08 July 2007

"The Battle Cry of Syncopation"

Looking at us, as we look at her --- Sophie Tucker --- on the set of the 1929 Warner Bros. & Vitaphone production "Honky Tonk," a film considered to be lost. Not misplaced, but left to slowly decay and fall away into the same abyss of nothingness that ultimately claims all that is not tended to --- looked after --- preserved.

Tucker is seen here with her personal pianist Teddy Shapiro, and the pair gamely plays along with the Warner Bros. publicity machine --- hoping to make the best of what Tucker deemed a bad situation, a bad script and what she expected to be a bad film.

As she gazes at the lens, she couldn't have known we'd be returning her glance some seventy-eight years in the future --- but that knowledge would have, doubtless, pleased the entertainer immensely. And, when you come right down to it, the fact that picture elements for her film "Honky Tonk" have apparently vanished would have also likely pleased her too, cruel though that may seem to us from our vantage point.

How ironic that the small clutch of early talking films and musicals that would likely have the greatest and widest appeal today are not only those that were --- by and large --- either panned or politely ignored by the public they were created for, but also featured persons or production elements that we'd so readily embrace, study and applaud today were it only possible. While much of what we're left with today is good --- and some of it exceptional --- the list is far eclipsed by titles not necessarily of historical importance, but rather films that (had they survived intact) serve to illustrate pivotal moments in early-sound cinema history as well as likely cause us to reevaluate our perceptions and notions of the period.

Not many months after the halting uncertainty of the stilted dialogue contained in something like "The Lights of New York" (WB-1928,) cinema strengthened and gathered itself together swiftly enough to evolve into the smooth, swift, dazzling kaleidoscopic Technicolor hued "On With the Show!"(Picture right - Note the portrait of Paramount star Mary Eaton on one cosmetic case!) and "Gold Diggers of Broadway," (both 1929) but because these latter two films are either largely lost or exist only in murky black and white step-down prints, we're unable to see the pay-off --- the evolution --- the natural progression --- and instead we're left with the oft trotted out painful footage from "Lights of New York" to illustrate and wrongfully represent the entire period.

For "personality" pictures of the period, Mr. Jolson's work is certainly with us today --- but he comes packaged with heavy and uncomfortable baggage that will cloud his name forever, or for as long as we feel the need to call special attention to that fact and indulge in far too much hand wringing and fretting while his films remain largely kept from view.

We have legendary Ziegfeld performer Marilyn Miller's "Sally" (WB-1929) and "Sunny" (WB-1930) both with us, but as films which exist only as muddy, imperfect shadows of how they originally looked and sounded. Because of this, viewers today are left to struggle to locate, beneath the grain and muck, the same unique spark of vitality that Miller so effortlessly radiated and which 1929/30 audiences found so easily when these films once glistened and shimmered upon theater screens instead of appearing as gray smears on television monitors.

Indeed, some of the most yearned-for "lost" films of the Vitaphone period are those which featured "name" performers or were screen translations of popular stage productions. There's 1930's all-Technicolor "Hold Everything!" and "No, No Nanette," the 1929 starring vehicle for jazz legend Ted Lewis: "Is Everybody Happy?," Fannie Brice's "My Man" of 1928, the 1929 re-working of the 1904 George M. Cohan stage musical "Little Johnny Jones," the glittering Technicolor screen debuts of Irene Bordoni and Jack Buchanan in "Paris" (1930) and Otis Skinner's performance in "Kismet" (WB-1930) which captured the equally grandiose production and star in wide-screen and multi-hues --- but it, like all these others , are all gone.

Likewise, gone from this earth, is Sophie Tucker's 1929 talking picture debut, "Honky Tonk" --- a film that's long been on archive and personal lists of "most wanted" lost film titles, and as we'll learn, a troubling and unhappy experience for the lead actress. Despite that, "Honky Tonk" is ultimately a title I cautiously deem to be one of the most perfect, compact and endearing of all the early "personality" musicals.

A news wire item of September 23, 1928 announced:

"Another acquisition to Warner Bros. round-up of talent in the entertainment world was announced this week by J. L. Warner, production chief, when he made public that his company has signed Sophie Tucker to make her screen debut in an all-talking and singing Vitaphone picture. Sophie Tucker has what is probably the largest international following of any stage star in America. As a headline vaudeville artiste and the star of many revues, she has been acclaimed not only through the United States but throughout Europe."

Indeed, Tucker had been offered the Warner Bros. contract while in the midst of a hugely successful London booking in the summer of 1928, and by October of that year, Jack L. Warner had --- as columnist Louella Parsons would correctly understate, "his hands full."

