01 January 2007

The Snows of Yesteryear

The "snows of yesteryear," however curiously absent of late --- and however lamented and longed for, likely only ever really existed within the apocryphal garden of one's memory.

Just as the past grows dimmer with each passing year, it also encases itself --- pearl like, within another layer of solitude that's translucent enough to allow us to barely see, feel and yearn for the contents, yet also murky enough to mask, disguise and cloud the plain truths of an earlier day.

First up, a 1930 recording entitled "20th Century Blues," from the Noel Coward stage production "Cavalcade,"which would become the magnificent film that earned the Academy Award for "Best Picture" of 1933. Vastly under appreciated, this sweeping panorama explores the onrush of social and technological change that occurred between 1900 and 1932 as mirrored through the eyes of one British family. Any reader of these pages who hasn't seen the film is urged to do so! (Incredibly, it remains one of the very few "Best Picture" films not yet commercially available on DVD, but it turns up now and again on cable.)

Performed by Henry Hall and His Gleneagles Band, the lyrics are as fitting today as they were in 1930.

"20th Century Blues" (1930)

For an aural glimpse of a New Year's Eve in the New York of 1904, quite free of cynicism yet firmly rooted in unreality, look no further than "New Year's at Old Trinity," recorded for Berliner by the Haydn Quartet. Street revelers, passing traffic, and the chimes of Old Trinity form an audible backdrop for what amounts to a miniature vaudeville sketch.

"New Years at Old Trinity" (1904)

Popular songs of the early 20th century are pocked with countless melancholy songs yearning for an earlier place and time. One of the more interesting examples, at least to a resident New Yorker such as myself, is 1925's "New York Ain't New York Any More," by vocalist Al Bernard. A rather touching homage to performance and social whirlwind George M. Cohan, the recording strikes me as not only a eulogy to a figure that ceased to be important and influential by 1925, but also an wistful acknowledgement of the fact that the audiences of Cohan's heyday were also fading, pushed aside by a culture of youth that has yet to wane, and with them the names, places and voices that once loomed so large within popular culture as the last century turned. (Vocalist Al Bernard, below left.)

"New York Ain't New York Anymore" (1925)

Even George M. Cohan himself found it increasingly difficult to recapture past glory as the 1920's dawned, innocently incapable of speaking and relating to a younger generation that had been wizened and hardened by the Great War, and who had turned their backs --- justifiably, on an earlier day they saw no point in mourning, much less preserving. One of Cohan's last noble gasps on Broadway, the musical production "Billie" of 1928, had a shamefully brief run by Cohan standards and was quickly forgotten. A recording of the title tune survives, and incredibly charming though it is, the melody is distinctly of a time other than 1928 --- infused with Heliotrope Cologne, crystallized violets, oyster stew and the waltz clog --- a bilious mixture to the bright young things Cohan tried, in vain, to attract. Listened to today, this rendition by the shows star, Polly Walker (who'd soon answer Hollywood's call), is as lovely as it is sad, somehow... a gentle and tender voice trying to be heard above the din of the late 1920's, doomed to failure. (A youthful George M. Cohan and sister Josie, pictured below.)

"Billie" (1928)

Unlike George M. Cohan, composer Joseph E. Howard wisely chose to not only acknowledge the passage of time, but to embrace and exploit it also, by forming a rather successful vaudeville act that successfully helped to nurture an embryonic form of nostalgia for the late 1800's and early 1900's that was just taking root as the 20's ended and which would fully blossom by the early 1930's, glorified in such films as "She Done Him Wrong, " "The Bowery," "From Broadway to Hollywood" and others.

Joseph Eugene Howard, composer of a myriad of tunes which have long passed into the Hall of Legends within popular music culture, "Good Bye, My Lady Love," and "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now?" to name but a few, lived long enough (1961!) to not only partake in the revival of his own career and music numerous times (most notably in a 1940's radio series) but to also participate in that queer moment in time in which the faces and voices of early vaudeville --- most about to be lost to time and memory, would be captured (seemingly forever) by the Vitaphone process. While many of Joseph E. Howard's contemporaries who ventured before the sound camera exist today only in fragmented form, lacking voice or (more often) image, the gentleman in question is still very much with us --- as vibrant a figure in 1929 as he was in 1909, and will be in 2009.

In this Vitaphone disc audio transcription, we hear the melody "(The Waning) Honeymoon" behind the opening titles, which was written for the artist's 1907 stage production "The Time, the Place and the Girl," and then Mr. Howard ("I'm awfully glad I'm not forgotten," he plaintively comments) re-creates spot-on period authentic performances of "Good Bye, My Lady Love" (1904), "What's the Use of Dreaming?" (from the 1908 production "The Flower of the Ranch,") "Oh Gee, Be Sweet to Me Kid," (from another 1908 musical, "The Girl Question") and finally "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now?" which was featured in both "The Prince of To Night" (1909) and "The Goddess of Liberty" (1910.)

In addition to being an unusual thrill to hear these songs of musical lore performed by their original composer, note that Mr. Howard quite literally transforms himself from composer into the original stage performer as well --- changing his vocal infliction, style, and in the case of "What's the Use of Dreaming?," there's a momentary pause between his spoken introduction and the start of his vocal in which he simply becomes the Asian-type character that first performed the song in 1908. Remarkable, really. Listen for it.

