09 October 2007

The Orchestra Augmented

Just as we began to believe we knew all there was to know about "The March of Time," MGM's unreleased follow-up to the studio's 1929 "Hollywood Revue," there comes more to learn --- more to consider.

Seeing as there doesn't seem to be a single comprehensive study of the film in one place (bits of information are as scattered as the celluloid husk of the production that remains today) these pages seem as good as any to serve as a depository for information. An imperfect research venue to be sure, but far better than none at all.

A good deal of what we know today about "The March of Time" was painstakingly pieced together by Jonas Nordin, a Stockholm sound-engineer who, not unlike myself, considers himself something of an Entertainment Archaeologist. Jonas was instrumental in fine-tuning much of what I've written about "The March of Time," and, via a recent communication, provides us with additional insight:

"Apparently, 'The March of Time' was indeed complete when shooting finished in February of 1930. After that, (director) Harry Rapf or someone else wasn't happy with the result and decided to make what seems to be random alterations. I think this decision had very much to do with the musical genre suddenly falling out of fashion. MGM simply didn't know what to do with a big budget musical that no one was interested in. So, they tried to make something else out of the $750,000 spent, but failed. I am quite convinced that the finished product that Rapf presented to MGM early in 1930 was much of an artistic disappointment, apart from some good production numbers."

We also learn a bit more of what Marie Dressler's contribution to "The March of Time" likely consisted of: A Comic Ballet, and two beautiful parodies of 1890's sentimental ballads --- the titles of which are enough to conjure up the most fantastic mental images: "That's How It's Done On the Stage" and "But Father Mustn't Know I'm Going On the Stage -- He Thinks I'm A Shoplifter."

Jonas also relates the heart-breaking account of an employee who worked in the Technicolor vault on several occasions in the 1970's and actually saw much of what was then left of the doomed musical revue:

"'March of Time' was in fragments or sections in the vault. There were two-color matrices for certain scenes, and black and white fine grains for others. They also had various variable-density track negatives. (It was) surmised that there was approximately eighty to ninety minutes of basically unedited footage. Yet, we also discovered edited (finished) sections in another area of the vault. (However,) I don't believe that (the film) was finished or 'locked' before the studio pulled the plug on the project before they generated additional expenses. There was a script for the production with the studio legal department too."

"Technicolor was, at the time, going through a major purge of their vaults to make room for new materials. So, many two and three-color matrices, optical track negatives, trims, outs and dailies, black & white negatives and fine-grains were being sent to a company in Burbank, California for stripping. They would remove the emulsion and 'repaint' the stock in 1000' lengths for editorial purposes. By the time the footage reached this facility, it was too late to save any product. The owner of the facility showed me hundreds of boxes of film slated for destruction. Many of the boxes were under working titles and I had no idea what they contained, but the time period for other recognizable titles was the late-twenties to mid-thirties."

Bleak though the outlook is for additional footage for "The March of Time" turning up any time soon --- or ever, more about the film can be gleaned via the paper trail it left behind --- and that's a story that remains to be told. The University of Southern California is said to hold a box of documents that, it is believed, contains a shooting script and a wealth of other ephemera related to the film, including performer contracts. Brittle paper stacked within a pasteboard box --- all too often the final destination for the Entertainment Archaeologist, student of film and the amateur film historian. Surely "The March of Time" will again surface within these pages!

Abilene, Texas audiences attending the far more fortunate predecessor to "The March of Time" in November of 1929 were successfully lured to the theater with the promise of a "Ziegfeld, Earl Carroll and George White show rolled into one with many deft motion picture touches," and doubtless impressed by Metro's selfless charity in making such a grand show available to all: "Because it is a motion picture, many cities and towns of the country are witnessing a great revue of revues for the first time."

Even today, "Hollywood Revue" is oftentimes an exciting film to watch, and that in spite of the few sequences where it all seemingly all but grinds to a halt. But, magically, when seen with a receptive audience, the creaks and groans tend to vanish --- the long stretches of silence and leaden pauses filled with applause or laughter, and the myriad layers of age dissolve away as some of the biggest names in Hollywood step forward to enter new and largely unknown motion picture territory.

Here's one of the brightest melodies from "Hollywood Revue," one that wouldn't have anywhere near the longevity of "Singing in the Rain," but which seems somehow far more firmly attached to the film instead.

