Tuesday, December 8, 2009

An early talkie Christmas - Part 2

Just when we thought we had seen it all Warner Archive is releasing yet another batch of four totally brilliant early talkies to add to your wish list in the "must have" section.
The Show Of Shows (1929) was Warner's contribution to the revue craze that had begun a few months earlier with MGM's Hollywood Revue. However, this revue is probably the least magnificent of them all. It's incredibly stagy and drags on for just over two hours. All of it but the prologue was originally in color but the only color sequence still present in most prints is the Chinese Fantasy featuring Nick Lucas and Myrna Loy. I have heard rumors of more existing color footage but I have never seen any of it. Winnie Lightner's rendition of Singing In The Bathtub surrounded by a troupe of all male bathing girls is probably the most memorable number from it. So Long Letty (1929) This is a must for all of us fans of Charlotte Greenwood and it's her talkie debut. There are actually two So Long Letty movies based on the same play by Oliver Morosco and Elmer Harris. The original play opened at the Broadway Shubert Theatre in 1916. Charlotte Greenwood did Letty on stage and the role was something of a breakthrough for her. In the first movie version made in 1920, Greenwood was overlooked and the role instead went to Grace Darmond. I guess Charlotte may have been located at the east-coast at the time. The 1920 version is still very interesting as it is one of Colleen Moores earlier pictures. As far as I know it's believed to be lost, like so many other of Colleen's movies are. Both movies are pure farce. The basic plot is a wife-swapping game. Two couples are next door neighbors. Although Harry loves his sweetly domestic wife Gracie, sometimes he longs for somebody a little more festive. On the other hand, Tommy wants nothing more than a lot of well-cooked meals while his spouse, Letty would rather go dancing. The two men get together and decide they'd be better off if they switched wives and work on encouraging their better halves to get divorces. But Letty and Grace catch on to their plan and spoil it by suggesting a one-week trial. During that week, they treat their temporary husbands so abominably that the men are more than glad to have their original wives back. The 1920 version sticks fairly close to the Oliver Morosco play on which it was based. The talkie version directed by Lloyd Bacon adds a few plot twists, is slightly modernized and contains some catchy songs. Here's Charlotte in one of them, My Beauty Shop.
Let me see your bald spot - it fascinates me!
We move on to some pre-code grit with Ann Dvorak, one of our favorite pre-code actresses who just a few years earlier had been one of MGM's leading chorus girls and dance director Sammy Lee's assistant. In the spring of 1932 Ann Dvorak made three movies that definitely made her go from chorus girl to character actress. Scarface, The Crowd Roars and The Strange Love of Molly Louvain. The last of them is now finally out on DVD. Directed by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca), it is an odd story about a woman torn between different but equally bad guys. Lee Tracy is memorable as the reporter who tries to save poor Molly from the gutter.
Ann Dvorak as Molly Louvain
The best thing with Molly Louvain is the theme song written by Val Burton and Will Jason, When We're Alone or Penthouse Serenade as it often is called. An absolutely beautifully written song with clever lyrics. Please listen to this fine rendition by The Arden-Ohman Orchestra with vocal stylings by Frank Luther.
Today's last entry is They Learned About Women (1930) Real-life vaudevillians Gus Van and Joe Schenck, whose piano act carried them to fame in the Ziegfeld Follies footlights and on early-radio airwaves, headline this spirited 1930 musical that combines World Series heroics with the quest for romance (The Broadway Melody’s Bessie Love plays the female lead). This is a unique opportunity to see vaudeville veterans Van and Schenck in action. It's their only full length feature and also their last joint effort on film. Six months after the premiere Schenck died of a heart attack in Van's arms at the age of 39. During production it changed title several times like the ad below indicates. Other working titles were "Take It Big" and "Playing The Field". They Learned About Women served as blueprint for Take Me Out To The Ball Game (1949)
Publicity material for They Learned About Women
Warner's are on a roll! Will there be even more?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

An early talkie Christmas!

Today Warner Brothers announced the release of some really interesting titles in the fantastic Warner Archives series. In this latest batch we find some absolute necessities for the early talkie fan. Below I have selected seven titles I would buy at once if I resided in the US (which I don't) as the Warner Archives series is only available to film fans in the US.

The Hollywood Revue Of 1929 A very prolific movie, instrumental to the movie revue and musical craze of 1929-30. It is unique in many ways. It was the first attempt at filmed musical revue and features all your favorite MGM stars except Lon Chaney and Greta Garbo. It is also the only movie in which you get a good glimpse of Queen Norma Shearer and John Gilbert in living color. Cliff Edwards is performing the original version of Singing in the Rain, a song that was written for this film. Be sure to get a copy of it!

Next in line and equally important is the first all color talkie ever made, On With The Show! (1929) Unfortunately, all color prints are lost since long but at least the film survives intact. Among the many great songs we find Am I Blue performed by Ethel Waters.

"With unpaid actors and staff, the stage show Phantom Sweetheart seems doomed. To complicate matters, the box office takings have been robbed and the leading lady refuses to appear. Can the show be saved?"

A personal favorite I have mentioned many times on this blog. Rio Rita (1929) was the biggest hit of the 1929-30 season. This is the 1932 re-release print I wrote about in my last post, but until the original 1929, 140+ minute version resurfaces it will have to do.

Rio Rita helped put RKO on the map and paved the way for a string of no less than 22 Wheeler & Woolsey comedies between 1929 and 1937. It was much thanks to the success of those early films RKO was able to give us all the fantastic Fred & Ginger movies during the later part of the 1930's. Say thanks by getting yourself a copy of Rio Rita, the film that started it all!

We move on to two movies which both opened in December 1929. The first It's A Great Life (1929) Starring Rosetta & Vivian Duncan (in their only full length feature) and Lawrence Gray. A very typical 1929 musical including three great Technicolor sequences. Let's hope the last of them hasn't been cut like it has been on several occasions when aired on TCM.

Sally (1929) Ziegfeld superstar Marilyn Miller in her first film of three. Sally was a no expenses saved all color talkie which used the biggest indoor sets ever built to that date. Sadly the color prints are lost except for a fragment of four minutes I hope is included in this Warner Archive print.

