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!


1 comment:

Kevin K. said...

"Selections from 'The Cocoanuts'" was great! It's the closest we'll ever come to hearing what the original Broadway version was like. If only Victor had recorded Groucho singing "In a Little Bungalow" like he did in the show...