29 March 2009

"Among Sinister Shadows"

In March of 1929, Paramount sought to entice newspaper readers into theaters with the following prepared review of William Wellman's "Chinatown Nights" ---

"There is more mystery on one Chinese standing in a shadowy Chinatown doorway than in all the mystery stories ever written. And in 'Chinatown Nights,' showing at the _______ there are more than five hundred Chinese revealed in all the intriguing and little known business of their powerful tongs."

"'Chinatown Nights' is a picture for everyone who loves drama, excitement and mystery. The suspense and action of the picture are excellently handled and the revelation of the inscrutable practices of the Chinese tong are surprising. A superior cast of screen artists enact this superb drama. Wallace Beery, Florence Vidor, Warner Oland and Jack Oakie head the cast of noted screen players. The picture was directed by William Wellman, the man who made 'Wings.'"

"'Chinatown Nights' is the story of a white boss of Chinatown who wins the love of a white society woman. She sacrifices everything for him, but not until she is dragged down into the mire of the underworld, does she awaken to his love for her."

"The Whole Cast Talks!" declared period print ads for the film, and according to one genuine newspaper review of the film in late March of 1929, that fact was, in of itself, a problem:

"'Chinatown Nights' is one of those talking pictures which would have been just as good, if not better, with sound effects only and the old style sub-titles. Wallace Beery and Florence Vidor are the stars in this Chinatown opus, but you go away feeling that Warner Oland, cast as 'Boston Charley,' makes the picture. "

"In this Gallery God's humble opinion, both Beery and Miss Vidor are miscast in a big way. Beery is the white boss of Chinatown, a part which he fills well, but you hardly can see the refined background which he is supposed to have. Miss Vidor makes a very good society woman, but as a drunken creature she wins no sympathy. And, what the sound box does to Miss Vidor's voice, is nobody's business.'"

"The plot deals with the society woman who falls in love with the white boss of a Chinese tong and tries to get him to quit it all and go her way. There is a war, with no small amount of shooting and killing. Some of the sound effects are excellent. In a Chinese theater scene, to cover the bark of guns, one tong throws firecrackers into the air and the staccato is splendidly recorded. There are some interesting scenes of Chinatown and a few inner workings of the tong are exposed."

Happily, while with us today, and an inarguable important entry in early talking film history, William Wellman's "Chinatown Nights" is difficult to fairly judge and nearly impossible to encounter in any form other than horribly bad dupes that, seemingly, first surfaced on Betamax tape ---the stunning photography reduced to wavering blotches of white and gray, and the busy soundtrack, once "splendidly recorded" now a shrill cacophony.

Despite the William Wellman branding, which raises weak hopes that the film may one day surface on DVD simply based on its lineage (early sound films can never seem to receive recognition based solely upon their place in cinema history --- only owing to either who directed them or who appears in them, inexplicably perhaps the only genre of film treated in this odd way) but then too, there is no getting away from the stereotypes that decorate the film (I'll leave it to someone else to use the word "plague") and all the baggage that goes with it. Understandably, "Chinatown Nights" may well long remain lurking in the darkened corners of film history, amidst sinister shadows of quite another sort.

Syndicated publicity item, April 1929:

"To celebrate the completion of 'Chinatown Nights,' the all-talking picture in which he was featured with Florence Vidor, actor Wallace Beery gave a little party at his home. The director, William Wellman, the staff workers, and the cast, including Warner Oland, Jack Oakie and all the others, were invited."

"As they came in, Beery told each that he had arranged with a prominent radio station to broadcast his party, commenting on the arrival of each guest, etc. As they entered, Beery phoned a certain number and almost immediately from the radio loudspeaker came laudatory words of welcome. The guests thought it very fine and complimented Beery on the stunt."

"William Wellman was one of the last to arrive. As he entered the door of the house, the radio spoke words to this effect: 'Here is Billy Wellman, the slave-driving director who beats his wife, sticks pins in his children and tortures his actors. He should be in jail and probably will be soon.'"

"After Wellman had recovered from the shock, and the guests from their hysteria, Beery revealed that the radio was a private affair and that the 'announcer' was George Bancroft, out in the garage."

