02 February 2007

Crook Dramas and Dancing Violinists

An assortment of diverse items for this entry, beginning with a striking poster design for a 1929 Columbia film presumed to be no longer with us, "Light Fingers."

Jauntily billed as a "100% Talking Crook Drama" in print ads across the country, the film starred Ian Keith as the title character --- "Light Fingers," a brilliant crook who impersonates a magazine writer to work his way into the home of a society family, all the better to get at their jewels. The family's charming young daughter (Dorothy Revier) prompts a change of heart and motive --- and after an entanglement with unsympathetic fellow members of his gang, all ends well for Mr. Fingers and his soon-to-be bride. Fortunately perhaps, the film did not seem to feature a theme song of any sort.

Mr. Keith was extraordinarily prolific an actor, appearing in some ninety-odd films from the early 20's through the mid-1950's, that ran the gamut from major studio efforts to entries in the Charlie Chan, East Side Kids and Dick Tracy film series of the 1940's. We'll leave him, however, with this view of his appearance in a 1932 touring stage production of "Grand Hotel," in which he co-starred with Olga Baclanova in the roles that would be enacted by Barrymore and Garbo in the MGM film version.

Equally prolific in his art was record vocalist Irving Kaufman, who's name has been recalled in these pages more than once owing to the fact that, much like his contemporary Billy Murray, he seems an ever present figure in phonograph history --- with work that crossed the time and technological borders marked by cylinders, acoustic discs, electrical recordings --- and somewhat beyond.

Often recording on dime-store record labels that probably never sounded terribly good even when brand new, his klaxon-like voice --- which often threatens to shatter the grooves that attempt to contain it --- can be found in just about any stack of 78rpm discs you may happen upon, and he's achieved a sort of endearing immortality among record collectors if not music critics.

In 1927, Irving joined his brother Jack for the Vitaphone short subject "The Kaufman Brothers, with Irving and Jack, Assisted by Eve Sinclair," which appears to have accompanied most bookings of First National's thriller "The Gorilla." The short subject allowed for some comic patter, brotherly duets of "High, High Up in the Hills," "Deedle, Deedle Dum" and a solo of Irving Berlin's "Russian Lullaby" by Irving that must have been mighty indeed.

While picture elements for the Kaufman Bros. Vitaphone short have survived, the accompanying sound discs have yet to be located. I suspect they shall, for there's nothing sadder than the notion of a mute Irving Kaufman.

Serving as reference, here's a snappy (and crackly, I'm afraid) recording of "High, High Up in the Hills" by Larry Archer & His Orchestra from 1927, which gives some hint at how the Brothers Kaufman might have handled the tricky chorus.

"High, High, Up in the Hills" (1927)

Fear not, we won't move on without first letting Mr. Kaufman step forward from the past, and to that end here's "My Baby Just Cares For Me" from "Whoopee!" (recorded in 1930 with Lou Gold and His Orchestra) and then, the theme song for "The Rainbow Man" (Sono-Art 1929) that I couldn't locate for a previous post, "Sleepy Valley"--- which is handled in a surprisingly tender fashion by Mr. Kaufman. Enjoy!

"Sleepy Valley" (1929)

"My Baby Just Cares For Me" (1930)

Billed as "The Dancing Violinist," the young lady pictured to the left is one Auriole Craven, who's contributions to the world of entertainment are now as dim as they are inexplicable. Much as wanted to, I couldn't find any information of Miss Craven beyond a few newspaper entries from 1927, heralding her few stage appearances and sole Vitaphone short subject --- the source for the delightful image reproduced here.

Surprisingly, Auriole figured somewhere within the stage production of Al Jolson's "Big Boy," but that fact didn't sway one reviewer of her 1927 vaudeville act that appeared in Oakland, California: "Auriole Craven, who dances and fiddles charmingly as she did with with Al Jolson, but who has been deceived into believing she can sing jazzy songs." It should be noted, however, that Miss Craven shared the stage with the youthful cast of Hal Roach's "Our Gang" films --- and who could be expected to compete with that? (Seen below left, "Our Gang" on vaudeville tour, early 1928.)

Sadly, neither picture nor sound elements of Auriole Craven's 1927 Vitaphone short are known to have survived, so in order to provide some appropriately pretty audio accompaniment (for what could be prettier than a girl dancing with a violin?) let's listen to a widely and justifiably popular melody, entitled simply "Rain," as performed here in 1927 by Jacques Renard and his Cocoanut Grove Orchestra.