Show Girl In Hollywood (1930) See Alice White play Dixie Dugan. A totally charming musical showing how a musical talkie was made from the inside. Don't miss it! The final reel was originally in color but now we'll have to do with Alice White in grayscale.

Golden Dawn (1930) Another all color talkie musical. Golden Dawn is probably the most bizarre musical ever made and deserves a post of its own. Set in German East Africa we get Noah Beery in blackface singing a strange song to his whip. Marion Byron beating up her beau Lee Moran etc. Good score and wonderful songs by Stothart and Hammerstein but it stays a very peculiar picture.
More on Golden Dawn soon, stay tuned...

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Cut musical numbers in 1930

The first life of the Hollywood movie musical ended in the summer of 1930. The movie goers were fed up with backstage dramas and movies built around a generous bouquet of songs. The songs could be great but plots were often thin and it was hard to tell the difference between two films. The studios were taken by surprise by this sudden change in behaviour. They were convinced they had found the ultimate form of entertainment. Something quickly had to change, it was inevitable. The musicals that were already made waiting for release were put on hold, in hope the reluctancy towards musical films would wear off. Many of the musicals in pre-production, or projects that were planned for the 1930-31 season were canceled. The most ill fated and expensive of the aborted projects was of course MGM's The March Of Time which has a post of it's own.

Some studios, most notably Warner Bros, came up with a third solution: They simply cut out as many songs as possible turning a would be musical into a comedy. Sometimes it almost worked, mostly it didn't. This is the reason many movies of this period are very short. If a 1930 movie end up with a running time of something between 60 or 70 minutes one can be quite sure there were cuts, most certainly songs.

This was the case with First National/Warner's Top Speed that opened almost songless late August 1930. Joe E. Brown and Jack Whiting play two clerks who poses as rich playboys at a swanky summer resort. (The movie was shot almost entirely at the Norconian Resort). One of them falls in love with a millionaire's daughter who has a very disapproving father, until he wins, through fate and fortune, the Big Boat Race, in the vessel owned by his sweetheart's father.

The Norconian Resort in Top Speed 1930

Top Speed had been shot as a full musical containing ten songs, some of them quite big production numbers. When it opened only three songs were left. With a running time of 73 minutes my guess is that the seven cut songs equals about 20 minutes of footage. This treatment of course paved the way for comedians like Joe E. Brown who had three musicals turned into comedy in 1930. But for other performers it was a sad experience. Singers like Bernice Claire had many of her best moments cut, ending up on the cutting room floor. Look at this very fine example of how this was carried out:
Bernice is just going to sing a fine song to her beau Jack Whiting, "As Long as I Have You and You Have Me". The music cue fades up, but just as she is about to open her mouth... Cut!

Earlier blockbusters were also tampered with at this time. Rio Rita, the big Christmas success of 1929 was re-released in 1932 in what was called a "modernized version". The modernization consisted of cut musical numbers. Rio Rita was a mammoth picture running in "massive 14 reels" which means that it had a running time of about 140 minutes. With the coming of the talkies a standard running time of 8-10 reels was quickly established. The silent movies had often been much more extravagant and extreme running times were common during the silent era. Rio Rita was one of those really extravagant movie operettas with the distinction it also was hugely successful. The earliest talkies aged very quickly, Rio Rita was no exeption. With it's rather slow pace, it had in many ways the form of a silent movie. To make this giant work wonders again something had to be done.

The missing pirate girls in the 1932 version of Rio Rita

It's been said that the cuts to Rio Rita which formed the 1932 re-release version were done by the hand of none other than David O. Selznick, but whether true or not, the fact remains that the film was slashed by somewhere between four and five reels in length, amounting to at least 40 minutes of deletions. The Rio Rita seen today is thus about two thirds of what it once was. Let's examine what we have and see if we can find any obvious cuts:

Just as the color portion begins we find one of the ugliest cuts. The anonymous singer has just finished crooning when we can see an acrobat act entering the stage. We also see a mass of chorus girls towering at the back of the stage. Cut!

Luckily most of the soundtrack to the 1929 version has survived. It's in terrible shape, but after some heavy filtering the truth emerges, the missing two and half minutes are there:

Another cut in Rio Rita is a giant production number of Sweetheart We Need Each Other. Look first at the 1932 version, just after the risque hint of male kissing both couples fall overboard... Cut!:

Then listen to what is happening on the 1929 soundtrack:

I'm positive I'm not the only one who would like to see that number.
Let's hope that 1929 original version of Rio Rita resurface some day soon. My firm belief is that it has just been replaced or mislabled, sitting on a shelf in an institution somewhere. The latest public showing of the original Rio Rita I have heard about took place around 1980.

Let's end this post with one of the three songs from Top Speed that was considered too good to cut. Laura Lee and Joe E. Brown perform Knock Knees by Al Dubin and Joseph Burke. The dance director is of course Larry Ceballos.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Mamba (1930) - Lost and Found

In the summer of 1929 poverty row studio Tiffany Pictures decided to put all their eggs in one basket when they embarked on what was to become their biggest project ever. Warner Bros had done a similar move when they went all in with the Jazz Singer in 1927. Luckily the world embraced sound with open arms and Warner's got a place in the movie studio Pantheon.

Inspired by "Warner's Supreme Triumph" Tiffany Pictures decided to go all color, all the way. They had done short subjects in Technicolor before, but never an entire feature. The only two all color talkies that had seen the flickering lights from the projectors at the time production on Mamba began were On With The Show, that had opened in July 1929, and Gold Diggers Of Broadway that opened a month later. Both were musicals. There were three more all color talkies in production or slated for release at this time, they were all musicals. Mamba was thus to be the first all talking, all color drama to be produced.

Production was cumbersome and Mamba kept running out of money. In order to fool the creditors, the production kept two sets of identical costumes available so that the cast and crew could keep working in case one set was confiscated. Production cost landed at about $500,000 which was an enormous amount for Tiffany, a studio that was used to make movies at a fifth of this cost.

