11 April 2007

Then As Now

No "feature story" for this entry --- instead, a number of diverse items of interest of no particular time and place except the distant past.

We start with the vivid poster artwork for "New York Nights," actress Norma Talmadge's first talking film, released just as an exhausted and deflated 1929 stepped aside for the far more serious-minded 1930 to take over.

It's always interesting to compare studio-manufactured publicity with actual period reviews, but --- interestingly, "New York Nights" fared just as well in the eyes of imaginary and actual reviewers. And this in spite of the fact that a seemingly unfounded legend has long since attached itself to the film (and Miss Talmadge) that suggests her voice was so tainted by a distinctive Brooklyn accent that the film was all but laughed off the screen by public and critics alike --- accounting for its failure at the box office. Nonsense, apparently.

Curiously, studio-prepared newspaper inserts for the film opted for odd wording that suggested they had doubts themselves as to the film's worth: "Norma Talmadge's latest and perhaps most ambitious screen effort, 'New York Nights,' was given its local premiere at the _____ Theater, enabling local picture enthusiasts to see and judge for themselves the musical, all-talking extravaganza that has claimed a lion's share of interest among current releases." Not the best way to sell a picture --- and it continues on in an equally curious tone --- defensive, reassuring and almost apologetic:

"'New York Nights' is certainly one of the most entertaining pictures seen and heard here in many months. It is an unusual combination of understandable comedy-melodrama, with sensible and timely interpolations of music and humorous touches that rightly belong to the story. As a representation of Broadway's big bulb belt and Tin Pan Alley, the picture observes faith more so than many more recent productions with a similar background. In 'New York Nights,' one is given the impression of an interesting background, motivated by still more interesting. Miss Talmadge as 'Jill' makes her talking picture debut and her work in the starring role is a triumph of finished acting. We like her portrayal of a chorus girl because of its simplicity and naturalness. She doesn't used her voice affectedly and her delightful sophistications have the quality of spontaneity. The solemn verdict is given here that she is even a better talking actress than a silent one."

An unnamed staff reviewer for an Olean, New York newspaper was far less indecisive in his opinion of the film: "Big crowds will probably be the order of things at the Haven Theater the latter part of this week, for the fare provided is unusually entertaining. First and foremost, there is the Norma Talmadge all-talkie 'New York Nights.' It is a half-theatrical, half-crook play, with a haunting theme song, and packs an unusual punch. It is Miss Talmadge's first talking picture and she is uncommonly good, her speaking voice being excellent and her acting as finished as ever. Moreover, Miss Talmadge is a sight for any old kind of eyes. She is supported by Gilbert Roland, who, too, is very good; but a newcomer to the screen, John Wray, walks off with heavy honors as Joe Prividi, the racketeer. Here is a character study that is a perfect gem. The screen public will see considerably more of Mr. Wray. Lilyan Tashman gives her usual competent performance in a subsidiary part; but the entire production is good and goes with commendable swing."

He goes on to comment on the remainder of the theater's program: "Those who like pie-throwing orgies -- this reviewer is sappy enough to enjoy them thoroughly -- will get a bonanza in the comedy ("Shivering Shakespeare" - MGM/Roach,) mainly handled by members of Our Gang, who produce a play with disastrous results. Quite a merry evening altogether, despite the fact that something happened to the Fox Movietone News, another comedy having to be substituted -- a disappointment to news reel fans."

Although unidentified in the local review, the film's theme song ("A Year From Today") was the featured element of the "wild party" episode of the picture, which --- according to studio writers, "presents in short flashes, several star vaudevillians and two major recording orchestras, who play the film's theme song."

Not a terribly raucous affair, it's difficult to equate the melodic tune with wild parties --- but here it is, as performed by Leo Reisman & His Orchestra:

"A Year From Today" (1929)

"A beautiful woman and her husband engage in a bitter argument, based on the wife's intention to sue for divorce and demanded alimony.

