01 November 2006

A Woman Undisputed

At this late date, at least for me, one of the most memorable elements of director Cecil B. DeMille's first two talkies, "Dynamite" (1929) and "Madam Satan" (1930), is one that typically passes with scant mention --- that of the presence and memorable contribution of actress Kay Johnson (1904-1975.)

Placid, studied, intelligent, sensitive, delicate --- and so much at odds with the bizarre raucous world and those who populated it that were created within these two films, Johnson somehow managed to survive both epics critically unscathed and then simply moved on to smaller roles --- almost cameos in some cases, seemingly hand picked in others (the 1934 "Of Human Bondage," especially) that became fewer and fewer apart throughout the 1930's until she eventually retired from the screen in the mid 40's.

Johnson surely had one of the loveliest speaking voices to be heard on the early talking screen --- the type that when, once heard, is instantly identifiable thereafter. Depending upon how you look at it, it's either fortunate (or not) that Johnson's vocal abilities weren't called upon to warble either of the theme songs from her two DeMille films.

The first, "How Am I To Know?" from DYNAMITE (1929), managed to become a pop standard and ultimately freed itself entirely from it's film roots to the point where it could be heard, somewhat disconcertingly, in television banking commercials.

The second, "Live and Love Today" from MADAM SATAN (1930) was seemingly forgotten by the time the film's run ended, a fact helped along by the fact that it wasn't widely recorded --- and, while pleasant, painless and immediately familiar to anyone who's seen the film, the tune's pedigree is clearly second rate.

But, just to illustrate a point of just how awful an early talkie era theme song could be, and perhaps to elevate "Live and Love Today" a few pegs --- here's an excerpt from the theme song of the 1928 synchronized Norma Talmadge film, THE WOMAN DISPUTED that defies description.

Audio Addendum:

"How Am I To Know? from DYNAMITE (1929)
Vocal (Gene Austin) with Orchestra
Recorded on September 19th of 1929

"Live and Love Today" from MADAM SATAN (1930)
Sam Lanin & His Orchestra, Vocal by Irving Kaufman & Male Trio

"Woman Disputed (I Love You)" from THE WOMAN DISPUTED (1928)
The Gennett Concert Orchestra, with Male Vocal
(Excerpt Only - Damaged Disc)


1 comment:

James Bazen said...

Aww, I don't think the theme song for "The Woman Disputed" is all bad. Not the best theme, but not worthy of all the derision it's gotten over the last almost eighty years. Although, having actually seen the film(Which exists in a nice 35mm print at LOC) sans the song( or any musical accompaniment), the upbeat, lilting romantic ardor of the piece is at odds with the decidedly downbeat and unusual flavor of the film's plot.

Yes, I always like Kay Johnson. A fine and charming screen actress. Too bad she didn't become a bigger star. She seems to have had that two years or so of starring parts, and then quickly ended up in character roles. Albeit distinguished character roles that often allowed her to turn in a fine performance. So not a total loss. She does have a good starring role as late as 1935 with "Jalna" which TCM has aired more than once in the last year or two.