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.
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