19 January 2007

"Out For A Racket"

Quicker than the woman to our left can change the needle on her 1909 Victor phonograph, we'll be changing topics too --- exploring a variety of film, music... and film musical items. She looks as though she's keen on playing "Oh But Could These Freckled Hands Once Again Gather Wheat," so let's take our leave, shall we?

A previous post ("Show Folks") contained a poster image for a now lost 1926 silent Fox film, "A Trip to Chinatown," which received no little attention for it's vivid artwork.

Although the film title sounded vaguely familiar to me at the time, I somehow failed to connect it with it's incredibly noble heritage, that being an 1891 New York production which held the record for the longest running stage presentation for many years, presumably until "Florodora" arrived at the dawn of the new century.

While it's a safe bet that the 1891 musical comedy extravaganza was somewhat altered for it's 1926 film incarnation, a description of the film's narrative (via a Pathe press release disguised as a review) gives us some clue to a stage production that's even further beyond human recall than it's vanished cinema counterpart.

"San Francisco's Chinatown is the pivot for the fun-making of the brilliant comedy drama which we saw yesterday at the Strand theater. You will recognize from its title that it is adapted from Charles Hoyt's justly celebrated play which is probably known in every hamlet, town and city of the country."

"The entertainment value of the picture is several hundred paces ahead of the the stage piece. It is one hilarious howl from start to finish. The story is concerned with the complications that arise when a beautiful widow invites a young millionaire, who imagines himself an invalid, to take her on a sight-seeing trip though the Chinese quarter. At least the widow thinks she has invited him, but in reality has been talking on the phone to his frisky old Uncle."

"When the couples arrive in Chinatown and discover the mix-up, things grow more complicated each minute. In the end, everything is straightened out but not until you are worn out from laughing."

"Much of the action is laid in San Francisco's romantic Chinatown, reproduced with the utmost fidelity, and many of the interiors are gorgeous in the extreme. It is said to be the only costly five-reel comedy ever produced. Thousands of extras were necessary for the revelry scenes in Chinatown."

One element of the original stage production that the 1926 film couldn't boast or replace with costumes, scenery and clever situations was music and song. And what an astonishing, odd and eccentric array of music it was! From the bucolic "Reuben and Cynthia," to the minstrel themed "Push 'Dem Clouds Away" and "Keep a Knockin'," to standard set pieces like "The Widow" and "The Chaperone," to the intriguingly titled "Out for a Racket," and most surprising of all, two melodies which escaped oblivion and remain widely known to this day, "The Bowery" and "After the Ball."

Here's a somewhat overly animated vocal rendition of "The Bowery," which for all it's popularity doesn't seem to have been widely recorded at all --- hence this re-creation of much more recent vintage, alas.

"The Bowery" - From "A Trip to Chinatown"

Before moving on, I can't easily resist offering two other melodies that have long become interwoven into the fabric of New York City's musical history, "The Sidewalks of New York" and "The Daughter of Rosie O'Grady."

The former tune is heard here in a lovely, lilting rendition dating from 1928 by Nat Shilkret & the Victor Orchestra, and the latter in a period 1918 recording which is sure to strike a familiar chord among Warner Bros. animation buffs.

"The Sidewalks of New York" (1928)

"The Daughter of Rosie O'Grady" (1918)

As mentioned elsewhere and earlier in these pages, the 1933 Metro film "Broadway to Hollywood" utilized Technicolor footage from the abandoned 1930 musical revue "March of Time." Originally intended to be the finale of the 1930 film, and sharing the same title, was a massive production number that eventually turned up at midpoint in the 1933 motion picture. As described in a contemporary newspaper account, "Five hundred dancers in the largest singing and dancing chorus ever assembled appear in the biggest set ever constructed in the great spectacle that furnishes the dramatic climax to the cavalcade of the stage. The spectacle is staged on a flight of two hundred steps proceeding apparently to the sky, where a gigantic figure of Father Time is silhouetted."

Opening with the fading of a swirling, colored "mist of time" effect, the golden stairs are quickly revealed in all their glittering (and steep!) glory --- and then what follows is a passing cavalcade of popular American music of the past, accompanied by dancers, singers and entertainers appearing at the top of the set --- emerging from the robes of the looming figure of Father Time, and then working their way down the stair set. Although rather simple in presentation, it's wildly effective --- especially in terms of the musical arrangement, that incorporates tunes like "My Blushin' Rosie," "Bedelia," "Hiawatha," and "A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight." Best of all, it's in this one sequence that we see legendary entertainers originally signed for the 1930 revue but absent in the 1933 film, such as Marie Dressler, Weber & Fields, and Fay Templeton.

This entire Technicolor sequence, as well as two others, are completely absent from the print that airs on Turner Classic Movies --- although the footage exists in privately held prints of the film.

