22 December 2006

"Don't Tell Your Right Name!"

"Don't tell your right name!" cries a helpful voice just as an after-hours entertainment establishment (shall we say) is unexpectedly raided in the opening moments of the 1927 Vitaphone short subject, "The Night Court."

Directed by Brian Foy, and filmed on an adjacent Warner Bros. sound stage while "The Jazz Singer" was being lensed and recorded in the Summer of 1927, "The Night Court" has the distinction of being the first sound film set within a courtroom, albeit of the nocturnal variety, a theme and setting that would loom large in the early talkies, featured in such films as "On Trial," "Tenderloin," "Queen of the Night Clubs," and "The Trial of Mary Dugan," and "Madam X," to name but a very few.

Make no mistake, despite the title and setting, "The Night Court" is pure musical frivolity --- a befuddled and clueless old Judge, a slick Broadway lawyer (William Demarest,) a free-spirited female jazz singer (Dottie Lewis,) an "exotic" dancer ("Joyzelle," who'd later gain everlasting cinematic fame as intergalactic dancer "Loo Loo" in Fox's 1930 "Just Imagine,) and a court-room filled with viewers, patrons, policemen and reporters all doing their best to hide their mirth at the absurd proceedings.

Arriving in theaters in late 1927, where it was sometimes advertised as "William Demarest & Co.," as in the ad to the right, the film proved immensely popular with audiences eager for fully synchronized speech and song, and would continue to be booked into cinemas across the country until the late summer of 1928 when it bowed out and retired into the shadows, seemingly forever --- until the relatively recent discovery of both the film's picture and sound elements resulted in restoration, preservation and extremely limited and select exhibition of the one-off variety (the old, old story yet again!)

"The Night Court" utilizes two popular melodies of the day, "When Erastus Plays His Old Kazoo" which is heard at the start and close of the film as dance music, and "I Ain't That Kind of A Baby," which is vocalized in strident fashion by Dottie (or Dolly?) Lewis. Both tunes are grand examples of 1927 popular music and for that reason (although one isn't really needed in this case --- they're that good!) two stand-alone versions are offered here for each melody.

Alex Jackson & His Orchestra (pictured right) does the honors for "When Erastus Plays His Old Kazoo," recorded in October of 1927,
and elusive female vocalist Esther Walker leaves little doubt as to where she stands in her spirited, full throttle rendition of "I Ain't That Kind of a Baby," recorded for Victor in September of that same year.

"When Erastus Plays His Old Kazoo" (1927)

"I Ain't That Kind of a Baby" (1927)

Divided into two sections to facilitate easier listening, here's "The Night Court" itself --- with some audio correction in place to repair the damage that well intentioned but overly enthusiastic "noise filtering" inflicts upon Vitaphone disc material which, if largely left alone, offers surprising sonics both low and high. (Much as I eagerly anticipate films like "The Jazz Singer" arriving on DVD, I shudder at how diminished the original Vitaphone disc audio will likely be by an attempt to "clean it up.")

"The Night Court" (1927) Part 1

"The Night Court" (1927) Part 2

For a night court of a somewhat different variety --- but one well suited to this post, here's a gem of an audio relic for the more open-minded and less sensitive of readers: "Hollywood Night Court," recorded in 1930. In what would come to be termed "blue" or "party records," simple concepts like a court-room scene would be enacted for a 78rpm recording with all manner of risque dialogue and double entendre of the sort that necessitated the disc being sold strictly under-the-counter. Although tame by modern standards, there's surprises aplenty here for the uninitiated in this dark corner of 78rpm recording history and for that reason listener discretion is advised.

"Hollywood Night Court" (1930)

To close out this post on a higher level --- or to at least attempt to, let's leave with the memory of the beaming fellow to our left. That's mandolin player extraordinaire, Bernardo De Pace, who was featured in a 1928 Vitaphone short subject that, although a dazzling performance piece, prompted one reviewer to matter-of-factly indicate that it wasn't always a love-fest between audiences and Vitaphone product: "Bernardo De Pace is an accomplished mandolinist, but his free flowing grimaces make him hard to enjoy."

We need not worry about such matters here, for as Mr. De Pace performs "That's Why I Love You" we adjourn this post and return readers to the protective custody of the waning days of 2006.

"That's Why I Love You" (1928)

Court & Bernardo De Pace Photos Courtesy The Daily News Collection of the Chicago Historical Society


Kevin K. said...

I saw "Night Court" at the Film Forum's Vitaphone festival last year. What sticks out in my mind more than the music was the astonishing pratfall Demarest takes at the end of the movie. I don't know how he didn't break his back.

Jeff Cohen said...

Especially impressive when you consider that the auto crash Demarest was involved in happened in March of 1927, just a few months before filming "The Night Court." The epitome of the show biz trouper.