04 February 2007

"Following the Sun Around"

On June 10th of 1932, the syndicated newspaper column "New York Day by Day," by O.O. McIntyre, saw fit to lament the fact that the passage of time had, among other things, resulted in the loss of once much beloved elements from daily life in New York City and it's entertainment venues. Among them, "La Belle Titcomb and her white horse," "Cheap burlesque picking at the coverlets," and another reference now barely a living memory, "J. Harold Murray's merry twinkle." The author concludes the item by sadly noting, "But the flea circus goes on forever."

Clearly, the New York City of 1932 wasn't the same city as it was in the 1920's when J. Harold Murray's "merry twinkle" so delighted theater patrons and columnists alike --- and in 2007, even the Depression gutted city of 1932 seems as distant as a lost civilization.

It came as a surprise, and a reaffirmation of my efforts, to receive a gracious and informative note from Mrs. Linda Murray Berzok, who is the granddaughter of J. Harold Murray... Ziegfeld, stage and screen star possessed of golden voice (and merry twinkle,) thanking me for my mention of Mr. Murray in this Blog's earlier post, "The Ladder of Roses."

Although J. Harold Murray passed on before Mrs. Berzok's birth, and wasn't --- as she admitted, a frequently discussed figure within her family, she has developed an understandable interest in her Grandfather's life and career, a career which now exists as scattered papers and photographs, mentions in brittle newsprint, on cylinder and 78rpm recordings, and in existing copies of his film work --- much of it now battered and fragmented, the victims of neglect, folly and the flitting by of calendar pages.

While newspaper accounts and publicity placements are often unreliable sources of fact (Ms. Berzok pointed out that her Grandfather never owned or operated a saw-mill as one colorful 1930 newspaper item indicated, but rather that he owned an estate called Saw Mill Hollow in Killingworth, Connecticut) they do serve an invaluable purpose nonetheless --- acting as a societal mirror that indicates how figures like Murray were seen (or not) in the public eye.

Via period newspaper accounts, we can trace a performer's rise to fame --- and oftentimes, sadly, their descent into obscurity... but more importantly, they have the ability to affix a figure to a particular time and place in a way that dim recollections cannot. Then too, they often provide insight into unimportant but intriguing facts of the sort that help to bring even the most distant figure a bit closer to us.

Small, inconsequential things these, such as learning that J. Harold Murray was an expert ice-skater, and that he blushed madly whenever receiving a compliment. Delightful and very human traits that would otherwise pass unnoticed.

One of our earliest views of J. Harold Murray arises in 1923, as he moved from singer of illustrated songs, to song-writer and publisher, and then onto performer of his own material --- when all the elements clicked, and he became a featured stage performer in such vehicles as "The Passing Show of 1921,” “The Midnight Rounders of 1921,” “Make It Snappy,“ “Springtime of Youth,“ and “The Whirl of New York.“ We can view ads for the latter stage show, and even a photograph of J. Harold Murray as he appeared in the production, but nothing serves to fan away the mists of time as much as hearing his living voice. Here, in a recording of “Faded Love Letters,” is J. Harold Murray in 1923, reproducing the melody as it was performed in the 1921 production --- with the voice that would one day soar amidst Ziegfeld splendor already much in evidence.

"Faded Love Letters" (1923) J. Harold Murray and the Homestead Trio

The same year Murray recorded “Faded Love Letters,” and was appearing at New York’s Ambassador Theater in “Caroline,” a Civil War era musical comedy, his face could be seen in newspapers throughout the country, endorsing Lion-Dura collars --- looking quite satisfied indeed with their best-selling “semi-soft” variety of collar. (Film buffs who may have puzzled over the name of a character played by George Givot in “Hollywood Party” (MGM-1934) a faux-elegant lion tamer, will now understand that the character’s name was actually a bit of word play on the popular collar’s brand name.)

