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Observations On Film, Music & Imagery of the Past

Updated: 2018-03-08T10:08:11.124-05:00


"Among Sinister Shadows"


In March of 1929, Paramount sought to entice newspaper readers into theaters with the following prepared review of William Wellman's "Chinatown Nights" ---"There is more mystery on one Chinese standing in a shadowy Chinatown doorway than in all the mystery stories ever written. And in 'Chinatown Nights,' showing at the _______ there are more than five hundred Chinese revealed in all the intriguing and little known business of their powerful tongs.""'Chinatown Nights' is a picture for everyone who loves drama, excitement and mystery. The suspense and action of the picture are excellently handled and the revelation of the inscrutable practices of the Chinese tong are surprising. A superior cast of screen artists enact this superb drama. Wallace Beery, Florence Vidor, Warner Oland and Jack Oakie head the cast of noted screen players. The picture was directed by William Wellman, the man who made 'Wings.'""'Chinatown Nights' is the story of a white boss of Chinatown who wins the love of a white society woman. She sacrifices everything for him, but not until she is dragged down into the mire of the underworld, does she awaken to his love for her." "The Whole Cast Talks!" declared period print ads for the film, and according to one genuine newspaper review of the film in late March of 1929, that fact was, in of itself, a problem:"'Chinatown Nights' is one of those talking pictures which would have been just as good, if not better, with sound effects only and the old style sub-titles. Wallace Beery and Florence Vidor are the stars in this Chinatown opus, but you go away feeling that Warner Oland, cast as 'Boston Charley,' makes the picture. ""In this Gallery God's humble opinion, both Beery and Miss Vidor are miscast in a big way. Beery is the white boss of Chinatown, a part which he fills well, but you hardly can see the refined background which he is supposed to have. Miss Vidor makes a very good society woman, but as a drunken creature she wins no sympathy. And, what the sound box does to Miss Vidor's voice, is nobody's business.'""The plot deals with the society woman who falls in love with the white boss of a Chinese tong and tries to get him to quit it all and go her way. There is a war, with no small amount of shooting and killing. Some of the sound effects are excellent. In a Chinese theater scene, to cover the bark of guns, one tong throws firecrackers into the air and the staccato is splendidly recorded. There are some interesting scenes of Chinatown and a few inner workings of the tong are exposed." Happily, while with us today, and an inarguable important entry in early talking film history, William Wellman's "Chinatown Nights" is difficult to fairly judge and nearly impossible to encounter in any form other than horribly bad dupes that, seemingly, first surfaced on Betamax tape ---the stunning photography reduced to wavering blotches of white and gray, and the busy soundtrack, once "splendidly recorded" now a shrill cacophony.Despite the William Wellman branding, which raises weak hopes that the film may one day surface on DVD simply based on its lineage (early sound films can never seem to receive recognition based solely upon their place in cinema history --- only owing to either who directed them or who appears in them, inexplicably perhaps the only genre of film treated in this odd way) but then too, there is no getting away from the stereotypes that decorate the film (I'll leave it to someone else to use the word "plague") and all the baggage that goes with it. Understandably, "Chinatown Nights" may well long remain lurking in the darkened corners of film history, amidst sinister shadows of quite another sort.Syndicated publicity item, April 1929:"To celebrate the completion of 'Chinatown Nights,' the all-talking picture in which he was featured with Florence Vidor, actor Wallace Beery gave a little party at his home. The director, William Wellman, the staff workers, and the cast, including Warner Oland, Jack Oakie and all the others, were invited.""As they came in, Beery told each that he had arranged with a p[...]

A Yuletide Frolic III - "Cheer Up and Smile!"