We pause for melody! Who, of a certain age, won't recognize Paul Whiteman's 1928 recording of "Dancing Shadows" as serving as incidental scoring on what seemed like countless dozens of silent films in the earliest years of home video marketing? Infinitely more interesting than most of the films it accompanied at that time, hearing it again is not unlike greeting an old friend who, maddeningly, never seems to age.

"Dancing Shadows" (1928)

Mr. Ian McIver, who maintains the astounding "Virtual Radiogram" website based in the United Kingdom -- a mecca for theater organ enthusiasts, historians and all else in between -- and a reader of these pages, kindly sent along two of his favorite recordings by Regal Cinema organist Sydney Torch. The first, "When East Meets West" (a medley recorded in 1935 at the Regal Cinema, Edmonton) fits nicely with our nod towards "Chinatown Nights." The second, "Hotter than Ever," (recorded in 1934 at the Regal Cinema, Marble Arch) is sheer, shimmering cinema organ pleasure.

"When East Meets West" (1935)

"Hotter Than Ever" (1934)

Mr. McIver's website (link in above paragraph) is a multi-layered treasure of information (Jesse Crawford fans will be especially delighted!) of cinema organ history in the States, the United Kingdom, Australia and other locales --- accompanied by heaps of graphics and, best of all, a myriad of audio files. Be prepared to spend many a happy hour exploring! Many thanks to Mr. McIver for sharing with us!

Summer, 1929:

"The rhythmic tapping of the feet of 50 dancing girls - the wailing of saxophones and the high notes of an opera tenor in a theatrical boarding house - the bark of gangster's guns and the quiet 'raise you five grand' in a poker game are said to be some of the high spots in the First National Vitaphone picture 'Broadway Babies.'"

"'Broadway Babies' takes you behind the scenes in a big musical comedy theater, into night clubs of Broadway, and into the theatrical boarding house. It is a story of theatrical life, the experiences of three young hoofers who are fighting for recognition behind the footlights. Dazzling sets, particularly the theatrical scenes and those in the night clubs, promise to be exceptional."

So declared studio publicity releases farmed out to newspaper syndicates in mid 1929, and for once, the claims were valid --- and remain valid in 2009.

Is there a more charmingly cluttered (both visually and aurally) early talking film than "Broadway Babies?" Despite the abundance of optical and audio excess --- or because of it, "Broadway Babies" could easily (and should!) be called upon to serve as the leading surviving example of what talking cinema was like at that point in time --- when the part-talking hybrids had largely given up the ghost, and Hollywood had resolved to embrace and enhance the new medium. Best of all, by today's standards, "Broadway Babies" doesn't dull the senses -- it excites them.

The overly-decorated sets give the eye something to settle upon at every viewing (once one has had enough time to digest Alice White's limited repertoire of acting modes) and the soundtrack, bless it --- is a technical masterpiece of the period. Long before the term "multi-track" had even been a fanciful notion, "Broadway Babies" layers dialogue, incidental sound effects and a nearly start-to-finish astonishingly intricate background musical score into a practically seamless, unified whole.

"Broadway Babies" served as the opening talking picture attraction at the newly wired-for-sound Lantex Theater (Llano, Texas) in late 1929, and the arrival of talkies themselves was deemed of enough importance to warrant a special newspaper pull-out "Talkie Section" as well. Perhaps in the days leading up to the re-opening of the theater, citizens heard this special Victor exploitation recording being played outside the theater or in local record and phonograph shops?:

"Broadway Babies" (1929)

The following publicity placement for the now presumed-lost 1930 film "She Couldn't Say No" was heralded as being written by the film's star, Winnie Lightner, herself. While doubtful at best, the piece does serve to give us an idea of the filmed that can't easily be gleaned otherwise:

"While I was playing the leading role in 'She Couldn't Say No,' I realized for the first time what a heartbreaking experience it is for a woman to love a man who does not love her. I studied the part so thoroughly that I am sure I gained a complete understanding of the character. Of course, it would not do for me to say that I play it convincingly, but when you see 'She Couldn't Say No,' I hope you will enjoy my performance. I sure did my best to entertain you."

