15 November 2006

A Fancy Lady and the Winnipeg Kid

One of the most endearing figures to romp across the screen between 1929 and 1930 was actress, comedienne, dancer and singer Marjorie White. Offering able support and more than holding her own against the likes of Janet Gaynor & Charles Farrell, The Three Stooges, Wheeler & Woolsey and even "Charlie Chan" and Will Rogers, she lit up the screen with a manic energy and distinct personality of the rare sort that didn't lose audience favor as quickly as it would with Winnie Lightner or even White's frequent co-star, El Brendel.

A mere twenty-seven years old at the time of her death --- an auto accident near Santa Monica, California --- Marjorie White began her career as Marjorie Guthrie during the First World War as a member of the "Winnipeg Kiddies," a performing troupe comprised of youngsters that toured Canadian and American cities. After outgrowing the "kiddie" designation (although only 4'10" tall), the combination of marriage, a name change and an arrival in New York City resulted in the start of a career that would remain active until her demise. Vaudeville tours on the Orpheum and Pantages circuits with Thelma White (where they appeared as the "White Sisters") would eventually lead to Marjorie answering the call to Hollywood in where she appeared in six films for Fox between 1929 and 1930 alone, four of them musicals.

Although a key figure in "Happy Days" (Fox-1930) --- with the film's minstrel show/revue portions being hung upon a thread of a plot led by Marjorie White, it's "New Movietone Follies of 1930" that allows for the one and only spotlight performance in her film appearances. One of many elaborate musical sequences in the film, "Talking Picture Queen" presents White as a young nobody arriving at the studio gates, eager to impress studio executives who pleads "How I long to be synchronized!"

Quickly advancing through the required course of voice and dance lessons, she emerges a full blown talkie diva at last --- only to be joined by a thundering herd of dancers who share her moment of glory. It all plays far better than described, and is one of those rare self-depreciating jabs at the movie industry, set to music, that remains timeless and as sharp as ever.

"New Movietone Follies" also served as a showcase for a fascinating yet shadowy actress, Noel Francis --- of whom I could find little personal detail aside from the oft-repeated fact that she hailed from Texas, was disowned by her father for choosing a performing career, and was a former Ziegfeld girl before entering films in 1929.

The image of Francis at the left, while hard to equate with the languid yet edgy actress seen throughout the 1930's was, interestingly, used as a publicity image for her appearance in 1931's "Blonde Crazy," despite it obviously dating back to a far earlier day. Possessing a surprisingly powerful singing voice that was given free reign in a rendition of "Cheer Up and Smile" in the 1930 Movietone revue, it was her distinct and beautifully melodic speaking voice that really stands out. Although her appearance, personality and mannerisms would vary quite a bit in her 1930's roles (she seems unquestionably ill in a small unbilled role in 1933's "Havana Widows," a remake of Winnie Lightner's 1930 "Life of the Party") the strangely appealing quality of her voice --- always somewhat halting with a note of repressed hysteria --- remained intact.

Of her later roles, she's especially memorable in a small cameo lasting but a moment in 1931's "So Big," where she's seen as a prostitute (billed as "A Fancy Lady") wearily roaming the nearly deserted night-time streets. Encountering an industrious young woman (Barbara Stanwyck) and her toddler son readying for bed in their wagon, Francis is utterly heart-breaking in her display of impossible yearning for the maternal relationship and life she knows will never be hers. Equally, while decidedly a minor villain in 1932's "Night Court," she's incredibly effective here too in a role that allows her to be victimized by Walter Houston and then, in an attempt to gain something out of the ordeal --- she attempts to have her way with a drunken Phillips Holmes, allowing her a priceless fade-out moment as the intended seduction fails miserably.

By 1935 steady work in increasingly smaller roles began to fall away, and by 1937 she left the screen as quietly as she entered it, but not without leaving many small but perfect, gem-like moments behind.

The history behind "Happy Days" is also tied into that of the Fox 70mm widescreen process named "Grandeur," --- a topic that forthcoming posts will eventually explore. For now at least, it should be noted that while "Happy Days" survives, it's commonly seen only via dreadfully poor quality video dubs, riddled with splices and missing a number of sequences. A number of years ago, a superb quality print was viewed at New York's Museum of Modern Art, indicating that it's still out there, perhaps waiting for the studio that created it to show the slightest interest in it once again. I wouldn't hold out hope, however.

"New Movietone Follies" also survives in a beautifully restored print that has been given a few isolated screenings here and there, but apparently no thought has been given to DVD release or cable airings in addition to its sporadic outings. It's the old, old story.

Note that in the above ad and in the one to the right, prospective patrons are being assured that neither film is a revue. An early indication of a tide that was slowly but surely turning!

From "Happy Days," an unnecessarily pretentious but enjoyable medley of tunes recorded by the New Mayfair Orchestra in 1930. Included, "I'm On A Diet of Love," "We'll Build A Little Home Of Our Own," "Mona" and "Crazy Feet."

Medley - "Happy Days" (1930)

Also from "Happy Days," perhaps the film's best tune, "Mona" performed here by Ben Selvin and his Orchestra. The vocal, by Irving Kaufman, doesn't do justice to Frank Richardson's soaring version as performed in the film --- but it comes close!

"Mona" (1930)

Two selections from "New Movietone Follies of 1930." The first is Noel Francis' solo number, "Cheer Up and Smile," which has similarities to a bit of business contained within Janet Gaynor's performance of "Sunny Side Up" in the well known 1929 film of the same name.

"Cheer Up and Smile" (1930)

Next up is a bit of romantic intrigue and melody. Swedish dialect comedian El Brendel is mistakenly thought to be a rich "lumber king" by White and Francis, his secret (he's a servant) is discovered by the latter, who then wants to rid herself of him as quickly as possible --- and feigns gallant self-sacrifice to unload him on an unsuspecting Marjorie White. This is followed by a comedic duet/wrestling match between Brendel and White titled "Bashful."



Anonymous said...

Great Page! I'm doing a life bio of Marjorie White and your page has terrific vital stats on her work! Thank You, Keep It Up!

Jeff Cohen said...

Great to learn of a Marjorie White bio in the works --- well deserved and long overdue. Be sure to keep us posted as to it's progress!

Anonymous said...

I have a copy of Winnipeg Free Press, circa 1915-1918 with a large article on the Kiddies, with a picture of the troupe, along w/ performance dates at local theaters, etc. Let me know if you'd like to see it, I'll be glad to send it. I'm more than pleased to share any info I uncover with anyone of similar interest

Anonymous said...

Is it ok to leave my name/ e-address on this blog? or not, do I subscribe? advise, Thanks

Jeff Cohen said...

I wouldn't leave an e-mail address here --- it might be picked up by some spam robot or such.

Much easier to simply write me at my e-mail address direct:


Looking forward to hearing from you!


Anonymous said...

I have compiled a soon-to-be-published (March 2011) birth-to-death life biography of MARJORIE WHITE, which I hope will dispel all the falsehoods that abound on her. I have on file, and quote in the work, government documentation, both Canada & U.S. of every event of her life, both personal & professional. It has taken over 7 years to compile this work, which I believe to be the most definitive documentation of any celebrity bio yet done by anyone: By reading "MARJORIE WHITE - HER LIFE AND WORK" you will learn the truth and see I have "Gone where no one has gone before!" for order info, contact BEARMANOR MEDIA. You'll be pleased, I'm Sure!