Tuesday, September 30, 2014
The author of Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog is a sucker for movie musicals - good, bad or jaw-droppingly bad. While the elegant and cinematic dance-athons featuring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly, Vera-Ellen and Cyd Charisse more than earned their iconic status, many of Monsieur Blogmeister's all-time favorites in the genre were a lot less sophisticated - and produced at the "crash and burn" end of The Jazz Age with fervor and delirium. Invariably, the best ones, hitting the moviegoing public at "Crash Of '29" time, appear to have been made by folks with delirium tremens from bathtub booze!
The fun started when the mini-musicals known as Vitaphone Varieties, most notably Al Jolson's screen debut in A Plantation Act, became a sensation in 1926-1927. Audiences were thrilled by the "talkie" short subjects which showcased the company's sound-on-disc system and often featured stage performers not seen before or since.
It was just a bit later when the movie musical genre got going in a big way with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's all talking, all singing, all dancing The Broadway Melody, starring silent movie mainstays Bessie Love and Anita Page with vaudeville "song and dance man" Charles King.
While state of the art at the time of its release (June 1929), compared to the elegant RKO musicals of a few years later, it's downright crude, padded with lots of unwelcome "plot" to stretch to its 100 minute running time - but fun to watch nonetheless. King in particular, although giving it his all admirably in showbiz trouper fashion, does not remind anyone of the suave Maurice Chevalier or debonair Fred Astaire.
That said, any snooty 21st century snide viewpoint, frankly, just doesn't matter. The Broadway Melody was an enormous box-office hit and won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1929.
The same MGM that could NOT figure out what to do with Buster Keaton (easily one of the greatest filmmakers ever to step behind a movie camera) sure knew how to make a buck; crank out that next musical - and make it snappy! Essential ingredients include scantily clad showgirls, insouciant flappers, warbling crooners, cheesy outfits, cheesier sets, stories involving backstage hijinx and, most of all, glorious 2-strip Technicolor!
Nobody could sell a song quite like the stars of It's A Great Life (1929), The Duncan Sisters.
So many MGM musicals were cranked out in 1929-1930, the studio didn't even release all of them. One, "The March Of Time", was deemed unreleasable and stayed on the shelf, but its costly production numbers got spun off into a bunch of short subjects. One doozy of a musical number is The Lockstep, a.k.a. Fun With Incarceration, starring the perky Dodge Sisters.
More really odd all singing all dancing bits from The March Of Time ended up as the "Colortone" series (more showgirls! skimpier outfits! more indescribably bizarre production numbers!)
A surprising amount of the 2-strip Tech footage from The March Of Time survived, but other segments, including this clip of 80 year old tap dancer Barney Fagan, star of 19th century vaudeville, only exist in black and white.
Curiously and even more incongruously (and truly in the WTF tradition), the remaining March Of Time production numbers got incorporated into an MGM 2-reeler series starring slapstick comedians Ted Healy & His Stooges and eccentric dancer Bonny Bonnell.
Just how production numbers featuring showgirls dressed as giant airplanes work with Moe, Larry, Curly and wiseguy Ted Healy. . . that we still don't know (note: Warner Archive is releasing all of the MGM Healy-Stooges 2-reelers, including Nertsery Rhymes, Beer and Pretzels, The Big Idea and Hello Pop, a lost film until 2013, on DVD).
Meanwhile, The Broadway Melody made so many Brinks trucks overflowing with dough-re-me (2.8 million bucks) for MGM that, in the immortal words of Jimmy Durante "everyone got into the act". Soon, EVERYBODY was producing 2-strip Technicolor all talking, all singing, all dancing musical extravaganzas. And if B-studios couldn't afford color, they made musicals in black and white!
Warner Brothers, hot off Jolson's box office smashes, signed Broadway sensation and Ziegfeld Follies star Marilyn Miller to star in Sally and Sunny - and also produced On With The Show, Gold Diggers Of Broadway and Show Girl In Hollywood.
