Thursday, November 27, 2014
Happy Thanksgiving from The Usual Band Of Idiots at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog!
We extend an animated top hat tip to Devon Baxter for uploading this fun 1934 opus by the Walter Lantz Studio, which has been posted on the website of comic artist/illustrator/animator/animation historian Milton Knight.
That makes one more addition to the list of Thanksgiving-themed animated cartoons which have been posted on this blog. . .
Sunday, November 23, 2014
While the series All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing! All WTF! series officially ended as of the July 1934 enforcement of the Production Code, there must be a coda on the musical short subjects of 1933-1936. The way the short subject mojo could - and did - endure after every one of those risque jokes that enlivened those naughty 1932 "Colortone Musicals" and Fleischer cartoons could no longer make it past the censors was via the Sultans Of Swing. Duke Ellington and others made history and did much to introduce jazz to a national audience.
The 1-reel musical shorts heralded the arrival of the big band era, sweeping the country via the international popularity of Louis Armstrong's recordings (with trumpet and voice, he got the ball rolling in the 1920's and began waxing pop standards in the 1930's), the mighty Earl "Fatha" Hines band's broadcasts from The Grand Terrace.
The Saturday night "Let's Dance" broadcasts featuring Benny Goodman's band would be a nationwide sensation soon after it hit the airwaves on December 1, 1934.
The demand for mini-musicals starring these exciting swing bands had arrived. Answering the call and directing big band shorts throughout the 1930's with flair and skill: Joseph Henabery at Vitaphone and Fred Waller at Paramount.
Henabery, formerly a director of silent feature films, as well as the Roscoe Arbuckle "comeback" series of talkie short subjects in 1932-1933, directed band shorts in great quantity for Vitaphone and demonstrated serious creativity in the process.
Such razor-sharp ensembles as those led by Jimmie Lunceford and Don Redman now headlined historic musical short subjects, moving the breaking of the color line along via superb musicianship. The following Vitaphone short, helmed by Henabery, stars The Don Redman Orchestra. Mr. Redman is part of a distinguished musical pedigree, carried on by his nephew, Dewey (1931-2006) and Dewey's son, Joshua.
Mr. Redman had already provided, as his colleagues Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway had, the swinging soundtrack to a classic Max Fleischer Studio cartoon.
Who was making musical short subjects for Paramount to go heads-up with the innovative band shorts from Vitaphone? Fred Waller, yes, the Fred Waller headed the special effects and photographic research departments at Paramount Studios - and later developed Cinerama. Mr. Waller got busy cranking out amazing and artful musical shorts starring the greatest bandleaders of the day. Here's an example of Waller's cinematic "hotcha razzmatazz", a.k.a. High Art On A Low Budget, starring the incomparable and dynamic entertainer-bandleader Cab Calloway (pardon the irritating "Reference Only, Duplication Prohibited" note throughout, which, while understandable, mars an otherwise beautiful film).
Calloway had already appeared in movies, making this memorable performance in one of the wackiest of Paramount features, International House, featuring W.C. Fields and other comedy greats.
After making these remarkable musical short subjects, Mr. Waller developed "Vitarama", the prototype for Cinerama, for the 1939 New York World's Fair.
And speaking of artists who retain their ability to both entertain, invigorate and inspire. The mighty Ellington, Basie and Goodman bands have more than passed the test of time, demonstrating a combo of virtuosity and prodigious energy that continues to light the way.
They, along with Jesse Owens and Joe Louis, changed the world. Sir Duke, who then as now can't be beat, gets the last word.
Saturday, November 15, 2014
"Bring along your girl. Go home with someone else's. What about your girl? She's gonna do all right." Frances Williams, Hollywood Party, 1934
"The way I like it is the way it is. You got yours - HAH! - don't worry 'bout his." James Brown, Sex Machine, 1969
Back to the wonderful world of movie musicals, not quite chronologically, we continue the story across the world in Gay Parree. In said mecca for visual artistes and jazz musicians, Josephine Baker got her two cents in about just how to headline a movie musical with panache AND star in spectacular Busby Berkeley style production numbers.
Unlike her American counterparts, from Alice White to Babs Stanwyck to Mae West to Dorothy McKaill to Ruth Chatterton to the Marx Brothers, Wheeler & Woolsey and Betty Boop, the St. Louis born entertainer, now the toast of the town in Paris, did not have to deal with the severe constraints of vigorous Production Code enforcement in the U.S.A. And to that, at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog, we, like the intrepid protagonists in the Tex Avery MGM cartoon Flea Circus, say Viva La France!
We are lucky Ms. Baker made these two films, preserving her beautiful singing voice and charisma as a young performer for future generations.
