07 January 2007

"Fun in a Chinese Laundry"

A wide assortment of music (and words) for this edition, so let's go!

Although Charlotte Greenwood (pictured left, with her husband Martin Broones) wasn't destined to portray the role of "Mabel" in the 1929 Warner Bros. film version of "The Gold Diggers of Broadway" as was originally announced (see previous post,) the studio had high hopes for the famed Broadway comedienne, signing her to a six picture deal in January of 1929 --- and putting her husband on the payroll too, to write scenarios, dialogue and songs. Greenwood was no musical slouch either, if a newspaper item from mid-1929 is to believed.

According to the publicity placement, Greenwood penned the words for a tune slated for inclusion in Marion Davies' film "Marianne," titled "Blue Boy Blues," and for two other tunes in a Sam Wood directed college film (likely "So This Is College"-1929) titled "Campus Capers" and "Gorgeous," both of which apparently never made it into the finished product.

Speaking of things not making into finished products, a press announcement from May of 1929 proclaimed that Frank Fay had been signed to appear opposite Charlotte Greenwood in "So Long Letty," in the role eventually enacted by the rather lifeless Grant Withers. It's fun to contemplate Fay's quietly sardonic humor playing against the boisterous Greenwood --- but it was not to be.

One of the many praiseworthy elements in "So Long Letty" is one that usually goes unmentioned, that being the intricate, busy little incidental musical score that runs throughout the entire film. Similar in execution to the beautifully atmospheric musical scoring for the comedies being produced by Hal Roach at the time such as "Another Fine Mess," "Be Big" and "Pups Is Pups." With music closely scored to accent and underline the screen action, "So Long Letty" is as much a delight to listen to as it is to watch, made even more so by the rather surreal dialogue and characters that pepper the film.

Here's an odd little moment from "So Long Letty" via a Vitaphone disc excerpt, involving an unexpected party invitation from a jarringly buoyant neighbor ("Mrs. Ziphter") and a bizarre bit of moonlight wooing. Incidental scoring for this brief sequence makes use of "Clowning," "One Sweet Little Yes," and an intricate arrangement of "Down Among the Sugar Cane."

"So Long Letty" (1929) Dialogue & Music Excerpt

An example of equally tight scoring can be heard in this sequence, also excerpted from Vitaphone disc, from 1929's "The Time, the Place and the Girl," in which a simple premise (sending a telegram while drunk) makes use of "Collegianna" and "Doing the Raccoon," in keeping with the film's early setting of a college football game.

"The Time, the Place & the Girl" (1929) Dialogue & Music Excerpt

Before moving on, and for no other reason than that I happen to have it handy, here's a snappy 78rpm rendition of the aforementioned "Down Among the Sugar Cane," as recorded in the UK by "The Midnight Merrymakers" in 1929.

"Down Among the Sugar Cane" (1929)

There's not much evidence of "fun in a Chinese laundry" detailed in the 1927 article to the right, what with anxious customers --- some going for days in soiled clothing --- wondering where their laundry owner vanished to, but while Berkeley police search for the errant and mysterious business owner, one Mr. Homer Gee, you may choose to listen to a remarkably well preserved bit of Turn of the Century recorded humor and leave them to their chore.

Here's Cal Stewart, as his stock-in-trade character "Uncle Josh," as he encounters the perplexing intricacies of a Chinese laundry during one of his infrequent visits to New York City, circa 1910. Politically incorrect perhaps, but we can't and shouldn't erase, ignore or rewrite history to suit but a few. (Note: Unlike many surviving examples of Cal Stewart's recorded work, this one is very easy on the ears!)

"Uncle Josh in a Chinese Laundry" (1910)

The young lady to our left, intently strumming her ukulele, is one May Singhi Breen --- musician extraordinaire, who rode high on the wave of popularity that the instrument enjoyed for a relatively brief period during the mid-to-late 1920's, before the fad faded and the ukulele was returned to it's original and noble native roots by the quickly bored youth of American college campuses.

At the height of the ukulele's popularity, the market was flooded with instructional books, pamphlets and recordings --- all of which were likely flung away in disgust when it became obvious that the apparently simple looking instrument was actually rather difficult to play with any degree of effectiveness.