Goaded beyond endurance by the cold indifference of the wife, the husband whips a pistol from his pocket, steps into a curtained alcove --- and shoots himself.

As he falls to the floor, dragging down the curtains with him, his wife calmly flicks the ash from her cigarette, and sighs in boredom.

The camera backs away from the scene, revealing a descending curtain, an orchestra pit and the first rows of seats in a theater. What had seemed to be a genuine domestic tragedy turns out to be merely a scene from a play. But wait...

The actor does not rise after the curtain has fallen, but lies in a huddle under the enveloping portieres. A thin stream of blood trickles from under the still form and a stage hand cries out in consternation. The actor has shot himself."

Such were the opening moments of Warner Bros.' "The Glad Rag Doll," a film now deemed lost that arrived on screens in mid-1929. Although the trick opening sequence would become an oft-used gimmick (it appears, with minor variation, in 1932's "The Death Kiss") it was a sensation in 1929, despite the fact that the remaining length of the film swiftly bogged down into a love triangle of so convoluted a sort that many period reviewers opted to side-step plot details entirely, and instead advise readers that the film was better seen and heard than explained. Fans of talking cinema and Dolores Costello turned out in droves, and for a couple of months the film's titular theme song seemed to be everywhere --- making it one of the most-recorded film theme songs of the year, and generating a seemingly endless supply of sheet music copies that can be found in vast numbers even today.

Period reviews and ads indicate that the theme song was (presumably) warbled by Miss Costello herself at some point in the film, but while that's difficult to ascertain today, it's a certainty that the melody loomed large within the wall-to-wall, lush incidental scoring that sets much of the 1929 Vitaphone product apart from other studio fare of the period, where long stretches of barren silence create a queer vacuum effect that makes contemporary viewing a long haul even for the most forgiving of viewers.

The Yellen & Ager tune, in addition to being called into play as incidental scoring for the foreign release versions of numerous 1929 productions, also turns up in the 1929 Vitaphone short "Grace Johnson & The Indiana Five," in which the formidable female vocalist and accompanying musicians also perform covers of "Bashful Baby" and "Clarinet Marmalade."

The short accompanied another Dolores Costello film, "Hearts in Exile," during its early 1930 run in Pennsylvania, giving Costello fans an extra trill of pleasure, doubtless. Here is "Glad Rag Doll," as sedately performed by Miss Johnson and the Indiana Five in an otherwise energetic reel:

"Glad Rag Doll" (1929)

Borrowing a lyric fragment from "Clap Yo' Hands," a tune originating in the stage musical "Oh, Kay!," the Cinematograph Times hails the January 1930 arrival of Metro's "Hallelujah!" (the exclamation point comes and goes throughout ads, reviews and promotional material --- much as it did with "On With the Show!") in the United Kingdom. Interestingly, some contemporary British reviews looked upon the whole affair as a distasteful display of exploitation --- an aura which lingered on in association with the film long after its 1929 birth, and crops up now and again today as well whenever anyone feels it necessary to scold the current generation for the actions of past ones.

Whatever faults one may find with the subject matter or performances, there's no denying the film's many moments of pictorial splendor and the naturalistic ease with which it all unfolds --- oftentimes seeming more a filmed actuality than anything else, a credit to its direction, photography and recording. While Irving Berlin's "Swanee Shuffle" may now strike some as unfortunate, the performances of "Waiting At the End of the Road" at various points throughout the film still packs a wallop that one needn't feel guilty about enjoying. Interestingly, the film's star --- Daniel L. Haines, re-teamed with The Dixie Jubilee Singers for a commercial 78rpm recording of the tune that isn't frequently (if at all) heard today, and it's with pleasure that I offer it here:

"Waiting At the End of the Road" (1929)

Pausing a moment --- because we can, to peer some forty odd years prior to 1929 and listen in on a form of mechanical home entertainment that predated the phonograph. The music box, not unlike the player piano, has the uncanny ability to replicate music of another day free of the ravages of time that plague the phonograph cylinder and disc. While it's all but impossible to re-create the listening experience of someone in 1902 or 1929, when a metal disc is played upon a music box or a piano roll threaded onto a roller, the end result --- save for acoustics and the inescapable sounds of modern life that have become invisible to us --- is a disorienting but pleasurable experience that seems to distort and bend time itself.

