Sunday, December 28, 2008

The March Of Time - The unfinished MGM 1930 Musical

Let's end this year with a meaty post about one of the most fascinating projects of the early talkie era. The March Of Time, the no expenses saved MGM musical spectacular of 1930 that was to be the most grandiose of the early musical revues but for various reasons was abandoned. Not much is written about it anywhere and the sparse information given in various sources is often quite confusing or mixed up. Not surprisingly perhaps, since The March Of Time never saw the light of day. Over the last few years I have spent a great deal of time putting bits and pieces together and in this post I will try to show what The March Of Time looked like. Luckily some of the footage from it was recycled in other productions during several years after the project finally was scrapped in the summer of 1930. I have managed to track down this footage, so sit back and enjoy the ride.

When MGM released The Hollywood Revue in August 1929 they started a revue craze all the major studios came to participate in. Fox had actually been first out as The Movietone Follies of 1929 was released in April, but it was more of a musical misch-masch than a real revue as it had some sort of a dim plot. It's lost since the 1930's so there are not many people left who can give us first hand information about it so I take the liberty of ignoring it as a real revue.

The Show Of Shows was Warner’s contribution. A mammoth galaxy of stars extravaganza, mostly shot in color that opened to mixed reviews in December 1929. Universal had contracted Paul Whiteman and his orchestra for a movie project as early as October 1928. A year later Universal had finally come up with an idea for a movie. The whole band had to go west for Hollywood and The King Of Jazz, a revue built around the Whiteman orchestra. The all color revue The King Of Jazz opened in February 1930 but was a giant flop. Paramount deliberately waited to see what the other studios accomplished before taking the step making their own revue, Paramount On Parade, the last of the big revues opened in April of 1930. As Paramount had seen the mistakes made by the others their revue is probably the one that holds up best. Other studios planned or announced coming revue extravaganzas in the 1929-30 season but those mentioned above were the principal players.

As The Hollywood Revue was the first of the revues it also was the most successful. The general idea with the movie revue format was that it should be the equivalent to a Broadway Revue with new editions every year. Naturally MGM wanted to repeat the success of 1929 in 1930 and planned for a follow up. The Hollywood Revue of 1930

In this Technicolor ad published in The Film Daily Year Book 1930, released late 1929 it is mentioned as one of few coming attractions. Another interesting oddity in this ad is The Radio Revels of 1930, the RKO revue that was never made.

MGM gathered much of the same team as for the Hollywood Revue and shooting started in August 1929. Harry Rapf producing and Charles Reisner directing. Rapf had an idea to take the musical revue to the next level by making the most grandiose revue ever made. His idea was basically to make it a three-part exposé through the history of American entertainment over the past 50 years starting with classic vaudeville numbers and acts in the first part. The second part should show the stars of today and the third part the entertainment of tomorrow or up and coming stars. At this point it became clear that it wasn't going to be an ordinary revue so the name was changed to The March Of Time.

For the first part MGM contracted many classic performers including Joe Weber, Lou Fields, Louis Mann, Fay Templeton, Josephine Sabel, Marie Dressler, the 80 year old father of tap-dancing Barney Fagan and many others. The Albertina Rasch dancers did appear in massive recreations of classic ballet routines. All of this material was shot in the fall of 1929 and for many of the veteran performers it was the first and only time they stood in front of a camera. Some of this rare footage can be found in two very different productions of later date.

The first of them is a 1931 German film shot at the MGM studios as a promotional film for the German market. Actor Paul Morgan visit Hollywood and has a peek at what's going on on the different sound stages. Wir Schalten Um Auf Hollywood (We broadcast from Hollywood) was made when The March Of Time was in mid production. Originally it contained four numbers from The March Of Time but for some reason Long Ago In Alcala, sung by Ramon Novarro is missing from the print I have access to. I apologize for the bad sound and picture quality of this clip.

Luckily Ramon Novarro made a recording of Long Ago In Alcala, so let's just imagine what he looked like while hearing him sing this jolly number.

Many of the same scenes, shorter and cut a little different can be seen in Broadway To Hollywood from 1933, a movie that basically was conceived to take advantage of as much as possible of the material shot for The March of Time. However, in the final product much of it was cut.

We move on to the second part, modern day entertainment, which was mostly shot in color. Having survived from this segment are two magnificent ballets by the Albertina Rasch dancers. The first, "The Hades Ballet" was also the first footage from The March Of Time to be recycled when it was used in the Colortone short "The Devil's Cabaret", released in December 1930

The second ballet is "A Girl And A Fan And A Fellow" or "the giant fan number". A wonderfully elegant art deco number featuring Beth and Betty Dodge, or the Dodge Twins as they were called. This number can be found in a Three Stooges Colortone short called Nertesry Rhymes released in 1933.

The third surviving fragment from the middle section is probably the most mythical, and also one of the last numbers shot for The March of Time. Here we have the Dodge Twins again, this time in the perky number "The Lock Step", shot early 1930 at the brand new MGM extra high sound stage six. Sadly, only half of the number survives, found by researchers in the Technicolor lab in the mid 70's. The first part of The Lock Step number also featured Austin "Skin" Young who can be seen to the far right on this production still.