Los Angeles, Oct. 20 1928: "Atlas holding the world on his shoulders, Hercules doing his mythological stunt and the Augean stables being cleaned are pikers' jobs compared with the one Jack Warner has confronting him. To Jack, the youngest of the Warner brothers, has been given the complex task of directing the destinies of Warner Brothers and First National Studios. As producer-manager for both, he sits in his office directing the line of attack for each individual studio, for they are to be individual. Each studio will be run in its own way."

Interestingly, the article details a contract signed only days before with prizefighter Jack Dempsey. Said Warner, "He's going to make an original talkie for us. The contract was signed last Monday and we are already busy on an original prize fight story." When Parsons questioned the acquisition, rightfully pointing out that Dempsey was far from a Barrymore, Warner countered with: "He is what I want. I wouldn't give a nickel for one of the old emotional actors with tremors in their voices. That stuff went out with Noah's ark," quickly reminding Parsons he wasn't referring to the Warners picture of the same name.

Ultimately, time would reveal that First National wouldn't remain anywhere as "individual" an entity as originally proclaimed, and the talking picture debut of Jack Dempsey would never materialize --- although Warners did end up featuring Dempsey's ring opponent George Carpentier in two important early musicals ("Show of Shows" and "Hold Everything!") suggesting the souring of the Dempsey contract left Warner seeking and ultimately obtaining just the right sort of subtle revenge sure to serve as the last laugh and final word on the matter.

Jack Warner described the period during which both his namesake studio and First National were being re-tooled and re-organized thus: "I don't expect we will have First National fully equipped for sound until the first of the year and until that time naturally, all the sound pictures will be made at our own studios." When queried by Parsons, "Are you sure you are not going to treat First National like a stepchild? Aren't they both your own?," Jack Warner clumsily replied, "Well, you know what I mean. Warners studio is our first born and naturally the new baby has to wait for a few days before we get used to accepting it in the family circle."

In her 1945 autobiography, "Some of These Days" (Doubleday, co-authored with Dorothy Giles) Tucker recalls having returned from London to the States with her Warner Brothers contract in tow, and that she "had gone out to the Coast with trunks full of new Paris clothes and the feeling I was riding on air."

The trip to the Coast wouldn't occur quite so immediately as Tucker stated however, for there would be a stop-over in Chicago first. While there, she'd visit old friend and "Kismet" star Otis Skinner (Skinner and Tucker pictured right atop a Chicago skyscraper, early 1929) announce her third marriage (this one to Mr. Al Lackey) and undergo a series of visits with a plastic surgeon who would perform some early 1929 nip & tuck variety of work to remove excess fat and and smooth and refine the 45 year old performing dynamo's somewhat blowzy countenance. Indeed, it's difficult to equate the figure seen below left (circa 1923) with that of a 39 or 40 year old woman but, as they say, she had done a whole heck of a lot of living in those forty years.

Understandably, Warners wouldn't touch upon the performer's facial work in their eventual publicity for "Honky Tonk," and of course neither would the actress in her autobiography, but some late January 1929 newspapers mentioned the fact in that year's form of "Celebrity Sightings" column:

"Sophie Tucker in the hotel elevator with a nice comfy pair of felt slippers and a plaid steamer coat thrust about her shoulders. Her broad genial face showing no signs of scars from the recent beautifying operation which made her eligible for the talkies. This girl, with Al Jolson, will break the records on talkie pictures. Hers is as vivid a personality as his. Fannie Brice, priceless on the stage, gets over in her talkie picture in isolated spots only." Those isolated spots being, presumably, the talking and singing sequences of "My Man," which --- in retrospect --- weren't quite as isolated as the writer suggests. No matter --- it was time for Sophie Tucker -- the new Sophie Tucker --- to head West.

"The welcome Warner Brothers gave me at the station, with flowers and a crowd of friends and a brass band, didn't deflate me. I was still elated after my first day in Hollywood when I climbed into bed, along toward morning, got myself comfortable, and started to read the script of 'Honky Tonk.'"

"I read it through from cover to cover, and my jaw dropped down on my chest. I couldn't see Sophie Tucker anywhere in the picture. I went over the script a second time, fighting my way through the flowery language. Could anybody picture me saying, 'I shall be waiting, my dear, overlooking exquisite gardens from the French windows, watching the golden horizon?' Derlebn! I reached out my arm and grabbed the phone. 'Hurry, operator, and get Mr. William Morris in New York. And get him quick!"

