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.
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