Nothing says surrealism quite like a musical number straight from the subconscious of Busby Berkeley. While André Breton and Salvador Dali, no doubt, seldom agreed on anything, both would have been okay with accepting the signature Busby Berkeley camera track through the spread legs of jaunty showgirls as a dadaist/surrealist manifesto, on the strict proviso that the chorines hailed from Paris.
After dreaming up amazing numbers for Sam Goldwyn's series of Eddie Cantor comedies, Berkeley hit "paydirt" at Warner Brothers with from the iconic 42nd Street and Gold Diggers Of 1933.
Footlight Parade starred, with musical mainstays Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler, as well as the still beloved Joan Blondell, none less than the alpha male of the Warner Brothers lot, Jimmy Cagney - a tough guy who could dance.
By the time the Hays Office, yes, that merry band spoken of today as Joseph A. Breen & The Bluenoses, were on their way to police the movies with extreme prejudice, Mr. Berkeley had to answer the question "what do you do for an encore?" as well as "how do you top the randy Warner Brothers comedy hit Convention City (not a musical per se, but jam-packed with the usual suspects)?"
Here's the Busby response: a wild "50,000 showgirls and counting" production number and "screw the Code - and you too, Mr. Breen" manifesto, just one production number from Dames, which hit the movie palaces on September 1, 1934. Beats the living daylights out of 76 Trombones.
Also from Dames, the I Only Have Eyes For You number manages to be imaginative, bizarre, a tad creepy, beautiful and oddly sweet and poignant in the same fell swoop. Besides, it's difficult for any card-carrying classic movie buff NOT to love Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell (here in his pre-Philip Marlowe and Johnny O'Clock crooner phase).
There were many more films featuring Mr. Berkeley's unique handiwork, including Fashions Of 1934, the dark, disturbing, brilliant and weirdly militaristic Lullaby Of Broadway number from Gold Diggers Of 1935, and such both over-the-top and over-the-edge (but fascinating) misfires as the Al Jolson vehicle Wonder Bar (from the Leonard Maltin review, "very strange, often tasteless musical drama set in Paris").
Seeing some of the stranger moments from Wonder Bar (we shall spare you the Goin' To Heaven On A Mule segment, arguably the most grotesque musical interlude in motion picture history, featuring racial stereotypes utterly dumbfounding even by 1934 standards), one realizes it isn't an accident that the YouTube channel devoted to the choreographer/director/mad scientist is titled Unhinged! A Busby Berkeley Collection.
While Paramount Pictures made numerous contributions to the musicals of 1929-1934, the most "paramount" ones were the continental and sophisticated Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette McDonald features, several directed by none other than Ernst Lubitsch.
Monsieur Blogmeister must grudgingly admit to having a profound soft spot in his heart for the team's third Paramount vehicle, Love Me Tonight, directed brilliantly by Rouben Mamoulian.
The opening of this film presents the sounds of everyday life, circa 1932, as a musical number featuring no singing and dancing. . . a gorgeous piece of filmmaking, as well a living snapshot of a bygone era.
Then there's the Isn't It Romantic number, which also employs these cinematic techniques.
No doubt when diva McDonald moved on to MGM to co-star with Nelson Eddy, as enjoyable as those movies (Rose Marie especially) are, they meant the end of the misbehavin' pre-Code era.
MGM's Dancing Lady starred someone who wanted to be as epic a star as Josephine Baker. Well, she did not hit the international stages as Baker did but was a movie star for the better part of five decades - headliner of numerous MGM and Warner Bros. vehicles - and, above all, survivor - Joan Crawford.
The following clips were from Dancing Lady, MGM's effort to have a movie musical hit as boffo as 42nd Street. While Diva Crawford isn't Eleanor Powell, Vera-Ellen or Ginger Rogers, she gives it her all and, by golly, her partner is Fred Astaire, always fun to watch and there to give the moviegoing audience maximum entertainment value.
RKO Radio Pictures continued its series of musicals starring the hard-working comedy team of Bert Wheeler & Robert Woolsey, often supported by the spunky and charming Dorothy Lee. While The Marx Brothers may have been the funniest and most anarchic of the comedy teams in 1928-1934, otherwise, Bert Wheeler & Woolsey practically had the wacky musical comedy genre all to themselves.
The following number is one of the saner musical moments from their 1933 "no gag too wild, no bit too tasteless, no opportunity for nose-thumbing left behind" opus Diplomaniacs.
On loan to Columbia in 1932, the team made their most pre-code of all pre-codes, So This Is Africa, a film considered so scandalous that the original cut of the risque romp was edited severely to make it acceptable for theatrical release in SEPTEMBER 1932.
A significantly pruned-down version of the film would eventually be released on April 22, 1933.
A complete print of the original cut of So This Is Africa, unfortunately, does not exist.