Mamba is mentioned in a Technicolor ad in the May 1930 issue of Photoplay. Note that the Weeler & Woolsey movie Radio Ramblers mentioned in the ad was never shot.
(click image for a bigger view)

Appointed director Albert S. Rogell's speciality was tight action dramas and westerns, this made him well suited for the task. The main characters were played by fine actors, Danish character actor Jan Hersholt (Greed 1924), Eleanor Boardman, star of her husband King Vidor's The Crowd (1928) and British born Ralph Forbes who did lots of supporting roles at MGM both before and after Mamba. The sets were elaborate, camera work and editing very fluid and suprisingly modern. Tiffany had their connections to MGM and it showed. All in all Mamba was a swell film that clocked in at 78 minutes.

Plot: August Bolte (Hersholt), the richest man in Neu Posen, a settlement in German East Africa in the period before World War I, is called "Mamba" by the locals, which is the name of a deadly snake. Despised by the locals and the European settlers alike for his greed and arrogance, Bolte forces the beautiful daughter (Boardman) of a destitute nobleman to marry him in exchange for saving her father from ruin. Upon her arrival in Africa, she falls in love with an officer (Forbes) in the local German garrison. When World War I breaks out, Bolte, unable to avoid being conscripted, foments a rebellion among the local natives.

Mamba opened March 10, 1930 at the Gaiety Theatre in New York. It was the sixth all color talkie ever made and the first that wasn't a musical. It got great reviews, broke the box office record and ran for over two weeks, which was long in 1930. With the demise of Tiffany Pictures in 1932 Mamba quickly disappeared into oblivion for almost 80 years. Its fate wasn't helped by the fact that most of Tiffany's original nitrate prints were used as fuel in the burning of the Atlanta depot fire in Gone With The Wind. Yes, it's true, a lot of invaluable movies went up in that fire.

Mamba review in the May 1930 issue of Photoplay.
(click image for a bigger view)

Mamba was considered lost until early 2009 when my friend Paul Brennan, film assessor for events at heritage cinemas in Sydney, Australia stumbled upon an entry at the IMDb messageboard.

”I have just had the opportunity of viewing the complete 1930's Tiffany Production of Mamba… …Unfortunately, this was seen without the accompanying Vitaphone [RCA Photophone] disc soundtrack… The early two-colour Technicolor was amazingly bright and made this screening a surprisingly pleasant experience. …according to the authors of Forgotten Horrors, "only about 12 minutes of silent footage remain." I can refute this information as there exists in Australia a complete 35mm version of this film, in good condition.”

Paul contacted the author of this post and after some time he was able to verify that it was true. A complete nitrate print of Mamba was found in a collection that had been inherited by an old cinema projectionist and was now located in an old warehouse in a remote area in Australia. All nine reels were in great shape. They were even stored in original Tiffany cans. Sadly only four of the nine soundtrack records were to be found.

Why did Mamba end up in Australia of all places? There is actually a logical explanation for this, Australia (and New Zealand) was the end of the distribution line. Sometimes it took years for a movie to reach this far from Hollywood. The prints were often in bad shape or incomplete when they finally showed up. My hypothesis why Mamba survived intact is that it reached Australia quite quickly and in good shape. It had it’s run but when it was to be shipped back to Hollywood Tiffany Pictures simply had ceased to exist.

Jan Hersholt

Mamba isn’t the only presumed lost movie that has shown up in Australia. Many cinema owners were and are also film collectors. When they returned their shown films to the renting office they used to go through the scrap heap of films that weren't to be sent back to the US. Therefore many movies marked for destruction ended up in the collections of cinema owners in forgotten desert towns throughout Australia. Paul had seen this quite often and went to the press to tell this story. The result was a new rule that no films was to be destroyed but instead donated to archives in Canberra and Melbourne.

Eleanor Boardman and Ralph Forbes

Paul managed to get copies of the film elements and the remaining sound disks and sent them to me. I then synchronized the sound with the images. This wasn't an easy task. Leaving out technical details, basically when a movie is transferred to DVD the frame rate of the movie is automatically changed to comply with the standard for TV signals. With the result that in most cases the movie runs about 4% faster on a DVD than at a cinema. This gives that the separate soundtrack had to be sped up accordingly. I lined up the picture elements and the separate soundtrack reel by reel on my computer.

I immediately ran into trouble, a classic problem with the sound on disc process and also the main reason it was given up in the early thirties: If a single frame or even a sprocket hole is missing in the film strip the sound inexorably goes out of sync. On the other hand, the discs could become scratchy or break, also making the film unwatchable. I worked it through reel by reel fending eventual jumps and cuts the best I could, ending up with four full reels of Mamba magic in both sound and color.

It's not without pride I can present to you, exclusively for this blog, two snippets from Mamba, one of the earliest surviving complete all color talkies we have left.

Excerpt from reel 5

Take a close look at the editing in the following clip. I think it's rather modern looking for a movie produced in 1929!

Excerpt from reel 8

Mamba is a truly astonishing find because of the Tiffany Studio rarity and the sensational quality of the production. Also it represents the best technical qualities of the period, quite a gamble for such a small studio and its attempt to leap into A studio status.

Paul and myself naturally wants to see Mamba restored, new 35mm prints struck, the film presented at film festivals in 2010 (for its 80th anniversary) and presented as a shining fascinating example of the joys and necessities of film history restoration. Because the film is actually really exciting and well produced. It delivers the goods as a piece of spectacular entertainment, and in glorious Technicolor. It truly is a seriously terrific surprise for any public film festival audience. A prestige DVD release with all sorts of Tiffany tales and surviving studio film clips would be a great collectors piece and would add lustre to the value of film preservation and restoration. We each have a massively exciting opportunity to promote and grip the public's interest. All that is missing now is funding.

Great thanks to Bob at the ever splendid Allure for the Photoplay scans.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Colleen bobs her hair

The cover of the May 1920 issue of Saturday Evening Post
in which Fitzgerald's short story first was published

When F. Scott Fitzgerald published his short story Bernice Bobs Her Hair in the May 1920 issue of Saturday Evening Post, little did he know about the stir it would provoke. Up until this time, long, glorious, pampered hair was a key component of traditional feminine beauty. The idea of bobbed hair, which came into style after the first world war was considered scandalous and, as Bernice herself jokingly comments in the short story, even "unmoral". The fact that a simple hair cut could so upset an entire town may seem ludicrous to us now, but if we consider it in the context of the changing social period Fitzgerald lived in, it makes more sense. Long hair represented both a woman's beauty and her virtue – and bobbing one's hair simply wasn't seen as something a respectable, well-bred girl would do.