In 1934 "The Lock Step" was recycled in a Colortone short called Jailbirds Of Paradise. It was the last number to be recycled from The March Of Time. Unfortunately this short is lost today and all that is left is the following footage of the second part of the number.

The third section of The March Of Time is a bit more difficult to explain as there are several versions of what it really consisted of. At one point it was to showcase Gus Edwards Kiddie Revue as Edwards was appointed director for the whole project early on. A possible new title for the movie was also discussed, "Just Kids", but Edwards was replaced and the Kiddie Revue became a Colortone short never included in The March Of Time. The second attempt was done by the Myers-White dog troupe, as seen in Dogway Melody and several other shorts. The dogs were also lifted and finally replaced by some futuristic production numbers. A "Dance Of The Robots”and a "Steel Number" were planned but I have no liable information whether they were shot or not.

The last number that has survived to our days is the big finale that summed up the picture by connecting all three parts of the movie in a jolly sing-along, originally shot in glorious Technicolor, "The March Of Time Goes On" or "Father Time Number". It was included as a color sequence in some prints of Broadway To Hollywood mentioned earlier but is missing from all prints I have seen. However, it can naturally be found on YouTube. The quality of the clip is really bad but considering its rarity and importance it has to be included.

So what happened with The March Of Time? Why wasn't it the big hit of 1930? Apparently, it was indeed complete when shooting finished in February of 1930. But somewhere in post-production, producer Charles Reisner was getting cold feet as the musical was rapidly falling out of fashion. He ordered Rapf to "pump some story values into the picture". Rapf on the other hand was not very good at improvising and shot more songs and sketches instead. In hindsight it looks as Rapf decided to make what seemed to be random alterations and it becomes quite clear that he simply didn't know how to finish the project. The March Of Time couldn't simply be transformed into something else than a revue.

The last advertisement for The March Of Time appeared 
as late as August 1930 in Photoplay Magazine, 
weeks before the project was ultimately shelved.

In the fall of 1930 MGM simply didn't know what to do with a big budget musical that no one was interested in. I am quite convinced that the finished product that Rapf presented to MGM early in 1930 also was much of an artistic disappointment, apart from some good production numbers. MGM tried to make something else out of the $750,000 spent, but failed miserably. As Rapf frantically continued to look for a possible outcome for all the footage, MGM decided to go for salvage operations and use whatever footage that could be used in other productions culminating in Broadway To Hollywood in 1933. By that time MGM was strangely enough also planning a Hollywood Revue of 1933 as the musicals were coming back in style with a new twist. The project was quickly renamed Hollywood Party, released the following year and is a completely different story.

Let's end this post with a fine tune intended for The March Of Time. Here Comes The Sun, written by Arthur Freed and Harry Woods sung by Charles King, who possibly also would have sung it in the movie. I don't think this number ever was filmed though.

More about The March Of Time can be found at:
Jeff Cohen's Vitaphone Varieties.

Also be sure to visit Raquelle's review of:
The Hollywood Revue of 1929.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The 12" extended dance mix

Among the talkies came a little oddity...

A friend of mine had me go back on a quest to the 80's the other day. The 1980's that is, with all its artifacts. It made me think of a phenomenon very connected to this era, the 12" "maxi" single. What was that all about? I usually bought them because they sounded better than the normal 7" single, but was I happy with them? You got the hit song all right, but often you got much more than you asked for really. The classic 12" single was in most cases an over-edited version of an already perfect song. The alterations were made only to make it bigger and longer, more suitable for dancing, which basically meant you got a lot more drum machine and random samples of the normal song scattered all over the place. For a long time I was fully convinced that the dance mix was something created by New York disc jockeys at the close of the disco era, around 1980. Naturally I was wrong.

Let me prove my case. Now, let's go further back in time to a more familiar era, closer to the intentions with this blog. Let's see if we can find any special dance mixes. The erliest example I have found dates back to 1914 when the duo Harlan & Collins made the first recording of the classic Feilds/Donovan hit song Aba Daba Honeymoon.

Original 1914 sheet music cover.

At this time there were mainly two consumer formats available on the market. The shellac disc and the cylinder. The normal cylinder had a playing time of just over two minutes, which was a bit short for a song. This limitation was one of the reasons the discs were gaining in popularity over the cylinders as they often contained more music. The last form of cylinders that was developed had however a playing time of up to four minutes and was superior to the disc in sound quality. And for a brief period of time, just before the First World War, the cylinder had its last minutes of fame.

The manufacturers often had to release both a disc and a cylinder version of the same song to reach all consumers. With the extended playing time of the new cylinders the dance mix was born!
Listen to these two fine recordings of the same song with the same artists, probably recorded the same day but in different formats. We start with the normal version from a Victor disc.

