20 December 2008

A Yuletide Frolic III - "Cheer Up and Smile!"

Happy Holidays! For this third annual Yuletide Frolic edition of "Vitaphone Varieties," we'll acknowledge the disconcerting notion that the less romantic and fanciful aspects of the late 20's and early 30's might be closer to us than we suspect by entirely ignoring that fact and simply having fun with this post!

While postmen today don't seem to carry parcels any longer --- or smile much either for that matter, one can't help but wonder at the contents of some of those neatly wrapped parcels he cheerfully lugs up this snowy residential city street --- here forever caught in a mid-delivery time warp of the sort that most of us still experience today every now and then.

To accompany him on his appointed route, let's pipe in Eddie Cantor's (timely!) 1931 recording of "Cheer Up! Smile! Nertz!"

"Cheer Up! Smile! Nertz!" (1931)

Although this second image was taken on the same stretch of street, we have another smiling postman here --- and a grateful recipient as well. To continue and cap this little introductory "Cheer Up" motif, we've coaxed the fragile Noel Francis out of the dark and distant old posts from these pages to warble "Cheer Up and Smile" from the preserved but elusive "New Movietone Follies of 1930." Miss Francis? Ah, here she is... Yes, this way... Take your time.... Deep breath now... Ready? Ladies and Gentlemen, Miss Noel Francis:

"Cheer Up and Smile!" (1930)

The sadly absent mid-1929 Universal talkie "College Love" (an eight reel elaboration upon the studio's long running and successful "Collegians" series of two-reelers) is described thusly and adequately by the AFI catalog:

"At Caldwell College, Flash Thomas (Eddie Phillips,) captain of the football team, is in love with Dorothy May (Dorothy Gulliver,) who is infatuated with Bob Wilson (George Lewis,) without whose help Thomas would not be such an outstanding player. Broken hearted, Thomas tries to laugh it off, then against the rules accepts an invitation to a roadhouse party. Wilson, discovering he is missing, hides in Thomas' bed to fool the coach (Hayden Stevinson,) then tries to persuade him to leave the party. When they return, however, the coach discovers the ruse and puts Wilson, who shields Thomas, out of the game. Dorothy asks for an explanation and, receiving none, returns Thomas' fraternity pin. At the last minute, Wilson is rushed into the game and Thomas plays to redeem himself. Wilson scores a touchdown, is proclaimed a hero, and wins the love of Dorothy."

A Charleston, West Virginia newspaper review from late July of 1929 brings us a bit closer to a film we'll likely never otherwise experience:

"Those who have seen the cast of promising young screen players in the series of short college stories entitled 'The Collegians,' are due for a surprise in their first feature production, 'College Love,' showing at the Virginia Theater."

"It is difficult to identify the improvement, but that improvement is very obvious. Perhaps the addition of sound is responsible, but more like, one observes, it's the scenario. 'College Love' gets away from the Horatio Alger type of story and therein, one suspects, lies its success."

"There is an abundance of action in this picture - action on the gridiron, on the campus, and action in romance and comedy. The musical score greatly enhances the story - there are some very tuneful selections. The dialogue is on par with many of the motion pictures which stars with years of learning appear."

"'College Love' is a swiftly-moving story of life in one of the large institutions of learning - although the 'learning' feature is entirely ignored. The action hinges upon a football game and the male leads are taken by members of the squad."

"Brought into the plot is the 'darling of the campus' and the rivalry between the two heroes of the gridiron for her attention. Excellent scenes of a football game before thousands of fans are shown. They are so realistic that one could easily imagine they were being shown from a news reel."

"Dorothy Gulliver takes the part of the campus favorite. The rivals are George Lewis and Eddie Phillips. Other who have taken parts in the 'Collegians' series add considerably to this picture. It is, without exaggeration, the best picture portraying college life that has been produced in sound."

While I couldn't dredge up recordings of the two original tunes featured in "College Love" ("It's You" and "Oh, How We Love Our College,") we have an entertaining 1927 recording that takes the accepted tradition of casting college pictures with performers for whom college youth is a distant and faded memory to a level of high parody. The vocal is by our old friend, Billy Murray, joined here with dialect comedian, Monroe Silver.

"Oh, How We Love Our Alma Mater" (1927)

Before moving along to our next feature item, a selection of melodies ---

From a long list entitled "Lost Films That We're Not So Sure We'd Go Out of Our Way to See if They Weren't," comes this pairing of beautifully performed tunes from Metro's 1930 "The Rogue Song," as interpreted by Nat Shilkret & the Victor Orchestra:

"The Rogue Song" and "When I'm Looking At You"

Resurrecting a tune from time dimmed pages of this blog --- if only for the fact that it well deserves another brief fling at fame --- is "Blue Baby," a 1928 melody that all but soars upwards and away every time I hear it --- which isn't often enough. The music is by Roy Leonard & His Orchestra (that swirling jazz violin knocks me out every time!) and the vocal is by Irving Kaufman --- who is nothing short of perfect here.