"Derlebn!," a Yiddish term which translates roughly to "I should only live to see that day!" was accurate in this context, for surely no such dialogue nor remotely close situation that would call for such lines existed in the original script. To be fair, there are some stretches and wording in the final product that remains at odds with Tucker's character and personality --- and which she clearly stumbles upon, but as a whole, the film's character and lines she is given to speak is very much in keeping with Tucker's carefully formed persona, suggesting that the phone call she made to Mr. William Morris brought about some of the changes she desired --- but not without a nearly constant locking of horns between the formidable Tucker and practically all of the executive and creative personnel involved with the production of "Honky Tonk."

Directed by Lloyd Bacon, the man who helmed Jolson's mega hit "The Singing Fool," Sophie's picture was based upon a story by Leslie S. Barrows, and the screen adaptation was also by Barrows, but (curiously) billed here under his real name of C. Graham Baker. Photography was by Ben Reynolds, the limited inter-titles by DeLeon Anthony, the music by Milton Ager and Jack Yellen (Yellen would also contribute dialogue of the more naturalistic sort preferred by Tucker) and choreography for the night-club sequences was by Larry Ceballos.

Judging by the final product, Tucker's requests for script revisions were met as much as the Warner execs deemed appropriate for "a temperamental vaudeville dame who was trying to teach the motion picture industry how to run its own business," as Tucker herself imagined how the Warner Bros. suits perceived her. And, scripting wasn't the only issue that vexed Miss Tucker. As she reported --- somewhat naively --- in her 1945 autobiography:

"Getting up at 6AM was a tough job for me, who was used to going to bed about that time. And the work was hard -- harder because I was unhappy. Trained as I had been in show business, I couldn't believe a picture could be good with no rehearsals. In vaudeville, you'd rehearse an act or a new song for weeks. Break them in. Take out bad spots. Add new ones. That was how I was used to working. In the studio, I discovered a new technique: one scene taken at a time, not more than four or five lines to a person. "

"While they were setting the scene and the cameras were being arranged for shooting, the director and actors would be off at one side, studying and rehearsing their lines. When the cameraman (Ben Reynolds) said "Ready," the scene was shot. One man, the director (Lloyd Bacon,) looked on, and approved. And that was that! If he didn't approve, the scene might be taken over a few times. But he was the only critic to be pleased. No one else had any idea what it was like, and you didn't have a chance to improve a look or a gesture. And while this was going on and the picture was being made in pieces, the publicity department was starting its propaganda to sell the picture, featuring the great ability of the star and cast, the warm, human, dramatic story, the cleverness of the writers and the directors. When I got an earful of this, I asked myself, can the studio fool the public? Can a smart publicity department make the public like something just because they are clever at selling it?"

Yes indeed, Miss Tucker! As resounding a "Yes!" in 2007 as it was in 1929.

It's unclear at what point during the film's production the cast was gathered together on the night-club set for the filming of the trailer for "Honky Tonk," but when listened to with our knowledge of the existing production difficulties, it becomes all the more fascinating --- if only to prove that Tucker didn't allow her misgivings about the whole ordeal to interfere with her desire to sell the film and to play along with the "one big happy family" motif that the studio so carefully cultivated.

Here, actor John Davidson ("Skin Deep," "Queen of the Night Clubs") performs duties as host for the trailer, and introduces us to Tucker and the much of the supporting cast of "Honky Tonk" which included Lila Lee, George Duryea (who'd eventually morph into cowboy star Tom Keene after a notable appearance in King Vidor's "Our Daily Bread") Audrey Ferris (just off "The Glad Rag Doll") and Mahlon Hamilton, recently featured in Metro's "The Single Standard." (No film elements for the trailer are known to exist --- only the synchronized sound disc which originally accompanied it --- a copy of which is presented here via the kind generosity of friend and UK blog reader Gary Scott, who reports having discovered the 12" platter among a pile of 16" standard Vitaphone discs inside a Netherlands cinema some years ago.)

Vitaphone Trailer Disc - "Honky Tonk" (1929)

Continues Miss Tucker in her autobiography: "Well, the picture was shot and so was Sophie Tucker. There was nothing to do but lie around, waiting for the preview. I just wished I could kid myself into believing the picture was as good as Jack Warner, Zanuck, and Lloyd Bacon said it was. But all I could get was a pat on the back. After the morning rushes, you always got 'they were great' when you came to work the next day."

It's difficult to understand just what exactly Tucker expected, when it seems clear that the production of her film was handled deftly --- perhaps not any better, but certainly not any worse than any product being turned out at the time.

