07 December 2006

Snake Hips

"The terraced minstrel show set with its lustrous expanse of gold and silver drapes, its fourteen huge jeweled sunbursts, its mammoth spreading fans in red, green and gold, all in a blaze of perfect lighting, is, perhaps, the most notable of the sets and when it is populated by 150 screen personalities all in brilliant and gorgeous costumes, the picture is beyond description."

So described a 1930 newspaper advance publicity placement for Fox's "Happy Days." Once I got past the beautifully descriptive prose, it occurred to me that I hadn't previously thought of the film as originally containing color sequences, but the thought was hugely appealing --- especially when combined with envisioning how the film might have looked upon it's premiere at New York City's Roxy Theater, where it was screened in the 70mm Fox Grandeur wide-screen process as well. Were this true, it's well neigh impossible to imagine the sensory overload that would have greeted 1930 audiences attending that most glorious of a cinema palaces and one which would be demolished after a mere thirty years of life: Color, wide-screen and Fox's unparalleled (in my opinion) Movietone sound process bathing each of the 5,920 upholstered seats in sight, sound and color. Overly dramatic I know, but not far from an early sound film buff's notion of heaven.

With the Roxy Theater long gone (it's entrance now marked by a T.G.I. Friday's) and "Happy Days" barely surviving in openly traded and sold 98th generation dupes --- a mottled, tattered, bleached, garbled and truncated shadow of its former self --- it's no small wonder the film is all but sneered at when written about, and surprisingly, it's even scoffed at by the only fan base it could possibly claim at this late date, that being the legions of Will Rogers' admirers. The film's parent studio apparently didn't think enough of it (or at all) to include it in two DVD boxed sets of Rogers' sound films and that's probably just as well considering the likelihood that the Rogers scenes would simply be extracted from the body of the film and included as an "extra" with little or no explanation.

But, I stray. Did "Happy Days" originally contain color sequences? The introductory paragraph certainly goes out of it's way to suggest so. Then too, not all --- but some period "reviews" for the film (of the variety written by theater owners who pre-screened prints before booking) seem to solidify the press campaign's claim by saying, merely, "Some of the scenes are in Technicolor." Well, perhaps
not Technicolor --- but another color process? So, until anyone can offer up real proof pointing one way or the other, we can't be certain.

One of the film's most striking musical and tuneful sequences, in pastel hues or not, is "Snake Hips," which was promoted in newspapers by asking: "Do snakes have hips or not?" and then inviting them to see for themselves in a verbal elbow-nudge fashion.

Starkly designed with two gigantic curled cobras on either side of the set --- with bodies and heads rising and curling upwards to meet in the center forming an exotic proscenium arch, the beauty of the number's design and the shimmering metallic costumes are all but impossible to appreciate or even clearly ascertain in circulating dupes, which reduces individual dancers into undulating blobs without clear face or figure. The film's soundtrack has suffered right along with the visual elements too, and gone are the original Movietone crystalline highs and deep, warm and rich bass notes. Further assault comes in the form of no less than two cuts within the sequence, one of which deletes Sharon Lynn's entire vocalization of the song's chorus. With that warning in mind, and to oblige a reader request, here then is an audio reference for "Snake Hips" in the form it can be found today. No amount of mucking about with audio enhancement can undo decades of damage, but weak as this is it's actually an improvement upon the original source material!

"Snake Hips" (1930)

Scattered and wildly incomplete though surviving examples of early radio are, every once in a great while something comes along that almost effortlessly sweeps away volumes of dry written documentation simply by allowing us the ability to hear for ourselves, and experience something that no amount of prose --- however skillful --- can hope to emulate.

One Tuesday evening in May of 1928, an engineer working at the Thomas Edison Laboratory & Phonograph Works in New Jersey (pictured left) was busily testing a new recording process that would allow for long-playing discs. Seeking a continuous source of recordable material as opposed to recordings that would have to be changed every few minutes, the engineer decided to utilize a radio set in his workroom and at 8PM, he tuned into radio station WEAF, (which was carrying programming from NBC) and began his test recording, which lasted 18 minutes.