The four minute version contains a lot more sound effects, bells and whistles and is of course longer, even though it's played considerably faster. It simply have all the ingredients of an extended dance mix.

It was Debbie Reynolds and Carleton Carpenter who had the biggest success with Aba Daba Honeymoon as it was featured in one of Debbie's first movies Two Weeks With Love in 1950.

For more splendid cylinders and possible dance mixes from the past, please visit The Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Favorite 20 actresses meme

I got a smack by fellow blogger Raquelle at Out Of The Past, a splendid blog you should visit at any cost. The smack consisted in participating in the ongoing 20 favorite actresses meme.

This time I will keep in line with the general purpose of my blog and stick to silent or pre-code actresses. A very tough choice indeed. There are many really fine actresses that has been left out... maybe next time ladies.

The smack from Raquelle apparently hit hard as I began to see all my favorite dames in living color. Here goes in no particular order:

Dorothy Lee

Dolores Costello

Colleen Moore

Anna May Wong

Anita Page

Gloria Swanson

Ginger Rogers

Gerda Maurus

Greta Garbo

Fay Wray

Louise Brooks

Lillian Roth

Kay Francis

Jean Harlow

Janet Gaynor

Winnie Lightner

Tutta Rolf 

Queen Norma Shearer

Marion Davies

Marie Dressler

I scribbled them all down on a peice of paper last week and comparing my scribblings with who actually made it to the list, I must mention those who didn't make it due to lack of space or pictures. Those are Joan Blondell, Charlotte Greenwood, Ethel Merman, Alice White and Joan Crawford.

I think just everyone that I know has been tagged and already made their lists.
So, tag yourselves if you fell like it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Recycling in Hollywood

This post has already been posted on my Swedish blog, but as the subject is recycling, let's recycle!

1929-30 were magical years in the world of musical movies. MGM started off with Broadway Melody, the first all talking, all singing, all dancing movie musical in February 1929.
1929 was the first ”all talking” year, silent pictures were still made but were doomed to extinction before the year came to a close. I guess one can blame the sudden death of the silents much on the musicals, they were at least implicated.

Naturally there was a backlash to this rapid change. About a year later, in the summer of 1930 the moviegoers had become totally fed up with dancing and singing. The ”all signing” fad had simply worn off. Almost no musical movies made a profit during the second half of 1930. Most of them were giant flops and the studios were losing money at an alarming pace. Still, their production schedules were filled with musicals. They had musicals in post production, musicals ready for distribution, composers working on new musicals. The market was flooded and the moviegoers growing disappointment over decreasing quality suddenly hit like a hammer. Another reason was of course the depression that slowly rolled in like bad weather.

The change came really fast and the studios were totally unprepared for this sudden turn in taste. Operation rescue set in. The movies that were ready for distribution were sent back to the cutting room to have much of their musical numbers removed.
This is one of the reasons why we have quite a few really short and pointless comedies” from this period, the music had simply been cut out. However, some of the cut numbers were turned into short subjects or saved for recycling in other productions several years later.

Here is a representative number from Children Of Pleasure, one of MGM’s spring musicals 1930, one of few musicals that left the studio unaltered this spring. The plot is typical and really simple. Lawrence Gray plays an upcoming songwriter who falls for a high brow society girl who is just playing around. He doesn't realize that his girl-Friday is the one he really loves until it is almost too late. Although he is dazzled by high society, he overhears the society girl's admission of just fooling in time to avoid marriage.

One of the numbers in the movie deserves a closer look. The song Dust, written by Fred Fisher and Andy Rice, performed by hefty contra-alto May Boley and the MGM chorus with Ann Dvorak very visible in the front.

The strangest thing with this number is that it was recycled four years later and used in the Colortone short Roast-Beef & Movies with Ted Healy and The Three Stooges, this time in color!

It wasn’t uncommon procedure to recycle numbers or use the same production number in several movies even if they hadn’t been cut in the first place. For promotional purposes short subjects sometimes also contained numbers that also were included in full length features.
The production numbers were the pop videos of this time. The most puzzling thing about the Dust number is that Children Of Pleasure didn’t include any color sequences. So why was Dust shot in color in 1930 but not used until later? I suspect that MGM at some point had planned to release Children Of Pleasure with color sequences but that something went wrong during the shooting. Normally when working with Technicolor cameras on a tight schedule a black and white safety version of the number was shot alongside, just in case.
I’m quite sure they had to use the safety footage for Children Of Pleasure. As the color version does not use the same takes or angles. I guess the first half of the number contained some major flaws which made it impossible to include it in the finished picture in 1930. For some reason the color reels were saved. Someone found that the undamaged second half of the number could be used in another context. Why not a Colortone short. Case closed?

The color version of Dust is often mistaken for ”The Hades Ballet”, one of the numbers from the abandoned The March Of Time. This is not the case. The real ”Hades Ballet” can be found in the Colortone short The Devil’s Cabaret from 1931 and is a completely different thing.

