13 December 2006


The young lady depicted to your left in poster artwork for the Warner Bros. All-Technicolor 1929 musical "The Gold Diggers of Broadway" is Ann Pennington. While largely underused in what would be her most important, popular and successful screen appearance, her trademark high-kicks and knack for the "shimmy" dance movement electrified audiences attending the film, just as they did well before 1929 and long after.

Although I've not seen enough of her small body of film work to pass absolute or even fair judgement of her versatility as a dancer, (her two key dance scenes in "Gold Diggers" have yet to resurface) it is however interesting to note that her dancing in "Tanned Legs," "Happy Days" and (presumably) "Gold Diggers" is all much the same --- although what she does, and how she does it is undeniably unique. Her screen dance moments are possessed of such apparent ease, abandon and seemingly tremendous enjoyment of the moment that to watch her can't help but be a memorable experience because she rings so utterly true. Whatever the role or character, it all falls away when she's called upon to dance, and what's left is pure pleasure.

As noted, although I've only seen enough of Pennington to amount to a handful of minutes, I was surprised not long ago by just how identifiable her style of dance was. While viewing hours of silent Kodachrome film footage taken at the 1939 New York World's Fair, a fleeting moment of film taken an outdoor Fair attraction titled "George Jessel's Old New York" had an oddly familiar look to it. Seen from a distance, on the silent footage that moved far too quickly, onto a small stage designed to look like an early 1900's boxing ring, bounded a short, plump raven-haired woman I felt certain was Ann Pennington, and later discovered certainly was. The dancer duplicates the same dance steps she had performed in films only ten years earlier but which, by 1939 was so distant that it was accepted as a Turn of the Century style performance by the assembled crowd of perhaps forty or fifty spectators. Eerie.

Ann Pennington's absence from release prints of the 1929 Warner Bros. revue "The Show of Shows" is puzzling in of itself, but made more so by the film's use of a tune called "Believe Me" in the finale that would turn up soon thereafter in a Technicolor short subject that starred the actress, titled "Hello Baby." Unlike every other tune employed in the massive closing sequence, "Believe Me" isn't to be found anywhere else in the film, which suggests that earlier presentation of the melody in the body of the film was cut before release in an effort to trim off minutes of an already long motion picture. A commercially released 78rpm recording by Irene Bordoni (a featured performer in the Warner revue) of the tune further hints at the fact that the deleted sequence may have featured the French performer as well as Pennington, and a curious production photograph of Myrna Loy and Grant Withers in historical costume of vixen and gladiator also (possibly!) suggests that "Believe Me" may have served as the melodic framework for a tableaux of some sort.

In general release at the same time as "Show of Shows," the two-reel All Technicolor short "Hello Baby" (which shares fairly equal billing with the Rin-Tin-Tin feature depicted left) is a happy example of a lost film that emerged from the shadows quite unexpectedly, and in it's original well-preserved Technicolor hues too --- an unlikely event in of itself. Without having seen it, it's difficult to ascertain whether Pennington's performance of "Believe Me" could possibly have been lifted bodily from "The Show of Shows" after having been snipped, but the surviving disc audio hints at this, as the arrangement and orchestration of the tune is virtually identical to the version heard in the revue film. This audio extract features the two-reeler's opening title music --- which gives way to the sound of a back-firing jalopy of the sort in vogue among collegians at the time (often with all manner of motto and snappy expressions painted on the car body) and then the puzzling tune in question, "Believe Me," vocalized by Miss Pennington and then reprised by the chorus.

"Believe Me" (1929) Ann Pennington

Co-starring with Ann Pennington in "Gold Diggers of Broadway" was Winnie Lightner who effectively walked off with both the film and the lion's share of critical acclaim while instantaneously endearing herself to audiences as well. For many of those who would flock to see "Gold Diggers" either on it's initial release or at one of the film's many return engagement "by popular demand" bookings (that continued into the early 1930's) Lightner wasn't precisely a new face and certainly not a new discovery --- but she did, at last, seem to find the perfect arena for her persona and talents.

First hitting the "big time" in two Broadway editions of Shubert's "Gay Paree" musical revue that ran for a combined total of 373 performances between August of 1926 and April of 1927 on Broadway alone before touring, Lightner was enough of a whirlwind presence to gain special mention in nearly every review of the production which, as a whole, was met with mixed reception as indicated in the December 1925 review below --- just the sort of review that then, as now, would have guaranteed a box office rush!