"In the story I am Winnie Harper, a big-hearted night club entertainer, who falls madly in love with Jerry, a racketeer, and then almost breaks her neck reforming him - which is always a silly thing for a woman to do. But then, Winnie loved the way she did everything else. With all her heart and soul."

"She succeeds in keeping him on the straight and narrow path for a long time by employing him as her manager. Inspired by the love she lavishes on him, she goes on to bigger and better things until she lands a job as the prize attraction at the swellest night club in town. With Jerry drawing 10% of her salary things go along smoothly and Winnie begins to think that her luck has changed and that she and Jerry are going to live happily ever after."

"Blinded by her own love, she refuses to see that Jerry's indifference is due to the fact that he does not love her. And then the dreadful blow! Winnie discovers that Jerry has fallen in love with a society girl who is attracted to him because he is so different from the men she has been acquainted with all her life. To keep up with her crowd he joins the 'gang' in a job, is arrested and sent to jail."

"Winnie still fights for the man and just when she thinks she is winning, the society girl steps into the picture again. Believe me, this poor girl certainly has her heartbreaking moments. When you see the picture you will sympathize with her just as I did. Of course, Jerry eventually comes to his sense but - well, it's too late. In watching the misfortunes of Winnie you, too, are going to understand what a tragic thing it is for a woman to love in vain."

Clearly, today's film trailers which painstakingly spell out each plot twist and treat you to every notable scene, visual element or clever line of dialogue, can trace their lineage back to this sort of counter-productive publicity placement! Sadly, at this stage in the game, it is unlikely we'll ever have the chance to see for ourselves --- but, stranger things have indeed happened.

As performed by vocalist Welcome Lewis, these two covers of melodies from "She Couldn't Say No" are pleasant enough, but nobody could belt 'em out like Winnie, so --- lacking Vitaphone disc audio in absence of the film itself, we must content ourselves.

"Watching My Dreams Go By" and "A Darn Fool Woman Like Me" (1930) Welcome Lewis

Melody that arrived between the end of the Great War and the dawn of the 1920's is as unique, to my way of thinking, as it is difficult to describe. There's a palpable sense of release and relief in this music, as we moved away from the terrible struggles and senseless death that permeated the War, and began to find a new place and sense of self in the weak first light of the new decade. Teetering and wavering between the old and the new, tentatively dipping into new forms of musical expression, these tunes capture a moment in time and history when all seemed possible, once having survived what was once deemed impossible.

"Darling" (1919)
"Rose Room" (1920)
Art Hickman & His Orchestra (Above)

"Make Believe" (1921)

Nora Bayes (Above)

"Oh By Jingo" (1919)
as performed by:

Margaret Young (1920) and Frank Crumit (1920)
(Imagine what Charlotte Greenwood did with this song!)

"Girl of My Dreams" (1929)
"I'm Waiting for Ships That Never Come In"
Performed by Maurice Gunsky (above)

Has anyone any information about this rather interesting vocalist?

Medley from "Whoopee!" (1930)
Medley from "Monte Carlo" (1930)
Performed with Orchestra by Pianist Raye de Costa

Medley from "The Love Parade" (1929)
Jack Payne & His BBC Orchestra

"Why Be Good?" (1929)
Vitaphone Disc Excerpt
A quiet, lilting melody in a sea of swirling jazz --- can anyone identify it?

"Nola" (1927) The Revelers
"Hello Bluebird" (1926) Vincent Lopez & His Orchestra
"High, High, High Up in the Hills" (1927) Nat Shilkret & the Victor Orchestra

Excerpt from "Jack White & His Montrealers"
(Vitaphone Short Subject # 791)
"I'm Ka-Razy For You" ("Say It With Songs") - Ruth Petty
"Mean to Me" - The Lee Sisters

Medley - "The Gold Diggers of Broadway" (1929)

Wishing all Readers a Happy, Safe and --- Let's Hope --- PROSPEROUS Spring Season!



Anonymous said...