Show Girl In Hollywood featured the irrepressible Alice White.
Known as The Princess Of Pep, who starred in the lost 1928 SILENT version of Gentleman Prefer Blondes, she epitomized these early talkies.
While never a virtuoso singer, show-stopping dancer or Jeanne Eagels style dramatic actress, Ms. White oozed more "IT" factor, fun and joie de vivre than any movie star other than Clara Bow - and was perfect for musicals.
So, instead of the legendary Marilyn Miller, it would be Alice White who became the queen of early talkie musicals at Warner Brothers.
Not unlike lovable Dorothy Lee from RKO's Bert Wheeler & Robert Woolsey features, Alice had personality to spare.
Alas, a series of unfortunate offscreen incidents put the kibbosh on Ms. White's stardom pretty darn quickly, well before rigorous Production Code enforcement commenced as of July 1, 1934.
The Alice White story is a bit reminiscent of the song by a cappella group The Bobs with the lyrics "first I was a hippie, then I was a stockbroker, now I am a hippie again." She was a secretary who became a movie star, then returned to being a secretary, only briefly un-retiring to work in television.
From her co-starring role with Joe E. Brown in the Damon Runyon-esque A Very Honorable Guy to her last appearances in Flamingo Road (with Joan Crawford) and The Ann Sothern Show, 1929's Princess Of Pep made the most of whatever opportunities she got, invariably demonstrating chutzpah, genuine likability and charm - whether a headliner, featured player or merely making a cameo.
Now don't get the blogmeister wrong here - by all means, quite a few positively dreadful attempts at this kind of movie were produced in 1928-1930. Some are amazingly bad. The movie musical that practically sunk the genre for Warner Brothers, at least until 42nd Street brought it back in a big way in 1932, was one of the all-time stinkers, Golden Dawn.
Golden Dawn was adapted from a popular 1927 stage hit, but still provides the answer to the question, "what if Edward D. Wood, Jr. had a budget for an A-picture, made a pro-colonialist musical set in Africa AND starred Noah Beery in blackface?
Could the great stage and screen comedian/acrobat Lupino Lane, straight from his winning supporting parts in The Love Parade and Bride Of The Regiment, save the reeking celluloid disaster? No.
Could spirited "comic relief" sequences delivered with gusto by Lane and his fellow silent movie comics Marion "Peanuts" Byron and Lee Moran save this 60 pound "Butterball" of a golden turkey? Nope - not even with the moviegoing audiences of 1930.
Concurrent with all of the above in 1929-1930 were a spate of "review" pictures, which trotted pretty much everyone under contract to a given studio to sing, dance, crack jokes, recite Shakespeare or participate in skits. Every studio made 'em, with varying results - and they will be the topic of Part 2 in this series.
Acknowledgements: YouTube poster who goes by the name of Miss Vitaphone, who has been diligently posting numerous way-out numbers from the musicals of 1928-1930 on her YouTube channel. THANK YOU, MISS VITAPHONE, whoever you are! And thanks to Ron Hutchinson and the superb historians of The Vitaphone Project for their hard work in making the historic Vitaphone Varieties available for viewing after 80+ years.
Thursday, September 25, 2014
Our 800th post at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog spotlights the EYE Project and the EYE Film Institute Netherlands, one of the globe's truly indispensable archives and research centers.
From the epic EYE Film Institute film collection, quite a few wonderful reels have been chosen for restoration.
Partnering in this restoration is the National Film Preservation Foundation (a.k.a. NFPF), which has helped to preserve more than 2,135 films in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.
There were quite a few amazing finds, especially comedies, in the New Zealand collection restoration, completed in 2013, now available on the Lost & Found: American Treasures From The New Zealand Archives DVD.
It is not a big surprise to that this time around, quite a few more rare silent comedies are in the mix. Among the EYE Film Institute film collection rarities chosen for preservation: classic slapstick short subjects starring the wonderfully over-the-top comediennes Alice Howell and Louise Fazenda, a very early silver screen appearance of Mickey Rooney (in the third Mickey McGuire comedy released), a farce produced in 1915 by Thanhouser Film Corporation and one of the very few surviving entries from the ultra-rare World War I era "Universal Joker" series.