Endearing though Tucker is, I suspect she somehow expected a good deal more than was typical --- but this was a film studio in the midst of a technological upheaval that made everyone's status, current viability and future seem precarious at best. In the end, I tend to think that what most irked Tucker was that she simply wasn't treated as she wished to be --- not as a Warner Brothers' new belt notch, but as just Sophie Tucker the Internationally Acclaimed Performer. She herself hints at what might have been the root of all her unhappiness during this venture, as well as indicating she was aware of the turmoil then currently plaguing Hollywood:

"The Warner Brothers gave several big parties to introduce their new picture star. The parties were very elegant, but I kept wishing they would give a party for their old friend, Sophie Tucker, instead. In all the eight weeks I went in and out of the Warner lot, I never met one of their stars and never saw the inside of a star's home. I wasn't made a part of the movie colony. It bothered me a bit at first, then I realized that at the time all the silent picture stars were feeling pretty panicky. Nobody knew if he was going to be any good in talkies. Everybody had the jitters."

It's mid-summer of 1929 and, as Tucker recalled, "the time came for the preview. My hubby, Al Lackey, Jack Yellen, Milton Agar and I started for the Westlake Theater, Los Angeles, to see it it. In those days they didn't have the splurges at previews they have today. When we drove up to the theater, standing on the curb were the Warner Brothers, the directors (Lloyd Bacon and assistant director Frank Shaw,) writer, actors and everybody else from every department. There were "hellos" and good wishes, and we all trooped inside, filling the house. When the announcement of the picture was flashed on the screen, everybody applauded. Then came the names of the cast, with applause for each one; the names of the authors, applause; producers, applause; directors, applause. Applause for the assistant director, song-writers, and the cameraman. Nothing but applause before the picture got going. I wondered what the picture would get after it was finished!"

Let's join the skeptical and probably very scared Sophie Tucker at the Westlake Theater for as close a screening of "Honky Tonk" as we're ever likely to experience --- via the inadequate but make-do combination of surviving audio (culled from a variety of sources that include both the American and Foreign export versions of the film's original Vitaphone discs) and my words.

Opening with a strident orchestration of Tucker's signature tune ("Some of These Days") combined with the cacophony of the on-screen ebullient night-club crowd, the applause that filled the Westlake Theater that early summer night in 1929 as the film flashed upon the screen would have shifted from the auditorium to the images on the screen --- and then back again, in what must have been a delightfully disorienting and giddy effect.

The shimmering modernistic nightclub set --- festooned with serpentine streamers, balloons and tuxedo and gown clad patrons is seen, and focus is turned towards one particular table of college lads out for a merry evening --- all quite inebriated and chanting "We Want Women" as one of the fellows, Freddie Gilmore (George Duryea) clumsily reaches out to a woman at an adjacent table who returns his gesture by upending a champagne bucket over his head --- prompting his chums to sing "It Ain't Gonna Rain No More, No More."

Fanfare blares forth, and approximately two minutes into the film, Sophie Tucker (as Sophie Leonard) appears. She shouts out greetings to club patrons, and she charmingly includes the name of her new husband, "Al," (who may have well be an extra in this sequence) and then coyly asks "How's the wife?" The wife is about to do just fine, as you'll hear --- and as audiences saw:

"Honky Tonk" - Opening Title Sequence

This is immediately followed by Tucker's rendition of "I'm The Last of the Red Hot Mommas," ("Honky Tonk" - Excerpt 1) and you couldn't have asked for a more exuberant, tuneful and breathless opening to a film of this vintage and sort. What's more, straight away --- there's no doubt that the character of "Sophie Leonard," just beneath the surface of dramatic trappings, is the Internationally Famous Artiste, Sophie Tucker.

Tucker's song concludes, and the college table still demanding "Women!," so Sophie introduces the chorines of the night-club (alternately referred to as "Club Honky Tonk" and "Michael's") who strut out from the stage wings and onto the club floor, distributing streamers, noise-makers and favors. Young Freddie Gilmore makes yet another lewd advance --- this time to a chorus girl, but Sophie intervenes and is called a "cheap dame" by the loutish Freddie in the process. Joke over. Sophie pulls herself up and, planning to put the young pup in his place, asks him to accompany her to a private area backstage.

"Honky Tonk" - Excerpt 2

Before Sophie can give Freddie an earful, a protective club bouncer takes Gilmore to task by knocking him to the floor and escorting him out and away --- just the sort of scene Sophie wanted to avoid. The entertainer returns to the stage, for a soaring performance of "He's A Good Man To Have Around" ("Honky Tonk" - Excerpt 3) and our first evening at the cafe concludes and fades out.