Enter the flapper. I will not turn this post into a feminist manifesto but some events were crucial for the flapper to appear like Phenix from the flames. The first world war forced the women out of the house and into society. With the right to vote - the modern woman was born. Suddenly women had an independency they never had experienced before. With this independence also came the desire to express their personalities in a new way. The women freed themselves from bustles and corsets, cumbersome attire which in many ways had been a prison sentence of about 500 years for all womanhood. Skirts went up, knees were shown and the long glorious hair was cut off.

A flapper gets a haircut.
Illustration by John Held j:r (Life Magazine, 1926)

The first actress who adopted the new style on a broad scale was Colleen Moore. She was born Kathleen Morrison 1900 (some sources say 1902) in Port Huron, Michigan. Her family later moved to Florida and that's where she grew up. The family summered in Chicago, where young Kathleen nourished her acting dreams in the company of her Aunt Lib (Elizabeth, who perhaps inspired by the times had changed her name to "Liberty" Lib for short) and her uncle Walter Howey. Howey was an important newspaper editor in the publishing empire of William Randolph Hearst, and he was the inspiration for Walter Burns, the fictional Chicago newspaper editor in the play and the 1931 Lewis Milestone film The Front Page.

Somehow uncle Walter knew D.W. Griffith and Aunt Lib had him arrange a meeting with Kathleen who had decided she wanted to go Hollywood at age 15. Griffith agreed to a screen test to see if her eyes (one brown, one blue) would photograph close enough in darkness as not to be a distraction. Her eyes passed the test, and so she left for Hollywood with her grandmother as chaperon and her mother along as well. Her name was changed to Colleen Moore and she debuted as such in The Bad Boy in 1917. Colleen was a smart girl and slowly moved up in the budding studio system. She proved to have great comic timing and got gradually bigger and better parts. Her big break came in First National's Flaming Youth (1923).

The poster for Flaming Youth (1923)

In Flaming Youth Colleen plays a vivacious flapper and had to cut her hair short to fit with the image. The idea for how it should be carried out is almost too simple to be true. In her autobiography Silent Star, published in 1968 Colleen tells us all about it. Her mother had a Japanese doll which she loved dearly and simply suggested that Colleen cut her hair to resemble it for the role as the flapper. Colleen agreed and the result is history.

Colleen Moore 1927

Flaming Youth made both Colleen Moore and her haircut overnight superstars. As important a film Flaming Youth was for the Jazz Age, as sad is the loss of it for us today. Only one reel of it is reported to exist in a vault somewhere.

Colleen Moore is one of those screen legends that is almost totally forgotten today because most of her movies are lost. Of her about 60 movies we only have a little more than a handful left to enjoy. One of them is Ella Cinders from 1926, a wonderful "modern day" Cinderella tale where Colleen makes good use of her comic talent and striking looks. Here's a clip from it. Please enjoy Collen Moore at the height of her career:

The bobbed Japanese doll haircut soon became synonymous with the flapper image and was copied by girls all over the world. One actress who took this hairstyle to another level was of course Louise Brooks, who used it to charge her appearence with allure and enigma. But she didn't bob her hair until 1926.

Louise Brooks 1929

Both Colleen Moore and Louise Brooks left their incredibly successful silent movie careers around 1930. Colleen made her last film as Hester Prynne in a poverty row production of The Scarlet Letter in 1934. She married a stock broker and learned how to invest her fortune. At the height of her fame, Moore was earning $12,500 per week. She was an astute investor, and through her investments remained wealthy for the rest of her life. Throughout her life she had a fascination for dolls (probably also their haircuts). Over the years, starting in her childhood she spent a fortune on a gigantic dollhouse, a fairy castle which still can be visited at The Museum Of Science and Industry in Chicago. In the 1960's she ran a television production company together with King Vidor. In her later years she would frequently attend film festivals, and was a popular interview subject always willing to discuss her Hollywood career. She was a participant in the 1980 documentary film series Hollywood, providing her recollections of Hollywood's silent film era. Colleen Moore left us in 1988, probably aged 87.

Louise Brooks hit the silver screen for the last time in 1938 with the forgettable western Overland Stage Riders. Contrary to popular rumor, this was not intended to be her "comeback" to Hollywood, she made it simply because she needed the money. She then opened a dance studio in Beverly Hills. It failed because of a financial scandal involving her business partner. In 1940, Brooks boarded a train back to Kansas, leaving Hollywood for good. She opened a dance studio in Wichita and wrote a book, "The Fundamentals of Good Ballroom Dancing". She later became a quite successful writer and painter. Louise Brooks left us in 1985, aged 78.

Let's end with a citation from the writer who started it all:

"I was the spark that lit up Flaming Youth, Colleen Moore was the torch. What little things we are to have caused all that trouble"
- F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The title picture of this blog is a poster for the 1927 movie Twinkletoes starring Colleen Moore.

Friday, September 25, 2009

New York Nights (1929)