Suiting the sound to the word, here's an excerpt from a set of 78rpm instructional recordings issued by (I believe) Victor in April of 1928, where none other than recording legend Vaughn DeLeath (see earlier post, "The Soul of an Adventuress") serves as Instructress and Vocalist, while Miss Breen does the string work. If all this sounds incredibly dull (and I must admit, these lessons were surely incredibly daunting!) I urge you to at least listen to the final few moments of the recording, in which Vaughn DeLeath sings a "jazz version" of "My Old Kentucky Home," (with ukulele accompaniment) that stands as a regal example of pure, unadulterated late 1920's madness.

"Ukulele Instruction Record" (1928)

Madness of another sort --- "Harlem Madness," to be specific, was explored in the late 1929 Metro film "They Learned About Women," which featured vaudevillians Gus Van and Joe Schenck in their only feature film --- and one of the very few films that could be termed a "Baseball Musical." No, that's right --- it really didn't work at all, but it's a charming film in spots (and utterly bizarre in others) the value of which today is in the film's two stars. Before continuing, here's a rendition of the film's one "big" number, "Harlem Madness," as recorded by Coon-Sander's Nighthawks.

"Harlem Madness" (1929)

On June 27th of 1930, the team was performing in Detroit and had turned in an especially grueling opening night performance --- singing 44 songs instead of the usual 24, but although Joe Schenck confided to his partner that he felt somewhat unwell, he refused to cut the act short. The following afternoon, Schenck suddenly cried out and collapsed in his hotel room. The hotel physician, Dr. Harry B. Dibble, later told reporters that he felt "the strain and excitement of the Detroit opening" caused Schenck's death, and then related an oddly detailed description of the team's final moments together, stating that Gus was with Joe until the last. While the pianist was tossing on his death-bed, Gus knelt at his side and said, "Joe, we've been in all sorts of places together - tough dives and swell ones. You can't, you must not, go out like this."

When Joe Schenck breathed his last, Gus Van was heard to wail "I've lost my best pal!" and a moment later, "crazed with grief," became delirious, collapsed and was swiftly taken away to be sedated and kept under medical care himself for the remainder of the day and coming night. Horribly, Schenck's wife, Lillian, was en route to Detroit via automobile at the time of his death, and did not learn of the tragedy until arriving at the hotel. So ended an eighteen year partnership that began by a chance meeting on a Brooklyn trolley car, blossomed in the beer gardens of Coney Island, and rose to the heights of fame in Ziegfeld's Follies.

As is usually the case, then as now, tragedy and loss is soon tainted with human emotion less noble than grief. Two months after Joe Schenck's demise, his widow (Lillian) filed suit with the Brooklyn Supreme Court, claiming that Gus Van (August Von Glohn) owed her husband $27,000 at the time of his death, and also demanded that the surviving partner pay her an additional $25,000 under an unusual arrangement set up years earlier.

Lillian Schenck maintained that Gus Van had successfully collected $75,000 on a policy made payable to whichever member of the team survived the other, and that Van had neglected a clause requiring that the widow of the first to die would be granted $25,000.

How the lawsuit played out is unknown to this writer for no news accounts mention the case again, but perhaps it's best to leave it where the mists of time have long ago claimed and clouded it. Before moving on, here's Gus Van and Joe Schenck in close harmony --- like a hand in a glove, performing "Get Out and Get Under the Moon" for a 1928 Columbia recording.

"Get Out and Get Under the Moon" (1928)

According to period publicity placements, when Marilyn Miller was asked to select a leading man for the 1929 Warner Bros. film version of "Sally," without hesitation she named Alexander Gray, who had come to Miller's aid years earlier by replacing a leading man in a Miller show who suddenly dropped out while touring --- and left his gig with Ziegfeld to do so.

When Miller requested Gray for the 1929 Technicolor film, the Studio wired him and requested a screen (voice) test, but Gray (who was playing Philadelphia in a touring company of "The Desert Song",) balked at the sort of ordinary screen test in which the candidate stood before the camera and simply talked and/or sang. Instead, he requested that he do a scene from "The Desert Song," and the studio agreed.

Joining Gray in the scene was the young lady who played "Margot" in the Philadelphia production of "The Desert Song." Upon screening the test, Warners had contracts drawn up for not only Gray, but for his stage partner as well, Bernice Claire.