When finished, he filed the disc away with some jotted notes on the recording process and results, without knowing that some seventy-five years later his experiment would be rediscovered and that what he captured --- quite without thought as to posterity, would be the earliest known over-the-air recording of a live broadcast and, as it turns out, a broadcast consisting of popular music.

An entry in the NBC "Eveready Hour," a sponsored anthology/variety program that offered a diverse selection of dramatic, musical and comedy offerings, the captured fragment of entertainment and technological history is listed in the radio guide from that date only in the briefest of forms, without detail as to scheduled artist or theme. From the surviving broadcast itself, we learn that the setting is that of a night-club, and that the featured singer is one Martha Copeland, about whom I could discover nothing further. In researching various radio listings for the Eveready Hour from that same week and month, however, I think I can tentatively conclude that the accompanying vocal group that backs Copeland is The Hall Johnson Choir (a famous choral group of the day that was featured in a variety of entertainment mediums, including --- most notably, the 1929 Bessie Smith two-reeler "St. Louis Blues") and that it's probable that the orchestra was under the direction of Nathaniel Shilkret.

In the following two brief extracts of somewhat reduced quality from the full recording, Miss Copeland puts over a wonderful rendition of the pop standard "I Ain't Got Nobody" (including a disorienting shout of "everybody rock!" during the song) and then, a stirring vocalization of "The St. Louis Blues," performed here in an arrangement that foretells the ultimate Bessie Smith version that would arrive the following year, replete with similar haunting vocal backing by The Hall Johnson Choir.

"The Eveready Hour" (1928) Excerpt 1

"The Eveready Hour" (1928) Excerpt 2

Interested readers should make haste for the home page of the public-radio broadcast that first premiered this recording in 2003, "Thomas Edison's Attic," which is maintained by Edison recording historian supreme, Jerry Fabris. Displaying an unparalleled passion, knowledge and respect for Edison recording artists and their product, Mr. Fabris is as unique a gem as could be hoped for in this incredibly overlooked and underestimated niche of American popular music history. The material he broadcasts, originating directly from the original medium of cylinder or disc, is of astounding quality and variety, and guaranteed to cause any listener to rethink any existing notions they may have about early sound recording. With that in mind, please visit: http://wfmu.org/playlists/TE

Somehow or other, I've not yet managed to see D.W. Griffith's "Lady of the Pavements," a 1929 United Artists release that arrived on screens with a synchronized music and sound effects score and at least one dialogue sequence. Happily, the film survives today (although without it's sound elements) and I've heard that at least in some screenings, the film's lilting theme song ("Where Is the Song of Songs For Me?") the tune is given its due either by interpolation into the live piano accompaniment or by the playing of the film's star, Lupe Velez's 78rpm recording released in conjunction with the film's premiere. Either way, it's an admirable effort to try to correct damage wrought by time and neglect and one I applaud. In tribute to both the film and those who still present it, here's two renditions of the theme song. The first by Lupe Velez --- touching, skilled and exotic, and the second by vocalist Franklyn Baur, clear, resonant and timeless.

"Where Is the Song of Songs for Me?" (1929) Velez

"Where Is the Song of Songs for Me?" (1929) Baur

In a much lighter vein, I introduce vocalist Sid Garry, who recorded for a mind boggling array of "dime store" record labels throughout the 1920's --- and possibly prior and beyond, as concise information on his career hasn't been easy to pin down. What I do know is that no matter the record label he's encountered on --- Banner, Cameo, Domino, Perfect, Regal, Romeo, etc. to name but a few --- or no matter what name he used ("Al Foster" was a common alias), his voice and style is as unique and immediately identifiable as a thumb print... or blood stain. Adding a whole new dimension to the old descriptive term "he sings with a tear in his voice," Sid Garry has been delighting me for years by almost always seeming to be on the verge of weeping as he sings, and by a style of pronunciation and inflection that's his and his alone. I'd love to know more of Mr. Garry (or Mr. Foster,) so if any reader should have additional information, I urge you to share it!.