Happy Holidays! For this third annual Yuletide Frolic edition of "Vitaphone Varieties," we'll acknowledge the disconcerting notion that the less romantic and fanciful aspects of the late 20's and early 30's might be closer to us than we suspect by entirely ignoring that fact and simply having fun with this post!While postmen today don't seem to carry parcels any longer --- or smile much either for that matter, one can't help but wonder at the contents of some of those neatly wrapped parcels he cheerfully lugs up this snowy residential city street --- here forever caught in a mid-delivery time warp of the sort that most of us still experience today every now and then.To accompany him on his appointed route, let's pipe in Eddie Cantor's (timely!) 1931 recording of "Cheer Up! Smile! Nertz!""Cheer Up! Smile! Nertz!" (1931)Although this second image was taken on the same stretch of street, we have another smiling postman here --- and a grateful recipient as well. To continue and cap this little introductory "Cheer Up" motif, we've coaxed the fragile Noel Francis out of the dark and distant old posts from these pages to warble "Cheer Up and Smile" from the preserved but elusive "New Movietone Follies of 1930." Miss Francis? Ah, here she is... Yes, this way... Take your time.... Deep breath now... Ready? Ladies and Gentlemen, Miss Noel Francis:"Cheer Up and Smile!" (1930)The sadly absent mid-1929 Universal talkie "College Love" (an eight reel elaboration upon the studio's long running and successful "Collegians" series of two-reelers) is described thusly and adequately by the AFI catalog:"At Caldwell College, Flash Thomas (Eddie Phillips,) captain of the football team, is in love with Dorothy May (Dorothy Gulliver,) who is infatuated with Bob Wilson (George Lewis,) without whose help Thomas would not be such an outstanding player. Broken hearted, Thomas tries to laugh it off, then against the rules accepts an invitation to a roadhouse party. Wilson, discovering he is missing, hides in Thomas' bed to fool the coach (Hayden Stevinson,) then tries to persuade him to leave the party. When they return, however, the coach discovers the ruse and puts Wilson, who shields Thomas, out of the game. Dorothy asks for an explanation and, receiving none, returns Thomas' fraternity pin. At the last minute, Wilson is rushed into the game and Thomas plays to redeem himself. Wilson scores a touchdown, is proclaimed a hero, and wins the love of Dorothy."A Charleston, West Virginia newspaper review from late July of 1929 brings us a bit closer to a film we'll likely never otherwise experience:"Those who have seen the cast of promising young screen players in the series of short college stories entitled 'The Collegians,' are due for a surprise in their first feature production, 'College Love,' showing at the Virginia Theater.""It is difficult to identify the improvement, but that improvement is very obvious. Perhaps the addition of sound is responsible, but more like, one observes, it's the scenario. 'College Love' gets away from the Horatio Alger type of story and therein, one suspects, lies its success.""There is an abundance of action in this picture - action on the gridiron, on the campus, and action in romance and comedy. The musical score greatly enhances the story - there are some very tuneful selections. The dialogue is on par with many of the motion pictures which stars with years of learning appear.""'College Love' is a swiftly-moving story of life in one of the large institutions of learning - although the 'learning' feature is entirely ignored. The action hinges upon a football game and the male leads are taken by members of the squad.""Brought into the plot is the 'darling of the campus' and the rivalry between the two heroes of the gridiron for her attention. Excellent scenes of a football game before thousands of fans are shown. They are so realistic that one could easily imagine they were being shown from a news reel.""Dorothy Gulliver takes the part of the campus favorite. The rivals are George Lewis and [...]