Monday, December 1, 2008

El Brendel on Mars

While reviewing some of the bizarre, often futuristic movies of the year 1930 lately, I naturally came across El Brendel in the Fox Sci-fi musical Just Imagine. Many things have been said about this strange film so I will not go in to detail about it as there’s already many blogs written about the subject.

There was however some thoughts that sprang to mind concerning El Brendel I want to share with you. When I first heard of him I immediately associated his name with the image of a crafty Mexican bandit or something, and then much to my amazement, I learned he was actually impersonating a Swede. Being a Swede myself, naturally I wanted to check him out more closely.

El Bendel, born as Elmer Goodfellow Brendel was certainly a good fellow but contrary to common belief had no Swedish connection what so ever. He was born in Philadelphia to Irish and German parents. He started out in vaudeville just before the First World War as a German dialect comedian but was soon more or less forced to develop his schtick into a character of another immigrant community which was less involved in the war. His choice was to become somewhat of a spokesperson for the many Swedes residing in the USA at this time. In fact, Chicago was the first major city in the world to include more than a million people of Swedish origins. And naturally the Swedish people took him to their hearts. He became so popular in the Swedish communities around Chicago, in Michigan and Minesota that he always had top billing up there. The New Movietone Follies of 1930 even had its title changed to "Svenson's Wild Party" in some areas as a result of his popularity. Here in Sweden he wasn't extra popular because of his (not very) Swedish accent, I guess we never even realised he was portraying one of us.

El Brendell at his best around 1930.

Another thing that I often think about when I see El Brendel, especially when he’s quiet, is how much his character reminds me of a slower and slightly less musically gifted Harpo Marx. In many ways I think they share the same manners or mannerisms. Look at this segment from Just Imagine and tell me what you think. Unfortunately the sound is very bad on this rather damaged print. (In this clip we also get an eyeful of Joyzelle Joyner mentioned earlier as the Panther Lady. This time she is Loo-Loo, the empress of Mars.)

Stacia at She Blogged By Night has written a great biography on El Brendel here.
The picture I have colorized can be found in its original form at El Brendel's blog housed by Louie.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Madam Satan (1930)

At the beginning of every decade there seems to be some sort of overconfidence in what lies ahead. I remember when the 70’s turned into the 80’s everyone was talking about ”Big Brother” and that the dystopia of George Orwell’s book soon was to become reality. On top of that computers were soon to take over our lives completely. What I want to say is that the beginning of a new decade always is looked upon as something magic and that almost every aspect of our existence soon has to go through some sort of catharsis just because of this detail.

I figure they must have experienced the same thing back in the days. Maybe that’s why there were quite a few really strange pictures made in the magic year of 1930. All of a sudden there was a need to prove the 1920’s was over, and not with a whimper. Naturally I think of Fox’s Sci-Fi musical Just Imagine and why not Warner’s almost insane musical Golden Dawn. It seems almost every studio had a really weird picture out this year. Naturally, fairly conservative studio MGM didn't want to be less spectacular than the others, and with a million dollar budget and a really big director they felt sure to stir things up.

Let’s have a look at Madam Satan, as it's quite significant for the weirdness of 1930. Cecil B. DeMille had made his name at Paramount with biblical epics like The Ten Commandments and The King Of Kings. Brought over to MGM in 1929, he was given almost complete artistic freedom. Madam Satan is his second film at MGM and his first and last attempt ever at musicals. The writing credits goes to the all female screenwriting team of Jeanie Macpherson, Elsie Janis and Gladys Unger. Wonderful deco sets by Cedric Gibbons and fantastic gowns by Adrian. Madam Satan is in fact more of a musical drama than a full blood musical and it contains very few memorable songs apart from Lillian Roth's peppy rendition of Low Down shown in an earlier post.

Lillian Roth as Trixie the temptress.

Madam Satan sets out as a bedroom farce with a lot of slamming doors and hiding under beds, and as such it's quite amusing. The story circles around the marital problems of an upper class couple. Lovelorn housewife Angela Brooks is losing the love of her husband, Bob to a wild young showgirl named Trixie. While Angela is like a bird in a cage Bob lives a double life with Trixie downtown. However, Angela has a plan to win back her husband's affections by taking on the personality of the mysterious "Madame Satan".

"Love is "a battery that needs to be recharged every day."
Kay Johnson as Madam Satan.

We are now halfway into the movie. Suddenly everything turns in to futuristic operetta. At a magnificent masquerade ball given aboard a giant dirigible, Angela entrances her husband by her modish vamping, amidst a spectacular electrical ballet in which characters simulate everything from sparkplugs to lightning bolts. Hidden behind her mask, and wrapped in an alluring gown, Angela as the devil woman will to try to seduce her unknowing husband and teach him a lesson.

Kay Johnson and Reginald Denny in "All I Know Is You're in My Arms"

After she has successfully ensnared him, the dirigible is struck by lightning, and the guests are forced to parachute from the ship. The movie now takes a new turn and all of a sudden there's a lot of commotion. The catastrophe segment also contains some of the best special effects I have ever seen in a film this old. After Angela gives her parachute to the distraught Trixie, Bob, realizing his love for Angela, gives her his parachute and dives from the ship, suffering only minor injuries by landing in the Central Park reservoir. Husband and wife are blissfully reunited.