“Vogues of 1924,” would be Murray’s next success, a Shubert Bros. musical comedy revue in which he co-starred with still somewhat recognizable names such s Fred Allen, Jimmy Savo, Betty Compton, and Irene Delroy. The production would run for a respectable 92 performances --- adequate for topical material of this sort, and Murray escaped the mild criticism given over to the show’s other performers --- and this, while bravely battling a vexing bout of illness. To quote the reviewer, “J. Harold Murray was handicapped the first nights by a bad cold. Manly in appearance and possessing an exquisite voice, Murray labored under this handicap, but valiantly won his way into the hearts of nearly everyone that saw him. He sang and played the speilman (sic) from ‘The Miracle’ well indeed.”

Featured roles in “China Rose,” “Captain Jinks” and “Castles in the Air” would fill 1925 and 1926 for the performer, with perhaps his greatest of all stage roles, in Ziegfeld’s “Rio Rita,” arriving in January of 1927 and opening the Ziegfeld Theater --- and so successful a production that it pushed back the opening of “Show Boat” by nearly a full year!

It’s interesting to read an amusing publicity placement from January of 1927 --- moments before “Rio Rita” would open, titled “Harold Murray Does Not Believe in Vocal Training,” in which the performer (supposedly) speaks against vocal training --- citing the fact that he himself had never had a singing lesson in his life, unlikely though that may seem it's possibly true nonetheless.

Via the following 1927 recording, we can hear J. Harold Murray in a medley from “Rio Rita,” accompanied by the Victor Orchestra and members of the Victor Light Opera Company. To listen is to truly dream and yearn for another time and place.

Selections from "Rio Rita" (1927) J. Harold Murray & the Victor Light Opera Co.

With “Rio Rita,” J. Harold Murray became a stage legend. It’s lamentable that he wouldn't be utilized for the 1929 RKO screen edition, as the film would have benefited as much from his vocal ability as his very physical appearance --- that of lithe and fair, which would have contrasted nicely with the dark eyes and hair of Bebe Daniels and Don Alvarado. But, it was not to be.

J. Harold Murray’s success on the stage in “Rio Rita” would never be matched --- although his contributions to 1932’s “Face the Music” (where he introduced the standards “Soft Lights and Sweet Music” and “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee”) brought fame in a very different sort of stage vehicle, in a very different world from the one that greeted “Rio Rita.” (Newspaper accounts detail that Murray was replaced by John Barker for the show’s final two months, but offer no explanation.) Another standard, “Autumn in New York,” emerged from 1935’s “Thumbs Up,” lingering long after the voice that first performed it faded into nothingness.

In some ways, Murray’s screen work isn’t much more accessible to us today than his stage work, a sad commentary on the survival rate of the early sound films. The performer's first appearance in a sound film would arrive in 1928, when he participated in the filming of a Metrotone short subject that would accompany the premiere of Greta Garbo's "The Mysterious Lady" (MGM) and Warner Bros.' "The Lion and the Mouse" in most theaters around the nation in country. In addition to musical turns by Ben Bernie and his Orchestra and Gertrude Lawrence, the reel featured J. Harold Murray singing "The Ranger Song" from "Rio Rita," and two young ladies billed as "The Rio Rita Girls" who performed a piano duet of some sort. Tantalizing though this reel sounds, it exists today only as mention in newspapers of the day.

All that remains of J. Harold Murray's first full-length feature “Married in Hollywood" (Fox-1929) aside from scattered sound discs, photos and script materials, is what amounts to the film’s final reel --- photographed in the Multicolored process, and occasionally trotted out for viewing by audiences lucky enough to be in attendance for it’s momentary exhumation.