A Temple of Synchronization


No, "Vitaphone Varieties" hasn't fallen by the wayside --- nor has this writer!True enough, recent posts have been scattered and erratic at best, and gone are the days of new additions that appeared with clockwork regularity in years past --- but I owe it to you, to the topic at hand and (I suppose) to myself, to try to maintain a monthly posting schedule.Many thanks to the readers who have written, expressing concern, horror, anger and polite curiosity --- for these notes did much to hasten my return! I cannot hope for this blog to ever lay claim to being "100 Shows in One" as the glorious lobby-card for "Show of Shows" depicted above does, but we'll try our best! Oh yes, there will be a third annual "Yuletide Frolic" post in time for the holidays --- so check back!For now, let's get to it. Forgive the somewhat rusty prose, pace and content of this post --- I'm limbering up after too long being away from the keyboard!In late 1928, newspapers informed readers that "George Jessel has completed a sound drama with songs for Tiffany-Stahl, titled 'The Ghetto,' from an original story by Viola Brothers Shore." The film would reach screens in February of 1929 as "Lucky Boy."A lengthy, syndicated publicity press release --- also from February of 1929 --- affords some interesting, albeit highly colored, background on the film --- and on Jessel himself, and is worth offering here in part:"When Jessel started making 'Lucky Boy,' the Tiffany-Stahl feature production, he was up against some new and strange problems. The singing and talk sequences required more time in rehearsal than the lead role in a legitimate production. From the start, Jessel had his heart set on making 'Lucky Boy' something far greater than 'The Jazz Singer,' his brain child that wandered out into the world to make a tidy fortune for Jolson instead of Jessel. 'Lucky Boy,' therefore, had a grave responsibility as far as Jessel was concerned.""The picture, portraying Jessel's life and seasoned with Jessel's subtitles and dialogue, was like a second son who must atone for a first-born's derelitcion. While the sound sequences were underway at the RCA Studio, Jessel was starring in 'The War Song,' a legitimate drama, at the National Theater (NYC - September to December of 1928) His role in this play was longer than 'Hamlet,' and he had to do much singing." "One day, at the studio, a camera rebelled after Jessel had worked since 10 o'clock that morning. He was due on stage at at the National at 8:30 and it was almost 7. Jessel realized that if the scene was not taken the same day, it would flop. The cast was rehearsed and coaxed into the mood, the scenery had been set up after hours of work, and the musicians were soaked in the melody that Jessel was to sing. While the operator worked on the camera, Jessel jollied everyone along and watched the studio clock anxiously. Soon, everything was in readiness and Jessel mounted the stage. Singing with all h is heart and soul, he went through the first verse chorus of 'My Mother's Eyes,' the theme song of the picture, and not a Kleig light clicked, not an unwanted sound disturbed the perfect synchronization of Jessel's voice. Jessel started on the second stanza. The cameraman cut him short with 'Stop!' The film had buckled. Three times the cameraman made repairs, and three times Jessel sang, only to be cut short with 'Stop!'""He had been working all day, he had a night's work ahead of him. In exasperation, he made a dash for the door. 'Let me get out of here quick before I shoot myself" he whispered to the door attendant, but the door had hardly closed on him than he was back. The last attempt was tried. And, oddly, Jessel sang as he had never sung before, the musicians played as though to make the song immortal, and a charm lay on the camera. Instances like this occurred ime and again in the making of 'Lucky Boy,' as in the making of all sound pictures while the process is in its infancy. Jessel, by the sheer force of his personality, surmounted them all." A far more accu[...]

The Grand Parade


Seeming as though he wants nothing more than to break free of his creators, we see one of Coney Island's Luna Park lions at what amounts to his birth --- with largely Italian artisan hands forming and shaping the body that would soon become adhered to one of the park's fanciful structures. Close examination of the image (click on it!) is rewarding, revealing with startling clarity a moment, an art-form, a location and persons all lost to time.Ultimately, the construction elements of the lion --- plaster, wood lathe and hemp fiber --- and indeed much of the park itself, would contribute to and feed the conflagration that would destroy it. A sad loss, but its best not to believe any of this would still be with us today otherwise, for the organic nature of the construction elements were akin to a clock counting down from the moment of creation --- its destiny predetermined from the first.And so too it goes for the medium of film, so I suppose a parallel can be drawn between the two divergent forms of pleasure --- but I'll leave that to you to ponder.While having utterly nothing to do with either Luna Park or lost cinema, the Irving Berlin tune "The Syncopated Walk" has at least the same sense of boundless ---albeit tightly coiled --- energy as our plaster Leo had, and is well worth featuring here.Written for the 1914 musical revue "Watch Your Step," which would run at New York City's New Amsterdam Theater until May of 1915, "The Syncopated Walk" would close the first act and the effect must have been nothing short of electrifying.Danced to by Vernon and Irene Castle, and accompanied by a full chorus of voices (which included Charles King and then partner Elizabeth Brice) and theater orchestra, the presentation must have seemed a onrushing torrent of soaring, diving and sweeping melody, words and movement.A fair measure of that excitement can still be found in this 1915 British recording of the tune, which features Ethel Levey, Blanche Tomlin and Joseph Coyne --- members of the London company:"The Syncopated Walk" (1915) Ethel Levey, Blanche Tomlin & Joseph Coyne"The Syncopated Walk" - Lyrics in .pdf formCuriously, both "The Syncopated Walk" and another tune from "Watch Your Step" titled "Discoveries" would figure in the Vitaphone score for 1927's "The Great Ginsberg" --- a fact that eluded me until now and which has been added to the original blog post featuring the lost George Jessel film. That entry, from November of 2006 (has it been that long ago?) can be reached via this link --- or those just wishing to hear the audio again can simply click here.Now sufficiently energized, let's see what the Pathe Studio publicists had to say about their early 1930 offering "The Grand Parade," now deemed a lost film:"Different in many respects from the cut-and-dried picture romance, 'The Grand Parade,' a Pathe dialogue production featuring Helen Twelvetrees and Fred Scott, is a story of black face minstrelry so popular 40 or more years ago. It is distinctly a new type of entertainment on the screen, for in addition to its vital, forceful drama, it presents a complete minstrel show such as our grandparents delighted to see when they were young. Wonderful music, catchy songs, spicy jokes and the glittering pageantry of Negro entertainment supplement the drama of this remarkable achievement in the field of audible films."After all that, the film is neatly summed up in two sentences which could easily be describing an early Biograph one-reeler instead of a glittering pageant of audible film: "The story deals with a minstrel singer who wins success, but through the influence of an evil woman, sinks to the dregs, a drunken sot. He is salvaged by a boarding house slavey and she succeeds in making a man of him."Leave it to Helen Twelvetrees to look utterly forlorn while dressed in regal garb and sitting atop a parade bass drum, but with eyebrows invariably poised in despondent arch and a mouth always at the ready to emit sobs or meek acceptance of whatever s[...]