"Rain" (1927)

In 1929 as in 2007, personalty sells a product --- and the magazine ad reproduced to the right, pitching "Ayer's Cherry Pectoral" makes for delightful if not oddly familiar reading, for little has changed in terms of product endorsement --- including ad copy that can't easily be imagined spoken by the film (or TV) stars being quoted. Alice White's contribution is especially ripe, for it's so merrily at odds with the screen personality she made all her own and we've come to love.

Proving nothing wasn't fair game for the phonograph, even colds, coughs and sniffles, here's two rather different renditions of a novelty tune from 1929 painfully titled "I've Got a Code in My Doze." The first rendition, by Fred Hall and His Sugar Babies is suitable for dancing, while the second more thoughtful version --- by our very own Rosetta Duncan, is best listened to while propped up in bed whilst mentholated vapors surround you.

"I Got A Code In My Doze" (1929) Fred Hall's Sugar Babies

"I Got A Code in My Doze" (1929) Rosetta Duncan, Herself

"Her smile, her sobs, her laughter, her tears --- what a difference when you HEAR them! 100% Talking, and 100% Perfect, too!"

So read the ad copy for Billie Dove's first venture into all-talkies, the mid-1929 First National melodrama "Careers," directed by John Francis Dillion --- and one of the very few examples of a major film star's first talking film that hasn't survived either in picture or (to my knowledge) domestic sound elements.

Co-starring Antonio Moreno, Noah Beery, Carmel Myers and Thelma Todd, and sporting the theme song "I Love You, I Hate You," "Careers" strayed far from dressing rooms, theaters and fashion salons -- a fact gratefully noted by reviewers already becoming saturated with films set within the theatrical world.

Set in the French Colony of Cochin-China, Billie Dove portrayed the wife of magistrate Antonio Moreno, who has inadvertently stalled his career by her natural prim nature. Calling on the President (Noah Beery) to see if she can't help her husband in some way, she soon finds herself being seduced by the lecherous official, but before matters get completely out of hand the President is murdered by an enemy concealed within the room, and Miss Dove soon finds herself in a far worse situation --- that of being named as a murderess!
As could be expected, her husband ultimately satisfies officials of her innocence and, in the process, sees his prim mousy wife in a new and appealing light. The couple then depart for Paris, where it is presumed they find happiness.

"Careers" received uniformly positive reviews despite it's far-fetched plot, and for once all the hype seemed justified insofar as Billie Dove's speaking voice was concerned, with equal praise going to the performances (and voices) of her co-stars.

One reviewer, however, appeared to be rather unmoved by Miss Dove's on-screen predicament, took issue with the accompanying audio histrionics: "Somehow, the sound of a woman sobbing as emitted by the "mike" is grating to the nerves. It seems to produce a most grotesque sort of sound effect, which the audience last evening readily discerned and commented upon quite too noisily."

If not a treat for the ears, the exotic setting for "Careers" provided a treat for eyes accustomed to endless parades of show-girls, rooming houses and theatrical booking offices.

According to a First National press release, "The most original and costly indoor set ever built in the First National studios was constructed for 'Careers,' the latest Billie Dove starring vehicle. The set represents the palace of the governor of Indo-China, where much of the action takes place. It covers one and one-half acres of studio space, and involved the employment of a score of artists and artisans for one month. The entire effect is authentically exotic even to the detail of flowers, plants and trees. The palace proper consists of a building 75 feet in height and containing several large elaborately decorated rooms. Gilded columns support the ceiling, tapestries and silken draperies adorn the walls. Doors, massive and faithful in design, are hand-carved and poly chromed. Back of the palace are formal gardens --- pergolas covered in vines and flowers, a limpid lily pond mirroring the stately
columns of the palace, a winding gravel road lined with trees, palms and indigenous shrubbery."

All the more frustrating then, that we can neither see nor hear anything of "Careers" beyond a set of Vitaphone discs prepared for the Spanish release version of the film. With all of the film's original spoken dialogue removed (replaced with Spanish title cards) all we're left with is close to eighty minutes of very, very dramatic and heavy music with Asian-influenced themes creeping in now and again to relieve the near constant swirling and swooping of strings. What follows are too representative examples of audio from the Spanish release version discs. The first contains the film's opening moments, which includes an odd vocalization of a tune other than "I Love You, I Hate You," the lyrics of which are a mystery to me but which might be identifiable to a bilingual reader of these pages.

Excerpt #1 from "Careers" (1929) - Spanish Release Version

The second excerpt comprises much of the film's final reel, and gives a fair representation of the sort of highly melodramatic scoring that accompanies virtually the entire length of the film's scores. Eventually, it all gives way to the lighter mood brought on by declaration of Billie Dove's innocence, and it's here that the strains of the film's theme song "I Love You, I Hate You" may be heard --- but alas, without the sound of Billie Dove's voice... or sobs, for that matter.