"Blue Baby" (1928)

With each passing year, Fox's 1929 landmark musical "Sunny Side Up" seems to never quite catch the DVD release train --- bravely grasping for the brass ring, but never quite making it into boxed sets where its inclusion might not be precisely logical but neither unwelcome either, as an extra or supplement. Hope still exists that Fox might gather up "Just Imagine," "New Movietone Follies of 1930," "Happy Days," "Hearts in Dixie" and "Sunny Side Up" for a diverse and important collection of the studio's early sound product --- but, alas and alack! -- none of these films can boast any pedigree (an element apparently vitally critical to Fox when pondering what to do next) other than that they were all wildly popular and successful with audiences of the day.

Here's a gem of a review of "Sunny Side Up" but Wood Soanes, from September of 1929:

"'Sunny Side Up' isn't the best title in the world for a picture - it sounds as if the film were an epic of the hash house - but 'Sunny Side Up' is one of the best pictures of the year and another ten-strike for Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. It doesn't require the gifts of a prophet to foresee the box office interest that will be aroused in this new Fox release, previewed at the Grand Lake last evening, for it affords Miss Gaynor the best chance she has had since 'Seventh Heaven.' It provides us with some new screen faces if importance, it has a bevy of corking tunes, it possesses some elaborate scenic contrivances, and most of all - it has laughs."

"As a matter of record, the Grand Lake audience hasn't laughed more at six romantic comedies. And for these guffaws, you may thank the memory of the gag man who exhumed comedy situations from all ears; and the skill of El Brendel, Marjorie White and Frank Richardson - particularly Miss White, because she had to make most of her own comedy."

"It may seem a little odd to have such a profusion of diaphragm laughter in the story that is merely a revision of the Cinderella tale in which a winsome East Side girl dreams of a Prince Charming and has him come to life almost at once: a story in which Cinderella is transported into the 400, is ousted by mistake and then gets back with flying colors and her man. That tale surely, is not new to screen audiences."

"But, the telling of it was another story. David Butler unfolds his first sequences in the East Side tenement where Miss Gaynor lives and is beloved by Brendel, the delicatessen merchant. Her pals are Frank Richardson, a song plugger with a flair for musical theft that is inordinate, and Miss White who is just one of those little jazz babes with a delicious sense of humor and an aptitude for nut comedy."

"The merit of 'Sunny Side Up' as may easily be discovered from this synopsis is not in the story, nor, you may be informed, is it in the work done by Farrell who, is pretty to look at but has one of those baby voices that go with the vo-de-do boys in the male quartets. It is the ensemble effect, the blending of rich comedy with acceptable pathos, and the singing of such tunes as 'If I Had a Talking Picture of You.' "

"Sunny Side Up" ran two hours and seven minutes last evening and will, of consequence, be edited. Perhaps in the thirty minutes of material that is dropped we will lose the symphony orchestra effect when Miss Gaynor plays the zither - no fooling - in the privacy of her boudoir; some of the more obvious of the cheap jokes; a couple of the burlesque scenes into which vulgarity crept; the children's part in the 'Talking Picture' chorus and some of the painted back drops."

"Of all things that should be retained at all cost are the 'daisy specialty' of Miss White and Richrdson, and the beautiful Arctic-to-Tropic transformation scene. This last was one of the most unique presentations to be put on the screen and while it is a little too long, it is sufficiently unique to stand. One looks for effects of this kind in the 'revue' pictures, but doesn't find it. Then, it shows up in a 'Sunny Side Up.'"

Let's hope the film again "shows up" again in a form that restores at least some of its once former glory --- and rescues it from the black market where it now unhappily resides in tattered and senseless near-oblivion.

"If I Had a Talking Picture of You"
(1929) Johnny Marvin

"You've Got Me Picking Petals..."
(1929) The High Hatters

"Turn on the Heat"
(1929) The Collegiate Jazzers
Vocal by (who else?) Irving Kaufman

Medley from "Sunny Side Up"
(1929) Al Benny's Broadway Boys

Selections from "Sunny Side Up"
(1929) The Rhythm Maniacs
Side One - Side Two

Our next item of interest is courtesy of Doug Gerbino, a loyal reader and friend of these pages:

Accompanying most initial screenings of Warner Brothers' 1927 Vitaphone success "The Better 'Ole" --- a broad comedy of the Great War that starred Syd Chaplin as "Old Bill," a character created by Bruce Bairnsfather --- was none other than Mr. Bairnsfather himself, via a Vitaphone short subject.

Providing a clever introduction to both the character of "Old Bill" and the feature film itself, this simply produced short subject presented Mr. Bairnsfather before the drawing easel, where he replicated his famous character while telling of how it came to be created. But --- to paraphrase John Miljan --- why tell you about it when I cannot let you see it, but hear it? Here then --- and again, thanks to Doug, is Bruce Bairnsfather (portrait, below left) via the Vitaphone.

Bruce Bairnsfather (1927) Vitaphone Short Subject #393

Note: The disc has a VERY rough start but ultimately clears up --- somewhat. The other-wordly squeals and groans of this ravaged disc serve as a sad reminder of just how fragile the relics of our past are.