So glad you have returned with another interesting entry. Your blog is one of my favorites. Thanks,
Tom Ruegger

Anonymous said...

Welcome back, Jeff! In this recession/depression/whatsis we need you more than ever.


Jeff Cohen said...

Thanks, Gents!

The Recession/Depression, or just plain stark fear and worry played no small part in the lengthy delay between posts, as I really wondered if there was a place for this fluff when readers (and myself) had far more pressing issues at hand. Indeed, the photo at the head of the post was originally selected because it seemed a visual representation of my feelings at the time --- of how out of place this delicate, glittering material seemed in the middle of darkly dangerous surroundings. In the end, I opted for the theory that a few idle moments of escapism could do far more for everyone concerned than more gloom and doom! I think I made the right choice!


Anonymous said...

Jeff wrote: "a few idle moments of escapism could do far more for everyone concerned than more gloom and doom! I think I made the right choice!"

I couldn't agree more.

You bring great intelligence, wit, discovery, detail and informed opinion to a subject that I increasingly find fascinating. You also illustrate your interests and your opinions with stunning images, many of which I've never seen before.

As I said before: a great blog, one that I visit regularly.

Thanks again

Tom R

Cladrite Radio said...

You've confirmed what Sullivan learned during his Travels, Jeff -- keep it coming!

James Bazen said...

I've seen Chinatown Nights and indeed Florence Vidor(One of my favorite silent film actresses) seems hopelessly miscast. She's too at home as refined ladies to be convincing in the role.

Sean Martin said...

Welcome back!!!

Anonymous said...

Very glad to see a new Vitaphone Varieties post!

George Moore

Anonymous said...

You're back -- How splendid! As usual, a real treat. Thanks ever so.

Eric Stott said...

The lovely tune in the "Why be Good?" exerpt is "Le Chant des Boulevards" by noted silent film composer J. S. Zamecnik.

Great to have you back.

Anonymous said...

Welcome back, Jeff!

As always, your postings are well worth waiting for!

Another enjoyable look at those wonderful early talkie days...

And as far as our equivalent financial situation is concerned, I'm sure we'll recover again!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks for another wonderful post. With such great research and graphics, it may be fluff as you stay, but it's still history. Looking forward to more.

Diarmid said...

I'm just writing to agree with the others -- this blog is always interesting and intelligent, not to mention beautifully illustrated. I hope you keep doing it for a long time yet.

Lolita of the Classics said...

Oh, nice blog... I just added you to my blog list!

Anonymous said...

Great to see another post!

You mentioned two of my early talkie favorites - Alice White and Winnie Lightner. I often wonder why TCM doesn't show their surviving films anymore.

It is too bad that the early talkie films seldom get releases on DVD. Even the new Warner Archive MOD DVD collection doesn't have many available, and there are none from the year 1929.


WillShade said...

Really fantastic blog - keep posting!

Thierry Robin said...

Juste un grand MERCI !

Anonymous said...

No post since March?? Your blog is fantastic, but we need it more than once a year! I know a lot of work goes into it.

Kamilla said...

Please post more, Jeff! Far from being escapist, people need to know and appreciate this period of film and audio history, which is so little known and contains so much that is valuable, not only as entertainment but as history.

HumbleUker said...

Your site is so beautifully done. I am a ukulele player and lover of older movies. Thanks for sharing so much information and wonderful photos and vintage memorabilia.

Jules said...

Hi Jeff -

During a Google search I came across your site - I was looking for any information about my great-grandfather Frank Mylar Shaw - he was an emcee (for lack of a better term) at Coffee Dan's and in a post from 2007 you have a couple of audio recordings - "A Night At Coffee Dan's" from 1928.

You also have a couple of images posted and I was wondering if they are available publicly...? This is just about the only information I have ever seen about him, including photographs, and I would love to get ahold of anything.

I see you haven't posted anything in quite a while so I hope you get this email!

Any additional info you might have on him would be very appreciated.

Thanks -

Julie Green
(nee Julie Shaw)

Michel Ferracci-Porri said...