In the comedy team's very funny 1934 film, Hips Hips Hooray, co-starring Thelma Todd and Dorothy Lee, a famous choreographer assisted, uncredited, with the wonderfully goofy dance numbers: Hermes Pan, between gigs - he would stage and design the dance numbers for ALL NINE of RKO's Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals.
Another W&W romp, Cockeyed Cavaliers, was released theatrically on June 29, 1934, TWO DAYS before enforcement of the Production Code took effect. Hence, the lines about "dallying" and the usual Bert n' Bob risque repartee. Thelma Todd is so funny in Hips Hips Hooray and Cockeyed Cavaliers, taking advantage of a chance to demonstrate her comedienne mojo in a feature film - it's a shame her tragic and most untimely death in 1935 put an end to this felicitous onscreen relationship. Thelma is at her very best in films with W&W and Hal Roach Studios director-writer-comedian Charley Chase.
Back to Hermes Pan and a choreography throw down to Mr. Berkeley, RKO Radio Pictures followed the successful musical comedies starring Wheeler & Woolsey with an epic Busby style all talking, all singing, all dancing, all WTF extravaganza, Flying Down To Rio, no doubt given the go-ahead by producer Pandro S. Berman as the studio's direct competition to the smash hit 42nd Street.
The ersatz stars were Dolores Del Rio and Gene Raymond, but Flying Down To Rio was stolen, with the skill of a Willie Sutton robbery, from the headliners by - well, the rest is history - the elegant, facile, yet fancy high stepping by a new terpsichorean team, Broadway's Fred Astaire and the perky musical comedy gal who sang We're In The Money in pig Latin in Gold Diggers Of 1933, chorus girl turned dancer and versatile movie actress Ginger Rogers.
Mr. Blogmeister's favorite part of the film, besides the very creative filmmaking techniques of director Mark Sandrich throughout - without question, would be the showgirls standing on the wing of the flying airplane, then gyrating, doing dance moves before losing their skimpy outfits. This worthy bit of cinema history starts at 2:00.
And THAT bit of WTF wonderment leads, sad but true, to the end of this post and series: a respectful tip of Mr. Astaire's top hat to the star of George White's Scandals, ultra-wry chanteuse Frances Williams.
No, we're not talking the actress and activist by the same name, but the Broadway headliner from the 1920's through the 1940's, in possession of electric stage presence and a wit so dry as to compel Cole Porter to quaff three more shots of extra dry gin. Among other stage and vaudeville triumphs, Frances was the featured vocalist - delivering her trademark risqué songs between the wacky onstage antics of the Marx Brothers - in the Broadway run of The Cocoanuts.
None other than Frances Williams introduced the standard As Time Goes By - YES, THAT STANDARD, the one performed so beautifully by Dooley Wilson at Rick's Cafe American in Casablanca.
Frances' specialty: songs ("Let's Don't And Say We Did") that featured more double-entendres than Groucho Marx AND Bob Woolsey combined. Yep, this was one grande dame, like Lyda Roberti's "Hatta Mari" in MILLION DOLLAR LEGS, who only could have strutted her stuff in pre-Code movies.
Ms. Williams didn't appear in many films, but her few appearances, like those of Broadway star Zelma O' Neal, prove striking and memorable. These include a 1927 Vitaphone Varieties series, a film that at this writing does not exist, Broadway's Queen Of Jazz, as well as a few Paramount short subjects (including Deep "C' Melodies, On The High C's, both also featuring The Yacht Club Boys, and Let's Stay Single), shot in 1929 and 1930. A quote from her bio on All Music.com adds "none of which capture her reportedly startling stage presence".
She also made a series of recordings in 1931-1937 and would be, along with Lyda Roberti and Gertrude Lawrence, among those to perform and record music by George and Ira Gershwin.
Here's Frances, introduced and followed with extra relish by Roaring 20's legend and raconteur Texas Guinan, in the 20th Century Fox film Broadway Through A Keyhole, directed by Lowell Sherman (that guy who helmed the first Mae West starring feature, among other exploits).
This last clip is from MGM's Hollywood Party, released on June 1, 1934. It's the title number from what is a return to, and, along with the very odd, head-scratching yet entertaining Stand Up And Cheer (a.k.a. Fox Follies, mostly known as Shirley Temple's debut in feature films), the revue musical format and delivered, as always with elegance and personality, by Frances Williams.
After this, Ms. Williams made one more appearance in the rare Mentone Brevity short subject Shoes With Rhythm, returned to her métier, Broadway (Three After Three, Du Barry Was A Lady, Bright Lights Of 1944) and made a few television appearances in the early 1950's.