While Vitaphone discs are sturdy souls, and tenacious survivors as well, radio transcription discs of the late 20's and early 30's seeming had an unspoken suicide pact, given the low numbers in which they exist today. That said, it's a pleasure to offer two that were given the will to live and are with us today --- and in fine shape too!

From 1933, NBC's "The A&P Gypsies" (with tenor Frank Parker, under the direction of Harry Horlick) dish up some elegantly arranged melodies of the day -- as well as some mid-brow salon-pop compositions and foreign novelties: "It's Just a Memory," "Butterflies in the Rain," Sigmund Romberg's "Road to Paradise," "Love Songs of the Nile," "Characteristic Russian Melodies," "Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee," "Strike Me Pink," Selections from Victor Herbert's "Natoma," "Stardust," and "Dardanella."

The A&P Gypsies (NBC - 1933)

The real surprise here was just how elaborate this "canned" radio show was in terms of production and care of recording. If you can arrange for your next dinner party to run no more than 36 minutes, this is what you need playing in the background!

"Blossom Time" (1931)

"Blossom Time" (1931) was a short-lived (perhaps even one-shot) syndicated musical offering sponsored by local "Say It With Flowers" florists --- and as such, the focus was one tunes with floral themes or titles. No shortage there, I suppose --- just not tunes that people wanted to hear time and again. Heard here: "I'm Bringing A Red, Red Rose," "Where the Shy Little Violets Grow," "In My Bouquet of Memories," etc., etc. Listeners were urged to bring the whole family to their local florist, where the "Fall Flower Festival" was going on at full speed, with something for everyone! - "Come see the flowers - spend happy hours."

The text portion of this post concludes here --- but a good deal still awaits your eyes and ears ahead! We'll be back shortly after the New Year arrives --- and here's a sincere wish to each and every one of you for a Happy Holiday and a bright, healthy and prosperous 2009!!!!!!!!!

"You're Wonderful!"
(1928 - Nat Shilkret & the Victor Orchestra)

"Christmas Melodies" (1928)
Paul Whiteman & His Orchestra

"Jingle Bells" and "Silent Night" (1931)
Advertisement for the Junior Home Magazine
Phil Spitalny & His Orchestra

"My Silver Tree" (1928)
The Broadway Nitelites

"Jingle Bells" (1925)
The Revelers

"Singing in the Bathtub" (1929)
From "Show of Shows"
Fred Meles' Symphonic Jazz Orchestra

"The Kinkajou" (1927)
From "Rio Rita"
Nat Shilkret & the Victor Orchestra, Vocal by Billy Murray

Promotional Disc for
"Why Bring That Up?" (1929)

"It Happened in Monterey" (1930)
From "King of Jazz"
Henryk Gold & His Orchestra

"A Night of Happiness"
from "A Song of Kentucky" (Fox-1929-Lost Film)
Jackie Taylor's Orchestra, Vocal by Buster Dees

"What is claimed to be the longest close-up ever made in
all talking motion pictures was taken of Lois Moran in
'A Song of Kentucky.' Co-starred with Miss Moran is
Joe Wagstaff with Dorothy Burgess leading the
supporting cast in a story that has as its greatest
thrill, the running of the 1929 Kentucky Derby and
the charm in its musical atmosphere."

"Wedding of the Painted Doll" (1929)
The Badgers
From "The Broadway Melody"

"Chinatown, My Chinatown" (circa 1916)
Tenor Solo - Little Wonder Records

Ad for the "Hop Ching" Checker Game
on Display in Above Window

"That Old Gang of Mine" (1923)
Ernest Jones & Billy Hare

"So What's the Use?" (1910)
Raymond Hitchcock

"The Perfect Song" (1930)
Nat Shilkret & the Victor Salon Orchestra

"Maybe?" (1926)
Nat Shilkret & the Victor Orchestra, with Jesse Crawford


09 November 2008

A Temple of Synchronization

No, "Vitaphone Varieties" hasn't fallen by the wayside --- nor has this writer!
True enough, recent posts have been scattered and erratic at best, and gone are the days of new additions that appeared with clockwork regularity in years past --- but I owe it to you, to the topic at hand and (I suppose) to myself, to try to maintain a monthly posting schedule.

Many thanks to the readers who have written, expressing concern, horror, anger and polite curiosity --- for these notes did much to hasten my return! I cannot hope for this blog to ever lay claim to being "100 Shows in One" as the glorious lobby-card for "Show of Shows" depicted above does, but we'll try our best! Oh yes, there will be a third annual "Yuletide Frolic" post in time for the holidays --- so check back!

For now, let's get to it. Forgive the somewhat rusty prose, pace and content of this post --- I'm limbering up after too long being away from the keyboard!

In late 1928, newspapers informed readers that "George Jessel has completed a sound drama with songs for Tiffany-Stahl, titled 'The Ghetto,' from an original story by Viola Brothers Shore." The film would reach screens in February of 1929 as "Lucky Boy."

