14 January 2008

"The Midnight Taxi"

Although the approach of midnight meant quite something else to actor Ralph Graves and co-star Helene Costello in the 1929 Nat Levine produced silent serial "The Fatal Warning," the poster art detail at left will serve well to open this first post of the New Year --- a year we approach with at least some of the same odd intermingling of curiosity, fear and excitement that can be seen in Mr. Grave's painted visage.

We'll ring up 2008's curtain with a 1930 recording of "My Sing Song Girl" which was previously offered in these pages in a definitive rendition by LeRoy Shield --- but this version, by the Colonial Club Orchestra, wins points for sheer originality (and the inclusion of a bit of Tchaikovsky!)

Arriving in September of 1928, Warner Bros.' part-talking "The Midnight Taxi" was deemed worthy enough to warrant theater bookings into December of 1930 --- and would be remade by the same studio in 1937, but we focus our attention on the elusive earlier edition which remains largely unavailable for evaluation although a silent print is thought to be in the care of the British Film Institute.

Adapted from a story by Darryl Zanuck (credited as Gregory Rogers) and directed by John Adolfi, the improbable scenario is described in the American Film Institute database:

"Tony Driscoll (Antonio Moreno) and Joseph Brant (William Russell) pool $200,000 to finance a bootleg venture and take a ride together on a train. Tony meets Nan Parker (Helene Costello) on the train and conceals their money in her coat. Brant hires two gunmen to stick up Tony and himself, but the holdup is a failure, for it is interrupted by detectives looking for stolen jewelry. The jewelry is found on Tony (planted there by one of Brant's henchmen,) and Tony is arrested and taken off the train."

"Released on bail later, Tony charters an airplane and returns to the speeding train. There is a gun battle, and the police arrest Brant and his men. Tony is cleared of the charges against him, and decides to go straight, having fallen in love with Nan."

A November 1928 booking of the film in Zanesville, Ohio resulted in this prepared press release appearing in a local newspaper. Even the most naive of reader would have been unlikely to accept it as a genuine film review, but the period lingo manages to breathe life into a film we'll likely never see nor hear --- as well as revealing a couple of intriguing plot details not hinted at in the AFI synopsis:

"Antonio Moreno, known as the dashing lover, goes in for rough stuff in 'The Midnight Taxi,' as his fight with thugs on the runaway train, his fight in the nose-diving plane and other hair-raising sequences proves. Helene Costello, as the fair sleuth who naively enters the company of thieves, hi-jackers and rum-runners in their mad flight for Vancouver is attractive and resourceful. Myrna Loy recalls her late triumphs in 'The Girl from Chicago' and 'Side Street Sadie.' William Russell with Miss Loy in both plays mentioned, acts with his usual hard-fisted zest."

"The play is possessed of as many thrills and hairbreadth escapes as a dozen detective yarns in one, but it the Vitaphone which stirs the already dramatic action to a fury of raucous and strident sound. All the players who speak their lines, do so with a finish which indicates that they must have had experience on the speaking stage before the advent of talking pictures."

"'The Midnight Taxi' again emphasizes the fact that the crook can't win. It should rank among the best of the crime pictures which are so much in vogue in theaters everywhere. The present reviewer advises all sort and conditions of people to go to the Liberty Theater before 'The Midnight Taxi' scorches by."

A real -- albeit anonymous -- local review of the film from (Waterloo, Iowa - October 1928) with the unfortunate title "'Midnight Taxi Is Full of It'" adds further insight:

"One who has presumed that only Adolph Menjou can sport a neatly trimmed dark moustache, glistening black hair and ultra-fashionable clothes, while alternating in the raising of a right or left sarcastic eyebrow and still be a screen hero has another guess coming."

"Antonio Moreno does all of Menjou's polite patter and adds a lot of athletic stuff himself that makes 'The Midnight Taxi' -- a 'talkie -- a most entertaining picture, with all the necessary elements of romance, thrills and hair-raising suspense to impress any audience."

"The cacophony of sound runs the gamut from blazing pistols to the hum of an aeroplane motor -- from gangsters' shrieks to the whistle of an express about to crash into a runaway train on which are -- ah! but there's the story!"

