offered $55,000 for his interest in the show and he agrees, just as quickly --- and no gallant quibbles about the extra 5K profit either! Still breathless from her instant rise to stardrom, Lila has no interest in pursuing it any further and readily agrees to return with George to Virginia, provided they marry first.

The film's final view is that of Stepin Fetchit (Lincoln Perry) and a heavily accented French costume designer, concluding what was a repetitive dialogue routine that extended throughout nearly the entire length of the film --- cutting to it and away again.

I hadn't mentioned Fetchit up to this point because, quite simply, his presence in the film is comparatively small --- just one of many plain truths about the film which have been misunderstood or mangled over the years.

True, Perry's "Fetchit" character scored big with audiences and enhanced his popularity greatly, but he was by no means the film's star, as eluded to or flatly stated as truth in some published works.

Portraying the theater custodian, Fetchit's dialogue is limited to an exchange with the Shelby character in the film's opening moment, and then --- a full reel later, he exchanges a very few words with cast members of the show while delivering flowers and telegrams to their dressing rooms.

After Dixie Lee's "Why Can't I Be Like You?" number, Fetchit encounters the aforementioned French costume designer, kicking off the ballet-slipper dialogue exchange. The scene lasts for about a minute, and then resumes for roughly half that time following the "That's You Baby" sequence. Later on, when it's learned that Ann has sent a cast member for a "colored skit" or blackout, out of the theater on an errand, Fetchit is called in to fill in for him, and the skit (consisting of ten lines of spoken dialogue) ensues and ends, to be immediately followed by "Breakaway."

We return to the Frenchman and Fetchit yet again just prior to "Walking With Susie," and his character is seen again for the last time prior to the film's closing moment, in what could be termed his only featured sequence in the film --- a fleeting, peculiar and unstructured solo musical bit that's utilized (in the film) to fill stage time while difficulties with the star of the show are being ironed out. Without any title, it's described thusly in a surviving transcription of the actual film:

Cut to Stepin dancing and singing on stage:

"Start steppin', Stepin Fetchit,
Turn around, stop and catch it ---
Now and then if you miss it,
start again, Stepin Fetchit,
Turn again go and get it,
If they holler, Stepin Fetchit."

Cut backstage - George and creditors

Without having the ability to see the film, written transcriptions of the film's action and dialogue, newspaper reviews and accounts, still photographs, and about eight minutes of audio all add up to a miserably poor close second --- but, they do allow us, if we take the time to do so, to "see" and briefly hear the contents of a lost film that, over seventy years ago was so popular with audiences that it was booked into theaters for sometimes as many as three return engagements -- a very uncommon event to be sure.

For now, and probably forevermore, it seems that late 1930 printed advertisements for the film which declared "Final Engagement! Last Time Anywhere!" were more profoundly and sadly prophetic than anyone could have possibly imagined.

Medley - "Fox Movietone Follies of 1929"


On With the Show of Shows!

"Spare me, I bring a message! I'm the bearer of glad tidings!
Oh, if you will but listen to me..."

"Listen to you? You scum? We have listened to you for years!
You've wasted hours of our time, wasted... aye, years!
You're useless!

You're an alibi that stands for all that is worthless,
and now you will pay for your crime and by all the Gods above,
we intend to stamp you out forever!

Hear ye! Prologue is dead! On with The Show of Shows!"