A lengthy, syndicated publicity press release --- also from February of 1929 --- affords some interesting, albeit highly colored, background on the film --- and on Jessel himself, and is worth offering here in part:

"When Jessel started making 'Lucky Boy,' the Tiffany-Stahl feature production, he was up against some new and strange problems. The singing and talk sequences required more time in rehearsal than the lead role in a legitimate production. From the start, Jessel had his heart set on making 'Lucky Boy' something far greater than 'The Jazz Singer,' his brain child that wandered out into the world to make a tidy fortune for Jolson instead of Jessel. 'Lucky Boy,' therefore, had a grave responsibility as far as Jessel was concerned."

"The picture, portraying Jessel's life and seasoned with Jessel's subtitles and dialogue, was like a second son who must atone for a first-born's derelitcion. While the sound sequences were underway at the RCA Studio, Jessel was starring in 'The War Song,' a legitimate drama, at the National Theater (NYC - September to December of 1928) His role in this play was longer than 'Hamlet,' and he had to do much singing."

"One day, at the studio, a camera rebelled after Jessel had worked since 10 o'clock that morning. He was due on stage at at the National at 8:30 and it was almost 7. Jessel realized that if the scene was not taken the same day, it would flop. The cast was rehearsed and coaxed into the mood, the scenery had been set up after hours of work, and the musicians were soaked in the melody that Jessel was to sing. While the operator worked on the camera, Jessel jollied everyone along and watched the studio clock anxiously. Soon, everything was in readiness and Jessel mounted the stage. Singing with all h is heart and soul, he went through the first verse chorus of 'My Mother's Eyes,' the theme song of the picture, and not a Kleig light clicked, not an unwanted sound disturbed the perfect synchronization of Jessel's voice. Jessel started on the second stanza. The cameraman cut him short with 'Stop!' The film had buckled. Three times the cameraman made repairs, and three times Jessel sang, only to be cut short with 'Stop!'"

"He had been working all day, he had a night's work ahead of him. In exasperation, he made a dash for the door. 'Let me get out of here quick before I shoot myself" he whispered to the door attendant, but the door had hardly closed on him than he was back. The last attempt was tried. And, oddly, Jessel sang as he had never sung before, the musicians played as though to make the song immortal, and a charm lay on the camera. Instances like this occurred ime and again in the making of 'Lucky Boy,' as in the making of all sound pictures while the process is in its infancy. Jessel, by the sheer force of his personality, surmounted them all."

A far more accurate, yet no less charming overview of 'Lucky Boy' was offered by reviewer Wood Soanes in early March of 1929:

George Jessel, who played 'The Jazz Singer' on the stage and nearly played it on the screen, made his talking debut at the Vitaphone Theater yesterday in a Tiffany-Stahl production entitled 'Lucky Boy.' The picture is one that permits him to sing his songs, do one of his acts, and comport himself otherwise in a mild reflection of Jolson's second release, 'The Singing Fool,' as a youth who fights his way to musical-comedy fame and the hand of a society girl."

"But, 'Lucky Boy' is far from a satisfactory picture. Tiffany-Stahl apparently decided that Jessel's reputation in the theater was of sufficient importance to let him worry along with a cast of second-rate players, and burdened him further with bad photography and shoddy direction. It is questionable if even Jolson would have risen above the situations created by the producers in 'Lucky Boy,' and no-one has ever accused Jessel of being anything more than a fair to middlin' song-and-dance man who was carried into the limelight by the melodrama and sentiment of the stage version of 'The Jazz Singer.'"
"'Lucky Boy' is the story of a Jewish jeweler in the Bronx. The boy doesn't want to peer through a magnifying glass for the rest of his life. He believes he is an actor in the making. In this contention he receives support from his mother and indignant lectures from his father. So he runs away, becomes a star and has his father refer to him as 'My Boy,' with accent on the 'My.'"

"During the course of the scenario Jessel sings a number of songs, most of them current hits, a Mother song being used more or less as a theme number. Of his song and talk appearances, Jessel's bit in the amateur-night performance was far and away the best. He wrote the dialogue and titles himself, and that was another mistake."

Surprisingly, "Lucky Boy" is still with us today, although a bit truncated from its original length and looking and sounding every bit its age, but it's worth seeking out. To compare Jessel to Jolson is quite beside the point, as both performers have personalities and a screen presence that one either admires or loathes --- seldom a middle ground --- but it's very difficult indeed to imagine "The Jazz Singer" without the manic energy that Jolson provided and makes it interesting to watch in even the most difficult of that film's moments, and there are many such stretches. No, "The Jazz Singer" with Jessel would have been a very different film, and perhaps so would have film history.