Length Not Wearying


While I'd be hard pressed to come up with any obvious similarities between the lone figure looking straight at you from the left --- a Coney Island sideshow performer of 1910 --- and this blog, the fact remains that one is a dim artifact of past pleasures both noble and dubious, and the other a venue seeking to keep their memory alive and to bridge the fearful distance between Then and Now.It has been an unusually long time between the last entry and this one, and I apologize for that unhappy fact, but also must reassure the many readers who have written and inquired as to the general health of "Vitaphone Varieties" that I've no intention of closing up shop nor abandoning what has become, quite unexpectedly too --- almost a living entity of an odd sort. That said, I suppose readers may encounter a sporadic posting schedule --- but "down time" of the sort recently encountered will not be typical. Ideally, a new release every month is the most comfortable fit and I'll strive to maintain that goal wherever possible.Before moving on, allow me to thank all those who have written with encouragement and suggestions, and the many more nameless folks around the globe who return to these pages regularly in the hope of finding something new to see, hear and experience. I can't quite promise "performing leopards and jaguars," or even "Bamboula & Doc. Hastings: Jungle Comedians," but perhaps what I can offer is something not terribly far removed after all.News Wire Story - 14 September 1913:"Usually he is a creature of most regular habits and imperturbable good humour, but at rare intervals he feels the need of a change. One afternoon he suddenly jumped out of the window and set off at a good pace toward the busy Place du Chatelet. He strolled into a cafe, upset the glasses of the customers, pushed over a few chairs, and after a final look around went out and swung himself on a passing motor-omnibus.""To the consternation of passengers, he sat down in the first-class section, but when the conductor came for his fare he dived playfully out of the open window. He appeared soon afterwards in a grocer's shop, sampled some nuts, but did not approve of them, and began to pull out drawers and open cupboards.""When the grocer appeared, the monkey threw lemons at him, then over-turned into an empty barrel and was pulled out by the feet. He retaliated by biting and scratching the grocer, who is now taking action against the owner of Bamboula."Now that that's cleared up, we'll begin this entry proper with melody ---An old friend visits us from mid-December of1927, making it clear he has his priorities both straight and sensible as could be:"Ten Cents Worth of Crackers, Ten Cents Worth of Cheese --- and You" (1927)From the odd mix of melodrama and music that is MGM's 1930 "Children of Pleasure," (a companion piece if ever there was to 1929's "Lord Byron of Broadway",) comes "Dust," performed here by the Casa Loma Orchestra."Dust" (1930)A Madison, Wisconsin newspaper review of "Sunny Side Up" from December 30th of 1929:"An excellent picture as a whole, and the most human picture we have seen this year -- that's 'Sunny Side Up,' starring Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor, made famous by 'Seventh Heaven,' and now playing at the Strand Theater to overflow crowds.""For the first half of the picture the action goes well and in a unified way in an atmosphere reminiscent of 'Seventh Heaven.' Then, the picture falters, stammers, and becomes ridiculous on several occasions.""Among the particularly silly scenes is Farrell talking to the pictures of two women, because the director apparently was at a loss to show his change in emotional goal any other way. The psychological climax with Janet Gaynor in despair over the fact that Charles loves another became comedy at one show when a voice from the audience during a silent moment boomed 'That's all right old girl.'""Nor could the director resist an opportunity to interject the inevitable [...]