Alas, pretty much everything seen here, except for the Astaire-Rogers dance numbers, would be stopped with Monty Python's Flying Circus 16 TON WEIGHT on July 1, 1934, when the Production Code would be enforced, with teeth. Seeing what subsequently happened begs the question, were people in the U.S.A. outside the major metropolitan areas so dumb that they did not find the concept of Nick and Nora Charles (as Rob and Laura Petrie would on TV 30 years later) sleeping in separate beds wrong, TERRIBLY wrong? They COULDN'T HAVE BEEN. . . The mind boggles.
With that, we finish up this series, as that inimitable 1928-1934 style WTF factor, outside of such wonderful individual scenes as the inventive title number from Top Hat (bravo Mr. Sandrich and Mr. Astaire) and Busby Berkeley's return to signature way-out form, The Girl With The Tutti Frutti Hat starring Carmen Miranda, pretty much vanished from movies by 1935. The many talents of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland notwithstanding, somehow the thought of a wholesome musical directed by Busby Berkeley is something we at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog can never quite wrap our brains around.
There will be a followup piece about jazz films, in which, thanks to the musical genius of Duke Ellington and the filmmaking acumen of Fred Waller (A.K.A. the fellow who later developed Cinerama), undimmed imagination stayed intact and red-hot music made it into films. . . even well after Betty Boop's dress was lengthened to assuage the bluenoses.
Tuesday, November 04, 2014
First and foremost, this series continues with a nod to the grand poobah of All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing! All WTF! - director, choreographer and mad scientist Busby Berkeley.
After Whoopee was a huge hit, Goldwyn's musical comedy series pairing comic Eddie Cantor with Berkeley's production numbers continued with Palmy Days. This spectacular also features Charlotte Greenwood, one of the great original presences in motion pictures, who would lift the bandstand at Fox in the 1940's with her formidable comedic and terpsichorean skills.
Here's a quick intro to Ms. Greenwood, star of the Broadway show So Long Letty in 1920: a rubber-legged signature dance that gives Joe E. Brown and Leon Errol a run for their money in the Vitaphone musical short The Yacht Party, which would have been included in Part 4 of this series had it been available in its entirety.
Now the idea of a collaboration between Joe E. Brown, who co-starred with comedienne Winnie Lightner (Gold Diggers Of Broadway) in the lost early Technicolor musical Hold Everything with the wonderful Charlotte Greenwood sounds like a can't miss. Didn't happen. Neither did an MGM picture co-starring Charlotte as part of a physical comedy trifecta with Marie Dressler and Buster Keaton. . . sigh.
One could imagine Joe and Charlotte co-starring in a loose-limbed "I'll do anything that you do" production number, perhaps with Ms. Lightner also joining in to up the wackiness quotient.
Alas, such a musical comedy throw down at Warner Brothers in 1929 never happened. At least Ms. Greenwood ultimately received a good measure of enduring fame for her plum character part in Fred Zinnemann's epic 1955 adaptation of Oklahoma!
In 1930, after starring in the Warner Brothers adaptation of her stage success, So Long Letty, Ms. Greenwood signed with MGM. There, she co-starred in the farce Parlor, Bedroom & Bath, which often doesn't quite work, but includes incredibly funny scenes featuring Charlotte and Buster Keaton, as well as Bert Lahr's feature film debut, Flying High.
Added to sprightly tunes by the songwriting team of Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown and Ray Henderson (Big Boy, Good News) from the original 1930 Broadway production of Flying High: hallucinogenic production numbers choreographed by Busby Berkeley.
Getting back to Sam Goldwyn's musicals starring Eddie Cantor, it seems that all spotlight Busby Berkeley's twisted genius as much or more than the bordering-upon-naughty comedy of "Banjo Eyes".
The choreographer-director was responsible for way-out production numbers throughout Palmy Days, which are a prelude to his later wild and inspired breakthroughs at Warner Brothers. The following mixture of peppy calisthenics and pulchritude features none other than the inimitable Charlotte Greenwood herself as taskmaster/gym teacher, leading the customary gazillion gorgeous Goldwyn Girls.
Berkeley's deliriously imaginative ideas soon brought about the next spate of movie musicals at Warner Bros. (42nd Street, Gold Diggers Of 1933, Footlight Parade, Dames and many more).
At Goldwyn, that wild man Busby Berkeley would be all over The Kid From Spain, which co-stars Cantor with the hilarious Polish-American musical comedy gal and Broadway star Lyda Roberti.
In the "bizarreness and babes" department, Mr. Berkeley raised the ante with some rather amazing numbers, between inspired comedy scenes between Roberti and Cantor, in The Kid From Spain.
And then, there was Paramount Pictures. . . and Marlene Dietrich.
Hollywood had seen a flurry of German imports after World War I and through the 1920's. Most famous: arguably the top director at any studio - well, at least since Buster Keaton was no longer directing feature films as of 1930 - Ernst Lubitsch. By far the most internationally famous, celebrated, enduringly iconic and most beautifully parodied by the great comedienne Madeline Kahn? No contest - Marlene Dietrich.