Of the "5 Song Hits 5" mentioned in the ad at left, we have two versions of the film's theme song with us --- one from Jessel's commercial 78rpm release of the tune, and the other an excerpt from the film's soundtrack itself:

"My Mother's Eyes" (1929-78rpm)

"My Mother's Eyes" (1929 soundtrack excerpt)

Curiously, the flipside of the 78rpm release version of "My Mother's Eyes" contains a tune that seems as though it was surely intended for inclusion in Jessel's film, but it's nowhere to be found in the print of the film that I screened --- nor is there mention of it in any press release. It'd be interesting if anyone can shed any light on the minor mystery surrounding:

"When the Curtain Comes Down" (1929-78rpm)

Chester Bahn, Dramatic Critic of the Syracuse Herald, wrote this magnificent, perceptive and evocative review of "The Lights of New York" in late August of 1928:

"In 1915, the Strand, throwing open its doors to Syracuse screen fans, became the city's first deluxe cinema house. In 1927, the Strand introduced the Vitaphone, becoming the city's first temple of synchronization. Yesterday, the renovated and refurnished Strand passed still another milestone of achievement with the local premiere of the first all-dialogue sound drama - Warners' Vitaphoned 'Lights of New York.' Of these three distinct contributions to the city's progress in cinematic entertainment, I am inclined to unhesitatingly award the palm to 'Lights of New York.'"

"The advent of Vitaphone more than a year ago was an omen. The Strand's current headliner may be accepted as its fulfillment, in part at least. To those who with the obvious flaws of preceding sound pictures in mind have dubiously queried 'Can the wide gap between stage and screen technique be spanned?,' Warners' primary attempt to substitute dialog for subtitle makes an affirmative answer in no uncertain fashion."

"Not, of course, that 'Lights of New York' is perfect. Even the most enthusiastic publicity purveyor in the Warner livery would hardly dare claim that. But those faults which are more in evidence are not so much the result of faulty technique as they are of faulty mechanics -- failure of a voice to register, for example. And that, I believe, is of the utmost significance."

"One of the most interesting of all speculative sound subjects has been the effect the introduction of dialog sequences would have upon tempo. A favorite assertion has been that such sequences would so retard action as to make suspense and climactic moments well nigh impossible -- that scenes would drag wearily along. 'Lights of New York' also goes far to nail that as a canard -- not all the way perhaps, but far enough to make an intelligent conclusion possible. The picture, with its liberal use of speech and its minimum of subtitle, is packed with suspense. Nor is there any appreciable loss of 'punch' where the spoken word supplements the conventional screen climax."

"The story itself is old-fashioned melodrama, done a la 'Broadway.' The plot, aside from its setting, is easy recognizable by any veteran of the Grand Opera House galleries. The dialog, introduced is, in the main, sensible. Occasionally, there are lapses, but they are not too frequent so as to annoy. From the standpoint of settings, the picture is well done, with perhaps one exception. A Central Park scene is so unreal, so obviously studio, that it reminds of the cinema's earliest days."

"Histrionically, the picture is average. Warners' publicity spotlights the name of Helene Costello, but there is little in her characterization of Kitty Lewis or in her handling of dialog to warrant it. Cullen Landis, the male lead, makes a fair impression, but he is no Conrad Nagel by any means. The best work, I should say, was done by Gladys Brockwell as Molly Thompson, and by Robert Elliot as Detective Crosby. Wheeler Oakman's heavy is cast in the 10-20-30 mold."

While we await someone to inform this department just what "the 10-20-30 mold" refers to, listen to this excerpt from the original trailer disc as spoken by Warners' player John Miljan. The scripting may strike you as either incredibly pompous or eerily wonderful, but either way you'll remember this one:

Excerpt from "Lights of New York" trailer disc (1928)

By the time Ted Lewis' "Is Everybody Happy?" was trundling towards local screens in time for Thanksgiving of 1929, Lewis himself acted as pitchman for the film --- which may or may not have had audience members firmly resolve to make holiday dinner a quick affair in order to get to their local talkie house in time for the evening show.

Like so many of the more intriguing personality films of the day, nary a frame of film seems to have survived from "Is Everybody Happy?" despite the plethora of audio that lays in wait to perhaps some day rejoin the image.

"Is Everybody Happy?" (Trailer Disc)

Until we meet again next month --

Thank You!

"Sonny Boy" - From "The Singing Fool" (1928) - Vitaphone Disc Excerpt


12 July 2008

The Grand Parade

Seeming as though he wants nothing more than to break free of his creators, we see one of Coney Island's Luna Park lions at what amounts to his birth --- with largely Italian artisan hands forming and shaping the body that would soon become adhered to one of the park's fanciful structures. Close examination of the image (click on it!) is rewarding, revealing with startling clarity a moment, an art-form, a location and persons all lost to time.

Ultimately, the construction elements of the lion --- plaster, wood lathe and hemp fiber --- and indeed much of the park itself, would contribute to and feed the conflagration that would destroy it. A sad loss, but its best not to believe any of this would still be with us today otherwise, for the organic nature of the construction elements were akin to a clock counting down from the moment of creation --- its destiny predetermined from the first.

And so too it goes for the medium of film, so I suppose a parallel can be drawn between the two divergent forms of pleasure --- but I'll leave that to you to ponder.

While having utterly nothing to do with either Luna Park or lost cinema, the Irving Berlin tune "The Syncopated Walk" has at least the same sense of boundless ---albeit tightly coiled --- energy as our plaster Leo had, and is well worth featuring here.

