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.


Anonymous said...

Wow, I could read about this stuff forever. I'm certain that I'm the original source that supplied the finale to YouTube (I originally sent it to Jef Cohen, who posted the clip on his site), and I agree the quality is "really bad" but it was even worse before! I forgot where I got the clip from (sometime in the early '90s), but it was all in ugly green and brown discoloration. I converted it to black & white and tried valiantly to add some contrast, but as you can see it still looks like a 90th-generation dupe!

I'm really intrigued by those Alberta Rasche dancers, and did some brief research on them online. There are other clips on YouTube I believe of their work, such as 1930's "Blue Daughter of Heaven" which looks a bit like MARCH OF TIME-era material. This is tremendous stuff, and at least such clips are finding some sort of new audience.

Thanks for the wonderful year-end article! We can only hope that 2009 will reveal long hidden treasures from this era in vaults or basements. :)

Jonas Nordin said...

King Of Jazz,
I congratulate your find of the Father Time number. Where on earth did you find it? I haven't been able to locate any copies of B'way to H'wood with it included anywhere. Splendid find!

Blue Daugther Of Heaven is one of the numbers often mistaken being lifted from The March Of Time. It's the Albertina Rasch Dancers all right but is taken from Lord Byron Of Broadway, a movie that opened in February 1930, long before March Of Time was scrapped. But it still is a nice number.

Anonymous said...

Glad to help, however indirectly, to this site! I honestly don't recall who sent me the "Father Time" number, but I know it was at least fifteen years ago. Apparently it's an impossible clip to find anywhere so my humble version will have to do--I know it's mine because there's a tiny jump cut at one point where I eliminated a big jolt of static. I'm curious where this clip even originated from--an old 16mm print? A TV showing? Big mystery. I'd be thrilled to see a better print of it someday. Meanwhile, YouTube has proved an incredibly wonderous source of rare material, and I'm always mining for something I haven't seen before.

On a sidenote, a local TV station in the 1980s once routinely showed a slew of rare musicals: SHOW OF SHOWS, SUNNY SIDE UP, ON WITH THE SHOW, JUST IMAGINE etc. Lord knows how they got this stuff, but I kept my VCR busy! Since that time only JUST IMAGINE and (I think) SHOW OF SHOWS have surfaced on the Fox Movie Channel and TCM. Needless to say, I wish much more attention was paid to such early musicals through such outlets.

Raquel Stecher said...

So meaty!

This was such a superb post. Bravo Jonas! I had fun listening to the music and watching all the clips. You are a wealth of information too.

You need to write a book on early talkies. I’d buy it for sure. I can be pretty rude and will elbow any other people in my way to be the first in line for a copy.

“Musical misch-masch” Love it!

I really enjoyed the Hades Ballet clip. And Ramon Novarro singing Long Ago in Alcala (la la la la la).

Why is it that Three Stooges shorts had beautiful dance numbers squeezed in? I’ve seen two others like that.

And those are some sexy prisoners in the Lock Step!

Thanks for the link!

PIGNOUF said...

Bonne année 2009 Jonas...:)

Ginger Ingenue said...

Jonas, this is wonderful!! Again, your extensive knowledge of early Hollywood is extremely impressive, and the way you write it so well makes it fun to read, and easy to follow. :)

I can't watch the clips, because I'm on dial-up...but I did actually see 'The Lock Step' earlier tonight while watching THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT III. Reminded me of that 'Cell block Tango'(?) scene in CHICAGO.


Happy New Year, Jonas!! :)

Anonymous said...

No copies of Jailbirds of Paradise and Hello Pop are known to exist. It was deteriorated or destroyed or thrown away.

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