"Low Down Rhythm" (1929) Lloyd Keating & His Music

At the same time that Fox's "7th Heaven" (1928) was shimmering from screens across the country, accompanied by a synchronized Movietone score and sending exiting patrons scrambling for sheet-music and phonograph recordings of its theme song, "Diane," the film was being given no less a grand reception and presentation by theaters that hadn't as yet invested in the Movietone - or Vitaphone - or both systems for their venue.

Masterful though the music and effects score for "7th Heaven" is, it's lovely to contemplate seeing the film for the first time --- in sparkling, pristine condition --- with music provided by not just a full orchestra, but a specially "augmented" one, as detailed in the full page ad to the left: "The management has added to the orchestra and this attraction will be made stronger than ever."

"Those who heard the orchestra in the great British-made picture, 'Second to None,' were delighted in the stirring numbers rendered, and those who attend the magnificent presentation of '7th Heaven' will be charmed by the lovely music accompanying the picture, special arrangements for which are being made."

As we're left to wonder precisely which musical selections so stirred those attending 'Second to None,' we have no less a stirring rendition of "Diane," the theme song from "7th Heaven," performed here by vocalist Franklyn Baur.

"Diane" (1927) Franklyn Baur

Indeed, as a reviewer for the New York Graphic noted in mid-1928, "What a picture! It is all that the most extravagant praises from the West Coast have it, and more. There's life and love in every reel." And, at twelve reels, that was --- and is, a lot of living and loving. It's fun to realize that 1928 audiences were apparently quite a bit more technical savvy than we might suppose today, being readily able to understand the length of time that twelve reels translated into!

The great one, Paul Whiteman... standing at the feet of George Washington's statue at Federal Hall, in New York City's Wall Street --- participating in what amounts to a live street performance in the early 1920's, decades before such events would be regular fodder for "Good Morning America" and "Today Show" cameras. Details of the event are largely lost to time, but clearly the Weber Piano Company didn't lose the chance to secure a bit of free publicity, and in the image to the left we see Whiteman apparently awaiting his cue on a warm summer morning while an unseen speaker --- or speakers --- addresses the crowd. (Prompting the wonderful posture of the seated fellow, doubtless!)

While Paul Whiteman's arrangements and recordings would, by the end of the decade, often become somewhat indulgent and over-inflated affairs --- each one aspiring to become a 78rpm miniature extravaganza --- his work on Victor at this point was straightforward, comparatively simple and just magnificent.

"I'm Just Wild About Harry" (1922)

"I'll Build A Stairway to Paradise" (1922)

Listen to the above recording, then see if you can't imagine that music reverberating through the Wall Street canyons, across that sea of straw hats!

Interesting to note, too, that among the faces peeking out of the open windows of the building overlooking Federal Hall, all seem to be exclusively workmen (in caps and overalls) as opposed to office workers. Subtle but evident division between the working classes, of the sort that doesn't exist today. Indeed, at similar events today, the overall clad fellows would doubtless be front and center at the performance podium, and the straw boaters pondering the advisability of elbowing forward!

"Fate" (1923)

"Way Down Yonder in New Orleans" (1923)

We again visit with bandleader Clyde Doerr, who seems less than pleased at having been pulled away from his newspaper. Despite Doerr's clipped Teutonic appearance, he hailed from Coldwater, Michigan and while a master of the violin, his work as an alto-saxophonist would bring him fame.

Hired by bandleader Art Hickman in 1916, Doerr arrived in New York in 1919 with the Hickman band, hired by Ziegfeld --- and struck out on his own shortly thereafter, forming orchestras that would serve as "house bands" for both New York City's Club Royale and Chicago's Congress Hotel.

In addition to appearing on the radio as early as 1925, Doerr and his Orchestra would also tour the country via the vaudeville circuit. One such play-date, in the Davenport, Iowa of 1924, was described thus:

"When one desires to bestow the high modicum of praise upon a vaudeville offering and on basis of two or three curtain bows, it is more or less honest to say the act stopped the show, but Columbia (theater) patrons last night participated in and witnessed a real Stopping of the Show when Clyde Doerr and his Orchestra, direct from the Congress (Hotel,) Chicago, used every device of the footlights to indicate that the act was finished -- done -- no more -- and the folks out front were equally insistent that they didn't care what happened next just so long it was the Doerr Orchestra."

"As it was, one Frank DeVoe is what happened immediately thereafter, and everyone promptly got over his disappointment, especially when DeVoe -- with a disarming frankness -- walked out and said with all sincerity, 'Say, now ain't that orchestra hot?' DeVoe faced a hard job following the Doerr Orchestra but his honest-to-goodness appreciation of that fact put him over as solidly as his very unique jazz singing."