Written for the 1914 musical revue "Watch Your Step," which would run at New York City's New Amsterdam Theater until May of 1915, "The Syncopated Walk" would close the first act and the effect must have been nothing short of electrifying.

Danced to by Vernon and Irene Castle, and accompanied by a full chorus of voices (which included Charles King and then partner Elizabeth Brice) and theater orchestra, the presentation must have seemed a onrushing torrent of soaring, diving and sweeping melody, words and movement.

A fair measure of that excitement can still be found in this 1915 British recording of the tune, which features Ethel Levey, Blanche Tomlin and Joseph Coyne --- members of the London company:

"The Syncopated Walk" (1915) Ethel Levey, Blanche Tomlin & Joseph Coyne

"The Syncopated Walk" - Lyrics in .pdf form

Curiously, both "The Syncopated Walk" and another tune from "Watch Your Step" titled "Discoveries" would figure in the Vitaphone score for 1927's "The Great Ginsberg" --- a fact that eluded me until now and which has been added to the original blog post featuring the lost George Jessel film. That entry, from November of 2006 (has it been that long ago?) can be reached via this link --- or those just wishing to hear the audio again can simply click here.

Now sufficiently energized, let's see what the Pathe Studio publicists had to say about their early 1930 offering "The Grand Parade," now deemed a lost film:

"Different in many respects from the cut-and-dried picture romance, 'The Grand Parade,' a Pathe dialogue production featuring Helen Twelvetrees and Fred Scott, is a story of black face minstrelry so popular 40 or more years ago. It is distinctly a new type of entertainment on the screen, for in addition to its vital, forceful drama, it presents a complete minstrel show such as our grandparents delighted to see when they were young. Wonderful music, catchy songs, spicy jokes and the glittering pageantry of Negro entertainment supplement the drama of this remarkable achievement in the field of audible films."

After all that, the film is neatly summed up in two sentences which could easily be describing an early Biograph one-reeler instead of a glittering pageant of audible film: "The story deals with a minstrel singer who wins success, but through the influence of an evil woman, sinks to the dregs, a drunken sot. He is salvaged by a boarding house slavey and she succeeds in making a man of him."

Leave it to Helen Twelvetrees to look utterly forlorn while dressed in regal garb and sitting atop a parade bass drum, but with eyebrows invariably poised in despondent arch and a mouth always at the ready to emit sobs or meek acceptance of whatever sad fate the script dealt her, Miss Twelvetrees seldom fails to disappoint.

Here's a wonderful (but sadly anonymous!) review of "The Grand Parade" by a Waterloo, Iowa newspaper writer who's had a bit too much of this sort of thing but accepts it all gamely and with the same sort of forgiving sense of humor that serves films of this vintage well today:

"After an unsuspecting movie audience has seen a pair of estranged stage actors re-united in countless plays, because of everything from a dying child to who gets the parlor furniture without the radio, the all-talkie 'The Grand Parade,' now showing at the Iowa Theater provides a theme that practically completes the list. This time, Helen Twelvetrees and Fred Scott are held together by the clutching hands of an unborn baby."

"A feature of this bill that will however be enjoyed, is the picturization of an old=time minstrel show. Fred Scott, as the great 'Come Back' Kelly, greatest star in the minstrel world, sings some dandy songs of which the best is 'Molly.' As an actor, Scott is still a good tenor. Helen Twelvetrees, as the boarding house slavey, who marries the former star after he has met a blonde bozo and the bumps in rapid succession, keeps a good supply of tears running almost continuously. She has one effective scene, when she tosses over the husband, because she thinks he has a lot to learn about being a prospective father."

Syndicated Hollywood columnist Robbin Coons discusses both voice dubbing and foreign-release versions of films in a column from May of 1930, and pulled an unsuspecting "The Grand Parade" into the spotlight:

"The screen's 'battle of tongues' chatters away with as many battlefields as there are markets for talkies. And, Hollywood continues to bombard the foreign market effectively enough to keep for talking pictures the supremacy abroad which silents held."

"Making of foreign versions either with the American cast speaking foreign lines, or with foreign actors actually before the camera is gaining conspicuously in favor here over the earlier popular trick of 'dubbing in' foreign dialogue so that the words seem to come from the lips of the Hollywood stars."

"Where 'dubbing-in' is employed, less and less is there any attempt to deceive the foreign audience into believing the Hollywood players have actually spoken their language -- perhaps because such attempts in the past have been futile. It is probable that the innovation in 'La Gran Parade' will be followed in other productions."

"This, a Spanish version of 'The Grand Parade,' has two Spanish stage actors speaking the parts played originally by Helen Twelvetrees and Fred Scott. The voice doubles appear in a prologue, and introduce the American stars who, in carefully memorized words, make brief speeches of appreciation."

"A somewhat similar appeasing of national pride is to be used in the German version of the revue, 'Paramount on Parade.' Linguistically, it will be in English as in the American version, except that Marlene Deitrich, newly arrived from Berlin, will replace Jack Oakie as master of ceremonies, and tell the audience, in German, what it's all about."