Here, Alexander Gray and Marilyn Miller vocalize "Look for the Silver Lining" from a Vitaphone disc excerpt for "Sally," which indicates that the audio on surviving prints (undeniably flat, muddy and lifeless) could sound considerably better if only surviving Vitaphone audio discs were called into play for the entire film instead of just the one instance in which they're used to accompany the brief fragment of Technicolor footage that's been reinstated into circulating prints. No one ever seems to quite go that extra yard where these early musicals are concerned.

"Look for the Silver Lining" (1929) Vitaphone Disc Excerpt

RKO's "Syncopation" of 1929 could be seen in various newspaper ads billed as "The Wonder Picture," "The First Great Jazz Revue of the Talking Screen," and "Better than 'Broadway Melody.'" While it's none of those things, it survives today as an enjoyable and somewhat compact (claustrophobic) example of the very early screen musical, and deserves distribution and exhibition beyond the Ebay auctions where it can usually be found.
Once you get past the hopelessly wooden performance of Barbara Bennett (the Bennett sister nobody seems to remember,) there's much enjoyment to be had with the presence of Dorothy Lee (no different here than she'd be when teamed with Wheeler & Woolsey,) a surprisingly street-wise Morton Downey, the always elegant Verree Teasdale, and Waring's Pennsylvanians long before they were scrubbed clean and relieved of their personality.

Two musical excerpts from the film, heard here via Vitaphone discs which were made available to theaters that weren't equipped for sound-on-film presentations: Morton Downey and Dorothy Lee's rendition of "Do Something," and "Jericho," as played and vocalized by Waring's Pennsylvanians.

It's always interesting to hear how familiar tunes from American talkies were interpreted by British bands, and while neither appreciably better or worse, these 78rpm recordings are always a source of fascination to me for the fact that they're so infrequently heard on these shores... and when they are, as in CD compilations, it's invariably the same dozen or so tunes time and again.

While a bit rough going owing to dodgy recording and the ravages of time, this two-sided medley from Fox's 1929 "Sunny Side Up" is notable in that it contains every tune from the film, including "You Find the Time, I'll Find the Place," which I believe hasn't been recorded elsewhere.

Recorded in the UK for Decca, here's a two-sided dose of "The Rhythm Maniacs" in 1929 ---

Selections from "Sunny Side Up" (1929) Part 1

Selections from "Sunny Side Up" (1929) Part 2

Before leaving "Sunny Side Up," a seldom heard, exceptionally spirited rendition of "Turn On the Heat," recorded by Eddie Harding's Nightclub Boys recorded for the UK label Piccadilly in 1929. You'll want to crank this one up!

"Turn on the Heat" (1929)

For as many fine recordings of the title tune from Metro's 1929 "The Broadway Melody" as there are, we have an interesting version such as this one, by Ben Selvin and his Orchestra. Musically, it's perfect --- but the vocalist (Jack Parker) so over enunciates his lyrics that the effect is --- well, decidedly different.

"The Broadway Melody" (1929)

Returning to recordings of British origin for the remainder of this post, our next offering is by Harry Hudson & His Band, circa 1929, of the tune "How About Me," (which can also be heard in the incidental scoring for First National's "Broadway Babies") which blends band with vocalist and, quite out of nowhere, a cinema organ! While the three elements seem somewhat at odds with one another, it's interesting enough a recording to warrant inclusion here.

"How About Me?" (1929)

To conclude this offering, a corker of a rendition of "I Want To Be Bad" from "Follow Thru," by the magnificently named "Jack Leon's Symphonic Dance Band," recorded on the British Piccadilly label in 1929.

"I Want to Be Bad" (1929)

Until next time!



Anonymous said...

Many thanks for posting those rousing Rhythm Maniacs selections from SUNNY SIDE UP (a movie I finally caught, and loved, at Cinevent in Columbus in May 2005). I especially enjoyed their delightful version of "You've Got Me Picking Petals Off of Daisies," one of my favorite songs from the movie (though admittedly, for me, no one can ever top Frank Richardson and Marjorie White's rendition!).

I'm having more fun than a kid in Disneyland with this blog of yours; keep up the good work!

soybean said...

Love this blog!