Fade in to Sophie arriving --- in the wee morning hours --- at her humble brownstone dwelling, in the company of her best friend and cafe manager, Jim Blake (Mahlon Hamilton.) Jim seems eager to talk and Sophie, always eager to listen --- invites him in for breakfast and conversation. Table is set, radio is switched on --- and in the scene that follows, we learn of Sophie's desire to lead a normal sunrise-to-sunset life, and the reason she hasn't been able to do so.

"Honky Tonk" - Excerpt 4

(Here again, the dialogue includes an indulgent albeit tiny dose of Tucker's reality --- she mentions having been a cook in Hartford, Connecticut --- a role she really played in her father's Hartford restaurant before starting her performance career.) Jim Blake departs, and Sophie prepares for bed as the other building tenants arise for the day. Undressing for bed as a 7:AM radio exercise program is heard, the film contrasted the radio exercise instructions ("roll over") not by showing Tucker attempt reducing exercises, but rather by instructing her clever pet dog to follow the instructions instead, a nice touch. The music segues (nicely!) from "I'm Doing What I'm Doing For Love" into "Some of These Days," bringing us to an eventful day some weeks later, as an insert of a telegram reveals that Sophie's daughter Beth (Lila Lee) is to arrive home that day from Europe, where she had been attending college --- unaware of just exactly how her Mother funded her education.

In our next scene, Sophie and Jim are about to leave for the docks to meet Beth's steamship --- but Beth docked early, and her cab pulls up at Sophie's "depressing" brownstone with college chum Jean Gilmore (Audrey Ferris) who is, of course, sister to the impulsive Freddie Gilmore --- and soon to be boyfriend of Betty. A knock at Sophie's door isn't neighbor Mrs. Rosenberg as Sophie expects, but none other than Betty and Jean.

Stopping only long enough to turn up their noses at the modest apartment and to ridicule Jim Blake, the pair are oblivious to Sophie's preparations for a small welcoming fete and announce they're instead off to attend a party hosted by Jean's brother for the pair. And oh, would Sophie mind unpacking her luggage in the meantime? Why, no. Dear...

"Honky Tonk" - Excerpt 5

Betty eventually returns home in Freddie Gilmore's chauffeured limo, and in watching from the apartment window, Sophie spies a bit of necking and calls out to her daughter to come upstairs at once. Freddie recognizes the watchful woman as Sophie Leonard: Nightclub Hostess, and realizes there's some fun ahead to be had --- although he prefers to keep Betty in the dark about his knowledge and discovery. Betty reluctantly leaves Freddie and enters the apartment where, miffed at being publicly scolded and then reprimanded for smelling of alcohol on top of that, she lashes out at her mother --- cutting Sophie to the quick at every turn.

"Honky Tonk" - Excerpt 6

Leaving "Beth" to sleep it off in her room, Sophie's friend Jim arrives with more bad news. The expected has happened: Sophie's leaving the club has so badly cut back business, that without her presence the club would be sure to fail. Sensing there's little attraction at home with the surly Betty in place, Sophie agrees to return to her old post the following evening and to remain there until a new star attraction can be found. ( "Honky Tonk" - Excerpt 7)

Although forbidden to see Freddie Gilmore, Betty is convinced by the scheming lad to accompany him to Club Honky Tonk the following evening --- Betty quite unaware of the surprise that awaits her.

In Excerpt 8, Sophie performs "I Don't Want To Get Thin" (before Betty and Gilmore arrive) in which she exchanges some witticisms with pianist Teddy Shapiro.

The young couple are seated (despite Jim Blake's protestations) as Sophie's next number gets underway, "Take Off Your Mask And Be Yourself." Suiting action to the song title, Sophie performs much of the boisterous number in a facial mask --- prompting Betty to sniff "Look at that woman! Really, it's disgusting, prancing about like that." Lo and behold, Sophie whips off her mask at the conclusion of the number --- and comes face to face with her astonished daughter as the number ends. ("Honky Tonk" - Excerpt 9)

Sophie tries to stop her daughter as she's leaving the club, escorted by a suddenly ashamed and remorseful Freddie, and puts herself on the receiving end of Betty's venomous wrath --- vocalized loudly for the benefit of everyone within earshot: "You common vulgar thing, showing yourself in that disgusting costume, letting pen paw you --- pretending to be a saint at home! Why, you're nothing but a painted, over-dressed cafe entertainer! You --- everybody's Red Hot Momma! My mother!"