The bizarre mix of all the above ingredients makes it quite difficult to say if Madam Satan is a good picture or not as there is nothing to compare it with. It's grandiose, high budget melodrama but as such it often misses the point. DeMille favorite Kay Johnson doesn't convince as Madam Satan. DeMille uses too much of everything just because he can. There are great moments, some good dialogue and funny situations but they are just raisins in a too heavy cake. Its clear DeMille wanted to distance himself from the kind of movies he normally did but here he's too far out on a limb.

The Swedish poster to Madam Satan "The Tricks Of A Woman"

Rumors say that many musical numbers were cut from the movie before release and that it originally included several production numbers shot in color. I don't think this is true. There were some songs that didn't make it to the final product. Color scenes may have been planned, but I believe they were never shot. If they were, they were never included in the picture at any point or even shown in public. The film couldn't possibly have run much longer than the 116 minutes of the surviving print so I believe the Madam Satan we have today pretty much is the same picture that went up in September 1930.

A curiosity perhaps, but in almost every DeMille picture there is at least one luxurious bath scene. One could easily say he had a bath-fetish. Madam Satan starts out with a caged bird taking a bath and ends up with a swim in the Central Park reservoir so I think its right to say he wanted to try new paths (or tubs) before going back to Paramount and bath scenes of more biblical proportions.

Paulette Goddard in DeMilles tub

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Alphabet Meme

I just got tagged by Jacqueline at Another Old Movie Blog to participate in an alphabet meme of favorite films. Well, it's hard to say no to such an honorable task, so here goes:

I tried my best to keep my list in line with my blog which means silent or pre-code films, but as you can see there are quite a few titles way out of that line here. The simple explanation for this is that there are movies I simply had to add because they are such total classics for me.

A - Amélie Of Montmartre (2001) - A whirlwind of pure joy.
B - Broadway Melody (1929) - The first movie musical.
C - Citizen Kane (1941) - A film that never feels dated.
D - Doctor Mabuse (1922-60) - The greatest crime story ever told.
E - 8 1/2 (1963) - A stylish stroll through the mind of its creator.
F - Fanny & Alexander (1982) - The best Swedish film to date.
G - Gold Diggers Of 1933 - You can never overdose Busby Berkeley.
H - Horse Feathers (1932) - I'm a real Marxist in the truest sense.
I - It's A Great Life (1929) - Part color musical with Lawrence Gray.
J - Jean De Florette (1986) - French cinematic gobelin tapestry.
K - Kid Millions (1934) - Eddie Cantor at his best.
L - Last Laugh, The (1924) - Jannings at his very silent best.
M - Metropolis (1927) - The greatest sci-fi epic.
N - Noah's Ark (1928) - Underrated part talkie.
O - Othello (1948) - Orson Welles again, this time with no budget.
P - Private Lives (1931) - My favorite screen couple.
Q - Queen Christina (1933) - Garbo and Gilbert a last time.
R - Rear Window (1954) - A perfect Grace in a perfect film.
S - Sunrise (1927) - Brilliant silent drama.
T - Trouble In Paradise (1932) - Pre-code at its best.
U - Un Chien Andalou (1928) - Short but strange.
V - Vertigo (1958) - Fantastic, from credits to church tower.
W - Wizard Of Oz (1939) - A true classic for all ages.
X - Doctor X (?)(1932) - Synthetic flesh anyone?
Y - Yentl (1983) - Barbra and Michel Legrand can never go wrong.
Z - Zero De Conduit(1934) - Naughty boys in France.

The origins and rules of the meme can be found at the Blog Cabin

Gosh, almost all my blogpals have already been tagged at multiple ocasions. Let's try with these three...

I hereby tag:
Ginger at Asleep In New York
Jim at Trouble In Paradise
Jonathan at Cinema Styles

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Dancing Lady (1933)

As I have pointed out earlier, many of the early talkies has never been released in any form, not even on VHS. Here is one that luckily is available to us. Dancing Lady was MGM’s run at big budget musicals inspired by Warner’s success with both 42nd Street and Gold Diggers Of 1933. I think there might be a few reasons why this particular movie has been graced with a second life on DVD. I suppose the fact that it’s the movie debut of Fred Astaire really helped. Astaire plays himself as a specialty dancer and Crawford’s partner in the final number, but as a whole he doesn’t have that much to do and doesn’t stick out at all. Maybe he also had to under do his part to level with Crawford’s somewhat limited dancing abilities compared to his excellence.

Other reasons for a DVD release? Dancing Lady is the fourth pairing of eight for Crawford and Gable, perhaps not the best, but an important one. It’s also the screen debut of Nelson Eddy. We get The Three Stooges in minor roles working as stagehands slapping around as usual, and it’s the second last movie Winnie Lightner ever did. Voilà! I think everything mentioned above (save for Winnie’s part) helped making it to DVD.

