05 December 2006

Blurred Reproduction: A Musical Assortment

A variety of items, and a melancholy entry to begin with...

In 1946, while silent and early-talkie star Olive Borden was scrubbing the floors of the "Sunshine Mission For Women" in the heart of
Los Angeles' skid row, her health swiftly fading and wealth long gone, shunned by the studios that were but a short distance away, I wonder if she would have found some solace in knowing that a theater in Edwardsville, Illinois was still running her films?

In what looks to have been the forerunner of the modern "revival house," --- or maybe just a small theater stuck in some sort of odd self-imposed time warp, the
Widley Theater of Edwardsville ("Quality Supreme") was running films of an earlier day in a strangely matter-of-fact way, avoiding any reference that might indicate the films offered as being twenty years old and silent at that! Indeed, the Widley proudly announces that the "New Gratian Orchestra Organ" is being manned by Professor Herzwurm, indicating a vested interest in silent photoplays, and the print ad for Miss Borden's 1926 film, "Yellow Fingers," makes no mention of the film's vintage and instead heralds Borden as the "New Emotional Star." All very odd, and certainly ironic, given the real-life drama being enacted at precisely the same time in a seedy Los Angeles building. (See Note at bottom of this post.)

At the time "Half Marriage" (
RKO-Pathe) was produced in 1929, Borden's future was considerably brighter --- although there had already been signs of trouble ahead. Battles with her studio, unreasonable salary demands, and a highly extravagant lifestyle all initiated her initial fall from grace --- bad timing for any actress at the close of the silent era, and even worse for the skittish, unreliable Borden. "Half Marriage" isn't better or worse than many other films turned out that year --- it's well produced, technically more than sufficient (it's exceptionally well recorded and scored too), but it's an uncomfortable film to watch because it becomes clear something isn't quite right with Borden. Overly joyous and manic in scenes calling for only moderate cheerfulness, awkward and jerky in her movements, almost anorexic by today's standards and certainly by 1929's, she seems well under the influence of something. All the more a pity is that she's absolutely a stunner, the camera loves her (from any angle) and her voice is melodic and expressive. All for naught, however. A few more films, increasingly further and further down the poverty row studio ladder rungs, and that was that.

Although the haunting tune "Girl of My Dreams" dates from 1928, it figures prominently in the background scoring for "Girl of My Dreams," and once you've heard it played against some of Borden's best scenes in the picture, it's impossible to again hear the tune without thinking of that lovely, fragile figure with the large haunted eyes. Ethereal, sad and chilling --- and even more so in this 1928 vocal rendition by Gene Austin, with pipe organ musical accompaniment.

"Girl of My Dreams" (1928)

There was nothing but frivolity to be found however, in the 1930 Paramount film "Let's Go Native," one of those near-perfect musical comedies that the studio made between 1929 and 1930 which survives complete and intact, but is the victim of litigation, attitude, ignorance and garden variety red tape that combine to keep the film from view. If you're familiar with 1932's "Million Dollar Legs" or the early Marx Brothers films, and can mentally combine that irreverent aura with a heavy dose of nearly hallucinatory surreal visual and spoken humor, then you might have a slight idea of what "Let's Go Native" offers --- if it were given the chance, that is.

One of the film's brightest musical moments is a brutal send-up of theme-songs and movie love-songs in general, "It Seems To Be Spring," in which --- following an introductory vocalization by Jeanette MacDonald, cuts to a montage of nature in the throes of spring-time abandon at its most saccharine: babbling brooks, blossoming flowers, twittering birds, baby rabbits and ducklings, and then, two bears newly out of hibernation (enacted by costumed humans) dancing and prancing about flowering fields in adoration of one another and Spring itself. As a parody-within-a-parody, it's simply an ultimate moment in the history of the screen musical of the type there wasn't enough of: the genre laughing at itself, gently and lovingly.

"It Seems to Be Spring" (1930) Waring's Pennsylvanians

Odd moments are also to be found in the initial film released by the then newly formed RKO conglomeration, 1929's "Street Girl." A peculiarly joyless and bleak film despite the competent cast, even the film's theme song, the peppy "Lovable and Sweet" becomes a thing of dread by the fourth or fifth time it's heard, and Betty Compson's impossible vaguely European put-on accent is a trial from the get-go. Indeed, the film's advertising slogan, "See Her... Hear Her... Love Her," seems less of an invitation than a demand and as a whole, it's a cold little film that barely hints at the splendid escapist spectacle that "Rio Rita" would offer just a few months later.