In the ethereal image to the right, it's easy to imagine a music box playing Ethelbert Nevin's "Narcissus" of 1891, with the tinkling melody wholly undisturbed save perhaps for the rustle of leaves outside a nearby window or the soft trill of song-birds hesitantly calling to the sweet notes pouring from the unfamiliar mechanical device.

"Narcissus" (1891) - Music Box Disc

Or, in another room -- in another place, be it a hot and overstuffed flat in New York redolent of the scent of violets, camphor and cooking --- or a windswept cabin in a barely settled Western village --- a similar music box might be heard playing a different sort of tune, 1896's "A Hot Time In the Old Town," --- still an instantly recognizable melody today despite its origins and lyrics long dimmed by the veil of time.

"A Hot Time in the Old Town" (1896) - Music Box Disc

"When you hear -- dem bells go ding-ling-ling,
all join round -- and sweetly you must sing!

And when the verse am through,
in the chorus all join in,

There'll be a hot time in the old town tonight..."

Lingering a bit longer with familiar music as heard in unfamiliar ways, Scott Joplin's landmark 1899 composition, "Maple Leaf Rag" never sounded so unfamiliar nor so right as in this unusual recording in which the melody has been arranged for performance by a mandolin orchestra. At first, the source material and method of playing it may seem to be at vast odds --- but such isn't the case, at least to my ears.

"Maple Leaf Rag" (1899) Mandolin Orchestra

This performance brings to mind a description of ragtime music being heard for the first time that, try as I might, I can't recall the source of except to attempt to paraphrase it --- and probably poorly:

"The notes were thrown into the air --- where they hung --- lingering and wavering, then slowly dissolving, only to be replaced by another set of notes hurtled upwards in their place."

Before returning to more familiar musical territory, a parting glimpse at a melody once so entwined with wedding ceremonies that it would have been the rare matrimonial event indeed that didn't include it at some point.

A featured musical element in the stage production of "Robin Hood," the DeKoven & Scott composition "Oh Promise Me" (1889) would figure largely on the big day for innumerable couples over the span of at least three decades --- perhaps more, before ultimately falling completely from fashion and grace in much the same way the suggestion of including "You Light Up My Life"or "Feelings" might be greeted today.

Often performed as a shrill, overly trilled comedic vocal piece in films and television shows of the past (or utilized so achingly beautifully as it was in Fox's 1927 "Sunrise") perhaps you'll be as surprised as I was upon encountering the astoundingly beautiful lyrics and melody as they were meant to be heard.

"Oh Promise Me" (1889) Vocal with Orchestra

"Oh promise me, that some day you and I,
will take our love together to some sky --

Where we can be alone and faith renew,
and find the hollows where those flowers grew.

Those first sweet violets of early spring,
which come in whispers, thrill us both,
and sing -- of love unspeakable that is to be,
Oh promise me, Oh promise me.

Oh promise me, that you will take my hand,
the most unworthy in this lonely land,
and let me sit beside you, in your eyes,
seeing the visions of our paradise!

Hearing God's message while the organ rolls
its mighty music to our very souls,
No love less perfect than a life with thee,
Oh promise me, Oh promise me!"

Perhaps I'm overtly sentimental, but the power of those lyrics seldom fails to play upon the heartstrings --- worn and dulled though they may be!

It's been far too long, as some readers rightfully reminded me, since I offered a selection of British 78rpm period recordings --- a prominent feature of this blog's early posts. Here then, a small batch of somewhat unfamiliar yet fairly worthy recordings from the United Kingdom --- followed by a gathering of American discs as well.

