Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Alice White - Showgirl In Hollywood

I have mentioned Alice White several times before in my posts, so I think it's about time she had her own entry. Alice was born in Paterson, New Jersey in 1904 (some sources say she was born in 1907). Still a child when her mother died she moved to Hollywood to live with her grandmother. After college she started to work as a secretary and occasional script girl in different productions. I guess it was a job like any other. Most people living in Hollywood worked in the movie business at this time and still does. One could easily say the movie studios in Hollywood were like the steel mills or textile factories of other towns.

Alice got lucky to work as a script supervisor for well known director Josef von Sternberg in the 1926 movie A Woman Of The Sea, made for Charles Chaplin Productions. Von Sternberg eventually fired her and sent her back to the office. According to von Sternberg she wasn't serious enough for the job. I guess it was because of this incident she was sent in to have a talk with Chaplin himself. Chaplin who had a soft spot for young perky girls liked her style and thought she would do better in front of the camera than behind. Chaplin pulled some strings and got her to do bit parts in different productions starting with The Sea Tiger for First National Pictures in 1927.

In her seventh film, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1928), made for Paramount she finally got a leading role. This got her a real contract with First National who had decided they needed an "it-girl" of their own. The choice fell on Alice who indeed had much of Clara Bow's youthful pep but perhaps a little less of the "it". However, Alice's career didn't really want to take off in the silent world. Perhaps she wasn't a very good actress but she definitely had something. When Warner Bros bought the control of First National in September 1928 they decided to make Alice a talkie star. Her 15th picture, Hot Stuff (1929) was a part talkie and the 16th, Broadway Babies became her first 100% talkie. Alice White had finally found the missing part of her jigsaw puzzle. As Clara Bow's star fell with the advent of the talkies, Alice White's started to rise.

Broadway Babies was a smash! It tells the story of the "three Broadway musketeers" trying to break into showbusiness. While Alice is more interested in the showbusiness part, her two musketeer friends, played by Marion Byron and Sally Eilers, are only in it to nab rich boyfriends. Alice eventually gets her break, a wealthy potential lover and bootlegger, but naturally she also have a real sweetheart waiting in the wings. Alice finally admits her love for her sweetheart to the wealthy bootlegger, and having a big heart he releases her, clearing the way for a happy ending. Let's take a look at Alice White strutting her stuff in the final number in Broadway Babies, The song is called Broadway Baby Dolls and was written by George W. Meyer and Al Bryan:

Alice's next big musical was Showgirl In Hollywood which I have shown a clip from in my post about the static talkie. It tells the story of Dixie Dugan a Broadway showgirl who is lured to Hollywood by the empty promises of a pompous film director. Well in Hollywood she meets and becomes friends with Donny Harris (played by Blanche Sweet), a once popular film star. Dixie finally gets her break but ruins Donny's chances for a comeback. Devastated, Donnie attempts suicide but is saved. Dixie realizes her selfishness and convinces the studio bosses to "go on with the picture", for Donny's sake. Showgirl In Hollywood is in many ways a remarkable picture. It was adapted from two quite risqué novels written by J.P. McEvoy. Show Girl (1928) and Showgirl In Hollywood (1929). It was the first all talking movie which actually showed what it was like to make a talkie rather than a stage production.

With the sucess of the movie the McEvoy novel was turned into a comic strip where Dixie Dugan was modeled after Alice White's character in the movie but with Louise Brooks' hair style. The comic strip was to bacome the most well known version of the Dixie Dugan character.
Let's take a look at the final number from Showgirl In Hollywood, a sequence originally filmed in Technicolor. The clip is also interesting as it features cameo appearences from several big Warner stars of 1930. The song is Hang On To A Rainbow written by Sam H. Stept and Bud Green. Being a no expences saved movie it was decided Alice White's singing voice wasn't good enough for this picture. Therefore she was dubbed by Belle Mann, a house vocalist at Victor who did quite a few recordings with the Ben Pollack Orchestra.

Alice continued to make sucsessful talkies until 1933 when she was victim to a tabloid press scandal having alleged affairs with two men at the same time, her then boyfriend, actor Jack Warburton, and her future husband Sy Bartlett. She made occasional movie appearances until the late fifties but her days as a movie star were then long gone. Alice White left us in 1983.

Fellow blogger Jeff Cohen of The Vitaphone Varieties once described Alice White like this: "From this vantage point --- so distant to 1929, perhaps the most enjoyment that can be had in watching Alice White in her surviving early talkies is that she's so utterly unlike the vast majority of her peers. There's neither forced raucous demeanor, nor transparent attempts to appear cultured and refined that just come across as creepy --- no, she's simply herself: good, bad or indifferent. Mostly indifferent. Never seeming to quite connect with her surroundings or co-stars, or even fully understanding the lines she's speaking for that matter, Alice White defies the odds and manages to charm rather than repulse or dismay, and that's no small feat."