"Helene Costello as the girl who risks everything to turn detective and recover bonds stolen from a bank where her lover is cashier, is her same picture of loveliness. Soft of voice, tender in her sympathy, and courageous in defending her lover."

Is there a more pitiable figure of the early talking screen than Helene Costello? Sister of silent and early sound superstar Dolores, daughter of famed stage and screen personality Maurice Costello --- her life spiraled into what seems endless misfortune, folly and self-destruction after 1928 --- a year that seemed to promise at least some measure of the same success in the new medium that her sister would enjoy. As female lead in Warner Bros.' first all talkie, "The Lights of New York" (although Gladys Brockwell acts rings around her and just about everyone else in the cast) it can't be said that she makes much of an impression, but then neither does anyone else for that matter.

Truth be told, although the film was a vast success for Warners, and audiences attended in droves, I tend to think the majority were well aware of the fact that "The Lights of New York" was -- cinematically speaking -- a "piece of junk," as one 1928 bluntly yet accurately described it.

Helene Costello, Cullen Landis, Gladys Brockwell, Wheeler Oakman, Eugene Pallette --- it wasn't what they were saying or how well they said it that mattered, it was that they were saying anything at all.

Following her talking picture debut in "Lights," Costello would revert to silence for the silent serial "The Fatal Warning," and then, for all intensive purposes, would end a career that began at Brooklyn's Vitagraph studio when she was but a mere child, with 1929's "Show of Shows" where she confidently steals the screen from her sibling Dolores (seeming rather wan and clumsy here) in the musical set piece, "Meet My Sister." It's so joyful an eight minutes of musical film, and the actress is so --- well, so very young and alive and lovely in this sequence, that it's almost painful to contemplate just how far Helene would plunge from this happy pastel-hued pinnacle.

Helene Costello's 1929 marriage to actor/director and supremely oily figure Lowell Sherman was deemed "All Over Now" in news wire stories by mid-1932 --- but not until Lowell savaged the actress in the courtroom, with charges that she maintained an extensive library of "naughty books" (two of the many volumes Sherman brought into the courtroom as evidence were stolen from a table, one title being "The Memoirs of Fanny Hill," suggesting these books were anything but the sort of pornography Sherman claims so shocked him and "moved his secretary to blush") and was a hopeless alcoholic too.

To be sure, there were high times aplenty in the Sherman household --- with a "secret room" constructed to hold all the liquor left over after the Sherman-Costello wedding, a stash which was regularly replenished --- just as it would be in nearly every other Hollywood household of the day.

But, newspaper readers were much of the same breed they are today --- and it was the headlines connecting Costello to "Naughty Books and Drinking" which glowed in neon hues above all, despite the rather tame details behind them.

Lowell Sherman's secretary (the one who blushed) was one Maury Cohen, and his testimony revealed perhaps the real reason Sherman opted to so damage his spouse: "The secretary told of the actress calling Sherman 'a ham actor' and a 'lousy performer, and worse' and of how she tossed highball glasses at him." Sherman himself would ruefully admit that Helene had called him 'a fat old man' and told friends he was 'about finished in pictures.' (One can easily envision Sherman's eyes eagerly scanning the faces of those present in the courtroom for displays of disbelief and shock at Costello's wild claims, and likely finding none.) Although Helene Costello would win her divorce (and a $32,000 settlement) what she really needed was to get away from it all.

Then as now, diversionary tactics work best when a celebrity (or non-celebrity for that matter) is embroiled in something especially unpleasant, so Helene packed her bags and left for Cuba (points for originality, if nothing else!) and as the wire photo at right suggests, remodeled herself dramatically by the time it was announced --- some seven months after her divorce from Sherman --- that she was again a newlywed:

Havana, Jan. 23, 1933: "Their secret wedding exposed just six days after the ceremony, Helene Costello, screen actress, and her latest husband, Arturo Del Barrio, film producer, are formally 'at home' here today. They will remain in Havana until Spring, they have announced, and then will sail to spend Holy Week in Italy. Both admitted that they had been engaged about four years ago, that the engagement has been broken because of 'extenuating circumstances.' The marriage of Miss Costello and Lowell Sherman, ended in a divorce last year. Her previous marriage, to John Y. Regan, a childhood sweetheart, ended in the same manner."