According to the recollections of a good friend fortunate enough to see this reel when it was on display a number of years ago in the United Kingdom, the Mulitcolor reel opened with panning shots of the Fox Studio -- in which could be seen employees on the roof with huge light reflectors, set against a pure blue sky -- a credit to the Mutlicolor process. Forming the film’s finale (and providing it’s title) was a filmed “wedding” of the two principals, Norma Terris and J. Harold Murray --- staged on a huge set open to the sunlight. He continues, “music came in (the film’s theme song, “Dance Away the Night,”) with fantastic, thundering clarity. I recall the hero and heroine standing on a mounted stage --- lots of steps --- with some gorgeous reds and blues.” He accurately compares it to the finale of another multi-hued musical, RKO’s “Dixiana” of 1930, and while noting that the scene had little of the fluidity of “Gold Diggers of Broadway,” it contained some of the best two-color photography he’d seen up to that point.

The film’s theme song, “Dance Away the Night," as performed on 78rpm disc by the Columbia Photoplayers, was featured in an earlier post, but is offered here again for those who may have missed it.

"Dance Away the Night" (1929) Theme song of "Married in Hollywood"

“Happy Days” (Fox-1930) is with us, albeit in a much degraded and battered shadow of it’s former self --- eagerly traded by collectors hungry for the material that archives and parent studios have little interest in, and this while near pristine film elements for “Happy Days” survive, yet go begging for attention while a clock ticks away the dwindling moments of the film’s life.

The part-Technicolor Fox production “Cameo Kirby” (1930) followed next for J. Harold Murray, which suffered only when compared to the similarly themed “Dixiana” of the same year, but evaluation of the film remains impossible today for it’s completely gone.

In July of 1930, newspapers mentioned: "Since Paramount has canceled 'Her Wedding Night' as a starring vehicle for Jeanette MacDonald, and have nothing to substitute in its place, they have loaned her to Fox for one picture. She will play opposite J. Harold Murray in 'Stolen Thunder.' The story by Mary F. Watkins, deals with the adventures of an opera singer. Sidney Lanfield will direct."
Alas, this pairing of two of the early talking screen's most beautiful voices would not materialize as planned, for when the film reached the screen as "Oh For A Man," Reginald Denny had replaced Murray.

“Women Everywhere” (Fox-1930) exists in it’s entirety, and at last report was being kept in maintained isolation within the UCLA film archive. The blood and thunder melodrama of the Canadian wilds, “Under Suspicion” (Fox-1930) barely escaped complete loss --- leaving behind two reels of itself before vanishing altogether, which presently reside at UCLA as well.

Following this, J. Harold Murray would return East, and to the stage --- but would, over the next few years, appear in numerous short-subjects, some of them filmed at Warner’s Brooklyn Vitaphone Studio --- then curiously staging odd, two-reel condensed versions of full-length musicals of just a few short years prior.

As J. Harold Murray, Bernice Claire and Alexander Gray gathered in the historic but comparatively shabby Warner Bros. Brooklyn studio to re-create moments from “Song of the Flame,” (an all-Technicolor 1930 film --- now lost) for the two-reel “The Flame Song” in 1934, the mind boggles at the conversation that must have ensued between the former shining lights of stage and film that were now involved in a production that couldn't’t help but seem like a grade-school reenactment of “Ben Hur” by contrast to the gargantuan vehicles they had once been involved with.

If contemporary newspaper accounts are to be believed, J. Harold Murray didn’t need to work --- he simply wanted to. A performer performs, and unless they’re allowed to do so they’re unfulfilled. No matter their wealth or possessions, nothing could replace audience adulation. So, despite a news item from November of 1933 that states: “J. Harold Murray has become one of the wealthiest American actors,” he continued on in short subjects, as well as on radio, where he could be heard in an operetta “Venus in Silk” in October of 1935, and as frequent guest performer on “The Intimate Revue” and “The Troubadours.”

Two years after being cited as one of America’s wealthiest actors, an October of 1935 newspaper entry mentions an unfortunate incident: “Dozens of persons well known in Hollywood and along Broadway were revealed as victims of John J. Kemp, insurance broker, who confessed to police tonight that he had spent thousands of dollars in insurance premium money sent him by clients instead of paying it to insurance companies. Clients swindled by the broker include Mrs. Betty Rogers, widow of the late Will Rogers, W.C. Fields, John Charles Thomas, Vivian Segal, Lew Silvers, Willie Howard, Betty Compton -- wife of former Mayor Jimmy Walker of New York City, and J Harold Murray.”