Although a poor substitute for seeing and hearing this remarkable and important bit of American entertainment history captured on film, here are period recordings of two songs featured in the production number's medley --- a vocal version of "Bedelia," rather wheezy in terms of audio but a nice book-end for the orchestral version featured in the previous post, and "Hiawatha" --- which allowed for a fantastic array of chorus girls dressed in feathers (and not much else) in the 1930 "March of Time" sequence.

"Bedelia" (1903) Edward M. Favor, Vocal

"Hiawatha" (1903) The London Regimental Band

As a postscript to "A Trip to Chinatown," it's interesting to note that the musical comedy, once deemed widely known "in every town, hamlet and city of the country" had so faded from memory by 1939 that it was included in an intriguing radio series (now equally forgotten!) titled "Lost Plays," where the production was "excavated" for a July 1939 broadcast featuring dialogue and music from the original production.

Readers who optimistically noted that last week's scheduled airing on TCM of "Rio Rita" was given the proper 150 minute time-slot have learned by now that what was actually transmitted turned out to be the familiar, truncated 1932 re-release version --- with lots of extra air-time at the end for non-related filler.

As a salve, here's as nice a musical rendition of the film's title tune as I've yet heard --- set to a tango rhythm --- recorded in 1926 by "The Floridians" for the Brunswick label.

"Rio Rita" (1926)

Those attending the December 12th screening of "Sweetie" (1929) in Centralia, Washington were treated to a free box of Mary Arliss' "Sweeter Than Sweet" chocolates, courtesy of the Stahl Drug Company --- and also had a chance at winning the $90.00 toilet case on display in the theater's lobby.

While such incentives aren't needed today for anyone curious to view this gently endearing 1929 Paramount film, a home-made time machine might come in handy however, as the film (which exists in beautiful condition) is just one of many early Paramount talkies being kept from public view by it's present guardians. No small wonder then that Jack Oakie looks baffled in the "Sweetie" publicity still to the right!

The film's title tune, warbled by Stanley Smith and Nancy Carroll in the film, proved immensely popular in late 1929 and for those who've never heard it, here's your chance --- via two similar yet decidedly different period recordings.

First up, here's "Sammy Fain, the Singing Composer" doing his level best on the dime-store "Velvet Tone" label, although in the end it's the unknown violinist who delivers the stand-out performance:

"My Sweeter Than Sweet" (1929) Sammy Fain

Offering a somewhat smoother handling of the title tune from "Sweetie," here's the Ipana Troubadours, as recorded on October 11th of 1929:

"My Sweeter Than Sweet" (1929) Ipana Troubadours

It's always a treat to happen upon a newspaper item that reveals a bit of forgotten history connected with early musical films --- fragments of popular culture that invariably manage to escape inclusion in books that cover the period.

The enterprising manager of Schine's Ohio Theater ("The Theater Beautiful") in Lima, Ohio made novel use of his theater's stage and the installed Vitaphone sound equipment in May and June of 1929.

Patrons who visited the theater on Saturday evenings were given the chance to dance upon the theater's stage --- accompanied by music played on the Vitaphone reproducing horns --- and then, after a half hour of dancing, were treated to a "surprise" Vitaphone feature and a stage show as well. While we'll never know what patrons danced to on the Ohio Theater's "immense stage," it could have been something much like this --- a musical rendition of "I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling," as recorded by the Warner Bros. studio orchestra for the foreign export version soundtrack that accompanied the (now lost) 1929 Dorothy Mackaill film "Hard To Get."

"I've Got A Feeling I'm Falling" (1929) Warner Bros. Orchestra

Delightful though this concept of a "Vitaphone Dance" may be today, it was doubtless met with incredible and justifiable fury by the legions of theater musicians who were either facing or already experiencing unemployment due to talking and singing films. For them, the sound of the Vitaphone was akin to the Crack of Doom.

In late 1929, The American Federation of Musicians sponsored a series of newspaper advertisements designed to be placed on the same page as film listings and ads. A noble effort to gain public sympathy and call attention to their very real plight --- although doomed to failure --- they weren't helped by the fact that these fascinating placements were written in a style that virtually guaranteed they'd be either completely ignored or, if read at all, would probably baffle and confuse rather than inform the readers of small-town newspapers in which they appeared.

Referencing "Janus, the Two Headed God," or "The Weeping Muse," just wouldn't fly in the rural hinterlands of America in 1929, and on the occasion when facts were stated plainly, the small, plain, text-filled notices fought a losing battle against the eye-catching graphic based ads for films they appeared alongside of on the printed page.

By the time the last ad in the series appeared, just before Christmas of 1929, the group appears to have given up the ghost altogether, in an ad that simply features an image of Santa Claus and a "Merry Christmas" greeting. (One ad in the series is pictured to the left, with others in the series offered at the conclusion of this post.)