Dietrich had appeared in silents and was slated to accept the role of Lulu in Pandora's Box (by some accounts, Marlene was literally sitting in director Georg Wilhelm Pabst's office and to be signed) until Louise Brooks walked out on her Paramount contract and snagged THAT part! No matter, like Brooksie, Marlene more than earned femme fatale status on and offscreen. As Lola Lola in The Blue Angel gleefully demolished all saps in her way. Having reduced stern, humorless and sexually repressed educator Emil Jannings (hoo-boy, nobody does humiliation quite like Emil) to a pathetic blubbering wreck in The Blue Angel, what, oh what could Marlene and gifted, inventive director Josef von Sternberg do for an encore?
A series of provocative and vividly memorable films - some featuring absolutely wonderful musical numbers - for Paramount Pictures, that's what!
And, to oddly link Ms. Dietrich to an endorsement by Mr. Lahr, whether it was passionate lovers or Lay's Potato Chips, in life or in art, "betcha can't have just one" became the credo. Without question, our favorite Marlene Dietrich vehicle at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog is the WTF classic Blonde Venus.
For this correspondent, a very close second to Blonde Venus would be the The Scarlet Empress.
Mae West would have killed to star in this historical epic from Marlene and von Sternberg, a.k.a. "running a country can be so much FUN."
Her favorite of the Paramount series, and a celluloid gem beloved here as well, was the last, The Devil Is A Woman one of the most unconventional, lyrical and beautifully photographed films ever made by a major Hollywood studio.
Ms. Dietrich, who began her career in silent movies, would have a six decade career as an entertainer, be tops among the most dedicated and tireless USO performers throughout World War II and afterwards make occasional appearances in movies. She chose well: Billy Wilder's classics A Foreign Affair and Witness For The Prosecution and Orson Welles' fever-dream noir A Touch Of Evil.
Returning to the early 1930's at Paramount Pictures, well move over, Marlene, there's a new gunslinging glamour gal in town . . . Mae West!
Paramount's first two starring Mae West vehicles, She Done Him Wrong and I'm No Angel, may well have brought on iron-fisted enforcement of the Production Code and the emergence of uber-bluenose Joseph Breen in 1934 by making SO much money. The films were considered to have singlehandedly brought Paramount Pictures out of bankruptcy.
It was probably just as well that Ms. West very likely didn't knew about the insanely sexy performance of her aforementioned and ultimate show-stopping signature number, "Come Up And See Me Sometime", by Lillian Roth in Paramount's film adaptation of the Broadway smash (song lyrics by B. G. De Sylva, music by Nacio Herb Brown and Richard A. Whiting) that starred Ethel Merman, Take A Chance.
In the following "as pre-Code as it gets" number, the implication is that the carnival medicine show "hoochie-coochie" dancer played by Lillian Roth practically gets buck naked for the dumbstruck yokels - of course, not before ringmaster/racket operator James Dunn personally goes out into the audience and picks their bulging pockets.
A tad more demure than the previous scorching number, but equally memorable, was Ms. Roth's rendition of Eadie Was A Lady, the song originated on Broadway by belter supreme La Merman.
Also delivering a wonderful vocal in this production number (beginning at 5:45) is Vivian Vance, in her screen debut. While remembered as comedienne and sidekick of (former Goldwyn Girl) Lucille Ball, Ms. Vance was also a terrific musician.
Seeing Vivian sing and play piano beautifully in various TV appearances makes one wish there had, just once, been an episode of The Lucy Show that bucked all early 1960's trends (other than Ernie Kovacs) and presented a musical comedy, start to finish.
Not among the more successful of the many adaptations from Broadway shows in 1930-1933, Take A Chance also featured delightful Dorothy Lee from RKO's Wheeler & Woolsey comedies and Buddy Rogers, who had previously co-starred with Nancy Carroll in several Paramount musicals. In a production number that was ultimately cut from the feature and used as a short subject, actor, vocalist and jazz trombonist Buddy Rogers delivers the following topical period piece and sermon, "New Deal Rhythm". Gotta love it when the tap dancing showgirls spell out N R A!
The third grande dame of Paramount Pictures, of course, was the reigning and future queen of the animated screen -"made of pen and ink, she will win you with a wink. Ain't she cute, boop-oop-a-doop - Sweet Betty!"
The animation of Fleischer Studios at that time was profoundly tapped into the 1931 zeitgeist, the atmosphere of New York City and an unfettered imagination.
Such ace animators as Grim Natwick, Shamus Culhane and Berny Wolf had not yet accepted offers from Disney and, along with resident facile Fleischer Studio pen-meisters Willard Bowsky, Roland "Doc" Crandall, Dave Tendlar, Seymour Kneitel and others, populated these cartoons with wonderfully weird sight gags, stunningly WTF moments and unexpectedly beautiful imagery - all much counter to The Disney Way.