"Songwriter Joseph E. Howard" (1929)

By the time "The Time, the Place and the Girl" appeared as a Warner Bros. Vitaphone film in 1929, little was left of the original production save for the title. Difficult to evaluate today (it's a lost film despite invented database reviews claiming otherwise) via the surviving disc soundtrack, the film starts out as a college football story that then swiftly changes gears as the sports hero (Grant Withers) joins up with a corrupt Wall Street brokerage firm and uses his ape-like charm to entice wealthy society matrons into buying worthless stock.

Although often thought of as a musical film, the only melody to be heard is within the film's intricate incidental scoring that extends throughout much of the film's length, and in one curious moment --- at a society party, in which Betty Compson is seen singing (her voice is dubbed) a melody ("Honeymoon") from the 1907 Joseph E. Howard stage production of "Time, Place, Girl" which served as the opening theme of the 1929 Vitaphone Howard short. An extract of this sequence from the film is offered here, as are three period recordings of the composer's most notable (and in one case, most amusing) efforts.

"The Time, the Place and the Girl" (1929) Vitaphone Disc Excerpt

"I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now" (1909)

"I Think I Hear A Woodpecker Knocking" (1909)

"Good Bye My Lady Love" (1904)

To round out this New Year's post --- and to bring us to the period of usual focus here, let's look in on the Grand Opening of the Palace Theater in Ohio ("Lancaster's Finest Theater") in mid-March of 1929.

The film selected for this well publicized and presumably highly attended event (detailed in full page reproductions below) was the First National & Vitaphone production "Why Be Good?," which featured Colleen Moore and Neill Hamilton, and which would be Moore's final silent film --- despite the fact that the title was available to exhibitors in an elaborately synchronized version as well. (Interestingly, it isn't made quite clear which version was to be offered at The Palace theater!)

Tricked up with vocal and sound effects in addition to a wall-to-wall musical score performed by musicians that included the likes of Eddie Lang, Joe Venuti, JimmyDorsey and Phil Napoleon, the Vitaphone score for "Why Be Good?" is a late Jazz Age delight --- a sample of which can be experienced here.

The setting is a 1920's wild party to end all wild parties, and the score runs wild too --- incorporating the tunes "Who Wouldn't Be Jealous of You?," "Sweet Georgia Brown," "That's Him Now," "If You Want the Rainbow, You Must Have the Rain," "Tall, Dark and Handsome," "Give Your Little Baby Lots of Loving," and then --- after a bit of quiet repose, an explosive and perhaps ultimate rendition of "Tiger Rag" that's capped by a vocal refrain of "Doin' the Raccoon!"

"Why Be Good?" (1929) Jazz Party Sequence

In an all too rare and infrequent case of all the appropriate gears (meaning people) being in place to result in positive and relatively swift motion, word that picture elements for "Why Be Good" were languishing in an Italian archive was relayed to the folks at The Vitaphone Project (see blog sidebar) and ultimately to Warner Bros., with the end result being a scheduled sound and image restoration scheduled for 2007.

Let's hope that, when all is said and done, "Why Be Good?"--- virtually unseen and unheard since 1929, will fare better than many other similar restorations, all which invariably seem to end with the merest handful of screenings at widely scattered, poorly publicized archive and museum "events" before the film finds itself being returned to the dark isolation of a vault yet again --- awaiting what? Rediscovery in 2097?

No, there must be a level of commitment in place from the start that will ensure these films, rescued from oblivion at the last possible moment, won't die a second and, I believe, far more cruel death --- one attributed to indifference, litigation, finance and apparent ignorance of the fact that people want to see these films. Easily and often.

A single screening, on a Tuesday afternoon, at a special screening room located a vast distance away, by advance ticket purchase only, does little for the average person and even less for the film being trotted out for the first time in more than seventy-five years.

"The film looked beautiful, but the turn out was kind of small."
"Yeah --- I wonder why?"
"Well, I won't schedule this again any time soon."



Joe Thompson said...

Jeff: Happy new year and thanks for sharing more interesting history.

- Joe Thompson ;0)

Jeff Cohen said...

My pleasure to do so --- as always, Joe!

Happy New Year to you, yours and all!


Kevin K. said...

I don't understand why studios go to the expense of restoring movies, only to keep them locked up in a safe somewhere. Why not release them on DVDs in limited editions? Charge a little more than they would otherwise -- collectors would snap them up!

J. Theakston said...

Does anyone know what happened to the Palace? I can't find mention of it anywhere. Certainly such a monolith of a theater didn't vanish without some word.

Jeff Cohen said...

I suspect I'm to blame for info. about the Palace being so hard to find, as I initially misidentified it as being in Lancaster Pennsylvania instead of Lancaster Ohio. (The price of writing a post following New Year's Eve festivities.) Unless I'm wrong again, the Palace is still very much with us, and can be read about here: http://www.marionpalace.org/

Jeff (I think)

alexa757 said...

Happy New Year Jeff and thanks for another wonderful post.

Thank you also for voicing again and again (it can never be enough) the frustration felt by those of us who WANT to see these restored early talkie and silent films and would be happy to buy them - legitimately and with total copyright compliance.
When one is a working person, the chances having the time and the money to fly off to a distant city to watch a 1 1/2 hour movie which is being shown for the first time in 75-80 years are pretty small!