In one of those all-too-infrequent glimpses into how these early sound films may have looked and sounded to attending audiences, the review at the left, by "Wood Soanes," ruefully notes that "less than fifty per cent of the conversation was intelligible," and largely yawns at the whole film, but concludes that his opinion might have been influenced by the "blurred reproduction." A skilled writer, but grasping for descriptive technical film terms that barely existed in common vocabulary at the time. A window in time.

"Street Girl," like many sound-on-film productions was made available to theaters in a sound-on-disc format, and the following extract is one of the film's oddest moments. Quite out of nowhere, in a night-club setting (which I suppose was reason enough for the presentation of a musical number in any 1929 film,) comes "Broken Up Tune," danced and sung by Doris Eaton (sister to both choreographer Pearl Eaton, and musical stage and screen actress Mary Eaton) who is accompanied by Gus Arnheim & His Orchestra. Snappy at first, the number soon lives up to its title, becoming a discordant mix that must have seemed either very modern or very awful to audiences of that day and, I daresay, of this day too.

"Broken Up Tune" (1929) Doris Eaton, Gus Arnheim & His Orchestra

Lingering at RKO a bit longer, 1929's "Tanned Legs" is one of those early musicals that somehow managed to survive looking and sounding better than any film of that vintage usually does, and the effect is startling simply because it's not what we're used to. No need to wish for closed-captioning here to understand a muddy, garbled soundtrack (1930's "Sunny" has closed captions, appropriately and oddly enough) or to strain eyes in an effort to ascertain an actor from the printed draperies behind them. No, "Tanned Legs"... and "The Vagabond Lover" too, for that matter, both seem to have been lovingly tended to over the decades --- although why, exactly, remains unclear. "Tanned Legs" was loaded to the hilt with songs, most of them merely so-so, and the one that emerged as the hit was "You're Responsible," which was warbled by a saucy, beret clad Ann Pennington to her long-in-the-tooth beau, Allen Kearns. Here's Johnny Johnson & His Orchestra giving it the once over for the curious among those present.

"You're Responsible" (1929)

Perhaps not the best way to advertise a new film, the ad at the right warned potential audiences that "The Cuckoos is a long picture," and because of the length, the accompanying program would be limited to one cartoon. I doubt this would deter fans of the team of Wheeler & Woolsey, and those fans weren't in short supply either at the time. (Interestingly, only a few instances in advertising have cropped up in which a film of the period prompted theater owners to caution readers about the running time. The running time of "Rio Rita" was often cited in ads, as was "Noah's Ark" --- which often carried a disclaimer mentioning the film's "extreme length" as the cause for limited daily shows.)

While you're listening to an excellent recording of one of the film's two "big" song hits, "Dancing the Devil Away" (which actually originated in the 1927 Broadway production "Lucky," but don't tell anyone) you may want to read (below) a period article detailing a fascinating bit of lost history and clever marketing cross promotion for "The Cuckoos." Oh, what would I give to hear a transcription of this radio broadcast!

"Dancing the Devil Away" (1930) Arden & Ohman

We're extraordinarily fortunate to have Universal's 1930 "King of Jazz" with us today in any format, no less in the perfectly serviceable albeit somewhat imperfect version that made its debut on commercial VHS ages ago. The mammoth, awesome and incredibly impressive all-Technicolor revue's current absence from DVD can only suggest it's being held in reserve (ho-ho!) for a forthcoming boxed set of early sound landmark Universal Studios musical treasures that will include "Show Boat," "Broadway" and perhaps "Melody Lane" too. Then again, it might some day be available on a bare-bones $9.99 disc tossed onto the market when there's nothing left for the studio to toss. Then again, and in reality, probably not not in any form --- although I'd sorely love to be proven wrong, and soon.

Investing some time, research and yes... even finances, could bring forth "King of Jazz" in all it's original splendor to DVD --- including, as supplementary material all manner of advertising
ephemera, trailers, the 1932 re-release version and surviving audio for sequences that no longer exist on film. (The Universal/MCA version looks beautiful in spots, but it's incomplete and the order in which scenes are presented are at odds with the original release version.) Alas, while there's still a quick no-brainer buck to be made by a Director's Cut Special Two-Disc Edition of (insert schlock film title here) that played for two weeks in your local multiplex, well --- the prognosis isn't cheerful.

What is cheerful however, (and you may strike me for that segue) is an exceptionally fine vocal rendition of the film's longest lasting hit, "Happy Days" --- which has turned up since 1930 in the most unexpected of places on CD's, television shows, and films --- indeed, almost everywhere except in the film it first sprang from. Recorded in October of 1930 by the vocal group, The Revelers, here's harmony unleashed!