New York Nights is one of those early talkies that has survived but in severely truncated form. It's hard to tell exactly what was cut but it seems to be quite a lot. The print in circulation, the 1938 re-release clocks in at a mere 64 minutes compared to a reported initial length of 82 minutes. Some sources even state it ran for a staggering 102 mins. I suspect the cuts made must have been some musical numbers from the Broadway show now only mentioned in the plot. One of the cut numbers is a cameo appearence of Al Jolson singing a number, unclear exactly what as with the rest of the cuts. In the beginning of the picture there is a nice songwriting scene also pictured on the poster above. The song performed is A Year From Today, written by Al Jolson, Dave Dreyer and Ballard McDonald. This is interesting because it is a very nice little song and the only song now present in the movie. The song is used in several different versions throughout the picture. Maybe the cut Jolson number is his rendition of his own song? Here's a little montage to show how a song was plugged in a non musical in 1929. It was important to show how versatile the song was and that it could be played in many different ways. I appologize fore the terrible sound quality: New York Nights, is a sort of gangster drama starring Norma Talmadge who definitely was one of the talkie casualties. So was her sister Constance who made some 80 silent pictures but no talkie. Norma Talmadge's fall from stardom is seldom mentioned in the litterature because her career ended for no reason. Her acting is fine, her voice is great, it just didn't work. I guess her ended career possibly can be blamed on bad scripts and bad direction. Maybe also her age played a part. In 1929 Norma Talmadge was 36 and had done 160 movies. New York Nights is her first talkie of two and she even gets to sing in it.
A Year From Today - Sheet musc cover
The story is simple... Joe Prividi (John Wray) is a mobster who happens to be backing a Broadway show. He has the hots for his leading lady, Jill Deverne (Talmadge), who only has eyes for her song-writer husband, Fred (Gilbert Roland). Prividi engineers a chorus girl into Fred's drunken arms at a speakeasy one night and arranges for a raid. Jill won't believe her husband to be innocent and she dumps him. Months later she is Prividi's mistress and after a shooting during a party is taken along with Prividi to the police station. There she discovers her husband, a down and out tramp without her. They patch up their differences and plan to escape New York to begin life anew, but Prividi has other plans for Fred...
Lilyan Tashman, Norma Talmadge and John Wray
80 years after its release, it is impossible to determine what sank this wonderful little film at the box office. But, sank it did. A promotion failure? Did the rumor mill kill it? It's clear it didn't live up to the public's expectations. The only thing I can figure about the original failure of this film is that people had a certain idea about their silent stars and, for the most part, giving them a voice just took away the magic and made them seek out new faces - Cagney, Blondell, Tracy, and Hepburn among others. Very few weathered the transition and Norma Talmadge was among the many casualties. It doesn't take much more. After one more picture, the glittering career of Norma Talmadge, a star that shone so bright would be extinguished. Her sister Constance didn't even get to make a talkie, her career ended in France with a forgettable late silent in 1929, she was 32.
Norma and Constance Talmadge
If you're a fan of the early talkies I recommend you check this one out if you get the chance. It's a rare opportunity to see Norma Talmadge in a film since so very few of her silent films survive. That's too bad since she was one of the most popular dramatic actresses of the silent era. Here's a nice and snappy version of A Year From Today played by Leo Reisman and his orchestra. The recording was made by Victor in October 1929.

Monday, August 24, 2009

To colorize or not?

It feels good to be back in business after a vacation in the tropics. I direct a heartfelt thanks to Raquelle who wrote a nice guestpost on The Trial Of Mary Dugan, Norma Shearer's first talkie during my absence. Thank you Raquelle!
Let's stay a while in 1929. This week it will be 80 years since one of the biggest hits of 1929 opened. Gold Diggers Of Broadway, the second all color talkie ever made. Now more or less a lost film as only the two last reels or about 15 minutes of it still exists. During the spring and summer of 1929 color became an indispensable ingredient for all major studios starting in july when the first all color talkie On With The Show opened to mixed reviews. Color quickly became the next big thing after sound had come to stay. At the end of 1929 this ad was published in many movie related magazines to further emphasize the importance of adding color to the movies:
(Click on image for a larger view)
Sadly, no color prints have survived of On With The Show but bits and pieces are found here and there from time to time. The latest find from it was a 20 second snippet found in a toy projector when it was sold at an auction. Luckily someone recognized the strip of film and turned it in to the UCLA. Here's a frame from the color snippet found of On With The Show Isn't it sad the first talking picture ever made in color only exists in black and white save for a 20 second snippet? The second all color talkie doesn't even exist in black and white! Let's have a look at one of those fragments from Gold Diggers Of Broadway, an absolutely charming number, make way for Nick Lucas singing his signature tune Tip Toe Through The Tulips:
The third all color talkie was Warner's giant revue The Show Of Shows which I have discussed and shown a number from earlier. Only about 10 minutes of its over two hours still exists in color.
Let's move on to the fourth, Sally, opening in December of 1929 starring Marilyn Miller, a true superstar of the 1920's who was given the opportunity to turn her legendary stage performance of 1920 into a big budget movie in both sound and Technicolor. Miller's movie career was short, Sally was her first movie of three and the olnly one shot in color. Unfortunately only four minutes of Sally's all color splendor is left for us to enjoy but those four minutes are fabulous. In this clip the color fragment has been spliced in in the otherwise black and white print. Another interesting detail is that the original soundtrack disks have been used for the color footage but not for the rest of the movie. I don't know if this was done to further enhance the magnigifence of the fragment or if the old optical soundtrack from the 1950's transfer had to stick around for economical reasons. In either case here is The Wild Rose with music by Jerome Kern. This particular scene was the largest indoor set ever built in 1929
The oldest all color talkie that has survived is the fifth, The Vagabond King, starring Jeanette MacDonald and Dennis King. It has been restored but is very rarely shown. This leads to a question which is more of a dilemma really. We are all familiar with digital colorization of classic movies. This was a quite popular fad in the late 80’s when a lot of old movies were colorized this way. I didn't like it then and don't like it now. I will always prefer the original black and white versions of these movies no matter what.

Colorized Stooges
But what about movies originally made in color where the no color prints have survived to our days? Like On With The Show or Sally. Would it be completely wrong to colorize them? I’m not sure I think so. If proper research was carried out it might actually work. Maybe the results could turn out just fine.
Let’s say there is also surviving color fragments of the movie in question, like with Sally for instance. Would it be blasphemy to colorize the rest of it in the same hues and style? I think not. A movie shot in two-strip Technicolor should naturally be colorized in the limited spectrum two-strip color offered. Every measure should of course be taken to do the colorization as close as possible to the original. When releasing colorized movies on DVD a choice should naturally always be an option for those who prefer watching the "original" version. I'm not interested in any color if the movie originally was shot in black and white. Like Casablanca for instance, I know a colorized version was made of it 20 years ago. I still don't want to see it colorized. Two-strip Technicolor movies made "full color" isn't better. It's trying to make it something it never was. My question is simply if the movie originally was made in color, like On With The Show or Sally, and where no color prints has survived to our times, could a computerized colorization be seen as some sort of restoration? I my opinion it could, if it was done with a great sense for what the original could have looked like. What do you think?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Guest Blogger Raquelle ~ The Trial of Mary Dugan (1929)