"Honky Tonk" - Excerpt 10

The crowd deems this fine entertainment of the best sort, and as the cue for her next song strikes up, Sophie --- too lost in her thoughts and despair to think properly --- mechanically responds to the music and takes her place to perform her number (and the film's theme song,) "I'm Doing What I'm Doing For Love," during which there appears flashes of scenes depicting her struggles over the years, raising her daughter alone --- pawning her possessions to buy food, living in squalor, etc.

"Honky Tonk" - Excerpt 11

Ignorant of her inner-turmoil and pain, the crowd begs Sophie to make sing more and make them laugh --- prompting Sophie to snap out of her funk, and uncharacteristically turns on her audience: "I won't make you laugh! Fine ladies and gentlemen, for whom I've made a fool of myself so my daughter could be like you! This is one time it's not 'Laugh Clown Laugh!' There'll be no 'Pagliacci!' You, and the Fast Life, and all that it stands for --- can go to hell!"

("Honky Tonk" - Excerpt 12)

In the sequence that follows, ( Audio Excerpt 13) Sophie retreats to her dressing room to be alone --- but instead encounters one of the cafe's cleaning women, finishing up her chores and accompanied by her young daughter who is excited to meet the wonderful Sophie Leonard. Touched by the young girl's devotion to her mother and stung by the woman's declaration that "children are all alike --- they think their mother's are just perfect," Sophie breaks down while gazing at Beth's framed photograph. In a bit of effective film trickery that predates a similar moment in "Sunny Side Up," Beth's photograph becomes an animated image --- not singing a love ditty as in the Fox film, but instead reprising her stinging monologue directed at Sophie! Fade-Out.

Disconnected daughter Beth is at loose ends, ensconced in a hotel and pondering her future, as Freddie Gilmore is visited by Jim Blake --- who sets the fellow straight by opening his eyes to the plain facts behind Sophie's reason for her career choice, and to how much misery his blunder has caused all concerned. Young Gilmore suddenly sprouts signs of a spinal column, and later that day --- when contacted by Beth (who sees marriage as her only way out of this intolerable situation) he demands that Beth visit Sophie to request her consent before he'd even contemplate marriage.

"Honky Tonk" - Excerpt 14

Gilmore, Jim Blake and Sophie --- all are in on the plan to awaken Beth to reality and prompt her to revert to the clear thinking "Betty" of her own accord. Without funds or marriage prospects in sight, Beth has no choice but to return to the old brownstone, where she's met by Jim Blake --- who chides and strings along the young woman until Sophie intervenes and, in her key dramatic scene (which still plays rather effectively, I believe, despite the somewhat admittedly florid wording) lets Beth in on the whole truth.

"Honky Tonk" - Excerpt 15

Days pass, and as they do, a Mother and Daughter relationship is restored. Betty and Sophie are seen in the star's nightclub dressing room, primping before the mirror as the 1929 pop-melody "Deep Night" is heard in the background just prior to Sophie being called on stage to perform "I'm Feathering A Nest" which she does as Betty sits ringside -- and gamely joins in on the second chorus, despite her obvious pining for Freddie.

"Honky Tonk" - Excerpt 16 (Dialogue)

and Excerpt 17 ("I'm Feathering a Nest")

As planned, Freddie Gilmore arrives at the club and the young couple is reunited. Sophie's ominous declaration that she wants to "give him something he won't forget for the rest of his life" turns out to be a tender kiss to welcome him as her future Son-in-Law. The joyful couple embraces as Sophie saunters to the stage to for a bravura rendition of "Some of These Days," basking in her daughter's reflected happiness and love.

"Honky Tonk" - Excerpt 18

The film flashes ahead, with Sophie holding a newborn infant --- revealing that enough time has passed for Betty and Freddie to marry and produce said infant. A beaming Sophie luxuriates in her role of Grandmother --- declaring to a bemused Jim Blake that she's "doing what she's doing for love. Following the "End" title, the Vitaphone disc score continues onward with an Exit Music reprise of "I'm Feathering A Nest."

"Honky Tonk" - Conclusion and Exit Music

As point of interest, two extended excerpts from the foreign release version of "Honky Tonk" are offered here, the first representing the same sequence as above (including "Some of These Days") which serves to indicate the way in which omitted dialogue (replaced by title cards in the appropriate language for wherever the print was designated to play) was bridged with a specially recorded and prepared musical score.

"Honky Tonk" - Conclusion - Foreign Language Version

"Honky Tonk" - Scoring Excerpt - Foreign Release

The second excerpt is from mid-point in the film, encompassing the scenes in which Betty returns home both tipsy and combative, and continuing on through Jim Blake's visit and Sophie's return to the club the following evening. Melodies utilized in this six minute scoring excerpt include "He's A Good Man To Have Around," an interesting melancholy arrangement of "I'm Feathering A Nest," 1929 pop tune "Baby, Oh Where Can You Be?," "Some of These Days," an unidentified waltz melody, a chorus of "I Love You, I Hate You" (from "Careers") and finally a reprise of "He's A Good Man To Have Around."