Animation buffs will love the fact that a Happy Hooligan cartoon directed by Gregory La Cava and a long lost Fleischer Studio "Out Of The Inkwell" cartoon are on the to-be-preserved cue.
EYE Project: Films Slated for Preservation in 2014
The Backyard (Jimmy Aubrey Productions, Vitagraph Company of America, 1920)
This is just one among numerous Vitagraph Pictures, Joe Rock Productions and Weiss Brothers/Artclass Pictures comedy shorts starring the uber-goofy Jimmy Aubrey.
Co-starring with Aubrey as “the ruffian" - Oliver Hardy!
The Library of Congress and NFPF are co-funding the preservation of The Backyard.
Bashful Charley’s Proposal (Universal Joker Company, 1916)
The Library of Congress is funding the preservation of this entry from the Universal "Joker" series (the rarest of the rare) - and that means the star is pioneering comedienne Gale Henry.
In the supporting cast: Milburn Morante, ubiquitous character actor in silents, talkies, movies and TV. Henry and Morante must have appeared in 500 films for the Universal Joker Company alone. This one's set on a houseboat and involves look-alike twin brothers who romance a widow and her daughter - and get rather confused in the process.
Chicago Rodeo (1920)
This historic footage from Tex Austin’s rodeo show will be preserved by the Library of Congress. The rodeo, held in Chicago’s Grant Park in July 1920, features appearances by Ruth Roach, Foghorn Clancy, “Yiddish Cowboy” Dizzy Izzy Broad, and a fearless (though slightly injured) cameraman.
Clarence Cheats at Croquet (Thanhouser Film Corporation, 1916)
Two rivals for a fair lass duke it out as only macho he-men can - in croquet! Thanks to Thanhouser Company Film Preservation, Inc. for co-funding the preservation of this title with the NFPF.
The Darling of the C.S.A. (Kalem Company, 1912)
Anna Q. Nilsson stars as a daring cross-dressing spy (sans jokes) who defies capture to secure explosives for the Confederates. To be preserved by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Fifty Million Years Ago (Service Film Corp, 1925) The theory of evolution told through animation. To be preserved by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Flaming Canyons(Castle Films, 1929)
A historic stencil-colored travelogue promoting Zion, Bryce, and Grand Canyon National Parks. To be preserved by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
A Knight of Daze (Fox Film Corporation, 1928)
The Library of Congress is funding the preservation of this Fox comedy, directed by Billy West (known ten years earlier as the #1 Charlie Chaplin imitator), starring Tyler Brooke as "Courtland Van Bibber" and set at a self-service men’s salon.
Koko's Queen (Fleischer Studios, 1926) In this mind-boggling and surreal entry from the Fleischer studio's Out of the Inkwell series, Koko The Clown designs his ideal woman. Thanks to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for funding the preservation of this title.
Mickey's Circus (Larry Darmour Productions, 1927)
The Library of Congress is funding the preservation of this, the third Mickey McGuire comedy released (and NOT the 1936 Disney cartoon by the same title). Mickey Rooney, in charge as usual, is the ringmaster of a kids’ circus.
Neptune’s Naughty Daughter (Century Comedies, 1917)
Alice Howell stars in this Century Comedy about a fisherman’s daughter who defies her father and falls for a sailor. This Library of Congress-funded restoration involves materials both from the British Film Institute and EYE Film Institute.
Patsy's Elopement(Lubin Manufacturing Company, 1915)
The ninth installment in the Patsy Bolivar series, featuring Clarence Elmer as the guy who never seems to do anything right. To be preserved by the Library of Congress.
