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