12 December 2006

After "After the Show"

Unfinished business related to the previous post that detailed the Pathe Studio fire.

On December 12th of 1929, two days after the tragedy, and amidst funeral services being held across the city and it's boroughs for those killed, John C. Flynn (or "Flinn," it varies in accounts) Vice President and Harry F. Lalley, Business Manager of Pathe Sound Studios, Inc. were arrested on charges of manslaughter.

Police had seized 160 containers that was estimated to hold between 50,000 and 100,000 feet of highly inflammable film, a flagrant violation of a city ordinance that prohibited the storage of more than five reels of film in standard buildings such as the one in which the fire occurred.

What precisely transpired after the arrest is unclear owing to the story all but completely vanishing from the press, but apparently they were released soon afterwards. The next time the matter would appear across news wires was four months later in April of 1930, when it was announced that two indictments were handed down for the pair, charging manslaughter in the second degree --- but only in two of the ten (or eleven, according to some accounts) persons who died in the fire.

The counsel for Flynn & Lalley, Nathan Burkan, informed the District Attorney that he would surrender the two accused men "next Monday, when they will plead 'not guilty'." He explained that the delay was due to Mr. Lalley being in California. The indictments were based solely on the deaths of Catherine Parker and Edna Burford, the legal names of two of the deceased chorus girls. The defendants were accused of "gross and culpable negligence" in not providing automatic sprinklers and fire extinguishers in the studios under their control, as well as accusing the two of being negligent in permitting more than 5,000 feet of inflammable and combustible motion picture films to be stored in the building.

I'd like very much to tell you what happened next --- that the two were found guilty and tossed in jail for a reasonable length of time, but owing to an astonishing lack of documentation on the trial (if there was one, that is) and aftermath, I've no clue. Casual consulting with a legal expert presented a few possibilities which can be sorted out as to their feasibility or lack thereof.

1) The case went to trial, and there were convictions or the pair was found innocent, but for some unknown reason, these convictions or dismissals were not reported, and nor were the trials. Deemed highly unlikely.

2) The case was settled before going to trial, with fines and/or probation. Lack of interest results in non-reporting of the non-sensational outcome. Deemed possible.

3) The charges were dropped, for lack of evidence, lack of witnesses, etc., or... perhaps the most likely explanation given New York City government of the day (Tammany Hall, Jimmy Walker, Judge Crater), someone simply "got bought."

Whatever the case, 1930 would mark the end of the line for Pathe. By December of that year, it was announced that Pathe would become property of the Radio-Keith-Orpheum Corporation (RKO) for a cost of $4,630,789 which would include the Pathe studio and property in Culver City, California, the New Jersey film printing laboratories, the Pathe News and Audio Review and all of Pathe's existing distribution facilities and exchanges throughout the United States and Great Britain.

The exchange of cash seems to have been what ultimately washed away all traces of the 1929 fire, and all presumed sins connected with it --- a turn of events we today aren't entirely unfamiliar with, unfortunately.

In one of those ghastly coincidences of fate, the 1929 Pathe feature-length musical film "Red Hot Rhythm" (Directed by Leo McCarey) was in general release at the time the studio fire occurred and was being reported. Unintentionally ghoulish title aside, the film was a light comedy in which Alan Hale portrayed a "music racketeer" of Tin Pan Alley who writes songs and fleeces would-be composers by publishing their product and stealing away their profits. Finding himself involved in a love-triangle in which he becomes the victim, he sees the error of his ways and is reformed. Co-starring with Hale was Kathryn Crawford, Josephine Dunn, Walter O'Keefe, Jimmy Clemons, Ilka Chase and Anita Garvin.

Featuring five musical sequences, I can't help but find it a bit curious that although the film is deemed lost -- one sequence has managed to survive, seemingly clipped out of a print at some point early in the film's life and carefully stored away while the rest of the film gradually decomposed and vanished.

The curious aspect is that the excised sequence, photographed in an early color process, consists of a performance of the film's title tune, "Red Hot Rhythm" and features a stylized depiction of chorus girls being menaced and ordered to dance by a long-legged Satanic-like fellow. Dance they do, tapping, stepping and kicking their way up and down a small set of silver steps. As the dancing reaches a frenzied climax, colored streamers appear representing flames swirling about the dancers, and the whole sequence ends with superimposed real flames forming a curtain as the number concludes.

I'll leave you to listen to an audio transcription of this sequence and to draw your own conclusions as to why someone thought to snip these few minutes out of a complete print, quite without knowing that their motives --- if there were any --- would be questioned over three-quarters of a century later. Like the outcome of the arrest of the two Pathe executives, perhaps there are indeed things it's best we don't examine too closely.

"Red Hot Rhythm" (1929) Excerpt


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