For the uninitiated, here's two familiar standards of the late 1920's as I suspect you've never heard them performed before. Typically, Mr. Garry either selected or was wisely called upon to vocalize tunes of an emotional or sentimental nature, and these two melodies, "Mean To Me" and "Tip Toe thru the Tulips" are prime Sid Garry. (Pictured right, Mr. Garry/Foster, himself.)

"Mean to Me" (1929)

"Tip Toe thru the Tulips" (1929)

Closing out this post, two additional requests that I'm pleased to be able to meet. In relation to my earlier posts regarding The Duncan Sisters, I was reminded that I overlooked one of their finest recordings, "Dawning" of 1927 --- and I'm glad this oversight was mentioned. A simple melody, the theme of which dwells upon dawn, early morning, mother's arms, yawning babies, and the rooster's call to awaken, it's comfort food of the musical sort that effortlessly stirs memories of childhood and home --- our first home --- that dwells within all of us, somewhere. As described in the Victor record ad at the left, the Duncan Sisters "each has a piano to accompany her --- that is, there are two pianos, while Vivian plays the uke. Against this background, they sing two of the charmingest ditties." The flip side tune, "Baby Feet Go Pitter Patter" is just a wee bit too charming, even for me. "Dawning," however, is magnificent and just charming enough.

"Dawning" (1927)

Lastly, for a flash finish, a high spirited medley of selections from the 1930 United Artists film "Puttin' on the Ritz," consisting of "With You," "There's Danger In Your Eyes Cherie" and of course the seemingly indestructible title tune. Of passing interest, in the ad below, note that the credit listings for a coming attraction, "Second Wife," has the odd billing "The New Lila Lee" for the extraordinarily prolific and skilled actress. This "new" tag, although of questionable taste, refers to the fact that the actress had underwent what amounts to a nervous breakdown (highly publicized too) following a grueling stretch of work in film upon film, in support of the likes of Texas Guinan in 1928, Sophie Tucker in 1929 and Lon Chaney in 1930 --- just to name a few. This "new" billing is an idea before its time, although if in use today it would likely have to read: "The Newest New, Really New, New as Today, _________." Ah, just as well it hasn't been borrowed, I suppose!



Joe Thompson said...

Jeff: Thanks for more of your evocative writing. Of course, recent generations will always associate "Puttin' on the Ritz" with "Young Frankenstein".

Jeff Cohen said...

Thanks, Joe! As for "Puttin' on the Ritz," I doubt I'll ever be able to entirely shake off the 1970's disco rendition by "Taco," which suggests a multi-screening of "Young Frankenstein" is in order!


Anonymous said...

Sid Garry kind of sounds like Harry Richman, only in a lower register.

Anonymous said...


One of my favorite 20s-30s vocalists, Sid appeared in the extant film: "Ed Sullivan's Headliners" 1934. (I know it's extant, I used to own a 35mm safety film Realart(Universal) reissue print) If you can track it down, by all means do--it is a time capsule of lesser known acts of the early 30s: Ed Sullivan is host, the "poor man's Burns and Allen": Jesse Block & Eve Sully--there should be a bio about them--they missed an audition by a fluke and Burns & Allen got hired for their big chance instead.. Also in the cast is dialogue comedian George Givot and a few bizarre Vaudeville acts.

Anonymous said...

Sid Garry seemed to have a style very similar to Harry Richman--especially by the early 1930s...quite common back then to take on the style of more popular singers.

Jeff Cohen said...

Eve Sully! What a face! What a voice! Although familiar via countless TV sitcoms, it's her small but priceless role in "Kid Millions" that I like best --- as the raucous, man-hungry princess who sets her eye on Eddie Cantor.

Ultimate moment?

Eddie: Oh, go away from me. I can't talk to an idiot!

Eve: I can, c'mere!