With a tip of a top hat worn by both Marlene Deitrich and Charlotte Greenwood (of course, with impeccable style) to everyone mentioned in this post, this series on the inimitable all talking all singing all dancing extravaganzas of 1928-1934 tap dances onward to Part 6: the last gasps of the pre-Code movie musical.
Friday, October 31, 2014
Photo by Christopher Walters
Happy Halloween! Since the last post covered musical short subjects of the early 1930's and it wasn't possible to get ALL of them in, here, straight from the cartoon universe and the deep subconscious, is the following stunner from Fleischer Studios.
No matter how many times Mr. Blogmeister sees the following phantasmagorical cartoon, he's floored by the cinematic invention of it all. Making history as the dancing apparition: Cab Calloway.
Also pretty darn wonderful is this Aesop's Fables cartoon produced down the block from Fleischer's by the Van Beuren studio. Main characters Don & Waffles pretty much spent their entire screen career getting chased around by skeletons, goblins, ghosts and any ghoul who had a SAG card.
Many of us born at a certain time grew up watching The Dean Martin Show, which always had at least one comedian as a guest. Usually, if said comic was not Dom DeLuise, the featured comedian on Dino's variety program was the hilarious Paul Lynde.
Yes, THAT Paul Lynde, the one who repeatedly got away with flagrant censorship flaunting of the first degree inhabiting "the middle square" on The Hollywood Squares. So, submitted for your approval, here's The Paul Lynde Halloween Special, which features, among others, Margaret Hamilton, Tim Conway and Kiss.
With a big time tip of the Max Linder/Raymond Griffith top hat to the San Francisco Giants, who beat an exceptional Kansas City Royals team to win the 2014 World Series, here is the dapper Parisian himself, Max Linder in Ah Secours!, a hallucinogenic and surreal black comedy more akin to The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari than Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush - and directed by Abel Gance of Napoleon fame.
Friday, October 24, 2014
All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing! All WTF! Part 4 - Selected Short Subjects by Paul F. Etcheverry
Today's post begins with a question: what happened in 1929? Well, for starters, The Jazz Age a.k.a. Roaring Twenties ended with a thud, of more accurately, a series of dull thuds caused by Wall Street speculators and ordinary folks who lost everything jumping out of tall buildings, thus, giving new meaning to the phrase "pounding the pavement".
People up and down the society, in all walks of life, had the blues. The balm in hard times? Such virtuosos of the blues as Bessie Smith, who made her first and last silver screen appearance in a 1929 short.
Composer-bandleader-pianist Duke Ellington was also featured in a 1929 musical short subject, Black And Tan Fantasy, co-starring dancer Fredi Washington. Duke, who had recorded with The Washingtonians as early as 1924, had been developing an original and sophisticated approach to how to write and arrange for varying sizes of ensembles (from septet to orchestra), which would continue evolving and changing through his six decades in music.
In April 1930, Universal Pictures released its musical "revue" flick The King Of Jazz, starring The Paul Whiteman Orchestra, but it would be six months later, on October 25 when the real "shot around the world" of jazz on the silver screen transpired: the first appearance by an African-American band and reference to the Harlem Renaissance in a feature film, RKO Radio Pictures' Check And Double Check.
While an enormous box-office hit, this vehicle for radio stars Freeman Gosden & Charles Correll (a.k.a. "Sam & Henry", then "Amos N' Andy") and pert silent movie ingenue Sue Carol has not aged well.
A fair amount of this is because comedians Gosden and Correll, at that time and into the 1940's the biggest thing on the airwaves, appear in blackface throughout. Another reason: difficulties in translating the specific cadences and approach of radio, in which the character relationships are more fully delineated and the listener supplies the visual element, to movies.
RE: Gosden and Correll and blackface in general - the phrase "excruciatingly unfunny dialect humor" comes to mind - it frequently leaves even seasoned, seen-everything, grizzled and dyed-in-the-wool historians scratching our heads in utter bewilderment and asking repeatedly why the audiences of 1930 found THIS funny (note, for answers to that question, watch this documentary). That said, in this otherwise retrograde RKO Radio Pictures comedy, we see the future - and that future is the cutting-edge Cotton Club Orchestra!
In the "Three Little Words" number, the dubbed singing voices of The Rhythm Boys, featuring pop-sensation-to-be Bing Crosby, can also be heard. So the musical segment of Check And Double Check includes Bing and Sir Duke, dynamos who would grace numerous musical short subjects, television shows and feature films over the next four decades.
Now, musical short subjects were nothing new by the time The Singing Kid and The Broadway Melody were runaway hits. The DeForest Phono Films and Vitaphone Varieties had already played theaters well the first wave of all talking, all singing, all dancing feature films hit the neighborhood houses and metropolitan movie palaces like a showgirl-filled tidal wave in 1929.