The movie is based on the novel Dancing Lady by James Warner Bellah, serialized in the Saturday Evening Post during spring 1932. The Storyline is quite simple, Crawford plays Janie Barlow, a burlesque dancer who not only struggles to succeed, but strives for success and is dreaming of making it on Broadway. She’s being pursued by a rich boyfriend, Tod Newton (Franchot Tone), but is blinded by the footlights of Broadway. The film was originally to have starred Robert Montgomery as Newton but when filming was to begin Montgomery was busy elsewhere. The Jet-setter boyfriend helps Janie out by getting her into a show directed by tough guy director Patch Gallagher (Gable) who has a rough exterior but a kind heart. His hair constantly in a mess, ranting around muttering "save it, save it!" Naturally he tries hard not to show he's softer than his appearance. When he sees Janie’s talent and perseverance, he gives her the "top spot" in his show “The Dancing Lady”. Of course, he's attracted to her, too, and she to him. But then there’s the rich boyfriend lurking in the wings. Crawford is always charming and full of pep, even though I think she sometimes looks like Garbo's twin sister, let go a little more talkative and less mysterious.

Janie (Crawford) rehearsing in front of Gallagher (Gable) for the first time. The song Dancing Lady is performed by Art Jarrett.

Dancing Lady may not be the greatest musical of the 30’s, not even the greatest musical of 1933 but I like it and it’s fun to see Gable and Crawford in action even though a musical isn’t exactly their element. There are some good songs. Notably this one, All I Have Is Yours, beautifully sung by Art Jarrett (I don't know if Crawford's humming was dubbed or not):

As a back stage musical, Dancing Lady contains very little music and dancing apart from the finale which in every way makes up for this shortcoming. It is a visually stunning, no expenses saved, feast for the eyes, containing animation, all sorts of trickery and ending up in a kaleidoscopic carousel of chorines. Swell! Easily my favorite 10 minutes of the movie. The theme for the finale is a bit strange though. Let’s Go Bavarian seems a bit over the top in the year of 1933 when Hitler came to power, Crawford in valkyrie-braids and Astaire in lederhosen is almost scary. "Here in Bavaria, we'll take good care of ya'!" Look for yourself:

High Ho! The Gang's all here! Let's have pretzels! Let's have beer!

As you can see in the above clips, Dancing Lady is visually very elaborate. Cinematographer Oliver T. Marsh deserves a mention. Marsh did quite a few of Crawford's 30's movies including Letty Lynton and Rain. I should say that the visuals are the most important quality of the movie. All the sets are very art deco from start to finish, culminating in the finale which is a mind-blowing feu d'artifice. Apart from the finale I'd like to point out another sequence I really liked. In the beginning of the movie Crawford is chasing Gable around town desperate for an audition. This is shown in a flimsy but very nice montage that brings the editing techniques of the silent era to mind. As a whole, Dancing Lady is a refreshing picture with quite a few memorable moments.

Thanks to LordWham, JozefSterkens and Liftoffgirl for the clips.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Lillian Roth and I'll Cry Tomorrow

Recently, while on a business trip to Prague I had the opportunity to watch I’ll Cry Tomorrow on the plane. Thank god for portable DVD players! The movie is based on the autobiography of Lillian Roth, one of my favorite dames of the past. A detailed biography on Lillian Roth can be found here

I’ll Cry Tomorrow is not a bad film at all. In some ways it’s almost like a female version of The Man With The Golden Arm. Very tense, dark and dramatic. Apparently Hollywood had a minor obsession with cold turkey films in the mid fifties. There were a few of those weren’t they? Anyway, Susan Heyward does a great job indeed. She even received an Oscar nomination for her interpretation. Even though I really like the movie I have a few issues with it worth mentioning.

When I see a bio-pic I want it to be somewhat realistic and placed in the correct time frame. What I find hard to digest with I'll Cry Tomorrow is that it's so firmly grounded in the mid fifties from start to finish I simply don’t get the feeling of time passing. I wonder why director Daniel Mann took this approach. If it was made to tell the story of Lillian Roth which it obviously is, the movie starts off in NYC about 1920. But you still see 50’s cars and starched skirts all around. As time definitely passes, Lillian grows older but the surroundings seems to be frozen in time. The Sing You Sinners number is turned in to a “Fosse-esque” beatnik nightclub frenzy, quite contrary to the monumental mass scene of the 1930 original.

Sing You Sinners – Original version from the movie Honey (1930)
(We don't get to see Lillian until the very end of this clip.)

It could have been easy to avoid all this confusion by naming Susan Heyward's character something like Betsy Stone instead of Lillian Roth. It would at least make more sense to me since they don't even intend to show a realistic image of the life and times of the real Lillian Roth. I'm sure it would be equally confusing for many people if someone decided to make a bio-pic about the life and work of Kurt Kobain set in the 1930's!

Lillian Roth 1930.