Often working entirely without musicians, the German vocal group "The Comedian Harmonists," enjoyed tremendous popularity in their homeland from the 1920's through the early 1930's --- until the prevailing political climate and gathering war clouds closed the door on frivolity for some time to come. Although their primary material were tunes of their own country, the influence of the American musical couldn't be avoided either, and the group would record somewhat altered but readily recognizable versions of such melodies as "Happy Days Are Here Again," "Tea For Two," and "Wedding of the Painted Doll."

Pictured to the right, "The Comedian Harmonists" look very much as one would expect them to in this portrait from the mid-1920's, and their utterly unique vocal style can be heard in the following 1929 recording of "Puppenhochzeit," which is, actually....

"The Wedding of the Painted Doll" (1929)

There's an enchanting, dream-like quality to this rendition that transcends both time and language. Ethereal and unforgettable.

The Ironwood Amusement Corporation, which owned and managed both the Rex and Ironwood theaters, were celebrating their first anniversary of presenting sound films in May of 1930, and marked the event with placement of this full page advertisement in local newspapers. Interestingly, "Vitaphone" is used here in a generic sense --- as a word indicating sound films in general. Although Warners and First National product were heavily booked at both theaters, neither studio is represented in their anniversary week booking.

Happily, The Ironwood Theater still exists today (sister theater "Rex" seems to have met a sadder fate earlier on) and it's always nice to see a present day image of a theater previously familiar only via period advertisements.

In belated celebration of the Ironwood's Sound Anniversary (and in homage to the defunt Rex) here's two views of The Ironwood as it looks today --- well maintained, completely intact, and appearing very much as anyone's idea of a small town American movie house looked in 1930 --- only smaller, perhaps.

The late 1929 Warners' musical comedy "So Long Letty" played the Ironwood, and patrons likely left whistling one or more of the film's many catchy theme songs --- which included "My Strongest Weakness" and "One Little Yes."

As audio accompaniment while you view the images and explore the elaborate 1930 Ironwood ad, here's a musical sequence from "So Long Letty" via Vitaphone disc. The setting is a party in Letty's disfunctional bungalow, and includes Charlotte Greenwood's rendition of "My Strongest Weakness" and Grant Withers joins up with diminutive Marion Byron for "One Little Yes."
Also heard are Patsy Ruth Miller smothering Bert Roach
with domestic niceties, prompting some brutal dialogue
from Greenwood's remourseful husband.

Party sequence from "So Long Letty" (1929)

Also offered, a 78rpm version of "My Strongest Weakness," as interpreted by the Ipana Troubadors, a recording pseudnom for Sam Lanin & His Orchestra.

"My Strongest Weakness" (1929) Ipana Troubadors

Here's as good a place as any to also offer a much improved audio transfer of George Olsen's marvelous rendition of "Mona," from the 1930 Fox film "Happy Days." If you like the tune --- and what's not to like? --- go for it!

"Mona" (1930) From "Happy Days"

Having arrived some thirty-odd years too late to witness the arrival of sound films firsthand, I was still fortunate enough to experience cinema for the first time (and many, many times thereafter) at a movie palace that arrived in 1929. The Loew's Kings, on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, New York was still as awe-inspiring as ever in the early 1960's, and it was here that I was taken to see "Mary Poppins" in 1964. Unable to quite understand the concept or mechanics of cinema, I nonetheless enjoyed what I saw --- so much so, that after a few days of my non-stop toddler babble about the film, my exasperated Mom finally asked if I'd like to see it again. Again? But how? Wasn't "Mary Poppins" just a one shot performance of some sort? I was then told, in terms I could understand, that a movie was something which could be seen again and again --- that it would be unchanged and always as it first appeared, forever. It was at that moment that I understood what a movie was --- if not how it worked, then what it meant, and I was hooked from then on. In retrospect, perhaps that moment of revealation is also the origin for my passionate feelings about film preservation. I've long since learned that movies do not remain unchanged, "always and forever," unless they're assisted and tended to, and I suspect that's also why, to this very day, learning that a film has been lost to neglect or folly strikes me as an unpardonable sin of some sort --- as though we've not kept an unspoken promise to preserve our past for future generations.

Had Rodgers & Hart composed a tune called "Brooklyn," I'd insert it here --- but as they didn't, we'll settle for the glorious "Manhattan" instead and remain content with various Brooklyn locales that gain mention within the song's clever lyrics. "Manhattan" was a featured number in the 1929 Paramount two-reeler "Makers of Melody" that starred the composers themselves, and offered up spirited versions of "The Girl Friend" and "Blue Room" as well. It's a nifty and fascinating little film that deserves to be seen and heard far more than it has, if only for the fact it's managed to survive at all.