"I Don't Mind Being Alone" (1927) won't be a concern of the fair lass willingly --- perhaps too much so --- participating in a store's Easter display (right) if the rabbits have any say in the matter, and Harry Bidgood's Broadcasters handle the tune in a manner that suggests the condition is anything but permanent.

"I Don't Mind Being Alone" (1927)

Harry Hudson and His Band recorded the next tune, "Adeline" for the UK "Radio" label in 1930, and although the tune seems a product of a year or two earlier in terms of both content and style, that's all much beside the point when the topic at hand is a gal named Adeline ("she's a pal o' mine, she's divine..") who I envision would think nothing of gamely climbing into the limbs of a newly blossoming tree for a snapshot or two --- and still manage to look lovely while doing it. Note that the photographer has gallantly draped his overcoat over the branches, lest her coat be spotted!

"Adeline" (1930) Harry Hudson & His Band

It'd be too easy to dig up an archive image of someone in genuine distress to illustrate "'Cause I Feel Low Down" (1928) so instead, to accompany this strident rendition by The Piccadilly Dance Orchestra, we have this fellow atop a roof who's cryptic facial expression seems to suit the melody well. If indeed he's feeling "low down," then he doesn't much care who knows it --- and would likely willingly take anyone to task who might be inclined to disagree.

"Cause I Feel Low Down" (1928)

Time weighs heavily when the day's one bright spot is posing for newspaper photographers in a holding cell. While we'll never know whether the pensive woman's attire was either an ill-chosen decision of her own given her surroundings, or if the institution had a flair for fashion, I suspect her predicament is temporary at best --- for she has a teaspoon partially concealed in her right hand. Well, such things have been known to happen. Haven't they? (Note: Reader William Ferry points out that the melancholic Miss in this 1924 photo is none other than Belva Gaertner, the real-life inspiration for the character of "Velma" in the stage and screen musical "Chicago." Thanks, Bill!)

"Empty Hours" (1929) - The Allan Selby Band

The Riverside Dance Orchestra (and vocalist) throws itself fully, headlong and with utter abandon into this performance of 1928's "Mediterranean Blues" --- a stirring number that conceals a sly bit of humor concerning the title and the (then) popular textile color, I suspect. Despite the vocalist's longing for the sunny skies of other lands, no such gloom is evident in the faces of the two beaming young ladies here for no particular reason other than their effortless decorative value and timeless charm.

"The Mediterranean Blues" (1928) The Riverside Dance Orchestra

For better or worse, there's no point in attempting to remove ethnic influence from popular music of the period, although there are many who --- given the chance, would certainly try to. There's no denying that oftentimes the results could be crude and insulting, but I believe it was also a form of recognition (albeit back-handed) that indicates inclusion and integration of the sort that would form the thin edge of the wedge that would, in time, result in our current ability to protest against public performance of tunes such as these if we so choose. In light of what passes for music and lyrics today, tunes such as these are gentle love sonnets by comparison.

"Iz Izzy Azzy Woz?" (1929) The Ever Bright Boys

"Yoi Yoi, Mr. Cohen" (1930) Eddie Harding's Nightclub Boys

If you've never encountered the wonders of the 1920 tune "Palesteena," you're in the right place! Probably best known by it's non-vocal rendition by "The Original Dixieland Jazz Band," which seems to make it onto just about every "history of jazz" CD compilation ever produced, the tune really springs to life when paired with its lyrics.

There's something sweetly amusing in the image of Lena (from the Bronx of New York City, and not so pretty) who's ability to play the concertina is so poor that she's shipped off to Palestine in the hopes her art will find the appreciation she expects. All ends happily for Lena who shall forever be found playing her instrument atop a swaying camel's back.