Mountains of Manhattan


From a May 1927 press release for the Gotham production "Mountains of Manhattan" ---"There is nothing more spectacular or fascinating than the world famous skyline of New York City and the producers have taken a keen psychological advantage of this and utilized it for the background of a very strong drama.""The title of the picture, too, is most appropriate as it applies to the towering pinnacles of concrete and steel which form the 'Mountains of Manhattan.'""The story deals with the rise of Jerry Nolan, who is typical of the present day American artisan. Jerry has ambitions which are fired by the skyscrapers on which he works. He studies new methods of engineering and then when opportunities present themselves, he is smart and capable enough to seize them.""Charles Delaney portrays the role of Jerry, and he is exactly what the imagination would depict as the right type. Dorothy Devore is both daring and charming in the role of the boss builder. An old favorite, Kate Price, hits the bull's eye in every scene.""The scenes of action photographed atop a 27-story skyscraper are the limit of nerve and daring. Not the least nervy of the company was the cameraman who placed his machine in some of the most unusual places. James P. Hogan both acts in and directs the picture, which will satisfy anyone's desire for entertainment of a different nature."By every indication a lost film, it's unlikely that the product could ever hope to live up to it's description (at first glance seeming so intriguingly similar to "The Fountainhead," wouldn't you say?) or, indeed, the marvelous poster art depicted above. One aspect of the film not mentioned in the press release --- and one that immediately deflates any expectations of greatness --- can be found at the bottom of the print ad at the right, which reveals a key plot element: "An Irish mother adopts a Jewish orphan. See Kate Price in one of her characteristic Irish roles."Similarly, the July 1927 Paul Whiteman recording of "Manhattan Mary" doesn't live up to the promise of it's wonderful 40 second syncopated introduction --- but perhaps this fact does indeed make the tune a happy companion to our glimpse of "Mountains of Manhattan.""Manhattan Mary" (1927) Paul Whiteman & His OrchestraThe George White produced Broadway musical production "Manhattan Mary" was a showcase for the decidedly unique talents of Ed Wynn (co-starring with Ona Munson) and ran at the (Times Square) Apollo Theater from September of 1927 to May of 1928 --- clocking in at a then highly respectable 264 performances. The property would ultimately reach the Paramount talking screen in 1930 as "Follow the Leader," with Ginger Rogers enacting the Ona Munson role and Lou Holtz carried over from the Broadway cast.Despite the trimming of a good deal of the show's original ten-plus melodies, "Follow the Leader" does indeed seem more a filmed stage production than anything else --- but is well worth your while should a print present itself to you. ("Follow the Leader," like so many other early Paramount talkies, survives intact but is apparently deemed valueless and therefore kept from public view or access.)A glimpse of Paul Whiteman and band members in Central Park --- circa 1920 --- serves to usher in another tune from "Manhattan Mary," this one titled "Broadway," which would later serve as opening title music for the 1930 "Follow the Leader.""Broadway" (1927) - Paul WhitemanWhile these pages have noted that I'm not anywhere as enamored with Whiteman's fine work as the vast majority of vintage music buffs seem to be, there's no denying his impact upon the public of his day --- and I suppose if any one music ensemble served to mould and bookend the decade of the 1920's, then surely Whiteman's did. Typical of the Whiteman touch is his handling of two melodies from The Ziegfeld Follies of 1927, which are offered here next. Both should be well familiar to readers of these pages,[...]

"The Talkie Is Improving"