"Manhattan" (1929)

Seeing as "Makers of Melody" accompanied bookings of RKO's "The Vagabond Lover" in some theaters at least, as indicated by the above ad, the languid love theme of the Rudy Vallee film deserves inclusion here too. No, not the title tune --- but the often overlooked "Then I'll Be Reminded Of You," which remains as pretty and sentimental tune today as it was when first emoted and vocalized by Vallee to a clearly smitten Sally Blane in the 1929 film.

"Then I'll Be Reminded Of You" (1929)

Before closing this post, let's recall the image of the young woman changing needles on her phonograph which opened this post. Had both she and her Victrola lasted until November of 1929, and had she grown tired of her collection of two or three records, she would have doubtless taken notice of the promotion detailed to the left.

Patrons could bring in their old, tired recordings of "Bedelia" and "At A Georgia Camp Meeting" and recieve a store credit of ten cents per disc toward the purchase of something a bit more modern. The only requirement was that the discs be unbroken, and that (oddly) each old disc was first defaced by scratching a large "X" across the label and presumably some of the grooves.

Any record collectors who have Victor discs with an "X" engraved across the label now know from whence they came! I'm hoping a saavy vintage record collector out there might explain this odd practice. Defaced discs were clearly unsaleable, but what was the reasoning behind this? Anyone know?

We'll close out this post (in which no tragic and early demises were reported!) with a prevue of coming attractions for the 1931 Warner Bros. All Technicolor Film "Fifty Million Frenchmen" which arrived on screens --- in the midst of the backlash against musicals --- with all the wonderful Cole Porter melodies relegated to background incidental scoring. Seen today, without the witty Porter lyrics and without the salmon, aqua and rose hues of the original Technicolor print, there's not much left save for Olsen and Johnson, and that's as good an exit cue as I can think of. Until next time!


Kevin K. said...

Marking the 78s with an X is similar to what bookstores do today with stock they return to the publisher. They send the covers to the publishers and presumably destroy the books so nobody can re-sell them without paying the proper royalties. (The idea being, nobody wants to buy a book without a cover.)A defaced 78 would also be a signal that it wasn't legally for re-sale.

Regarding the Paramount ad: interesting that the studio was playing up the Two Black Crows more than the Marx Bros.

Jeff Cohen said...

East Side - Thanks for the info. on the practice of defacing records -- makes perfect sense, although it pains me to think of those records being tossed in the trash bin. I'm sure many a disc with an "X" drawn through it ended up in homes nonetheless.

Moran and Mack's "Why Bring That Up?" exists today as a soundtrack without a picture, rendering it a perfect topic for an upcoming post.

Stay tuned!


Anonymous said...

Still Savoring the 4 Grahams Blog!

Along with a wonderful story, - your flowing, perfectly measured writing style, your uncanny knack for "le mot juste" - in short, your prose prowess, makes reading an aesthetic experience.

Add to this the rare musical extracts which serve as comment, complement, and antiphon to the prose, and you seem to have invented your own art form.

Bravo, Jeff!

Dennis Doherty

J. Theakston said...

By the way, the Kings is still there... albeit in some questionable condition. The city recently ran an ad in Variety looking for someone rich to put up the money for it.

As one of the five Wonder Loews (the wonder these days is that all of them still stand), it's sad to see it in such poor state. My guess is that it will be the first to go.

Jeff Cohen said...

Moriarty: Now that's a much happier thought than envisioning discs being defaced and then tossed in the trash bin!

Theakston: Although I've not lived anywhere near the old Loew's Kings since the late 60's, I keep tabs on it's health --- which has remained "near death" for decades now. Genuinely felt physically ill when seeing images of the theater's interior as it looks now, which is why I avoided mentioning the theater's current status. If anyone knows a source for period images of the Loew's interior, please let me know.

Dennis: The Stribling post (along with "Somewhere East of Catalina") remain the two entries I'm most proud of thusfar, and your note inspires me to mainatin that same level of quality whenever possible. Many, many thanks!


alexa757 said...

So much to enjoy on this one! As one who grew up in the city just north of New York "where true love conquers in the wilds" and who spent a good deal of time on the sidewalks on New York, hearing those great old New York songs, The Sidewalks of New York and The Daughter of Rosie O'Grady and The Bowery played and sung "straight" was a treat! And you DID find a "Bedelia" for us! And like you, I remember going to a Loew's when very litte - only with me it was the "Paradise" on Fordham Road- which is still there, recently renovated, but not for movies.

alexa757 said...

Whoops! I meant Loew's Paradise on the Grand Concourse - not Fordham Road - it's just south of Fordham Road though!

J. Theakston said...

The Paradise is in great condition, albeit somewhat gaudy in some modern decoration such as furnature and lights. From what I understand, two owners went bankrupt fixing the place up.

Jeff, I've got some nice shots of the interior around here. When I find them, I'll email them to you.