Excerpt #2 from "Careers" (1929)

The pretty, waltz-time theme song --- while barely evident in the Spanish release version, was hugely popular on these shores and figured prominently in the domestic release version. Quoting another First National press release, "Persons attending 'Careers' will hear the strains of a beautiful melody played throughout the showing. Not only is it played by the Vitaphone Symphony Orchestra, but it is also sung by Carmel Myers who has an important role in the film. Already the song is earning wide popularity. Radio stations are broadcasting it. Music stores are featuring it in their window displays, and almost everybody who sees 'Careers' comes out of the theater whistling or humming the melody." Ah, alas and alack... all gone.

Also gone are window displays of the sort seen to the left, in which the display of sheet music is elevated to an art form. The image would appear to date from early 1930, with sheet music from "Sweetie," "Check and Double Check," "New Moon" and "The Vagabond Lover" used to form intricate designs that must have been a joy to behold when seen in their original vibrant colors.

One wonders what would fill this window when film musicals would be reduced to a mere trickle by the end of the year, a turn-of-events helped along --- in part --- by theme songs such as this one, a theme song about theme songs! Recorded by Sam Lanin and His Orchestra in 1930, this was the most forgettable of all musical entries in the otherwise spectacular all-Technicolor Warner Bros. hit, "Hold Everything!"of which we're only left with sound discs today.

"Sing A Little Theme Song" (1930) Sam Lanin & His Orchestra

Filmed "almost entirely in natural colors," Paramount's 1929 "Redskin" is a film we wouldn't expect to have with us today in it's original multi-hued format, yet... almost miraculously, we do. The film is largely unavailable for public viewing, except by those either positioned or well connected enough to arrange for private screenings, or for those lucky enough to learn of one of the very scarce instances where the film is exhibited publically before being whisked away again.

Even the most precious and rare of books can often be read and enjoyed via faithful print reproductions, but motion pictures --- artifacts of our past, our culture and our heritage as much as any printed volume --- seem to exist in some alternate universe where common sense ceases to prevail. Having said that, here's the film's theme song, as recorded by Ben Selvin & His Orchestra in 1930, which may be as close as most readers of these pages ever get to the film.

"Redskin" (1930)

Criticism of a different sort, although no less pointed, is evident in some entires in the reader's page of a 1929 film magazine reproduced to the right, and it makes for fascinating reading from the 2007 perspective that 1929 film audiences weren't as sophisticated as we were. Considering the sheer volume of films that the average late-20's moviegoer screened, superb and awful alike, we're really not as cinema savvy as we like to think.

See if you don't find such entries as "Museums, Not Movies, Place for Skeletons" and "Take That Back, He's No Sissy" eerily reminscent of letters printed in any given issue of "Entertainment Weekly."

The more things change...!

British comedian Dick Henderson, who'd appear in two major Warner Bros. talkies of 1930, "The Man from Blankley's" and the notorious "Golden Dawn," was actively touring the country in late 1929 and early 1930 on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit billed as "The Comedian Who Sings" and alternately, "Hired Direct From England: Dick Henderson." In towns with multiple theaters, he could have easily ducked out to see himself on the screen in his 1930 Vitaphone short titled "Joke Over," --- which I imagine would have been irresistable for any performer in that unique circumstance.

How well his one-reel filmed vaudeville performance was recieved is unknown, but a review (that reads like a publicity placement) of his stage performance positively glows with praise, as well as featuring the comedian's own insight on America vs. England:

"Dick Henderson, the English comedian, is a millionaire when it comes to stage material. The rotund, ludicrous Dick insists that it is America that has given him his wealth of jokes and waggish comicalities. 'No country has as many chances for humorous situations as your country,' says Henderson. 'Although I have traveled around the world, nowhere have I found people quicker to see a joke than Americans. Because the average Englishman lives a very simple life, which is spent almost entirely either in his home or office, he has only two kinds of jokes: office jokes and domestic jokes. And England has had such hard times people there want to forget their jobs when they go to the theater, so all they like is mother-in-law jokes, little hits at the wife or husband, and other domestic wisecracks. But you in America offer a thousand new angles for laughs, for you do such an infinite variety of things. People only appreciate jokes on situations that they can understand. That is why the people who do the greatest variety of things get the most laughs out of life.'"