Another thing I thought about was the scene when Susan/Lillian have a wild party night with her soon to be husband. When they finally crash in the wee hours, and are supposed to end up in bed steaming with gin infused lust, the scene quickly cuts to the morning after. We find the love birds decently hung over, in separate beds (there’s even a table between them). They wake up flat on their backs, fully clothed, hair almost in order. The guy even has his tie in place. How believable is that? Then it struck me that this is one of the reasons I like the pre-code cinema better. In a 1932 movie this particular scene would have been very different. There would have been one bed, the lovers would have been almost naked, possibly had one of them also ended up on the floor to further emphasize the wildness of what happened during the night. But in 1955 this behaviour was not suitable. Too bad...

I end this post with one of Lillian Roths finer moments taken from Madam Satan 1930.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The first Swedish feature film in color!

Tomorrow will be grand! A newly restored print of the first Swedish feature film in color will be shown at the Swedish Film Institute as a part of the National Film Archives celebrating its 75 years. Yours truly will naturally attend this special occasion. The film, "Klockorna I Gamla Stan" (The Bells In Old Town) was shot here in Stockholm during the summer of 1946. The color system used was Cinecolor. 1946 is extremely late for a first color film, and in a two color process on top of that is almost pathetic.

The first all color full length feature was The Toll Of The Sea starring Anna May Wong, made in 1922. The first all color talkie was On With The Show which opened in february 1929. Swedish filmmakers took to sound quite quickly and the first all talking, Swedish made moving picture opened in august 1930. But color was apparently not interesting enough for us so it had to wait until 1946. Well, Klockorna I Gamla Stan is by no means a fancy film apart from an American cinematographer, James B. Shackelford who was flown in for the occation. It starrs Edvard Persson, one of Sweden's biggest stars who's carreer started its decline with this film. Persson was a jovial comic actor and singer who had been making movies since the 20's. By 1946 the Swedish movie-goers wanted newer faces and Persson approaching 60 was considered passé.

Cinecolor was an inexpensive two-color system derived from the Multicolor process used mainly for B-movies in the US. The result was apparently quite dissatifying according to period reviews. One of the critics spoke about skin tones that resembled "well fried porridge". So I guess that the Swedish audience was allready familiar with the full glory of Technicolor at this time. The story isn't that interesting either. But a first is a first.

The Theme song is quite nice though. It has a certain Italian flavor to it and Persson was indeed a great singer even though he had passed his prime. Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Mysterious Lady (1928)

“No man knew what she really was. And no man could resist her exotic beauty. A famous Russian spy, moving through the lives of men, in a maze of intrigue, passion and love. “

I just saw The Mysterious Lady starring Greta Garbo and Conrad Nagel, a splendid MGM production that originally opened in august of 1928. Here in Stockholm, Garbo’s hometown, it was released January 31st 1929. In my opinion it’s one of director Fred Niblo’s best works. Niblo is mostly known for his other Garbo movie - The Temptress, and even more so for Ben Hur with Ramon Novarro. The Mysterious Lady is beautifully photographed by William Daniels who did so many of the really stylish MGM productions during the late 20’s and early 30’s, The Kiss and Their Own Desire to name a few. The sets are naturally signed by MGM’s house designer, the magnificent Cedric Gibbons. The Mysterios Lady is more or less a run of the mill MGM production of 1928 with the exception that it was MGM’s first movie to be released with a synchronized score. MGM was the last of the big studios to be wired for sound. Some say The Mysterious Lady served as a blueprint for Mata Hari which is basically the same story.

The movie is set in pre-First World War Vienna. An Austrian Captain, Karl von Raden (Conrad Nagel) attends the opera one evening and finds himself being seated next to a woman, Tania Fedorovna (Garbo) expecting the arrival of her cousin who never comes. After the opera, Karl notices the attractive woman he sat next to now standing in the rain. She informs him that she has no money for taxi fair, so he agrees to escort her home himself. While at her apartment, they immediately embrace and have a romantic affair. They even spend the next day on a romantic outing. That evening, Karl must deliver some important plans to Berlin. Just before boarding his train, he learns that Tania is really a Russian spy. She comes to see him aboard the train, and admits that she set things up on purpose so as to meet him, but she also insists that she truly has fallen in love with him. When Karl rebuffs her coldly, she steals the plans, which leads to him being court-martialed and imprisoned. Karl's influential uncle is able to provide him with one last chance to clear his name…

I was really surprised Conrad Nagel was such a good silent actor. I haven’t seen much of his early work. He has a minimalist style I really like and one can read his small expressions like a book. I always find Garbo a bit overly theatrical with a lot of "patent expressions" and sometimes she poses more than she acts. But here she's great, and really beautiful to. Her late silents are fantastic, she never was better than in those. A funny thing struck me, when making period pictures it's always important to get costumes and hairstyles right for the period. But usually the times when the film was made always shines through in some way, don't they? In this film however, they didn’t seem to have bothered with that at all. It's set just before the First World War which sets it no later than summer 1914. But Gilbert Clark’s magnificent gowns have 1928 written all over them! Brilliant!