"Happy Feet" (1930) The Revelers

Also offered is what may well be the eeriest, most darned accurate modern-day (providing the mid-1980's can still be considered modern?) re-creation of the film's "A Bench in the Park" number. It's performed by a remarkable group of part-time musicians that hailed from the Netherlands (Breda, Noord Brabant, I believe) who may or may not still be meeting to perform miracles such as this. If you think this is good, you can't imagine the effect of having heard this performed live, which made it all the more delightfully time-warpish an experience.

"A Bench in the Park" - Re-Creation

To close out this post, two melodies that by now should be familiar to readers of these pages --- but included here because of their unique rendition and/or presentation on 78rpm disc.

The first, "Singing in the Bathtub" from WB's 1929 All-Technicolor (a term I can now use with confidence) revue, "The Show of Shows" --- performed by the singing team of Edward Smalle (another familiar name to you perhaps?) and Jerry Macy --- about whom I know little. The tune is presented in what amounts to a miniature vaudeville turn, replete with gags and puns sure to induce more than one groan, but it's still an endearing little recording because the two vocalists seem to be having such a good time performing it. Note the curious use of the Canadian National Anthem as part of one sound gag, indicating there may have been more than one version recorded --- although I could only find release notes for one.

"Singing in the Bathtub" (1930) Smalle & Macy

And, to exit you out the door into the clear night air --- well, air at any rate, as plaintive and simple a rendition of "I'm Following You" from the 1929 Duncan Sisters MGM film "It's A Great Life" as I've ever encountered. For those that enjoyed the musical offerings in the earlier "Melody Native" post, you'll enjoy this especially. Recorded on the Champion label in February of 1930, here are the South Sea Serenaders doing what they do best.

"I'm Following You" (1930)


Note: Since first publishing this post, the opening piece on Olive Borden and the bizarre exhibition of her silent film in a 1946 theater just didn't set well with me. Returning to the newspaper files to try and find out more about this twilight zone-like theater, I made a shameful discovery. Included within the pages of a 1946 newspaper was, for no particular reason, two pages of a 1926 newspaper... obviously the original and correct source and date of the ad. Although this discovery leaves the story with far less of a dramatic twist, I'm leaving the post intact if only to point up the fact of how dangerously easy it is to re-write film history, almost at whim, even when done in innocent error. In a way, I'm relieved to learn that everything was as it should have been in 1946, for better or worse.


jtk said...

I really enjoy the early Wheeler and Woolseys films, they always showcased some great musical numbers and performances. Speaking of Broadway 1929, do you happen to know the cause of Merna Kennedy's early demise? As for Broadway Scandals, I dont know where else a print might exist, but LOC does have nitrate original negatives of the talkie and silent versions and safety preprint holdings, but does not have a reference print of the film at this time.

Jeff Cohen said...

Merna Kennedy passed away just four days after her marriage to an Army Sgt. in 1944, of a heart attack. I suspect she knew of a heart ailment as she recorded her last will and testament on sound film in 1938. Good to know that the LoC is keeping watch on negatives for B'WAY SCANDALS, as there's always a slight chance the quaint notion of having a print struck so it can be viewed might one day crop up.

Unknown said...

So glad to see you're spreading the great music of the early sound era in this way. I'll make this a stop on my trips around the blogosphere.
Love & Peace, Clarence

aberdeennj said...

How exciting. Until now, I thought Broadway and Melody Lane were both lost films. Is the boxed set something that is really being planned?

Jeff Cohen said...

Burton - My overly dry (and obscure)attempt at humor is at fault here, I fear. While BROADWAY exists in two different and imperfect formats, a combination of the two elements would result in a satisfactory presentation of the film as originally released. Despite that, no --- no DVD boxed set of this nature has likely been given so much as a fleeting thought by anyone in position to propose it. "Melody Lane" was mentioned only as an example, and the film's status is unknown to me at present. The best chance for seeing any of these surface on the DVD market would be via Kino, Milestone or the like --- but I wouldn't hold out hope there either. Then too, smaller companies such as these, invaluable though they are, would be in a doubtful position to invest or find the time, $$$, and intellectual/creative input these fragmented titles (B'WAY, KING OF JAZZ) so badly need to shine again.

James Bazen said...

Quite a sad end for Olive Borden, although such as Hollywood has shown since the beginning, not unique. I've only seen her once, in the Fox silent film "Three Bad Men". I remember how strikingly lovely she was, and she was a very charming actress. Her scenes with George O'Brien were cute. Great story Jeff.

Elk999us said...

Please don't feel bad,Jeff...I mixed up Olive Thomas and Olive Borden at first...My clue was that you made no reference to Jack Pickford..Love reading your Blog,Jeff..Thanks