Returning to the Westlake Theater, we again join actress and star of "Honky Tonk," at the conclusion of the preview for her film. What did she think?

"Yes, I looked very nice for a big woman -- no wrinkles, no bags under my eyes, lovely clothes, hair smart, feet and ankles neat, jewelry the Real McCoy -- no paste! Personality natural in everything I did. But, as scene after scene was played, I kept thinking -- if only I had been properly rehearsed, if only I had a chance to break that in, I would have played it and I would have sung the number so much better."

If only -- if only. If only we could see "Honky Tonk" today instead of experiencing it in this maddeningly imperfect way. If only she could be re-assured that much of her worry and fretting was unfounded. If only the film "Honky Tonk" wasn't left to destroy itself in abject neglect and then vanish --- taking with it what would certainly be the most vital visual record we'd have today of this vexing yet wonderful entertainer at the peak of her career. If only.

Despite acclaim for the film at the conclusion of that preview, Tucker was unmoved. "Well, the picture was over at last, and the house went wild with applause. Applause from the Warner Brothers' Studio crowd. To Zanuck, 'Swell job.' To the Warners, 'A great picture.' To Lloyd Bacon, "Best direction yet." To me, Warner Brothers' new star, 'Colossal, sensational!' I looked at all of them and I said just two words: 'It stinks!'" Go figure a star.

No matter Tucker's claims to the otherwise, out-and-out pans of the film are rare, but then so are absolute raves --- this not unusual at a time when critics were cautious to wholly embrace this new form of entertainment. Most period reviews run along the same lines as that of Mordaunt Hall's review for the New York Times, from June 5th of 1929:

"Miss Tucker as Sophie Leonard plays her role with vehemence, pathos and a little fun, but she is handicapped by some of the lines in the dialogue. Her voice, however, is well registered, which was to be expected."

"It is a picture of which one might say those with whom Miss Tucker has found favor will appreciate in part. They may agree that the characters are abruptly varying in their moods, and that the case of the daughter is one in a thousand." "Lila Lee does quite well as Beth, and George Duryea passes muster in his portrayal of Freddie Gilmore."

In her autobiography, Tucker recalls having bet Jack Warner $500.00 that "Honky Tonk" wouldn't play over two weeks in New York. Surprisingly, despite his certain knowledge that most films of the day, with the exception of meteoric successes like "The Singing Fool" and the forthcoming "Gold Diggers of Broadway" seldom ran any longer than that without being shuffled for new product and rushed off into national distribution, Jack Warner took the bet and, of course, Sophie won her $500 --- money that meant nothing to her, but surely which she'd rather have been required to pay out instead.

"Honky Tonk" may not have run for over two weeks in New York, but the film was widely distributed across the United States and overseas, and can be found being booked well past January of 1930 --- nearly a year since it's premiere, and at least in a few instances, the film received repeat bookings on both the East and West coasts --- largely in those population pockets where Tucker was well known and admired enough to prompt audiences to ask for the picture's return --- that in a day when such things were not only possible, but readily agreed to by theater owners.

As to precisely what happened to negatives and prints of "Honky Tonk," and when for that matter, we'll likely never have a reasonable explanation as to why this and so many other titles of the period "hypoed" out of existence, to coin an old William K. Everson term.

A recent communication with a reader reminded me of a curious and mildly encouraging fact however, when said reader repeated an oft-told rumor that there exists (or existed) a "stash" of "lost" films which were supposedly recovered from someone who had "borrowed" the materials from Warners back in the 1950's. Among the titles cited were things like "Honky Tonk," "Little Johnny Jones," and "My Man." My contribution to what may well be just a rumor is that a number of the soundtrack recordings I've encountered over the past twenty-odd years simply don't appear to have originated directly from discs. Rather, they have telltale aural signs of being lifted from optical sound prints (likely 16mm) of some vintage instead. And, among these, are titles like "Is Everybody Happy?," "The Time, the Place and the Girl," portions of "The Gold Diggers of Broadway," and yes, "Honky Tonk" too.

If Only? Let's just say Maybe... and hope.


"He who wishes to picture today's American must do it kaleidoscopically;
he must show you a vivid contrast of surfaces...
raucous, sentimental, egotistical, vulgar, ineffably busy.
Surfaces whirling in a dance which is sometimes a dance of Aphrodite
and more frequently a dance to Jehovah.