It wasn't more than a few years before time and technology combined to result in Lightner (who was aptly billed as "The Song A Minute Girl" or "The Joy Girl of Song") being called before the Vitaphone film and recording apparatus, and her one-reel short subject(s) were so exceptionally well received that they continued to be booked well after their initial 1928 release.

Aside from her memorable appearances in "Show of Shows," in which she introduced the immortal brutal parody of "Singin' in the Rain" titled "Singing in the Bathtub," "Life of the Party" and the missing believed lost feature "She Couldn't Say No," Lightner was at her unrestrained, rambunctious, raucous and endearing best in "Gold Diggers" and "Hold Everything." The latter film, a 1930 All-Technicolor musical comedy visualization of the Broadway success that has, unhappily, completely vanished --- leaving only it's sound discs behind to intrigue, entertain and feebly hint at what once was a hugely popular film success that, judging by the surviving audio, would make another all-Technicolor 1930 stage-to-screen musical, Paramount's "Follow Thru," seem a very weak sister by comparison indeed.

Two examples of Winnie Lightner, from "Gold Diggers of Broadway" and "Hold Everything."

In the first extract, Lightner positively scandalizes poor blustering Albert Gran with her rendition of "Keeping the Wolf From the Door" during an apartment party sequence in "Gold Diggers of Broadway," wherein Gran sees his fate being sealed with each "woof!" Winnie emits in his direction.

"Keeping the Wolf From the Door" (1929)

From "Hold Everything," and in keeping with the production's unlikely (but successful) setting within the world of boxing championships, Winnie Lightner is joined by a singing and dancing chorus (all clad in stylized satin boxing togs of various hues) in "Take It On the Chin."

"Take It on the Chin" (1930)

The legendary "long count" boxing match between Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey held in September of 1927 was very much a certifiable "media event" long before the term would be coined, and the event was so rapidly absorbed into popular culture via print and electronic media, that details of the event would still be vibrant and immediately identifiable to listeners of a clever 1927 recording by pianist/comedian Clarence Senna. Recorded in the last days of December of 1927, it's easy to imagine the record being played in many a home as 1928 dawned. It's one of those rare topical recordings that has the power to put the modern day listener right there in the moment of the day. (Below Left: Gene Tunney - Below Right: Jack Dempsey.)

If you're reading this blog, chances are you need no introduction to either the film "The Broadway Melody" (Metro-1929) or one of it's stars, Charles King. Invariably the recipient of harsh criticism for a style of acting and vocalization we can't easily understand or appreciate today, I believe that he (and many like him) can best be appreciated if you alter your perception a bit.

Rather than consider (as many books tend to) "The Broadway Melody" as the spark that created a brief film career that would vanish by the mid-1930's, a more truthful appraisal would include the understanding that the landmark film musical simply served to crown a very long and very successful career. He was a man in the right place, at the right time and with the right and credentials to appear in "Broadway Melody", but if the film never happened, he would have still possessed the sort of career that most performers born directly into cinema could only hope to.

Partnered with singer and composer Elizabeth Brice in the 1914-1915 Irving Berlin "syncopated musical" "Watch Your Step," (New Amsterdam Theater, New York - 175 performances) which starred popular dance icons Vernon & Irene Castle, the show served as the vehicle that put Brice and King into the spotlight, resulting in featured appearances in the touring company of "Watch Your Step" throughout 1916, as well as individual vaudeville bookings for the pair and a Columbia recording contract that same year as well.

While clearly rooted to 1916, it's as enjoyable as it is curious to hear Charles King in the recording that follows, because owing to our presumed familiarity with the 1929 film it becomes immediately clear that his performance style was cemented by the date of this recording --- meaning that he was, quite simply, just himself in the early talkie; a proven talent on stage and screen (he appeared in the aborted 1928 Marion Davies production "The Five O' Clock Girl"), utilizing a proven formula at the peak of his career --- rather than beginning one as some might suppose.

"I've Gotta Go Back to Texas" (1916)

After "The Broadway Melody" and "Chasing Rainbows," in which he was again paired with Bessie Love, Charles King gradually fades away from mention in the press --- a stage appearance and club date here and there throughout the 1930's --- but there's no indication he remained anything less than a content, healthy, popular and productive fellow pursuing and achieving a well-deserved "normal" domestic life after nearly three decades of toil on the stage, before the recording microphone, in active military service during the Great War, and ultimately on the talking picture screen.