Pictured right is Henderson (left) with comedian George Jackley in 1924, but aside from losing the outlandish attire, he'd look much the same in his 1930 Vitaphone short, an excerpt of which is offered here featuring a bit of song, some clever patter and a tribute to Sir Harry Lauder.

Excerpt from "Joke Over" (1930)

While not strictly vaudeville, Sir Harry Lauder would play to packed houses throughout American and Canada during 1929, appearing in an astonishing variety of venues that included legitimate theaters, high school auditoriums, lodge halls, churches, and college gymnasiums. Interestingly, no matter the house, the entrance fee remained the same --- ranging from 75 cents to a very steep (by 1929 standards in small cities) of $2.50.

While many of us would give a hundred times that to have had the chance to see him in person, even in a location not easily associated with Mr. Lauder such as Reno, Nevada (the source for the ad pictured right), all that's left of that magnificent tour are ads and just perhaps, somewhere, a living memory.

Sir Harry Lauder (Medley) - Early 1930's

Most early musicals (and some non-musicals) offered to theaters were shipped with recorded Overture discs, and although many of them survive today in fine condition they're seldom offered as part of archive screenings or airings on TCM.

The previously posted overture disc to "The Desert Song" (WB-1929) has, surprisngly, proven to be one of the most popular offerings in these pages, so here's another example of this lost art form --- this time from the equally lost 1930
all-Technicolor production of "No, No, Nanette."

Overture Disc - "No, No, Nanette" (1930)

Speaking of lost films, Paramount's 1929 "The Battle of Paris"is oftentimes indicated as being either lost or existing only in fragmented form within archives, yet it's a film which exists (in fine and complete form) within private hands --- attracting little or no interest from organizations who've long strayed from their original intent to preserve and present our American film heritage.

With an atmospheric World War One setting, "The Battle of Paris" served as Gertrude Lawrence's first feature-length talking film, and boasted a host of songs --- some of the Great War era, and some new, such as the lovely melody "When I'm Housekeeping For You," which can be heard here in a recording by Ben Selvin and His Orchestra dating from December of 1929.

"When I'm Housekeeping For You" (1929)

Before concluding this entry, I hasten to fulfill a few reader requests!

While viewing the rather spectacular full-page advertisement for Warners' all-Technicolor "On With the Show," you can listen to this medley of tunes from the film --- lifted from the foreign release version discs for the film that made beautiful use of the melodies we're accustomed to hearing as vocals in the surviving domestic release version.

Medley - "On With the Show" (1929)

A trio of "hot" numbers are up next!

Betty Compson's eyes may look a bit wonky in the otherwise stunning poster depicted left, but that may well be because she's heard "Weary River" one too many times. A tonic might well come in the form of the following unusually upbeat version of the much recorded tune, recorded by Joe Venuti's New Yorkers in February of 1929. It might not re-grow eyebrows, but it'll set feet tapping.

"Weary River" (1929) Joe Venuti's New Yorkers

From that fountain of melody, Fox's 1930 "Happy Days," comes "I'm On A Diet of Love," originally performed in the film by Marjorie White and Frank Richardson and played here by the featured band in the film, George Olsen & His Music.

"I'm On A Diet Of Love" (1930)

This week's cable airing of "The Mysterious Island" (MGM-1929) struck me as looking and sounding a good deal better than it's looked and sounded before, which indicates either a behind-the-scenes upgrade of broadcast material or a diminished critical eye (and ear) by this writer, due to a lingering head cold --- which also explains the late arrival of this post.

Seeking to catch up, look for another blog post no later than Monday evening --- and until then, I leave you with a rousing rendition of "Sing You Sinners," from the 1930 Paramount film "Honey" --- performed here by Jack Martin's Musicians on a flexible disc that has more than lived up to it's claims for long-lasting durability!

"Sing You Sinners" (1930) Jack Martin's Musicians



alexa757 said...

Glad you're feeling better, Jeff. I can just see you trying to get some Ayer's Cherry Pectoral at your local CVS or Eckard or Duane Reade - "but you must have it - Alice White uses it!"

I have always wondered how silent versions of early talkies were made. Did they have a musical soundtrack? But since the theaters they were going to were not wired for sound, what would be the point? I guess in this case, the theaters were wired for sound, but since a Spanish version of the film was not made, they needed to rely on the intertitles - sort of like subtitles on modern foreign films.

Jeff Cohen said...

The old ways are the best when it comes to colds, so I rely on hot tea ("gallons of it!" as Mae Murray demands in BACHELOR APARTMENT-1931), mentholated ointments, and aspirin. BTW, I'm about to add a 1929 ad for Bayer Aspirin to the tag end of this post --- note the claim at the end of the ad, which is in direct contrast to the company's present selling pitch!