"There have not been more than three of the whole deluge of jazz band acts that interrupted the melodies of the hour as the Doerr Orchestra. Possibly because they have spent the season in a hotel ballroom where blatant weird harmonies were not demanded, but more likely because Mr. Doerr does not incline to that style of play, the musicians never give the impression that the walls were bulging outward with the crashing syncopation. Nevertheless, every effect of the jazziest band was there with a richness of melody and harmony."

Interestingly, Clyde Doerr would participate in sound films too, and at opposite ends of the medium's technical evolution. There would be a DeForest Phonofilm in the early 1920s, "Clyde Doerr & His Sax-O-Phone Sextet" and there are newspaper references to at least one Clyde Doerr Orchestra short film making the rounds in June and July of 1930.

"I Wish I Knew" (1922) - Clyde Doerr & His Orchestra

In a previous post, the intriguing and somewhat mysterious Syncrophone device was seen in a January 1929 advertisement providing sound accompaniment (of some sort) for the film "Streets of Algiers," although whether the device was also used for "The Heart of Broadway" is a matter of doubt, as pointed out by a number of blog readers who (to my surprise and pleasure) were moved to do a bit of research of their own following my post.

Frequent contributor George Moore forwards some information on the Syncrophone device:

"The Syncrophone Company evidently produced films with the sound track on a disc. They called the discs 'Octacros.' The 'Maltese Cross' comes into it having given its name to the rotating cam that governs the transit of film through the gate of a projector."

Although the device pictured left appears to be a scaled down version of the Syncrophone (intended for home or institutional use) a general idea of the mechanism can still be gained.

As to what sort of sound accompanied "Streets of Algiers," and other titles, well... that's still a matter of conjecture. Were scores especially prepared and recorded for these Syncrophone presentations? Was there ever any attempt at providing the illusion of dialogue or sound effects?

Or, was the Syncrophone used simply as an elaborate highly amplified phonograph, to play suitable mood music for the film being flashed upon the screen?

We do know that the system lasted into the early to mid-1930's, and that it had (by then) developed to the point where it provided synchronized dialogue for one of the earliest Welsh language sound films, "The Chwarelwr," which (amazingly) was preserved and restored by the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales! All in all, there's more to the Syncrophone saga to be told, and I invite readers with additional information to share what they may know about this shadowy technical curiosity.

Hastening back to more familiar territory, a selection of melodies from films of 1929. From "Fox Movietone Follies," (a lost film which was examined closely in a very early post which can be read here) a spirited rendition of one of its hits by Arnold Johnson & His Orchestra which really soars just a moment before it concludes: "The Breakaway" (1929)

The theme song for "Weary River" has appeared within these pages at least as many times as it can be heard in the film itself, so what's one more? Here, vocalist Jack Miller gives it his all --- and then some. Say what you will, there's just something about this tune...

"Weary River" (1929)

From "Syncopation," Del Delbridge and His Capitol Theater Orchestra plead "Do Something" (1929)...

... and Ray Miller and His Orchestra lament the fact that "Nobody's Using it Now," a temporary condition enacted on the screen in 1929's "The Love Parade."

All ends well however, as proclaimed by the Ipana Troubadours in "My Sweeter Than Sweet," from the 1929 Nancy Carroll romp, "Sweetie."

Mr. Jolson (right) may look a bit anxious (and a good deal mottled) while thumbing through "Variety," but he'd doubtless be supremely satisfied to learn that early reports indicate the forthcoming DVD release of his "The Jazz Singer" will offer the landmark film looking as though it was "filmed yesterday," and hopefully sounding as though it was recorded the day before that.

Interestingly, some early review discs contained a glitch which swapped the Technicolor swan ballet from "The Rogue Song" for the designated selection from "Gold Diggers of Broadway," giving the impression that someone's hand merely plucked the wrong tin off an archive shelf labeled "old color musical stuff." No, but really --- I wonder if any of these production-error copies will filter onto the retail market? Be sure to examine yours closely!

"Toot Toot Tootsie, Goodbye" (1922)

The Benson Orchestra of Chicago

Rounding out this post, a diverse selection of vintage music --- accompanied by appropriate visuals, and then our usual departing glimpse of various items that line the hallway leading to the exit.

The next few days will be spent transferring this blog's audio material to new file server digs --- a mind-numbing complicated task --- so once again, please be advised that some glitches may be encountered until the swap is complete. I shall be starting with the very first posts and working my way forward, so readers (old and new) might wish to re-visit some of the earliest posts in order to avoid any disappointment.