A bit of celebratory music seems in order here, so we offer two tunes (both featured in the Metro musical "Cuban Love Song") which may have well been heard and danced to by Miss Costello and her new husband. Music, Maestro?

"Cuban Love Song" (1931) Ruth Etting - "The Peanut Vendor" (1930) California Ramblers

A few placid months passed before Lowell Sherman would indignantly rise up again --- somewhat feebly this time -- and file suit against Helene, seeking to have her endorse a government income tax refund check for $490.43 in his favor. Oh, how she must have laughed!

All but abandoning her film career, whether willingly or not, Costello also remained out of sight in newspaper pages until tongues began to wag in June of 1935 that all was not bliss in the Del Barrio & Costello union:

Hollywood, June 13: "Helene Costello denied she and her husband, Arturo Del Barrio had separated, although friends disclosed she had not heard from him since he visited John Barrymore some weeks ago aboard the actor's yacht in Havana harbor. A recent Barrymore statement said Del Barrio was to finance a picture the brothers-in-law would make in Cuba."

Three months later, a far happier news item would appear, heralding what was hoped to be a comeback for Helene --- while prematurely burying Helene's father Maurice by some fifteen years.

Costello's role in "Riff Raff" was minor in the extreme, and save for a bit in 1942's "Pride of the Yankees," which Hollywood columnist Jimmy Shields ruefully noted "took two minutes to film," that was the end of movie stardom for Helene.

Throughout the late 1930's and early 1940's, Helene Costello's name would be seen in numerous news items similar to the one at left from May of 1939 --- charged with driving while intoxicated --- and during this period her marriage to the Cuban Del Barrio would end and she'd take up with one George Lee LeBlanc, (described as an "artist and sculptor") with whom she'd have a child --- a daughter, Deidre, in February of 1941.

Only one year later, Costello would file for bankruptcy, listing debts amounting to $2,758 and total assets of $205.

Interestingly, four years later --- when Warner Bros. was celebrating the 20th Anniversary of sound films --- the Helene Costello of decades past could be seen in newspapers once again, as in this syndicated filler piece at the right, wherein the only point of interest seemed to be the long hours spent at the studio, and not the technique nor mechanics of the landmark process.

No matter --- Costello was fading fast. Some accounts cite alcohol, others claim drugs or both. Among the news items on New Years Day of 1948:

"Helene Costello Loser in Battle for Daughter"

Los Angeles: "Film actress Helene Costello lost a court battle for temporary custody of her six year old daughter, Deidre. Superior Judge Byron J. Walters ruled the child should go with artist Lee LeBlanc, her estranged husband. Their divorce trial is scheduled for April, at which time a permanent custody ruling will be made. The child has been cared for by Miss Costello's sister Dolores, who became the legal guardian two years ago when LeBlanc was in the maritime service and the mother was recuperating from a health breakdown. Judge Walters ruled that Miss Costello was 'not a fit and proper person' to have custody of Deidre, as her husband charged."

Los Angeles, June 1, 1951:

"The late actor Maurice Costello, who died penniless last October 29th, left his two daughters $1 each, his will disclosed today."

The document, filed for probate in Superior Court, was handwritten and dated July 27, 1916. The daughters are Dolores Costello, former wife of John Barrymore, and Helene Costello."

Maurice Costello left the remainder of his estate of $221.55 to the Motion Picture Relief Fund, which had supported him for years."

And finally, the inevitable ---

Hollywood, January 29, 1957:

"Helene Costello, who once earned $3,000 a week starring in films with the late John Barrymore, is dead at 53, a victim of pneumonia in a state hospital. Officials said she was committed to Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino last week for narcotics addiction. She was admitted under the name 'Adrienne Costello.'"

"Death came Saturday. Few at the hospital realized that she was the fragile beauty in Hollywood films in the late 20's. As late as 1942 she was still playing character parts and appeared in "Pride of the Yankees." But illness, financial problems and the heartbreak of unsuccessful marriages had taken their toll."

"Later, she got jobs as an extra in the studios where she had once been a star. In 1947, however, she said that she was 'too destitute and too ill' to work when she went to court seeking support from her fourth husband, artist George Lee LeBlanc."