For J. Harold Murray, work in short subjects continued: “Who’s That Girl,” “Nite in a Nite Club” in 1934, “The Singing Bandit,” “Phony Boy” in 1937, “Under a Gypsy Moon” and “Somewhere in Paris” in 1938, and “Wild and Bully” in 1939. Surviving scripts for short subjects titled “Hollywood Censorship,” “Tourist Camp” and “Capture” also indicate plans for J. Harold Murray’s involvement --- but reasons for their abandonment are unclear, unless the saddest of all reasons was to blame.

The performer would pass away in December of 1940, a victim of Bright’s Disease, at age 49 -- and with each passing year since, more and more of his stage and screen legacy would fall away --- leaving mere scraps of a vibrant life and voice, some of which have been presented here as best they can, with others remaining in inaccessible limbo, and still others long lost beyond salvage.

Also left behind, an adoring grandchild J. Harold Murray would not live to meet, but for whom he remains a source of boundless curiosity, fascination and admiration.

Then, at the end of it all --- a Blog writer who does his level best to keep these once bright sparks of life which generated so much pleasure and gladness for so many, from being extinguished completely... at least not just yet.

Note: Linda Murray Berzok welcomes communication with readers who are seeking information about --- or pertaining, to J. Harold Murray. She may be contacted at: berzokmr@hotmail.com

Publicity photo for "Under Suspicion" (Fox-1930)

J. Harold Murray
February 17, 1891 - December 11,1940


Revered and much missed by "New York: Day by Day" columnist,
"La Belle Titcomb" (and her white horse) is seen here as touring on the Orpheum
vaudeville circuit in 1911, sharing the bill with
elegant hobo comedian, Nat. M. Wills:

Nat M. Wills recorded for Edison and other phonograph companies during the early
part of the last century. Here is his recording of "A Parody on 'Down in Jungle Town'"
from 1909, in which President Roosevelt's much publicized hunting expedition is the target for scathing musical criticism. This set of lyrics are Nat Wills' own creation.

"A Parody on 'Down in Jungle Town'" (1909)

This news item from 1915 reveals that "La Belle Titcomb" and Nat. M. Wills
were, at one time, husband and wife.

"La Belle Titcomb" continued to perform, sans white horse, as late as 1918,
perhaps out of necessity, since alimony source Nat Wills passed away in 1917.
This ad indicates her participation in a Washington, D.C. vaudeville performance.


"... but the flea circus goes on forever."


J. Theakston said...

Great blog. The Capitol in Rome ran the final reel of MARRIED IN HOLLYWOOD a couple of years ago. I have to admit, the photography was far more clear and pleasing with a blue bias than Technicolor's green hues.

Thanks for yet another amusing portrait/recording of Nat M. Willis. Why he never translated over to early sound films at all had always puzzled me, but recently finding out that he died rather tragically in 1917 prooved that this would be quite difficult for him.

Anonymous said...

Great research, Jeff! Your narrative style works well at bringing back lost names in show business!

Now if only we could find outlets for DVDs of surviving material you discuss!

Jeff Cohen said...

There's an audience for this material, as this blog and other web-sites indicate. What's needed is the realization of this fact by those in a position to make it available.

With the constant wail of "We need funding!" from virtually every film archive, you'd >think< it would occur to someone to make their material availablle --- at a suitably higher than normal cost --- which would recoup their production costs and then allow them to divert some or all of the profits towards ongoing projects.

Simplistic? Perhaps. Unreasonable? Hell no!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Unknown said...

Wow, that "Rio Rita" selections disc was fantastic! What a great voice he had! (And I wonder if I have that disc, someplace ... must look - it'll sound terrific on the Orthophonic!)

Thanks, again and again !!