I just love the silent movies use of historical and litterary references sneaked in here and there to emphasize the story. This picture of Tania betraying her emperor the tzar, just like Brute betryed Ceasar.

As a whole, The Mysterious Lady is a treat indeed, very nice camera work and an all over lush feeling about it. The print I have access to is frightfully scratchy at times. I guess this is the Turner “restored” version. Well, they certainly didn’t overdo it this time. To be honest, I find it hard to spot any signs of restoration at all apart from the music. The new soundtrack by Vivek Maddala is quite pleasing, but I must make one remark. When Conrad and Greta meet at the opera, the performance they attend seems to be Puccini's Tosca. Good choice, it makes sense to the plot. I think adding some Puccini music would have been appropriate. It could have added further to the story. Conrad is repeatedly playing tunes from the Opera throughout the movie, first at Garbo's home and later at the reception when he's an undercover musician. We even get to see a glimpse of sheet music from the opera in those scenes. The theme is love and betrayal, in the Opera as well as in the movie. Furthermore, the Puccini music lies in the public domain and could be used without restrictions. I don’t know whether the original score included any Puccini music. It would have been great to have the original score as an option but maybe it didn’t survive to our times. Luckily the movie did.

Let's try a few scenes with some music from the second act of Puccini's Tosca. I think it works really well.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Dust or DVD?

We all know how hard it can be to find odd movies on DVD. Well, I must admit there are great releases both here in Europe and most notably in the US. There is however one particular period that apparently is far too odd (or far out) to get good releases on either continent. The early talkies, my pet subject almost seems to be a forgotten era all together. When described in books or by film critics the movies from this particular period is often described as static, dull, racist or simply too bad to be taken seriously. Well, I don’t agree. I think this common misconception very well may be the main reason so few of these movies are released to the public. Therefore I have made a little list of which early talkies I believe must get a general DVD release in the near future.

The Singing Fool (1928) The follow up to the Jazz Singer, a part talking, part singing, not much dancing Vitaphone triumph and one of the biggest moneymakers during the 20’s. Apparently it survives intact with both picture and sound elements in good working order. Where is the “80th anniversary special 3-disc edition” of this? It was a much bigger hit than the Jazz Singer (which has a really nice box-set, since it is considered the first talking picture). A follow up would be appropriate.

Eddie Cantor - The Goldwyn Years (1930-34) Whoopee!, Palmy Days, The Kid From Spain, Roman Scandals and Kid Millions, This bunch once was out on Laserdisc in the early 90’s but has never been released in any form since. These five films are comedy classics. They are in every way as good as the Marx Bros films of the same period. However, I know there is a problem. Eddie always has a few scenes in blackface in all of them. I guess this can be a reason not to release them in a time when everything public has to be politically correct. I am not American so I may not understand these issues completely but for Eddies sake, it was almost 80 years ago, times were different back then and Eddie proved to be a good person all his life, it’s time to honor him with a release of his best work.

Rio Rita (1929) The 1929 original 140 minute version. This was the big Christmas blockbuster of 1929 and a grandiose spectacular it was indeed. Music, song, dance and comic relief from Wheeler & Woolsey. What more can one ask for? The common version of this film is the badly cut 1932 re-release with many of the best numbers, including the Kinkajou cut. I have quite reliable information from different sources about an existing print of the 1929 European release. So a little research in that direction might give us a complete Rio Rita to feast our eyes Swell!

Follow Thru (1930) This is said to be one of the best preserved two- strip Technicolor films of this period. Follow Thru has been restored from the original negatives by the UCLA some ten years ago. This is frustrating when all you can get your hands on is a 14th generation copy of a VHS made in Japan back in 1984, you can imagine the blur. I haven’t seen the restored version since it’s only shown on remote festivals on what seems to be the other side of the world. DVD – Now!

Paramount On Parade (1930) Also a restored film which is almost intact, apart from some color footage that had to be presented in b/w. I can’t see the use in restoring a film only to keep it locked up. Sadly, Paramount On Parade is hardly ever shown at all. The restored print runs 102 minutes whether the print in circulation among collectors is a totally mutilated 77 minute (sometimes even shorter) version with no color at all made for TV in the early 50’s. Paramount On Parade also exists in different languages. It’s especially interesting for me since it’s probably the only early talkie that was made in a Swedish version. Some of the Swedish footage have survived and could serve as bonus material. I think there is existing footage from the Spanish version as well.

Glorifying The American Girl (1929) The same goes for this “milestone”. It has been restored to its former glory but is naturally collecting dust on a shelf somewhere instead of being given a second life on DVD. OK it’s not a great movie, but it has really good bits in it. We get to see what a Ziegfeld Follies extravaganza could have looked like, in color, with Ziegfeld himself supervising. In my book that is far more interesting than collecting dust in the dark, unseen by millions…

These are only a few of all the movies that could change the common point of view that the early talkies are something to forget about rather than to celebrate.
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