04 December 2006

Go Along Bad Times

On February 26th of 1943, Louella Parson's syndicated Hollywood column included a portion of a note sent to her by a serviceman stationed somewhere in the Pacific.

The writer was Private William R. Goewy, aged 24, who'd been at Pearl Harbor when the December 7th attack occurred. The note said, in part, "Today we saw Joe E. Brown in this desolate spot. He is the only movie star I have seen since the war started and it was really great to see a human being from the States. Do you know a Johnny Marvin of Hollywood? He was with Joe E., and is tops. He says he came here to make the boys laugh and we sure did all the time he was here."

Although Parsons didn't say so, if she didn't personally know a Johnny Marvin of Hollywood, then she surely did --- at least, remember him and likely the image that would have come to mind would have been of a slickly groomed fellow in an impeccable tuxedo, accompanied by a ukulele or guitar, who sang in a radiant, ringing voice the songs of another day and time that, by the darkest days of 1943 would have seemed so unreal and distant as to be a dream remembered.

Two months later, news syndicate wire services would carry an article in which Johnny Marvin was given voice. Not the voice of the former 1920's entertainment icon though, but of a desperate man making an impassioned and worthy plea: "If the folks at home only realized how starved our boys are out there for songs and other entertainment, they'd sure do much more about it than they are doing. Soldiers have been able to develop little of their own entertainment in camps... Weather conditions are hard on the few musical instruments they have, mostly guitars and fiddles. Strings, which deteriorate rapidly, would be highly welcome wartime contributions."

In the company of his one time fellow Warner Brothers and Vitaphone film star Joe E. Brown, Marvin would travel 14,000 miles by plane, presenting 180 shows. They performed whenever they arrived at their destination, day or night. "We staged shows for groups as large as 12,000 and we trudged across battlefields still strewn with bodies --- to entertain little groups of American boys in their outposts. But, it was the tears that came to the eyes of the boys in the hospitals that proved how much just a little bit of entertainment would please them."

The article later mentions that Johnny Marvin became ill while traveling through New Zealand, prompting a reluctant return to Hollywood. Whether connected to this illness or not, the performer would pass away a few days before Christmas the following year, 1944 --- leaving this world too soon to see the end of the conflict that troubled him so, or to see the thousands of men and women whom he entertained in hellish places return home to what was hoped would be a better world, a world closer to the one Marvin first achieved fame in.

It's 1927 and Johnny Marvin's long years spent in vaudeville and before the microphone have elevated him to musical stardom. A year before he scored as a feature performer in the Broadway musical "Honeymoon Lane," and his recording career continues to blossom as a soloist and vocalist for bands of the day. A current song hit is "Me and My Shadow," and while a somewhat creepy, dirge-like rendition by Whispering Jack Smith would prove the best-selling version, it's Marvin's rendition (for Nat Shilkret & His Orchestra) that puts life into the tune. It's resplendent with cheerful optimism, suggesting that the loneliness spoken of in the tune is only temporary at best --- so vastly different from the morose and forlorn Smith rendition!

"Me and My Shadow" (1927)

1927 would also be the year in which Marvin was approached by Warner Brothers & Vitaphone to appear in a one reel recorded vaudeville performance that was exceptionally well received, and one which often accompanied the prestigious and technically superb Warner Bros. synchronized comedy of the Great War, "The Better 'Ole."

Two excerpts from Johnny Marvin's premiere Vitaphone performance, in which he performs "A Little Music in the Moonlight" and "Deed I Do."

"'Deed I Do" (1927) Vitaphone Disc Excerpt

When Marvin was called upon to pair with another vocalist for a recording, which he frequently was, the result was always satisfying. Marvin never battled for prominence nor dissolved into the background in these recordings --- he'd simply meld with whomever he was with, while still retaining his identity.

Two of the nicest duo recordings follow. The first, from 1927, has Marvin with female vocalist Aileen Stanley (who's pairings with Billy Murray are mentioned in an earlier post,) and their handling of the tune "Under the Moon," is the sort of lyrical, lightly comedic melody that could have only come from the heart of the decade it was recorded in.

Next, he paired with Ed Smalle (an incredibly versatile vocalist in his own right) to cover the theme song of the Paramount film "The Shopworn Angel," a silent film that had been fitted out with a synchronized musical score and tagged on talking sequence when it became obvious that synchronized films, if not thought to be a permanent fixture, at least certainly made more money than their silent counterparts. The tune, "A Precious Little Thing Called Love," was one of the bigger musical hits of the year, widely recorded and still sometimes even performed today --- although not without usually seeming a bit absurd, if not slightly grotesque, when uprooted from the day in which it was first heard.

"A Precious Little Thing Called Love" (1929) Mavin & Smalle

1929 would prove to be one of Marvin's busiest and most prolific years, in which he combined film appearances with vaudeville, recordings and a special engagement with the Kit Kat Club in London on May 14th of that year, as indicated in the promo below and to the left, which mentioned Marvin's transatlantic crossing on the S.S. Leviathan.

The Kit Kat Club featured a tight, fine orchestra under the direction of Alan Selby, as indicated by this 1928 recording in which it's easy to envision how Johnny Marvin's vocalizations might have fit in.

"Why Should I Feel Lonely?" (1928)

As was often the case, the boom in film musicals provided a wealth of material for performers and recording artists, and Johnny Marvin would benefit as much as anyone. Although he'd never become closely identified with any one particular tune from a musical film, his recordings of melodies from films were always featured front and center in Victor print advertisements, as well they should have been. Two highly representative recordings from Metro's "The Hollywood Revue" are offered next, the languid "Orange Blossom Time" and the seemingly inescapable "Singing in the Rain," the rendition here of which is given a neat twist by the inclusion of The Brox Sisters (who were featured in the film) on the vocal refrain.

"Singin' in the Rain" (1929) Marvin & Brox Sisters

By the late October of 1929 recording date of the next and final tune, time and tide had shifted --- at first imperceptibly, but setting off events that would serve to effectively seal off the 1920's permanently from the decade, and decades that followed. Ironically titled "Happy Days Are Here Again," and a tune which took on a life of its own far removed from its original source, it was first presented in the Metro film musical "Chasing Rainbows" as part of a show-within-a-show sequence set at the end of the First World War --- making its typical connection with the carefree 1920's even more ironic and misplaced.

"Happy Days Are Here Again" (1929) Johnny Marvin

Johnny Marvin would continue to perform on radio and in vaudeville for a good portion of the 1930's, at which point he left his wing-tipped collar "crooner" image behind forever, morphing into a country-western persona nurtured by his early Oklahoma upbringing. Although some Internet database sources are dramatically chronologically muddled (claiming Marvin came out of retirement in 1929 to become a singing cowboy,) it could well be that, as stated, he had indeed suffered a serious financial loss in the stock market crash. What we do know for a fact, however, is that by the 1940's the fellow who entertained troops in far flung outposts of the Pacific and prompted a soldier to write to Louella Parsons asking if she had ever heard of him, was as far removed a man from tuxedos, jazz, and one-reel synchronized musical vaudeville performances as could be, and apparently with nary a regret nor with a need to either.


1 comment:

Unknown said...

I'm surprised that you didn't mention more about Johnny's brother Frankie, his duet partner on a number of Victor records, They also appeared together poolside in a Vitaphone short.

Both Marvin brothers were very instrumental in Gene Autry's career, helping him out when he first came to New York and later working with him in California.