Always interested in the latest technological advances, producer-mogul William Fox, eager to market the Movietone sound-on-film technology as the alternative to Vitaphone's sound-on-disc system, produced newsreels and comedies as early as 1927-1928 (note: for more, read Movietone's Synchronized Shorts and Features). The Fox short subjects included the Movietone Musicals series, presumably the studio's answer to the Vitaphone Varieties. One of the Fox Movietone Musicals, many of which were directed by Marcel Silver, starred Beatrice Lillie, while others included the film debuts of Ruby Keeler and Winnie Lightner.
Fox also commenced a series, beginning with musical comedy shorts, headlined by the comedy team that starred on Broadway in The Ramblers, lecherous wiseguys Bobby Clark and Paul McCullough.
The Belle Of Samoa, one of the two existing Fox short subjects of Clark & McCullough, is a musical and somewhat in the school of the "revue" films. Co-starring stage and silent movie actress Lois Moran (known for her key role in Henry King's 1925 version of Stella Dallas) and a troupe of Hawaiian dancers with the wacky comedy team, it was intended to be included in Fox Movietone Follies Of 1929, but released as a short subject instead.
Seen today, The Belle Of Samoa presents a time capsule capturing vaudeville, Broadway and burlesque - and at this juncture remains the sole existing footage shot for Fox Movietone Follies Of 1929 a.k.a. William Fox Movietone Follies Of 1929.
As the Clark & McCullough series continued, it would appear that directors Harry Sweet and Norman Taurog did not employ the musical and "revue" format again. The series of featurettes and shorts also co-starred such ubiquitous comedy supporting players as Marjorie Beebe, Florence Lake and Otto Fries.
After shooting the last of the 15 comedies for Fox, Clark & McCullough returned to Broadway to appear in George Gershwin's Strike Up The Band. Films became something the comedy team did to make a buck between their Broadway engagements.
After Vitaphone and Fox, the next studio to plunge full force into musical short subjects would be would be Paramount Pictures, in 1928. Adolph Zukor's organization hit the ground running and began making numerous tuneful 1-reelers.
The stars: everything from everything from purveyors of humorous songs The Yacht Club Boys and Borrah Minevitch & His Harmonica Rascals to such iconic performers as Sophie Tucker (soon to star in her own feature-length vehicle, Honky Tonk) and George White Scandals star Frances Williams.
Eddie Cantor, who unquestionably liked his work, starred in Paramount short subjects before and after he was headlining feature films for Sam Goldwyn.
Unfortunately, in quite a few of the early talkies from Paramount, such as A Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic, starring Eddie Cantor and a series of five short subjects featuring vaudeville and burlesque eccentric dancer/singer/dialect comic James Barton (noted in Constance Valis Hill's Tap Dancing America book), the order of the day is . . . minstrelsy, the burnt cork routine, still all the rage in entertainment when the movies made the painful transition from silents to talkies in 1926-1929. After all, Cantor's big showbiz break was his first blackface character was in Gus Edwards' Kiddie Kabaret), and, at the same time, even Bert Williams, the Trinidad-born comedy star of the Ziegfeld Follies, used the burnt cork for his movie appearances.
Even with some historical perspective regarding what was going in on the society as a whole back in those days, 85 years later, in 2014, no getting around it, that staple of vaudeville looks bad, very bad.
The second of the five James Barton 2-reelers, After Seben, plops the racism right in front of us latter-day viewers while also serving up historic footage; the dance contest that comprises the second reel features bandleader-drummer-avatar-powerhouse Chick Webb, as well as truly stellar footwork by Barton - who demonstrates the origins of the "moonwalk" - and the amazing "Shorty George" Snowden.
So strap on those industrial strength May 18, 1929 goggles tight, plunge into another time capsule and see why Bing Crosby singled out James Barton, who readers may recall from the 1948 film adaptation of William Saroyan's The Time Of Your Life as one of the top vaudeville performers, as well as why Fred Astaire extolled the terpsichorean talents of Shorty George.
Ultimately, the Paramount musical shorts start finding consistency and charm as a direct result of the rise to prominence by sprightly and original vocal groups. One of the best and brightest was The Boswell Sisters, who appeared in 1-reel musicals and Big Broadcast features for Paramount and also enthusiastically contributed their lilting yet swinging 3-part vocal harmonies to the Fleischer Studio's "Screen Song" cartoons (a.k.a. Follow The Bouncing Ball).
Hearing the Bozzies (Connee, Martha and Vet), the line that extends to Ella Fitzgerald, The Andrews Sisters, The Platters, The Four Freshmen, The Hi-Los, The Four Seasons, The Beach Boys and The Roches is obvious - and a beautiful thing.