Two melodies (in English) from "The Grand Parade" as performed by vocalist Donald Novis, seem rather painless if not a bit familiar even upon first listening. "Molly" (1929) - From 'The Grand Parade'

"Alone in the Rain" (1929) - From 'The Grand Parade'

And, for a bit of Espanol period music, from 1931 comes "La Medicina del Jazz," which is as good --- if not better, than many similar, somewhat manic American and British pseudo-jazz pop of the period. Here's Senor Duran & His Orchestra ---

"La Medicina del Jazz" (1931) Duran y su Orquesta

I suspect that most readers of this blog --- of a certain age, and especially lifelong residents of the East Coast --- can relate to the curious almost palpable thrill that often arises when hearing the strains of "California, Here I Come!" For vintage film enthusiasts especially, the tune might not hold the same shimmer of gloss as "Hooray for Hollywood" or even "You Ought To Be in Pictures," but I never particularly liked either of those tunes --- and then too, 1924's "California Here I Come" spoke of a California of a somewhat earlier day than those two tunes, when the lure wasn't entirely motion picture stars and studios. No, in this instance the lure was orange groves, floral scented breezes, and the odd golden hued sunshine that attracted the likes of D.W. Griffith and his contemporaries when the last century was young.

Of course, the land spoken of in this melody is now changed beyond recognition, and East and West Coast weather patterns seem horrifically damaged and all but reversed --- but as you listen to Vernon Dalhart's (right) magnificent and utterly pure rendition of this old chestnut, see if you don't feel the same sense of longing his vocalization contains. Now, these many years later --- it's not only longing for another place, but also for another time --- a "Golden Gate" indeed.

"California, Here I Come" (1924) Vernon Dalhart

"He Sings! He Talks! He Charms!" declared ads for the 1929 talkie "Sonny Boy," and if a potential theater patron remained skeptical, the Warner Bros. publicity department had a few extra rounds of ammunition in store:

"Combine all the 'ohs' and 'ahs' of doting parents at the antics of their offspring, and the same appreciative utterances of audiences gurgling at all the child players of the screen, and you have a faint idea of the reception Davey Lee gets, and will continue to get, in his starring role as 'Sonny Boy.'"

"Davey Lee is without a doubt the greatest screen find in years. The Warner Brothers have reason to congratulate themselves. The child is natural, with none of the affectations of most theater prodigies: he is amusing and winning; he acts, talks and sings with a most ingratiating charm and a refreshing lack of camera-consciousness."

"The lines Davey is given to say are immaterial; when the youngster puckers up his face and says anything at all, from 'Kin I depend on that?' to his prayers; and when he stands right up and sings 'Sonny Boy' in a manner that one won't forget for a long time, the audience is his forever."

Forever is a long time, and audience attention would drift elsewhere and away from young Mr. Lee in a few months and never return again, but he was indeed wildly popular and seemingly everywhere --- from films to radio to phonograph records and picture books --- during the span of time that film was finding and establishing its voice.

Anything but the sentimental tear-jerker that some early talkie archeologists have tagged this lost film as (only an incomplete set of Vitaphone sound discs are deposited at UCLA although certainly full sets exist) "Sonny Boy" played out thus:

"Mary and Hamilton, Sonny Boy's parents, have quarreled and Hamilton plays to take their boy with him to Europe. Mary telephones to he sister, Winifred Canfield, to help her to retain her child."

"Pretending to be the maid, Winifred sends Sonny Boy out of the house in a clothes basket, which is carried by the detective employed by Hamilton to keep his wife from spiriting the child away."

"Winifred, at the railway station, overhears Hamilton's lawyer, Thorpe, saying that he is leaving his apartment vacant for some days. To escape pursuit which is already underway, Winifred takes Sonny Boy to Thorpe's apartment to which she gets the key by pretending to be his wife."

"Thorpe's parents arrive unexpectedly and Winifred has to keep up the pretense of being their daughter-in-law. Thorpe is called back by Hamilton and returns to his apartment. He knows Winifred's story is false, but does not learn her identity until he overhears her telephoning to Mary."

"Mary's arrival is soon followed by that of Hamilton, who thinks his wife is having a rendezvous with Thorpe, and he attacks the attorney. The appearance of Winifred and Sonny Boy soon clears up matters."

New York Telegram columnist Katherine Zimmerman attended the June 1929 East Coast premiere of "Sonny Boy" and her opinion is as surprising as it is entertaining:

"When I think of all the bravissimos that are due to be tossed at the feet of Master Davey Lee today, following the premiere of 'Sonny Boy,' the necessity for sitting down and coining a brand new adjective looms large."

"For here is the most ingenious paradox that Hollywood has handed out in the memory of your correspondent, a screen child with a sense of humor, an infant prodigy that can keep a packed house hugging itself in glee without seeking refuge once in those juvenile eccentricities known as 'cute.'"

"I must confess that as a rule I find nothing more fatiguing than a sustained seance with the genus Screen Child. But the departmental bonnet is doffed deferentially to this 4-year old gamin, who thumbs his nose engagingly at all directions and proceeds to entertain cash customers after his own fashion."