King emerges again however, at the height of World War II, when scattered reports of his death began to appear in early January of 1944. Aboard ship en route to Britain to join a troop of USO entertainers, Charles King contracted pneumonia and died in London on January 11th, aged 57 (in truth.) King was buried in Brookwood National Cemetery, in Surrey, UK, with full military honors, yet a vast distance away from the New York street his voice so effectively sang the glories of in 1929.

Here, also from "The Broadway Melody," a Charles King rendition of quite a different tune, the solemn and wistful "Love Boat," performed in the film as a tableaux --- a nearly forgotten form of artistic stage presentation that doubtless baffles curious viewers of the film today, prompting usage of descriptive terms like "static."

"Love Boat" (1929) Charles King

Not many months transpired between the Broadway closing of Cole Porter's musical "Paris" and the November 1929 premiere of the part-Technicolor Warner Bros. screen version, no prints of which are known to have survived. Enough written and aural material exists to warrant a simple reconstruction of the film in these pages, and you can expect to find one here early in the coming year. For now, and for no reason other than that I think you might enjoy it, here are two renditions of a song from the Broadway production that was reworked for the film (four songs were cut and replaced with others for the screen version including, incredibly, "Let's Do It - Let's Fall In Love") titled "The Land of Going To Be."

Recorded for Victor in March of 1928, the music is provided by Irving Aaronson and his Commanders and the vocal by one Jack Armstrong, with some choral voices for the closing reprise.

"The Land of Going To Be" (1928)

From a set of surviving Vitaphone discs for the export version of the film, the same melody performed by Jack Buchanan and Irene Bordoni. Buchanan begins the melody on a piano in his hotel suite, is heard by Bordoni from an adjoining suite of rooms --- she then picks up the vocal while sauntering in to join the phantom musician. Caught between the striking designs of the piano and Bordoni's zebra pelt coat, Mr. Buchanan's expression is to be understood.

"The Land of Going to Be" (1929) Vitaphone Disc

Rounding out this double-sized issue of "Vitaphone Varieties," a few brief items of passing interest.

Promotion for Universal's 1930 musical revue "The King of Jazz" naturally extended onto the radio airwaves, and while nothing has survived that features Paul Whiteman's Orchestra, a radio appearance by three of his vocalists, The Rhythm Boys (Bing Crosby, Al Rinker and Harry Barris) does exist, and is excerpted here. Originally heard on K-FOX in May of 1930.

"The Rhythm Boys" (1930) Radio Transcription

Vaudevillian Willie Howard, who's performing career was born nearly along with 20th century vaudeville itself, and who achieved fame as part of "The Howard Brothers" (Eugene and Willie, pictured left in 1921) was what is best described as a "Jewish dialect comedian," and a hugely entertaining one at that. His circa-1925 recording of "When Nathan Was Married to Rose of Washington Square" is a sterling example of his work. No nervous wringing of hands is called for here, as his humor is gentle and certainly rings true to this author's ears --- which can still faintly recall hearing similar voices, humor, malapropisms and accents from his early childhood days in the heart of blue-collar Irish, Italian, German and Jewish Brooklyn. First or second generation New York immigrant voices, --- which, once passing on, weren't to be replaced by others. Rather, just simply lost to time and memory and sometimes, as in this recording, preserved forever. Dearly, and sorely missed voices.

"When Nathan Was Married to Rose of Washington Square" (1925)

Lastly, and you may consider this "Exit Music" for this edition, an infinately catchy tune from Metro's largely underappreciated or misunderstood (or both) anti-hero musical of 1929, "Lord Byron of Broadway." Performed here in a British recording by the spot-on Harry Hudson Band, "The Woman in the Shoe" is bound to linger long after you've heard it, and is actually a far better rendition than would be recorded here in the States by the usually excellent Nathaniel Shilkret, who missed the mark somehow with this one.

"The Woman in the Shoe" (1930)

(Photographs of Ann Pennington (1925), Eugene and Willie Howard (1921), Gene Tunney (1927) and Jack Dempsey (1927) courtesy of the Chicago Daily News Collection of the Chicago Historical Society.

SDN-066937, SDN-066851, DN-0079720, & DN-0073416.)


1 comment:

James Bazen said...

Ann Pennington is in the Gloria Swanson film "Manhandled", where she plays herself and gets to dance during a party sequence. I'd really like to see some of the handful of her star vehicles from the 1910's. Does anyone know if any of them survive?

I have to say, I liked Charles King vocally in "The Broadway Melody" Can't remember how he struck me as an actor. But he has a fine and exceedingly pleasant singing voice. Great recordings, and I enjoyed learning more about him.