"Her previous husbands were John Regan, actor Lowell Sherman and Cuban sportsman (?) Arturo Del Barrio. Miss Costello was the daughter of matinee idol Maurice Costello and the sister of Dolores Costello, who was with Helene when she died."

Predictably, most if not all of the published obituaries for the actress failed miserably, opting to highlight her downfall and barely hinting at her long and distinguished career --- and mangling the facts when it did. (Helene's only pairing with John Barrymore was a minor role in "Don Juan," and in "Show of Shows," in which they only shared billing.)

Helene, like Dolores, grew from an awkward child romping about the sunlit Vitagraph sets to a lithe and attractive young woman --- perhaps lacking whatever spark audience fancy sometimes caught hold of and embraced, resulting in true stardom --- but certainly on par with countless other actresses of her day.

In the end, no matter her personal demons, it's simply doubly sad that her send-off didn't rise above the mire into which she had fallen, but that's Hollywood. That's life.

At the very least, negligible though her contributions were to the first all-talking film, "Lights of New York," her name and face would escape the jeers forever connected to co-star Wheeler Oakman and his "Take him for a ride" line reading.

Gloom Chasers? We got 'em!

It's probably best not to question the advisability of serenading a huge polar bear with jazz, but the furry fellow seems as curious as we are about the faux Ted Lewis get-up on the clarinetist. This is, or was, "The Better 'Ole Orchestra," and while I'd dearly love to know what they were playing, we'll have to use our imagination --- and hope that those cage bars are good and sturdy.

A frequent melodic visitor to these pages is "Dardanella," and here it is in a new and rather enchanting guise, courtesy of Bob Haring's Velvetone Orchestra, circa March of 1928:

"Dardanella" (1928)

A remarkable piece of 1926 music, titled "Static Strut" --- performed by Paul Specht's Georgians, pictured left. As you listen, click upon the image to enlarge it, and let your eyes play across those beaming faces for a jolt of frivolity that connects with the music so perfectly. Then too, in lovely quality images of this sort, it's always fun to take notice of small details --- the variety of watch-chains, lapel pins, the woolen cap removed and held while the photo was being taken --- small elements of daily life now lost to time and fashion. (The unusual opening --- a mock radio station ID, indicates that this was, indeed, a Columbia recording.)

"Static Strut" (1926) Paul Specht's Georgians

We lurch backwards two years, to 1924, for the next offering. As entertainment, you won't find much --- but as a historical record of what can be supposed was the general public opinion of early radio listening, it's priceless. Whistles --- noises --- crossed frequencies (a rendition of "O Solo Mio" is interrupted by minstrel comedians of the most pathetic sort, a banal 1924 pop tune --- "My Hindu Hoo-Doo, Who Do You Love?" and finally, the final moments of a boxing match!"

"Tuning in on the Radio" (1924)

The Better 'Ole Orchestra is back --- and tempting fate even further, they've brought a dainty dancer with them to further confuse and irk our game polar bear friend --- but alas, he has eyes only for the top-hatted clarinetist.

Nearly one year ago, an earlier post featured the 1915 melody "The Ladder of Roses" in a discussion of the Hippodrome musical production "Hip-Hip Hooray."

The tune, a personal favorite of mine, is worth presenting again --- this time in an alternate version, by Prince's Band, from 1916. Be forewarned, it's an utterly infectious arrangement! At the conclusion of the recording, a fragment of the 1915 vocal version is added as musical homage to that forgotten musical stage production --- and to that fact that we're still together one year later! As to what happened to The Better 'Ole Orchestra, well... let's just hope the expected didn't happen after all.

Until Next Time!

"The Ladder of Roses" (1915) Prince's Band

"So come along, it's not far away,
let's spend a happy day
in that beautiful world...

And pass away the gloomy hours,
amidst the sunshine and the flowers...

For it's a land where all is new,
wonderful gardens too,
Joy waits for all far up above!

So let's climb up the ladder of roses,
and we'll soon reach the garden of love."

Bonus Audio:

"Under the Honey Moon" (1919)
The Coney Island Jazz Orchestra