Update: All posts to date have been transferred to the new server.

"An Old Guitar and an Old Refrain" (1927)
Roger Wolfe Kahn & His Orchestra
Vocal by Franklyn Baur

"Deep Night" (1929)
The Victor Salon Orchestra (Pictured Below)

"What'll We Do On a Dew, Dew, Dewey Day?" (1927)
Jim Miller & Charles Farrell (Pictured Below)

"Carolina in the Morning" (1922)
The Bar Harbor Society Orchestra

"Muddy Water" (1927)
Harry Richman

Until Next Time!

"Sweetie" (Paramount-1929) Lobby Card

Movietone a la Moderne 1930 Exhibitor Book Illustration

Two Years Earlier... Movietone Arrives in San Antonio, Texas January 1928

8 December 1929

"Noah's Ark" (1928)
Souvenir Programme

"Song O' My Heart" (Fox-1930) Poster

Syracuse, New York 27 October 1929

The Film that Started it All Uniontown, Pennsylvania - 21 May 1927



Anonymous said...

That print ad for "Puttin' on the Ritz" says it was "told in Technicolor." Was that just for the musical numbers? My copy was black & white.

I like the little blurb on the bottom of that page for the sound re-release of "Phantom of the Opera." There was another ad for it with the tagline, "Everybody talks -- EXCEPT the Phantom!" As if that was going to be a major drawing card.

Jeff Cohen said...

East Side: I believe only the "Alice in Wonderland" musical-fantasy sequence was in Technicolor, although some sources claim that "With You" was also in this process. It's worth looking into --- and I shall.

I'm better off leaving Lon Chaney to the silent film experts, but you've given me an idea for a Halloween themed post. ;)

Thanks for writing!


Unknown said...

Jim Miller and Charlie Farrell--I never hear about these guys, tho' I enjoy their records. There were quite a few male duets who recorded in the mid-20s, including Gene and Glenn, the Radio Franks, and (in Britain)Turner Layton and Clarence Johnstone. The Radio Franks (Bessinger and Wright) even appeared in a Phonofilm in 1926 or so. Actually a singer named Jerry White replaced Wright in the spring of that year, but since the Radio Franks name was already established...Hope you can dig up some info on Miller and Farrell, or anyone else for that matter, since your research is always so worthwhile!


aberdeennj said...

I've been fascinated with THE MARCH OF TIME since I first saw the clip of The Lock Step in TE III, and I was thrilled when Rhino's re-release of the TE III soundtrack included The Lock Step and Poor Little G-String.

Other than those two songs, do any other recordings exist?


rand said...

I did some searching on the Web for additional info on "The March of Time" and turned up something interesting, for those of you that might have a few hundred dollars lying around.

Biblio.com has a listing for an original copy of the screenplay. It's marked as a "dialogue continuity screenplay". It's apparently from the estate of (Shirley) Carter Burden, who was an associate producer on "She" (1935) and a photographer in Hollywood.

Anonymous said...

"There was another ad for it with the tagline, "Everybody talks -- EXCEPT the Phantom!" As if that was going to be a major drawing card."

Actually, EastSide, the Phantom did speak in the sound version of the film. Universal just couldn't admit that because the voice was not Lon Chaney's. Chaney refused to participate in the sound reissue because he despised the hack director, Rupert Julian, whom Universal had brought in to direct beginning with the second version of the film. (The movie has a very checkered history.) The official explanation was that the voice behind the walls belonged to an apprentice of the Phantom.

The best available version of the film on DVD is the Milestone restoration from Image Entertainment. Like most, it uses the George Eastman House print which, if I recall correctly, is an edited version of the sound reissue created for the European market and returned to silence. Of special interest to this site, the Milestone issue includes three soundtracks one of which is the original reissue soundtrack edited and synchronized to fit what remains of that version in the Eastman House print. There are also audio-only excerpts for scenes that are missing. Furthermore, the discs also include the original 1925 preview version, which is considerably different from any other existing version.


Anonymous said...

I'm dismayed at the Quick Time versions of audio clips. I've recorded to CD on past offerings & have used exclusively for my own listening experience. You have lost me . Thanks for the history.

Jeff Cohen said...

Bob J. - Quicktime audio? Not here! Seems like a computer glitch on your end. You'll want to check what your default program is for listening to .mp3 files --- which all of these files certainly are, and always have been. Good luck to you!