Silent and Foreign language versions of early talkies is something that's been an ongoing topic --- but you can expect an in-depth study when I get around to doing feature articles on "Honky Tonk" and "Paris," which I'm looking forward to as much (hopefully!) as readers.

Thanks for the note!


Anonymous said...

(1) Lauder, incidentally, made a major ballyhooed appearence on NBC radio in the late fall of 1929, on the show sponsored by Enna Jettick (groan) shoes. It was carried by a group of stations from all of the (then) three NBC networks, and originated from Los Angeles, where Lauder was on tour. It does make you wonder when he had the time to make his bit from Elstree Calling.

(2) Ayer's started out as a patent medicine firm; I've seen stuff for them going as far back as the Civil War. It was also, somewhat curiously, a reason that Gen. George S. Patton was one of the wealthiest generals of his era, since his wife (I believe) was an heiress to this fortune. Forget Alice White. This is what Patton takes to knock out a cold!

(3) I wonder how much "Light Fingers" owed to "Raffles."

Anonymous said...

Hi Jeff:

Loving the website -- always great to know so many others share the same passion and interest in early talkies.

Where do you find the graphics you use to illustrate your posts? On the internet?


Jeff Cohen said...

Mayor Walker: Exhumation appears to agree with you, Sir! Thanks for the tip about Lauder's NBC stint as it's just the sort of thing I'd enjoy reading up on. As for "Elstree Calling," I believe you've confused Sir Harry with Will Fyffe --- an understandable mistake! I >love< envisioning an ad for Ayer's proudly proclaiming "The Choice of General Patton and Alice White!" Look forward to seeing you at Rector's a week from Sunday.

Todd: Thanks for the kind words! Graphics come from everywhere imaginable, and some you don't want to. Tain't easy, but the hunt is half the fun!


Anonymous said...

I did check up on an item: the founder of Ayer's was the father-in-law of General Patton; Patton's wife was the youngest daughter by old man Ayer's second wife. Apparently father-in-law and son-in-law got along very well.

The Lauder broadcast was December 1, 1929, and the Wiki entry for Blue Network has a copy of an ad placed by Enna Jettick for the show.

Unknown said...

I like the complaint about "skeletons" on screen - when the 1929 women look so well-fed, compared to today !!

Anonymous said...

Just a minor nitpick regarding His Honor's note about Sir Harry Lauder's 1929 radio broadcast: the broadcast did not originate from Los Angeles but from San Francisco. NBC's West Coast operations were on a one-way feed originating from the network master studio/switching center at 111 Sutter St. in San Francisco, and Los Angeles was at the terminus of the one-way circuit.

No NBC broadcasts originated from Los Angeles until 1932, when Eddie Cantor moved his "Chase and Sanborn Hour" to Hollywood - a move that added over two thousand dollars a week to NBC's AT&T line charges, and which required not only a special studio but a direct feed line from LA to Chicago that completely bypassed the San Francisco-based West Coast switching complex.

Anonymous said...

Well, I went back to my source, a pamphlet put out by Enna Jettick Shoes in 1930, and here's what they said regarding the broadcast:

"The procedure is about the same when an entertainment is originating in Los Angeles, the difference being that you have two long telephone wires. For example when Sir Harry Lauder was guest artist of "Enna Jettick Melodies" in Los Angeles on December 1st, he sang into the microphone just as you would talk into the receiver of a telephone. Arrangements had been made to have a direct wire from KFI, the Los Angeles studio, the Station WJZ [now WABC] in New York. That was a one way wire. The voice could travel east and west only. When it reached WJZ it was, practically speaking, taken off th eend of the wire right into a microphone in Station WJZ. Then it went through the same procedure as though Sir Harry Lauder were in WJZ's studio. That is, the voice went by wire to the control room, from the control room to the transmitting station of WJZ, over the air from WJZ to the listeners of that station, and by telephone wire to all the other stations connected with the system, the voice finally returning to Station KFI, Los Angeles, over a wire running from east to west, where it was put on the air. [Discussion of cues omitted] When [the show's announcer] was through and the operator in KFI heard [the announcer] say "Sir Harry Lauder will now sing to you from Los Angeles," he signalled to Sir Harry and Sir Harry began to sing."

Tricky Springs said...

So I'm listening to Excerpt #2 from "Careers" & it seems to me that the first part of this music sounds very much like the music used in the prologue to 1931's "The Public Enemy", also a First National Vitaphone film?