Red Saunders’ Sacrifice (Lubin Manufacturing Company, 1912). A bandit braves capture to fetch a doctor for his sweetheart’s mother. This western will be preserved by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
A Smash-up In China (International Film Service/Hearst, 1919)
This Happy Hooligan cartoon, directed by Gregory La Cava, will be preserved by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The Village Chestnut (Mack Sennett Comedies, 1918)
Wacky Sennett Studio 2-reeler co-stars Chester Conklin and Louise Fazenda in a scenario involving tangled classroom romances.
This bit of silent movie mayhem, directed by comedian, screenwriter and (later, in sound films) producer Raymond Griffith, shall be preserved by The Library of Congress.
When Ciderville Went Dry* (Esperanto Film Mfg. Co., 1915)
The Library of Congress will preserve this temperance spoof, thought to be the only surviving work from the Esperanto Film Manufacturing Company of Detroit.
Who’s Who* (Essanay Film Mfg. Co., 1910)
A comedy of mistaken identity, involving a minister and prizefighter—both with the initials S.O.B.—who arrive into town on the same train. To be preserved by the Library of Congress.
We salute and thank The Library of Congress in particular for its role in assisting and co-funding these efforts. The complete list, encompassing dramas, comedies, documentaries and historic footage, can be found on the NFPF website. Looking forward to a DVD set of Treasures From The Eye Film Institute Archives.
Monday, September 22, 2014
The writer/blogmeister of Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog, seen above, is not accurately described as "calm", but does all of the following activities listed here with due diligence, without fail.
The last "keep calm" is especially true, since visionary composer/bandleader/virtuoso saxophonist John Coltrane was born on September 23, 1926 - tomorrow.
Also sharing a September 23 birthday with Mr. Coltrane: the incomparable Ray Charles and Bruce "The Boss" Springsteen, celebrating his 65th birthday tomorrow (and very likely rocking out the classic "Quarter To Three" by Gary U.S. Bonds yet again in the process). Play 'em all, with lots of love - I sure will, as a good American! And now for some more music.
Saturday, September 13, 2014
The Boys are back in town, twice within one week in the San Francisco Bay Area AND writer Steve Bailey of Movie Movie Blog Blog is hosting a blogathon in tribute to Stan & Babe on October 4.
Tomorrow afternoon at the Niles Museum, comedy expert and Ray Hubbard Award winner Paul Mular presents one of the monthly "Sons Of The Desert" matinees devoted to the Hal Roach Studio.
The museum has been hosting the local chapter of the Laurel & Hardy Fan Club, a.k.a. The Sons Of The Desert, for ten years now.
The museum has been presenting these great matinee programs, curated by Mr. Mular, on the second Sunday of the month for much of that time.
Having moved its traditional winter event up to fall, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival presents Silent Autumn at The Castro Theatre this Saturday - and the morning show is all Laurel & Hardy, ALL silent, no singing but some dancing. The epic "tit for tat" reciprocal destruction fests Two Tars, Big Business and Should Married Men Come Home will rock the house, as they did with moviegoers in the late 1920's.
Now upon hearing the phrase "silence is golden", all Monsieur Blogmeister can think of is the vocal harmony-laden 1960's English pop band The Tremeloes, but this figure of speech shall be a reality all day Saturday, all day.
After Laurel & Hardy, the program shall feature Buster Keaton's historical action adventure epic The General, a favorite movie of Orson Welles and cinematic masterpiece that always delights and amazes, no matter how many times one sees it.
There will also be a presentation of The Son Of The Sheik, penned by celebrated writers Frances Marion and Frederica Sagor Maas, starring silver screen icon Rudolf Valentino and Vilma Bánky. Introducing the 1926 box-office smash: author and Valentino expert Donna Hill.
The Silent Autumn program shall delve deeply into the dreamworld of the subconscious with Robert Weine's surreal "shot around the world", The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, newly digitally restored from the original camera negative.
Tickets and festival passes for Silent Autumn are available at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival website.
As the birthday of L&H nemesis Billy Gilbert was yesterday, a Laurel & Hardy Blogathon is extremely apropo and timely.
Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog wishes Steve all the best on the blogathon!