"Palesteena" (1920) Vocal by Frank Crumit

"Palesteena" (1920) Vocal by Eddie Cantor

"Palesteena" (1920) Modern Era Re-Creation

Featured in at least two prior posts, the pseudo-Oriental "Hindustan" returns again. Although I've yet to discover a vocal rendition of the tune, a full orchestral version of relatively modern vintage such as the one offered here will please those who are as fond of the melody as I, especially as it (mercifully) plays it straight and period correct --- a rarity indeed for tunes of this vintage, which usually fall victim to renditions of indescribable badness and or "interpretations" that result in the only recognizable element being the title.

"Hindustan" - Modern Era Orchestra Re-Creation

Cable subscribers who were treated to the recent airing of Marion Davies' 1927 Metro comedy "The Red Mill" would surely be uniform in their praise of how unbelievably beautiful the film looked --- unblemished, sparkling and with clarity and depth all too sadly rare in films of this vintage. Similarly, opinions may vary as to the film's content and mirth value --- and it's interesting to note that period reviews were equally divided among those who felt the film near cinematic perfection, and those who found it uneven fare at best. Any silent (or early sound) film that turns up today in such glowing form is cause for celebration, but I couldn't easily find such forgiveness for the score prepared for the film's revival.

Audiences attending the Marlow Theater in Helena, Montana of 1927 likely fared better than we did insofar as the score is concerned --- for the ad indicates that the Marlow (Eight Piece) Orchestra would be playing special music for the film --- but there wasn't anything remotely special about the music the current edition is saddled with.

Melancholy when it should be bright, overtly slapstick when it should have been wistfully melodic, and frequently vaguely Oriental for no discernible reason at all, I simply can't fathom why the original Victor Herbert score of 1906 wasn't utilized --- much less hinted at, even in passing.

A grand opportunity for something special --- beyond the wildest dreams of Helena, Montana cinema-goers --- was missed here. By taking the comparatively easy way out, the rhythm, pace and soul of "The Red Mill" was torn from it --- and owing to the longevity of current media formats, it's unlikely the image of Marion Davies scampering through fields or ice ponds will ever again be happily paired with the gentle, tuneful and deathless music of Victor Herbert.

If you retained a recording of the film, watch a few moments while you listen to this orchestral suite from "The Red Mill." You'll see.

Suite from "The Red Mill"

After that rant-in-miniature, there's no better offering than Cliff "Ukelele Ike" Edwards' expressing his pessimism about life in general from the 1930 film version of "Good News," which exists today only in incomplete form (minus the final Technicolor reel.) Surviving complete sound elements and all manner of photographic still material could easily be called into play to fashion a final reel that would allow for the creation of as complete a version as could be presented today, but apparently enthusiasm and funds are so equally lacking as to make the prospect dismal at best. Our loss.

"Pessimistic" - (1930) Cliff Edwards

As a gloom chaser, the 1923 tune "Seven or Eleven" is a surefire toss, especially when offered in two equally sprightly spins from that same year.

The Melody Kings Dance Orchestra provides an orchestral version that interpolates "At A Georgia Camp Meeting" and a tune we visited earlier in quite a different form, "A Hot Time in the Old Town." Sophie Tucker handles the lyrics in her usually robust fashion in the second recording, and be sure to listen for the final gag line in which Miss Tucker reveals the source of her surprisingly good fortune in handling the bones!

"The gong of an electrically operated clock breaks the silence of a room in the tower of a New York skyscraper.

A young man whose eyes have been fixed upon a small screen standing upon his desk glances at the timepiece and then at a chart as his elbow... he presses a button on his desk.

And, miles away in the various cities enumerated on the chart, the doors of playhouses are automatically unlocked and opened, so too, turnstiles, and change-makers - robot cashiers.

A minute elapses, and the young man presses a second button. The electrical impulse speeds in two directions to a television transmitting station in another room of the tower, and to television receiving plants in Albany, Utica, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo. Another minute, and both are functioning, and the show is on!"