"Before the picture business went talkie," said actress Betty Compson in late 1929, "its players seldom gave a great deal of study to their roles. They arrived at the studio in the morning, made up and went on the set.""There, a director told them to walk through a door and appear startled. They seldom had occasion to know why they were startled, who was startling them, or what they were to do next.""The talkies have changed all this. The weeks of rehearsal before the picture goes before the cameras, attentive study of lines, and a full knowledge of the story tends to get the player more into his part than the silent film ever did. The result is better acting, better characterizations and a more convincing story."In mid-December of 1928, Hollywood columnist Dan Thomas had this to say of Compson's first talking picture, "The Barker," --- a part talking First National Vitaphone feature that, while having survived --- remains peculiarly elusive --- in a piece titled "The Talkie Is Improving":"A talking picture which really is worth seeing. That was my reaction to 'The Barker,' which has just opened in Hollywood. I would rank 'The Barker' next to Jolson's 'The Singing Fool' in the way of talking screen entertainment -- and it's way, way above other 'squawkies' which have been dumped on the market these last few months. ""'The Barker,' a story of a carnival troupe, was made first as a silent picture. Then when Warner Brothers bought First National, portions of the film were remade with talking sequences. And strangely enough, the dialogue actually added to the entertainment value of the production.""If Hollywood's great film factories would turn out more talkies like 'The Barker,' dialogue would be almost a cinch to become a permanent fixture in the movie racket. As it is -- well, let's wait until the novelty wears off and see what happens."Publicity material for "The Barker" allows us a glimpse at a film we can't easily experience otherwise:"The story of 'The Barker' concerns Nifty Miller (Milton Sills,) barker for a street carnival, who's young son Chris (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) comes to visit him. Nifty leaves off cursing and drinking and 'gives the air' to the Hawaiian dancer (Betty Compson) with whom he has been living. In a fit of revenge she induces Lou (Dorothy Mackaill,) a show girl of easy virtue, to capture the affections of Nifty's son. They fall in love and leave the carnival to get married. Nifty becomes disgusted and goes off on a toot, leaving the show flat.""Some days later, in a town where the troupe is showing to small business, Lou and Chris turn up. The Hula dancer is running a doll concession with small results and a weak barker. Suddenly, Nifty shows up and listens to his successor with disgust. He starts to reorganize and among other things learns that Chris is studying law in the office of an attorney, and is happy once more.""The spiel of the barker before the tent of the Hawaiian dancer, the dialogue in the big scene where Nifty learns that the dancer is responsible for Chris' decision to marry Lou, the sounds of the fight between the carnival people and the villagers are given with such realism that one seems to be watching the actual flesh-and-blood characters."Despite this glowing recommendation, whoever wrote the copy for the uniformly wonderful Lima, Ohio "Sigma" theater ads of the period found himself utterly stumped -- and says as much -- in the ad at the left, from December of 1928. But, he gathered himself enough to point out that audiences will Hear and Understand the players --- and that "over half the picture" was "synchronized with clear, concise talking sequences" --- which is more than can be said for some recent films I've viewed that would have benefited from closed captioning.Fans of Dorothy Mackaill, Fairbanks the Junior and Milton Sills (?) notwithstanding, I lament not having ever seen and heard Betty Compson in her f[...]

"Not Quite Decent"


Joan Blondell (left) will figure in the feature item for this entry, a casual examination of the inexplicably lost 1933 Warner Bros. pre-code potboiler "Convention City," --- but we'll open this post with a glance at an earlier but equally lost title, Fox's 1929 synchronized part-talkie, "Not Quite Decent."Directed by Irving Cummings, featuring Louise Dresser, June Collyer and Allan (pre-"Rocky") Lane, and released in April of 1929, "Not Quite Decent" was described plainly in period press material distributed to newspapers:"'Not Quite Decent' is a talking picture in the sense that it has Fox Movietone sequences in generous amount.""Based on the story by Wallace Smith, 'The Grouch Bag,' it tells, primarily, the story of Mame Jarrow (Louise Dresser,) a former big-time vaudeville singer who has reached her mid-forties and is still an entertainer but not of the stage -- rather, she appears in an underground speakeasy of which she is half owner.""Mame is just as young in spirit as ever, though the wrinkles have begun to appear and the figure has lost its former perfection, but she carries on. Eventually, to the speakeasy comes her daughter (June Collyer) whom she has not seen since infancy. She recognizes her, but the girl has always believed her mother dead, so Mame lets her keep on thinking so.""When the daughter is in the toils of a wealthy philanderer, the mother decides it is time for her to do a little mothering. She saves the girl, disillusions her with the life she is trying to lead, but all is accomplished at cruel cost to the mother.""The close of the picture finds the girl going back home with her childhood sweater (Allan Lane,) never knowing that it is her own mother who has saved her."If all that sounds rather cut and dried, well... it is. In an odd turn of events, we can actually learn a bit more of the plot detail via the AFI database:"On her way to New York for her first stage appearance, Linda Cunningham (June Collyer) meets Mame Jarrow (Louise Dresser,) a nightclub singer. Linda later drops by to hear Mame sing, accompanied by her angel, Al Gergon (Paul Nicholson,) a wealthy roue. Mame gradually comes to realize that Linda is her own daughter, from whom she was separated years before by pious relatives.""Using all her wiles, Mame attempts to keep Linda from falling prey to Gergon, and when all else fails, she sends for Jerry Connor (Allan Lane,) Linda's small-town sweetheart. Linda returns home with Jerry, and Mame sings her heart out in smoky rooms, never disclosing to Linda that she is her mother."All in all, perhaps the advertisement (from a Logansport, Indiana newspaper) summed the picture up best:"Bright lights dance with dark shadows when a blue singer gets the blues!"If that wasn't food for thought enough, the reader is then presented with this puzzler: "Just what is decency? A new and compelling answer is given in this story of life on the fringe of the night clubs."At a mere five reels in length, and synchronized throughout with a Movietone orchestral and effects score, I suppose one or even a half reel of spoken and vocalized word would qualify as the "generous amount" cited in the press release, and surely a hefty chunk of the "talking sequence" was given over to Dresser's warbling of the film's theme song, "Empty Arms." (You can be sure I tried my level best to turn up a 78rpm recording of this tune --- alas, I must admit failure, but if one turns up you can be certain it'll be offered in an upcoming post.)A musical interlude before we toddle off to "Convention City"...There's as much of interest in Irving Kaufman's late 1928 rendition of "Ever Since the Movies Learned to Talk" as there is in the photograph of the singer himself (at left) which, admittedly, dates from some ten years prior to the recording itself.Enlarge the image and you'll note all manner of fussy, busy decorative details in the [...]