At Vitaphone, director Roy Mack must have helmed 500 musical comedies and big band shorts, before finishing his career with some of the earliest Soundies in 1941. Since film producers who ignored the growing popularity and staying power of jazz did so at their own peril, among the dozens of musicals and band shorts Mack cranked out were historic films starring, at long last featuring legendary African-American performers as the headliners. First up, the fabulous Cora Lee Redd, featured vocalist with The Noble Sissle Orchestra (who had previously starred in a DeForest Phono Film), in this clip from That's The Spirit.
Smash Your Baggage showcases a host of incredible dancers and vocalists.
Next, a Vitaphone 1-reeler co-starring the groundbreaking singer and actress Ethel Waters with a child star who would grow up to be arguably the greatest pure entertainer of his generation, actor-dancer-singer-impressionist Sammy Davis, Jr.
Clearly desiring to corner the market on tap dancers, Vitaphone also signed teenage hoofers Hal LeRoy and Mitzi Mayfair. Ms. Mayfair, having demonstrated considerable dancing skills in her Paramount On Parade appearance at the age of 15, captured the attention of Vitaphone short subject producer Sam Sax and soon was teamed with tappin' Hal for a series of musical shorts, starting in 1931.
The plots are the same, there's absolutely zero pre-Code risque/weird WTF factor, Hal's essential dialogue is "aw shucks - let's dance", but who cares - the young duo danced with a joy that carries the day.
Any hokeyness and clubfooted acting is invariably mitigated by the sheer earnestness, enthusiasm and likability of the tap dancing stars.
One inexplicable realization is that the most peculiar of all the early 1930's mini-musicals were made by big-budget MGM, the "Tiffany" of movie studios. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer produced such Oscar-winning prestige pictures as Grand Hotel, but also were responsible for Jules White's Dogville comedies.
Actually, it shouldn't be THAT much of a shocker that the same studio that produced Cecil B. DeMille's pre-Code feature (and Exhibit A in the That's WTF department), Madam Satan, starring Kay Johnson in a goofy devil costume and, at one point in the epic's (ouch) climax, showgirls jumping out of dirigibles, also made the weirdest musicals that were not Fleischer Studio cartoons.
Producer Jack Cummings, later a key figure at MGM, directed several of the wildest 1-reel and 2-reel musicals, including this short subject, Crazy House and a bunch of hodgepodges that alternated 1929 musical numbers with wraparound segments starring Ted Healy & His Stooges. The following remains most notable for this bit of fancy dancing, completely unrelated to the rest of the film, by Earl "Snake Hips" Tucker, who lives up to his moniker and then some.
The remaining cast of Crazy House (no relation to the 1943 Universal feature starring the Helzapoppin' comedy team of Ole Olsen & Chic Johnson) also includes a motley crew of performers and comics - Cliff "Ukelele Ike" Edwards, wisecracking Benny Rubin, slapstick queen Polly Moran, Broadway comedian Gus Shy and character actors Karl Dane and (that favorite nemesis from Three Stooges and Harry Langdon comedies) Vernon Dent. Here's Crazy House, in its entirety.
Meanwhile, as the Depression wore on. . . and on. . . and on, MGM's downright bizarre 1-reel and 2-reel musical short subjects got weirder and wilder.
Some of the pre-Code bacchanals must be seen to be believed. In this clip from Wild People, the spunky and inimitable Eleanor Thatcher sings her heart out while Joyzelle Joyner prowls around the set as The Panther Lady. The supporting dancers and Joyzelle all wear wigs that would have been totally appropriate had they been able to time-travel and audition for backup singer gigs in Sly & The Family Stone 34 years later.
Over The Counter presents an unbeatable mix of veteran character actors (Franklin Pangborn), undulating showgirls, questionable taste, pointless grotesquery and the most ridiculously unsubtle phallic imagery ever seen in a motion picture. Ms. Thatcher sings "Check Your Husband" with chutzpah.
Eleanor Thatcher, the pride of Binghamton, New York, subsequently got fired by MGM and, very likely - as Buster Keaton no doubt was - kicked in the butt with a gentle "you have no talent and don't let the door hit you on the way out" insult as she left.
To some degree, due to the 21st century presence of YouTube, Eleanor got the last laugh. When Ms. Thatcher busts a move using that great wiggling riff of hers, as she does here in her third (and last) silver screen appearance in the independent "juveniles gone wild" film The Road To Ruin, it's pretty darn entertaining. Take that, MGM corporate!
All of the aforementioned material represents merely the tip of the iceberg regarding musical short subjects of the late 1920's and early 1930's. Part 5 of this series shall pay tribute to our dear celluloid pals, Busby, Ruby and Marlene - with a passing mention to the cartoon shorts that didn't make it to this post and starred Betty.