In seeking a symbol of the vital chaos of America's soul,
I find no more adequate one than jazz!
Here you have the rhythm of frenzy
staggering against a symphonic background --
a background composed of lewdness, heart's delight,
soul-racked madness, monumental boldness,
exquisite humility, but principally -- prayer.

I hear jazz, and I am given a vision of cathedrals
and temples collapsing and,
silhouetted against the setting sun,
a solitary figure, a lost soul, dancing grotesquely
on the ruins --- thus do I see the jazz singer.

Jazz is prayer. It is too passionate to be anything else.
It is prayer distorted, sick, unconscious of its destination.
The singer of jazz is what Matthew Arnold said of the Jew:
'Lost between two worlds -- one dead --
the other powerless to be born.'

In this, my first play, I have tried to crystallize the ironic
truth that one of the Americas of 1927 - that one
which packs to overflowing our cabarets, musical revues,
and dance halls -- is praying with a fervor as intense
as that of the America which goes sedately
to church and synagogue.

The jazz American is different from the dancing dervish,
from the Zulu medicine man, from the Negro evangelist,
only in that he doesn't know he is praying.

I have used a Jewish youth as my protagonist because
the Jews are determining the nature and scope of jazz
more than any other race - more than the Negroes,
from whom they have taken jazz and given it
a new color and meaning.

Jazz is Irving Berlin. Al Jolson.
George Gershwin. Sophie Tucker.
These are Jews with their roots in the synagogue.
And these are Jews expressing in evangelical terms
the nature of our chaos today.

You find the soul of a people in
the songs they sing.
Your find the meaning of the songs in
the soul of the minstrels who create and interpret them."

Samson Raphaelson, 1927


"The Battle Cry of Syncopation"
Van Nuys, California - October 1929

In Person, and on the Screen
"Honky Tonk" Publicity Tour
Chicago, Illinois - 23 August 1929

Syndicated Feature Story, March 1930

February, 1966

February, 1966



Anonymous said...

Dear Jeff:

As I scrolled back through your delightful pages, I was shocked to see that this wonderful chapter on Sophie Tucker has elicited not a single comment in the year-and-a-half since it was posted. So here's the first one. Maybe it will prime the pump.

Sophie Tucker is one of America's greatest cultural treasures. As a singer, she deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Ada Jones, Nora Bayes, Bessie Smith, Fanny Brice and other outstanding contemporaries, and also in company with such younger giants as Billy Holiday, Judy Garland, Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin. Indeed, a case could be made that she contributed more to the shaping of American popular music than any of these women, or anyone else you might think of.

I would dearly love to see a stage revival of her work. Bette Midler could of done this in her prime, and a few young singers with the requisite low-register pipes and sass-and-brass attitude could do it now---e.g., Fiona Apple and K. T. Tunstall.

It's quite moving to see her gravestone with the Hebrew inscription. Her lifeline parallels that of my late father-in-law, a Vaudeville dancer and Irish tenor named Walter Burke (1887-1964), who I'm sure appeared on the same bill with Sophie from time to time. Follow this link to see him on the sheet music cover of Cliff Friend's "Where the Lazy Daisies Grow":


I admire your work enormously. I hope you can keep it going for many years to come.

KC in Providence

Jeff Cohen said...

Greetings, K.C.--

Much appreciate your taking the time to comment upon this post, which is certainly one of perhaps a half dozen or so individual posts that I'm particularly pleased and satisfied with --- which doesn't happen often!

There's a special sense of accomplishment in resurrecting a personality or film that has been lost to time, and invariably it has been this sort of post which I'm able to read and wonder who wrote it --- it seems too good to have been of my hand!

I'm always spectacularly surprised to note which posts gain the most attention and popularity --- and which don't, and have decided that no clear pattern emerges. Therefore, I just trust my good judgement -- or lack thereof, and write whatever catches my interest at the time of writing and hope that the readers find it agreeable too.

Fond though I am of Miss Tucker, I don't think she or her work can be pulled from 1929 and be resurrected today in any form other than the presentation of her recordings or (should it ever be found) film. Many have tried, and while spirited and well intentioned, the effect is unsettling or ghoulish or impossibly campy or just plain bad. My own opinion, that.

There is solace in the fact that we can visit Tucker (and her peers) in the time in which they existed and --- if we can mentally omit all that came after and remember all that came before --- "see" and hear them as if they were before us.

A long winded reply, but I can't say I mind seeing the comments section of this post finally see some action!

Many thanks, K.C. ---