Dear Jeff Cohen,

Congratulations for your élégant, learned and precious site about the Story of the Music Hall , Jazz and the Great Variety
I'm Michel Ferracci-Porri, french Writer (for Biography see google), i'm writing a Irène Bordoni's Biography. ( Bravo for your very interested article about this artist made in novembre 2007 on Vitaphone Variety! ) She was born in Ajaccio (Corsica) like me, and I want found the trace of his private life. After verification aubout the administration of Ajaccio, with the collaboration with the Mayor of this city I can affirm she's not born in 1895 in this city. Have you more information about Bordoni, and if I can found the story of his private life and some original document about it.
Than'ks Dear Jeff for your friendly cooperation, if you have time.
Best regards from Paris.
Thank's dear Jeff if you can help me.
My adress e-mail : ferracci.mk@wanadoo.fr

Anonymous said...

Jeff, can i talk to you about a "Tell Me Pretty Maiden" billing poster that I have. It's exactly like the one you have on your website. Hand drawn with lithogragh, I think it maybe from 1902. Get back to me and I can send you a pic. rickdks@earthlink.net
Rick Destito from Syracuse, NY

Anonymous said...

Dear Jeff,

I'd like to quote your marvellous site in the British magazine Dance Today. However, I can't find an email address to ask for permission! It's not on your profile. Could you contact me on zoe@dancing-times.co.uk?

Many thanks,

Zoe Anderson

Anonymous said...

I wonder if Coffee Dan's is a generic thing. I can remember going to one such in San Francisco' Theater (stage) district, back in the early 1950s with my wife-to-be.

[This is just an excuse to register my hope that this wonderful site hasn't died.]


Anonymous said...

Whatever happened to this blogger? His blog was so enjoyable, I keep coming back week after week hoping he is posting again. Please resume your postings...please!

rental mobil jakarta said...

Nice article, thanks for the information.

Stacia said...

Hello Jeff -- I was just browsing through your YouTube channel and thought I'd drop in to say hi and that I hope you're doing well. Take care.

Dick said...

I just came across your site for the first time. Can only say it is teriffic! My father and grandfather were theater projectionists all their lives and I grew up in the projection booth atmosphere, (I am a senior citizen of some years). Such a shame so many of the nitrate films are now dust. Happily, at least some of the sound-on-disk recordings have survived. I hope you find the time, and material, to continue.

Anonymous said...

Well, it's now over a year later.

When is the official funeral?

Anonymous said...

I have been waiting almost two years for another entry also. Jeff's writing is concise and to the point. Someone mentioned his YOU TUBE channel but did not include his last name so we could search for it. This blog was one of the most interesting I have ever read. PLease start it again!!

Anonymous said...

Going back to an old post: Jeff had an unknown musical extract, which he titled "Manhattan Cocktail" (or something like that). Anyway, quite by accident today, I found this link:
I think the unknown selection might be "Campus Crawl" from the film THE ROAD TO RUIN.

Stacia said...

Sorry Anonymous, here's the link to the YouTube page I was talking about:


Anonymous said...

Thank you very much Stacia!

Michael Powers said...

Just saw a crystallinely clear print of "Chinatown Nights" at the Film Forum here in Manhattan last night and it was quite an experience. It's actually more intense than it would've been with only sound effects and orchestration because of one thing: Wallace Beery's powerful voice. Don't know why there wasn't more of this dialogue-looping at the dawn of sound since it offered all the visual flexibility of a silent film with dialogue, and the curious immediacy of post-recording the words lends it a peculiar impact, something Fellini realized in subsequent decades when he and many other Europeans made their movies this way. Wallace Beery's superbly nuanced performance makes this film a work of art.

Anonymous said...

okay, I'm hooked now. Will there ever be more?

Jim Freund said...

I really, really miss this blog. Any chance of its revival?

Kamilla said...

Jeff, many would like to see a continuation of this wonderful blog...or at least know how to find your facebook site if you have one.

Anonymous said...

Hi folks! Jeff can be found on Facebook on his Vitaphone Varieties page:

I also recommend: https://www.facebook.com/groups/vitaphoneproject/

Jeff and I are members there.