You are probably wondering where Professor Jonas has disappeared to. The self-proclaimed Talkie King is gallivanting around in exotic Thailand with his family, eating his way through the delicacies of the country and getting custom 1920's style suits fitted to his Swedish frame. Before he left, I promised Jonas that I would write a nice guest post for him to keep his blog active and so that he would have a nice little present waiting for him when he got back. Jonas recently sent me a copy of The Trial of Mary Dugan (1929), starring my favorite actress Norma Shearer so I thought I'd write about this film, as it's an important part of early talkie history. And here it is! Enjoy.
Raquelle - Out of the Past ~ A Classic Film Blog

The Trial of Mary Dugan (1929)
When you think of early talkies, musicals immediately come to mind. What better way to celebrate the marriage of light and sound on screen, than to have music, singing and dancing? In February of 1929, MGM premiered it's first all-talking picture Broadway Melody (1929). It was an extravagant film that spawned a series of sequels as well as a host of other pre-code musicals. While most hardcore film buffs know about Broadway Melody, they may not be as familiar with MGM's first all-talking dramatic film, The Trial of Mary Dugan (1929) which was released in April of 1929.

Now what doesn't come to mind when you think of early talkies is courtroom drama. But why not? A Courtroom drama is one of the best ways to take advantage of the talking picture form. The action during a trial is strictly dialogue-driven. Lawyers, judges, witnesses, jurors and defendants are all talking their way to the story's climax and resolution. While courtroom dramas were not common in silent film format, they were perfect fodder for live theater. When talking pictures became all the rave, film makers had a wealth of material in the form of plays, many of which came with a security blanket of having their own history of success.

When Paul Bern suggested making The Trial of Mary Dugan into a film, MGM Producer Irving Thalberg didn't want to take any chances. While the play had been a Broadway hit, he proceeded cautiously and had a shortened version of the film with select scenes shown to a live audience to gauge their reaction before he went full steam ahead with the film. When the audience reaction proved to be favorable, Thalberg went searching for the perfect actress to play the title role of Mary Dugan. He didn't originally have his wife, Norma Shearer, in mind although it was pretty clear that she was hungry for the part. At first Shearer's arch rival Joan Crawford was considered, but director Bayard Veiller didn't think she would suit the character's delicate nature. Thalberg suggested Shearer to Veiller and Veiller had her try out some of the dialogue on one of MGM's new sound stages. Shearer was absolutely terrified and after rehearsing one quick scene, Veiller shooed her off set. While Shearer thought she had failed, her petrified and distraught audition was just what Veiller was looking for. Mary Dugan is on trial for a murder and depending on the outcome of the case, she could either have been executed or set free. Fear and panic in her voice would be absolutely necessary to convey this on screen. So Norma Shearer was chosen and filming began.

I can't continue on with this post without talking about the sound elements of the film. Professor Jonas would wring my neck if I neglected this. The Trial of Mary Dugan was one of the first films, legendary sound and recording engineer Douglas Shearer (brother of Norma Shearer) worked on in his long career at MGM and in Hollywood. The film was shot almost simultaneously with Broadway Melody. This was also one of the few MGM films recorded with sound on discs. Throughout the movie there are breaks in the sound which serve as signals for theaters to change the records. Also, because the new sound equipment was so expensive, the film had to be shot as economically as possible. Filming only took 19 days and there were lots of long takes, few camera tricks and most of the film is shot in one courtroom.

If you are lucky enough to watch this rare film, you'll notice that MGM really experiments with sound. In one scene, an empty courtroom is suddenly flooded with loud and boisterous people. They are all excited about watching a salacious trial unfold and nearly trip over themselves to get to their seats and fill the courtroom with chaotic and raucous sound. Then the scene switches drastically to stark silence as Mary Dugan sits quietly in her jail cell waiting to be beckoned to the courtroom.

Norma Shearer brings her dramatics from her silent picture days but is a visual and aural delight in talkies. Her voice, tinged with a slight twinge of a Canadian accent, worked beautifully in talkies. If anything, her career skyrocketed when she successfully transitioned to talkies. She achieved more success in talkie form than she did with all of her silent pictures combined. The Trial of Mary Dugan helped earn Norma Shearer the title The First Lady of the Talkies.

The story of The Trial of Mary Dugan seems rather irrelevant to the film as an entity. It's main draw, at least for me, is what the film represents at a critical moment in the history of film. It showcases how film studios had to drastically change their approach to films as silent movies quickly faded into the past. These studios had to radically alter everything they did and forge ahead into unknown territory. However, what they had was the potential to make serious money as audiences were hungry for talking pictures. At this point, they could really afford to experiment and to make mistakes, because even a poor quality film, would make money simply off it's novelty. However, the film industry was still a business and they knew that they couldn't just throw money to the wind and had to make serious and clear-headed decision on those early talkies. While The Trial of Mary Dugan made $400,000 profit to Broadway Melody's $1.5 million, it was still a success and it demonstrated that MGM had a bright future in making all talking dramatic pictures.

~Raquelle for Jonas~

Thursday, July 16, 2009

A Lovely Award and vacation

I just got an award! Or two to be honest. The Lovely Blog Award was given to me by Lolita of Lolita's Classics and Louie of Give Me The Good Old Days

Thank You both! Your blogs are definitely among my favorites!

The rules: Accept the award and post it on your blog with the name of the person that gave it to you. Pass on the award to as many bloggers as you wish and let them know you chose them for the award.

As usual I'm the last one in line and everyone I know already got multiple awards, so I give this blog to all bloggers who writes about classic movies, silents, talkies, silents and talkies, film noir or particular stars of the classic era. Congratulations all of us! We make the blogosphere so much more interesting!

Right now I'm on an extended holiday in the far east, but will soon be back in business with more old news. One or two surprises might turn up during my absence though, so stay tuned.


