Thursday, May 7, 2009

The static talkie

I feel there is a talkie myth I have to kill. Almost everything written concerning the early talkies states them as static, stagy, non moving, stale or plain dull. This seems to be the common view of what an early talkie is like. Well, I don't agree. I think there lies more behind the staginess than the fact that the camera was stuck in a booth and nailed to the floor. There are of course certain films that are incredibly static and non moving because they simply were bad films, done by directors that didn't know better. But there is a particular reason for the staginess in certain pictures no one seems to think of.

The most static of them all is probably Warner's Technicolor Extravaganza The Show Of Shows from 1929. It's almost unwatchable for a modern day audience, especially since all that is left of it is a foggy black and white print made for TV in the 50's. This seemingly endless, over two hour long revue belongs to the bunch of films that didn't age well. Let's take a look at the only preserved color sequence from it that has reached the public eye. A Chinese Fantasy or "Li-Po-Li" written by Edward Ward and Al Bryan, featuring Nick Lucas and Myrna Loy.

The staginess is frightfully apparent here because it is a stage presentation that has been filmed straight up. All the big revues of 1929-30 are static seen through the eyes of the modern day spectator, but to say that the early talkies as a whole had this problem is unfair. Imagine the effect a number like this had on a 1929 audience. I guess it must have been mindblowing, and in color too!

There are quite a few movies from 1929 that are very mobile and full of movement. Cecil B DeMilles Dynamite is one example. Let's take a look at a scene from another 1929 talkie, MGM's Their Own Desire, a film that opened December 27th 1929, two days prior to The Show Of Shows. We'll see Robert Montgomery picking up Norma Shearer at a very stylish party, all set to a beautiful and catchy tune, The Night Is Blue, written by Fred Fisher.

I don't find this especially static or stagy, It could have been filmed in the 1950's if you ask me. No, I think the static staginess should be looked upon as almost a genre in itself, a style that developed during the musical craze of 1929. After all, most of the early musicals were either revues or backstage dramas.

Four months later, in April 1930 Warner's takes the genre even further in Show Girl In Hollywood where perky Alice White is lured to Hollywood to make a talkie. What we have here is a meta-film. The audience are invited on the set. Quiet! Camera! Action!

I come to the conclusion that most musicals were basically filmed theatre because Broadway shows was something everyone wanted to see at the time. Putting a Broadway show on film was also simple and economic for the studios. With sets, songs and routines already worked out, the only thing left to to was to film it. They were meant to be stagy because they should give the audience the illusion of attending a Broadway show, not a movie.

The real movie musical came a few years later with Busby Berkeley's almost psychedelic settings in 42nd street. Berkeley was the first director who saw the musical genre as something uniquely cinematographic. His production numbers were always a feast for the eye, showing the audience things that never could be experienced when sitting in the stalls at a theatre. Let's take a look at the earliest example of Berkeley's work, it's not exactly as psychedelic as his later numbers but not that static either. Stetson from Whoopee (1930) Ethel Shutta and the Goldwyn Girls are all over the place. (Thanks to Matt for the video)

Many of the earliest musicals are lovable and sweet in all their innocence and they often contains wonderful songs, some of them still sung today.
I end this post with a superb song from the wonderful 1934 movie Kid Millions. Eddie Cantor introduces Ann Sothern and George Murphy who sing the Burton Lane classic Your Head On My Shoulder. Not exactly an early talkie but an example of brilliant songwriting.


Samuel Wilson said...

You make an excellent point. I remember being quite surprised by the camerawork of The Great Gabbo simply because James Cruze filmed the numbers from angles rather than straight ahead and occasionally put his camera on the stage rather than in the audience. My expectations had been as bad as you describe. But I agree that the earliest musicals shouldn't be disparaged simply because their directors didn't imagine filming from any perspective other than that of the theater audience. By that standard, stage musicals themselves would be hopeless.

Unknown said...

These are wonderful clips! I really love the first one (a Nick Lucas song I've never heard! Swell!) I wish the Alice White song was available on CD or record, I could see that becoming a favorite!

I actually posted your Their Own Desire clip on my blog the other day and didn't know it was your youtube account until Raquelle pointed it out! :)

Louie said...

One of the films you should try to see is "Song of Love" released in 1929 by Columbia. I viewed it at Film Forum in New York 2 years ago and although it was an early talkie, the camera movements were very fluid.

Lolita of the Classics said...

A great, great, GREAT post! You've chosen really good film clips to match the text, it works perfectly!
The Chinese Fantasy sequence was really fascinating, Myrna Loy is so beautiful and relaxed in everything she does!
Alice White is too cute! I sweet little bitch, haha.
The Berkeley clip was funny too, and it shows the improvement of filming musicals. The camera is moving, the dancers don't only move sideways but uses the whole stage, and close-ups on their legs and hats.
Great, Jonas!

Jonas Nordin said...

Kate Gabrielle,
Thank you for using my clips to illustrate your posts!

Song Of Love is high on my want list. Pál Fejös's Broadway is another 1929 talkie that almost makes the viewer seasick from all the camera movement.

Thank You! Sadly none of the clips featured in the post are available on DVD.

Raquel Stecher said...

Professor Jonas smashes another myth. Well done!

I love the movement of the camera, the bodies and the lighting in that dance scene in Their Own Desire. Not stilted or staged at all!

Who knew that Myrna Loy could dance and that she was pretty light on her feet?! Swell!

Classic Maiden said...

You made some wonderful points in this post and I truly loved your choice of clips (both Show of Shows and Their Own Desire I own)

In all my exam-craziness at this time, it made me smile of nostalgia reading this post. Merci...:)

KING OF JAZZ said...

Don't we all wish to step into these movies and stay there????


Raquel Stecher said...

King of Jazz- Yes!

Jonas, I love the re-design and the gorgeous new header. :-)

KING OF JAZZ said...

That very stylish header pretty much sums up what's so magical about that era; there's hardly a graphic design from back then that doesn't enthrall me. I look through '20s ads, posters, song sheets etc, in total wonderment. Add its jazzy or bittersweet music and, well, I hope it always proves a timeless mix!

Lolita of the Classics said...

All these blog awards! But you deserve it - now you have a Friendly Blogger award! Check out your motivation for winning, and get the award picture here:

Jonas Nordin said...

Their Own Desire is also a chef d'oevre when it comes to sound recording. Douglas Shearer was the father of creative sound recording in early talkie times.

Classic Maiden,
Merci a vous aussi!

King Of Jazz,
Of course! When time machines become commercially available I'll set Hollywood 1929 as my maiden voyage! :)

Raquelle 2,
Thank you! I knew you would like it! :)

King Of Jazz 2,
Thank you! The image actually comes from a silent picture. Colleen Moore's Twinkletoes from 1926. But the image is so gorgeous I simply had to use it.

Thank you for the award! Forgive me for not passing it on since everyone I know already have been honored with it... :)
Good point! I'll try to post more often but still maintain quality :)

Keith said...

Hey there. These are wonderful clips. Great post. This is my first time visiting your blog. I really like it here. Cheers!

Jonas Nordin said...

You are welcome, enjoy the ride!

Eric said...

Elia Kazan films are a great example of old talkies that are utterly packed with emotion, tension, and volatility.

Related Posts with Thumbnails