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.


Ginger Ingenue said...

Interesting, interesting stuff!

How do you know all this? :)

I feel like I'm reading the blog of a man who owns a time machine, and travels back to the 20s and 30s every afternoon just to spy on old Hollywood and report back here when ready. ;)

Anonymous said...

I don't know about him, but I'm trying to get my own time machine perfected. If it works I want to first take myself to Times Square around 1926, give or take a year! I'd bring along a discreet video camera of course. :D

Jonas Nordin said...

Haha! Step right up! Let me take you for a ride... Time travel indeed is an obsession of mine :)

King Of Jazz,
I think you'll have trouble with the video camera in 1926. People will be very curious about it. I suggest you leave it at home and try your best to blend in. It works for me... :) And how!

Anonymous said...

So, what lost films have you seen? :D

Jonas Nordin said...

Gee! You'd be surprised. Four Devils wasn't that bad :)

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

This is fascinating. At first I thought the second clip might be a hand-tinted version, but you're right, I see that it is shot from different angles. A real mystery here. Thanks for a great post, Jonas.

Raquel Stecher said...

I agree with Ginger. You are so knowledgable!

Eric Stott said...

Very nice! The color version is much better

Anonymous said...

The film "Children of Pleasure" was originally released with the color sequence intact as many reviewers of the day noted. Please check the wikipedia article for links to some film reviews which are available online through Google.

The color sequences were probably replaced with black and white in the autumn of 1930 along when the backlash against musicals began and studios began to cut musical numbers from their films. Why bother with the expense of printed color film when film audiences no longer cared?

Anonymous said...

I do not think there were any flaws with the color sequences of Children Of Pleasure. If you watch the color short from 1934 in which they were inserted (Roast Beef and Movie you will notice that the clip from "Lord Byron of Broadway" is also shortened and not presented in its full version (although this version survives). The entire sequence were James Burroughs sings the song at the beginning has been removed. The sequences were probably cut down because the short would otherwise be too long. I noticed the short is on youtube if you care to watch it.

Jonas Nordin said...

Thank you for the info on the color sequence in Children Of Pleasure. Period reviews often give information completely overlooked in later publications. This is a good example. The color sequence is not mentioned anywhere in the literature.
However, I still think it's weird the color footage (or half of it) survived in Roast-beef and Movies and other takes were used for the prints of the original feature. Are there any other examples of surviving color sequences in recycled form that for some reason has been omitted in their original feature? I doubt it.

The footage from Lord Byron may be shortened but it's still the same takes. The Dust number, however is totally different and of lesser artistic quality in the original feature than in Roast-beef And Movies. Wouldn't it have been easier to strike a b/w print of the original color footage as they did with so many other pictures?

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