Saturday, June 27, 2009

Sammy Lee at MGM 1929-30

It's time for a lighter post consisting of rare clips from even rarer movies. I have chosen a bunch of numbers made during the musical craze of 1929-30 featuring some of the most bizarre choreography ever to be produced on film during the early days of talking pictures. This was just before Busby Berkeley introduced a more cinematographic approach to dancing on film. The routines carried out often seems really awkward but are still very enjoyable, sometimes almost psychedelic in their craziness. The performers often had very limited dance training and the choreographers didn't always have the required experience, especially not transferring something that might have worked on stage to the screen. Usually there wasn't very much time for rehearsals and the production schedule was often very tight. One of the more experienced choreographers however, was Sammy Lee, dance director at MGM. He started his career as child dancer in one of Gus Edward's Kid acts. He came to New York to work for the great Ziegfeld and became dance director of the highly successful Ziegfeld Follies of 1927. After contributing dance routines for Ziegfeld's famous productions Rio Rita (1927), Showboat (1928) and the last of the Midnight Frolics (1929), he signed with MGM studios early in 1929. Let's start our Sammy Lee exposé with a color sequence taken from It's A Great Life one of his first movie musicals opening in December 1929. The number is The Hoosier Hop, written by Dave Dreyer and Ballard MacDonald, performed by Rosetta and Vivian Duncan. Behind them we see the MGM chorus with Ann Dvorak in pole position. Rumor has it that this specific number also was choreographed by miss Dvorak herself, even though Sammy Lee got the credit as dance director. Ann Dvorak was Lee's assistant choreographer in most MGM musicals produced between 1929-31. Let's move on to the fall of 1930 and Good News with music and lyrics by Brown, DeSylva and Henderson. Here we find Ann Dvorak again center stage. This number one of the most wonderful early talkie scenes I know. It's raw, unpolished and full of pep. The tune is a smash, there's a lot of creative cinematography that even includes a short animation sequence. Dorothy McNulty (who later changed her name to Penny Singleton) goes bezerk at Tait Collage among with her fellow students. The number is of course The Varsity Drag. Good News had its final reel, shot in Technicolor, a reel that today is missing from all known prints of the movie, making it almost impossible to show it in public. This is very sad as it is one of the better musicals made in 1930. Two weeks later saw the premiere of Love In The Rough, a golf musical starring Robert Montgomery, Dorothy Jordan, Benny Rubin and Penny Singleton (again). This time We have to look at two numbers both written by Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh. First out is Dorothy Jordan in I'm Doing That Thing (Falling In Love). Watch out for Bob Montgomery's bare legs and speciality dancer Earl "Snake Hips" Tucker in the second half of the clip. Now it's time for Robert Montgomery to both sing and dance! I'm Learning A Lot From You, a number featuring some especially funny routines from Benny Rubin and Penny Singleton. I don't believe Robert Montgomery did much more singing or dancing than this. Good choice Bob! Dorothy Jordan was cast as Honey Hale in Flying Down to Rio (1933) but backed out of the role to go on her honeymoon with Merian C. Cooper. This gave way to Ginger Rogers who got the role instead, her first with Fred Astaire. Sammy Lee was nominated twice for an academy award for best dance direction, in 1935 for "King Of Burlesque", and 1937 for "Ali Baba Goes To Town", both at 20th Century Fox. He would return to MGM after a stint at RKO (1937) and directed shorts and choreographed war time musicals. Smaller studios benefited from his talents in 1944 and 1945. During this time he choreographed Columbia's "Carolina Blues" and Republic's "Earl Carroll's Vanities" before he retired with Paramount's 1945 release, "Out Of This World". Sammy Lee's productive career spanned an impressive sixteen years in Hollywood, and gave us many of cinema's most entertaining moments! Sammy Lee left us in 1968, aged 77. Thanks to Richard Unger, who contributed with info on Sammy Lee's career.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Queen Kelly - A talkie that never was.

Much have been written about and attributed to this 1928-29 mammoth production, definitely one of the greatest productions Hollywood had seen at the time. However, it's mostly remembered for being unfinished and that it crushed at least two brilliant careers. I guess we have all heard at least one story about why it went down like the Titanic. One thing is certain, what was planned to be a fantastic queen dressed in full gala turned out a dismembered peasant in the end. I will try to give some background to this giant project and give a possible reason why it was unfinished and ended up in the darkest corner in the back yard of movie history.

Gloria Swanson and Walter Byron as Kelly and Prince Wolfram

Let's go back and have a look. What we have is this:
Joseph Kennedy (JFK's dad) was to finance a big film through Gloria Productions, a company he set up for Swanson on the FBO (Film Bookers Office) lot. Yes, Kennedy and Swanson were having an affair at the time. Both Kennedy and Swanson wanted a special project for their first collaboration together and they were both impressed by Erich von Stroheim, the brilliant Vienesse director who had made masterpieces like Greed (1924) and The Wedding March (1928). A preliminary meeting was held and at this meeting von Stroheim, who was out of work at the time told Swanson and Kennedy about an original story that had had written called The Swamp.

Gloria Swanson and Joseph Kennedy

Set in Kronberg, a fictitious 'Middle European' kingdom, the first portion of von Stroheim's screenplay tells a fairy tale-like story of an innocent convent girl, Patricia Kelly, who becomes involved with Prince Wolfram, a playboy who unbeknownst to her, is already betrothed to the reigning Queen. At first the Prince wants only to toy with Kelly, but in the course of their one evening together he sincerely falls in love with her. Unfortunately, the mad Queen Regina learns of the affair and literally flogs Kelly out of the palace. Kelly attempts suicide, but is rescued and abruptly sent to German East Africa, where her dying aunt runs a brothel. She is forced to marry a syphilitic plantation owner and eventually winds up successfully running the brothel herself, under the ironic moniker Queen Kelly.

Both Kennedy and Swanson were impressed and agreed to take on the project even though both were aware of von Stroheim's excessive and painstaking habits while filming. The Swamp was announced in July 1928.

The press releases published in the summer of 1928 show that Swanson was specifically recruited by FBO to make a sound film, and that The Swamp was envisioned from the start as at least part-talking: "Gloria Swanson's next for United Artists will have talking sequences. Voice tests are now being made and the leading man will be chosen with suitable attention to his vocal ability." This was a little tricky since United Artists who Gloria Swanson had an exclusive distributing deal with wasn't permitted to use the sound system that was going to be used by FBO-Gloria Productions.