So predicted a newspaper feature from March 8th of 1930, and although some elements of the article (reproduced entirely at the close of this post) have thankfully not taken hold, others have indeed --- up to and including the staffing of theaters by seemingly robotic employees.

A year earlier, newspapers alerted readers not yet entirely adjusted to the coming of sound films that another development loomed ahead, that of three-dimensional films. Interestingly, the article indicates the successful filming of a talking 3-D subject (using a double-lens process) and gives specific details of the sort usually absent from fanciful accounts that run along similar lines.

The subject filmed (by Spoor & Berggren in association with RCA and Photophone) was a sequence from the Broadway musical "Lady Fingers," which had a four month run at the Vanderbilt Theater in early 1929. Starring Eddie Buzzell, and with a cast that included Marjorie White and Ruth Gordon (yes to both,) the mind boggles as to what might have happened to this incredible bit of film history.

At times, the hazy descriptions seem to imply that what's being discussed isn't 3-D but a widescreen process, until it becomes clear that what was filmed was a widescreen and 3-D experiment --- or at least that's how I'm interpreting it --- although I could be way off, or simply overly hopeful! ---

"'The picture starts with the screen and extends into the background,' explained Spoor. 'The picture retains the real, natural perspective of all objects photographed because a camera focus approximating the human eyes is contained in the special lens system. The new camera captures two images and resolves them into a single picture on a special width film, bringing into the negative the full relative shadow values of the photographed object. In the position where the single lens of the standard camera is normally located, are two lenses, side by side, resembling two eyes."

The description of the finished product is especially intriguing:

"At the demonstrations in New York, there first is projected a scene from 'Lady Fingers,' a current musical comedy, as it would appear on the ordinary sized screen under ordinary methods. Then, suddenly, the curtain parts farther to reveal a screen the size of an entire stage. The figures appear to be life size, and there is an amazing illusion of depth and distance. The action goes along exactly as it does in the show, and the effect of stage depth, coupled with the sound, is startling. Only color, now technically possible, is lacking to make the reproduction indistinguishable from the actual performance."

As they say, check your attics and basements, friends!

Rounding out this rambling entry, a bit of melody to accompany the grand poster artwork for Fox's 1930 "High Society Blues" featured at the right, which paired Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell again despite the fact that the bloom of their earlier pairings had begun to fade and the audiences that clamored to see their favorites talk and sing in "Sunny Side Up" of a year prior had now had their curiosity satiated and were busily exploring the new crop of performers that had begun to spring up with the coming of sound.

"I'm in the Market For You" (1930) Leo Reisman AHO

George Moore, a dedicated and generous reader of these pages supplies us with what he correctly believes to be a noticeably improved version of one of his favorite items, Fannie Brice's rendition of "I'd Rather Be Blue Over You" from the 1928 Warners film "My Man." Many of the audio defects inherent in the original have been eliminated, as evident here: "I'd Rather Be Blue" (1928)

Lastly, effective as exit-music for departing readers or a curtain-raiser for those moving backwards through earlier posts, comes this utterly stirring bit of melody from the two-act, musical revue "Doing Our Bit," which ran at New York's Winter Garden Theater from October of 1917 to February of 1918 as well as in touring companies around the nation. With huge cast that included the likes of James J. Corbett, Ed Wynn and The Duncan Sisters, a hefty dose of the production's fervent patriotism, optimism and broad humor still lingers loudly within this orchestral medley that includes two of the show's hits, "Sally (Down Our Alley)" and "Fine Feathers." Until next time!



Kevin K. said...

Life has become too cynical for most people to be moved by, or even appreciate, a song like "Oh Promise Me." What pass for many relationships are so shallow as to make such a song seem silly at best.

Joe Thompson said...

Is it just my strange mind, or does Enigmarelle the Automaton resemble Michael Jackson?

Thanks for the enjoyable posting.

Joe Thompson ;0)

E said...

If you'll believe this, Enigmarelle looks almost exactly like my mother.