Saturday, May 23, 2009

My Dad - A Pioneer

Inspired by my fellow blogger Raquelle at Out Of The Past, I thought it might be a good idea to share some cool images I have of my dad. This post has nothing to do with either talkies or even films at all.

These images were taken in the summer of 1962. My dad was almost 20 years old and had just done his military service up in the north of Sweden. In the fall of '62 he was going to vocational school in Uppsala to become a confectioner. He was in the middle of what must have been his last real summer holiday.

The reason why the photos were taken is quite special. My dad was considered quite odd and daring going down town in shorts and sneakers. This was something out of the ordinary at the time, something you didn't do. Look at the other people, the women have neat little dresses and matching gloves, the appropriate attire for men was naturally a suit. Looking at these images today my dad seem very modern as his outfit fits modern times better than it did in 1962. Being a sporty character I suppose he just felt more cofortable dressed like this. In retrospect one could say he was ahead of his time.

The first picture above was taken on Kungsgatan, just outside the Stockholm Concert house, where the Nobel Price ceremony is held annually. The second image below was taken further down the road at Stureplan. I guess my dad is looking at some news paper placard, to his right we see the sign of Sturehof a well known fish restaurant still there totay.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The static talkie

I feel there is a talkie myth I have to kill. Almost everything written concerning the early talkies states them as static, stagy, non moving, stale or plain dull. This seems to be the common view of what an early talkie is like. Well, I don't agree. I think there lies more behind the staginess than the fact that the camera was stuck in a booth and nailed to the floor. There are of course certain films that are incredibly static and non moving because they simply were bad films, done by directors that didn't know better. But there is a particular reason for the staginess in certain pictures no one seems to think of.

The most static of them all is probably Warner's Technicolor Extravaganza The Show Of Shows from 1929. It's almost unwatchable for a modern day audience, especially since all that is left of it is a foggy black and white print made for TV in the 50's. This seemingly endless, over two hour long revue belongs to the bunch of films that didn't age well. Let's take a look at the only preserved color sequence from it that has reached the public eye. A Chinese Fantasy or "Li-Po-Li" written by Edward Ward and Al Bryan, featuring Nick Lucas and Myrna Loy.

The staginess is frightfully apparent here because it is a stage presentation that has been filmed straight up. All the big revues of 1929-30 are static seen through the eyes of the modern day spectator, but to say that the early talkies as a whole had this problem is unfair. Imagine the effect a number like this had on a 1929 audience. I guess it must have been mindblowing, and in color too!

There are quite a few movies from 1929 that are very mobile and full of movement. Cecil B DeMilles Dynamite is one example. Let's take a look at a scene from another 1929 talkie, MGM's Their Own Desire, a film that opened December 27th 1929, two days prior to The Show Of Shows. We'll see Robert Montgomery picking up Norma Shearer at a very stylish party, all set to a beautiful and catchy tune, The Night Is Blue, written by Fred Fisher.

I don't find this especially static or stagy, It could have been filmed in the 1950's if you ask me. No, I think the static staginess should be looked upon as almost a genre in itself, a style that developed during the musical craze of 1929. After all, most of the early musicals were either revues or backstage dramas.

Four months later, in April 1930 Warner's takes the genre even further in Show Girl In Hollywood where perky Alice White is lured to Hollywood to make a talkie. What we have here is a meta-film. The audience are invited on the set. Quiet! Camera! Action!

I come to the conclusion that most musicals were basically filmed theatre because Broadway shows was something everyone wanted to see at the time. Putting a Broadway show on film was also simple and economic for the studios. With sets, songs and routines already worked out, the only thing left to to was to film it. They were meant to be stagy because they should give the audience the illusion of attending a Broadway show, not a movie.

The real movie musical came a few years later with Busby Berkeley's almost psychedelic settings in 42nd street. Berkeley was the first director who saw the musical genre as something uniquely cinematographic. His production numbers were always a feast for the eye, showing the audience things that never could be experienced when sitting in the stalls at a theatre. Let's take a look at the earliest example of Berkeley's work, it's not exactly as psychedelic as his later numbers but not that static either. Stetson from Whoopee (1930) Ethel Shutta and the Goldwyn Girls are all over the place. (Thanks to Matt for the video)

Many of the earliest musicals are lovable and sweet in all their innocence and they often contains wonderful songs, some of them still sung today.
I end this post with a superb song from the wonderful 1934 movie Kid Millions. Eddie Cantor introduces Ann Sothern and George Murphy who sing the Burton Lane classic Your Head On My Shoulder. Not exactly an early talkie but an example of brilliant songwriting.

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