Erich von Stroheim - Director

With a budget of $800,000, production started November 1, 1928, as a silent movie. At this stage the title was changed to Queen Kelly because everyone involved (except von Stroheim) felt that The Swamp was a bad title. Von Stroheim was a meticulous director and he would shoot thousands of feet of film and redo scenes over and over again until he felt that they were perfect. Queen Kelly was also shot in sequence, which means it was shot from start to finish, the scenes in right order. This is a very cumbersome and expensive way to make a movie and thus very rarely used.

Swanson was worried about Stroheims methods from the very beginning but since Kennedy was not concerned, she let it slide. At one point she even told her assistant that she saw this film as a child that didn't want to be born. Both von Stroheim and Swanson despised the new talking pictures but Kennedy was getting cold feet. Was it even going to be possible to release a silent film of this caliber in 1929? Kennedy imagined Queen Kelly as at least 40% talking. The director and co-producer-star were making a very long and expensive silent film while the main investor saw a talkie. There was definitely a problem here. Another problem was von Stroheim's habit of constantly changing the script, usually made to inject more explicit scenes to the picture.

Take a look at this dramatic scene where the Mad Queen Regina (Seena Owen) discovers her beloved Prince Wolfram (Walter Byron) in bed with Kelly (Gloria Swanson). This is pure Stroheim at the height of his powers and also one of the best scenes in the movie.

Filming progressed through December '28 and mid January '29 until it came time for the African sequences. It was already clear that the project would not be completed for several months because the production was going at a snails pace. It was now January 17, 1929 at a cost of $400,000. More than 200,000 feet of footage directed by von Stroheim, with little more than one-third of the scenario shot. Kennedy called for a meeting telling Swanson that they now had to convert Queen Kelly into a talking picture. Kennedy insisted on incorporating dialogue. Kennedy's views were presented by E. B. Derr, his chief of staff. Also present was Edmund Goulding, who had just written The Broadway Melody. The changes made in the script included adding scenes with "synthetic sound," that is, post-synchronized effects and vocal dubbing. Apparently von Stroheim wasn't present at this meeting.

The mad Queen flogging poor Kelly out of her palace

Some days passed. January 21, 1929. The marriage scene in the African brothel, when von Stroheim was instructing actor Tully Marshall how to dribble tobacco juice on Swanson's hand while he was kissing it, she stormed off the set, called Kennedy and demanded that the project be stopped. Kennedy arrived in Los Angeles to confer with Swanson during February 1929. They decided to shelve the project for the time being and write off the $750,000 that Kennedy had invested. An advertisement in Film Daily on 28 February stated: "Gloria Swanson, talking and singing in Queen Kelly, vitalizes the drama." There were definitely plans of making Queen Kelly a talkie, but how?

There are different views on what caused Gloria Swanson to stop the production that January day in 1929. Gloria Swanson always stuck to her version. She gives her explanation in an intervew with Dick Cavett in his TV-show aired august 3, 1970. Jump to 1:45, that's where it's getting really interesting.

While Queen Kelly was still visible on the shelf Swanson and hired sound specialist Edmund Goulding and convinced Kennedy to finance a new all-talkie to be called The Love Years, if only to give Gloria's fans something before the eventual completion of Queen Kelly that now definitely had to be turned into a talkie. This filler was written and directed quickly by Goulding and released as The Trespasser in October 1929. It became one of Swanson's biggest hits.

The Queen Kelly cast reassembled in December 1929 (without Stroheim of course) to make some singing inserts in an effort to salvage the movie by reincarnating it as a musical (I suspect it was too late even for that by this time). The musical numbers was directed by Richard Boleslawski. Film Daily now reported that "Queen Kelly, the Gloria Swanson picture shelved some time ago and lately revived for production by Pathé as an operetta, will be released through United Artists. The picture will have color treatment by Pathe multicolor method."

Kennedy thought he had commissioned Franz Lehar, the Austrian composer of The Merry Widow, to devise the music. But Lehar wrote only one song. Goulding, meanwhile, now called it quits and wanted nothing further to do with this fiasco. Then Kennedy finally walked away from what was now an $800,000 debacle. The musical version of Queen Kelly would probably have been as odd as turning Bergman's The Seventh Seal into an operetta. it simply couldn't be done. The song and musical scenes were naturally never completed or used.

Swanson continued hiring writers, technicians, and consultants to save the film. On November 24, 1931, a rewritten ending in which the Prince discovers that Kelly has successfully committed suicide by drowning was shot by cinematographer Gregg Toland and directed by no other than Irving Thalberg (whom von Stroheim had had so much trouble with before). This version was released in 1932 but only in Europe and South America due to a clause in Stroheim’s contract. The "Swanson version" had a score but no dialogue, "synthetic" or otherwise.

A scene from Queen Kelly shown in Sunset Blvd. (1950)

Queen Kelly remained unseen in the USA until a TV screening of the Swanson version in 1966, almost ten years after von Stroheim's death.
Some of the silent footage had found its way into Sunset Blvd. in 1950, where it represents the glorious stardom of Swanson's Norma Desmond, watched by her icy butler played by von Stroheim. When the fictional silent star Desmond visits the Paramount studio, she symbolically pushes an annoying mike on a boom away from her face, "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!" She conveniently ignores the fact that Queen Kelly was, from the start, probably supposed to be a talkie.

I'm quite convinced that the reason Queen Kelly didn't happen was a combination of all these things. von Stroheim had no experience in making talkies and was certainly not willing to learn. He had no intention letting talk besmirch his art and just kept on going, despite the orders from above. Swanson was certainly concerend about how much of the picture would end up on the cutting room floor but most of all I think both Swanson and Kennedy feared that Queen Kelly would become far too expensive. With the advent of sound big silent pictures was no longer making money.

Read my review of Sunset Blvd. at Raquelle's Out Of The Past - A splendid blog not to miss!

A restoration of Queen Kelly was produced by Dennis Doros of Kino International in 1985 and is available on DVD.
Related Posts with Thumbnails