"Davey Lee has a genuine flare for comedy. He takes the stock situations and well-worn gags of 'Sonny Boy' and contrives to bamboozle you into getting a new slant on them -- the kiddie's viewpoint, so to speak. He puts his whole heart into an uproarious imitation of Al Jolson in his favorite anthem. He kids the entire 'bright doings by our little ones' situation by letting you have them with his tongue out and his nose awry. He kids the grown-ups that imperil our toddlers' nerves with fatuous baby stuff. In a word, he seems to be the answer to the juvenile film population's prayer -- another David, complete with sling and ready to avenge the disrespect that has been practiced for twenty years by celluloidia against the natural state of childhood."

"He conducts the whole picture in a mood of cheerful inanity, and the result is a thoroughly enjoyable evening. The plot, by the way, has something to do with an obliging spinster who passes off her sister's child as her own and finds herself saddled unexpectedly with a husband and a couple of provoking old in-laws."

"The writers deserve a couple of slaps for some really adult situations, and in the cast Edward Everett Horton and Betty Bronson are on the crest of the wave most of the time."

Given the fact that any exposure we may have had to Davey Lee has been via his work in "The Singing Fool" or "Say It With Songs" --- the former in which he divides his time by either being cradled in Al Jolson's arms or dying, and the latter in which he doesn't do much more save for being run down in the street by a passing vehicle and then laying paralyzed --- one truly wonders if his surviving films show him at the worst possible advantage that can befall any actor of the period, that being smothered by the presence of Jolson in the same frame and nearly ceasing to exist because of it.

Certainly, the eccentric supporting cast of "Sonny Boy," the oddly risque plot elements, and the inclusion of a full-throttled send up of his own theme song by Davey Lee serve to conjure up a strange product indeed, but every indication is that it all worked beautifully and the young performer had found, just this once, the perfect vehicle for his unique talent and presence.

I wish I could offer Lee's rendition of "Sonny Boy" here, but can't --- so we have instead something less than ideal but suited to the moment:

"Sonny Boy" (1928)

At left, young Miss Grace Rogers as she appeared in a September 1929 "Metro Movietone Revue" one-reeler that despite seeming as though it had been filmed 1927, proved popular enough to play in theaters throughout the country as late as September of 1930!

Despite her severe hairstyle --- so at odds with the bow bedecked frock --- what a voice!! Here's her rendition of "Lila" --- Give her a moment to gather steam!

And, because the tune itself is good enough to stand on its own, here's Oreste & His Queensland Orchestra giving it an injection of heat: "Lila" Oreste & His Queensland Orchestra

A reviewer of Paramount's 1929 college musical "Sweetie," as it arrived in Wisconsin in December of that year, was unduly puzzled:

"Is 'Sweetie' a burlesque of other conceptions of college life by producers or is it just another of those synthetic pictures of college as it exists nowhere in the United States? Opinion is somewhat divided among those who've seen 'Sweetie.'"

"Assuming for the moment that it is not burlesque, its components rate thus: Plot - fair, Acting - fair, Music - good, Direction - fair, and Photography - excellent. If it is burlesque, you may at your own pleasure boost the plot to 'good.' Either way the picture averages fair plus."

"Nancy Carroll is being worked hard in one light frothy picture after another, just as Clara Bow was for a time -- because Nancy's Irish face and slim limbs have caught the public eye and captured the public heart. It is this effort to capitalize on her popularity that leads us to believe that 'Sweetie' is not particularly intended as burlesque."

"Jack Oakie and Helen Kane furnish their antics to a plot that has many antique situations and Jack as usual gets a fairly fat amount of dialogue allotted to him. From some of the doings of the cast, we would suggest as a name for the college: Mendota."

Certainly, viewing "Sweetie" today can be a chore if you count yourself as one who doesn't particularly care for the one-note shtick of Jack Oakie, Helen Kane and Stuart Erwin --- but there's always Nancy Carroll, consistently fine indoor and outdoor photography and recording, and a wide variety of interesting backgrounds and settings that divert the eye during the duller stretches that frequent the film.

A selection of melody from "Sweetie":

"My Sweeter Than Sweet" -
Stanley Smith

"The Prep Step"
Jesse Stafford & His Orchestra

"Alma Mammy" - Waring's Pennsylvanians

"My Sweeter Than Sweet" - Frankie Trumbauer & His Orchestra

Until Next Time!

"Frozen River" (1929)

"In 'Frozen River,' Rinty is Lobo, a husky, reared among wolves, a killer
with a price on his head. But he makes friends with a little boy, Billy.
It should be mentioned that Davey Lee does not take a talking part in
this picture, but patrons will be amply rewarded just to see this sweet child."

"Always 3 Good Shows" and some exceptional
artwork too. Salt Lake City, Utah - July 1929
Which would you choose?

Syndicated Davey Lee Profile & "Interview"
Benton Harbor, Michigan - April 1929

A Television Wedding
24 October 1928

A Talkie Wedding of Note
4 August 1929

"I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside" (1909) Florrie Forde

Medley: I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls" and "Then You'll Remember Me"
(circa 1925) - Sam Moore