"The Midnight Taxi"


Although the approach of midnight meant quite something else to actor Ralph Graves and co-star Helene Costello in the 1929 Nat Levine produced silent serial "The Fatal Warning," the poster art detail at left will serve well to open this first post of the New Year --- a year we approach with at least some of the same odd intermingling of curiosity, fear and excitement that can be seen in Mr. Grave's painted visage.We'll ring up 2008's curtain with a 1930 recording of "My Sing Song Girl" which was previously offered in these pages in a definitive rendition by LeRoy Shield --- but this version, by the Colonial Club Orchestra, wins points for sheer originality (and the inclusion of a bit of Tchaikovsky!)Arriving in September of 1928, Warner Bros.' part-talking "The Midnight Taxi" was deemed worthy enough to warrant theater bookings into December of 1930 --- and would be remade by the same studio in 1937, but we focus our attention on the elusive earlier edition which remains largely unavailable for evaluation although a silent print is thought to be in the care of the British Film Institute.Adapted from a story by Darryl Zanuck (credited as Gregory Rogers) and directed by John Adolfi, the improbable scenario is described in the American Film Institute database:"Tony Driscoll (Antonio Moreno) and Joseph Brant (William Russell) pool $200,000 to finance a bootleg venture and take a ride together on a train. Tony meets Nan Parker (Helene Costello) on the train and conceals their money in her coat. Brant hires two gunmen to stick up Tony and himself, but the holdup is a failure, for it is interrupted by detectives looking for stolen jewelry. The jewelry is found on Tony (planted there by one of Brant's henchmen,) and Tony is arrested and taken off the train.""Released on bail later, Tony charters an airplane and returns to the speeding train. There is a gun battle, and the police arrest Brant and his men. Tony is cleared of the charges against him, and decides to go straight, having fallen in love with Nan."A November 1928 booking of the film in Zanesville, Ohio resulted in this prepared press release appearing in a local newspaper. Even the most naive of reader would have been unlikely to accept it as a genuine film review, but the period lingo manages to breathe life into a film we'll likely never see nor hear --- as well as revealing a couple of intriguing plot details not hinted at in the AFI synopsis:"Antonio Moreno, known as the dashing lover, goes in for rough stuff in 'The Midnight Taxi,' as his fight with thugs on the runaway train, his fight in the nose-diving plane and other hair-raising sequences proves. Helene Costello, as the fair sleuth who naively enters the company of thieves, hi-jackers and rum-runners in their mad flight for Vancouver is attractive and resourceful. Myrna Loy recalls her late triumphs in 'The Girl from Chicago' and 'Side Street Sadie.' William Russell with Miss Loy in both plays mentioned, acts with his usual hard-fisted zest.""The play is possessed of as many thrills and hairbreadth escapes as a dozen detective yarns in one, but it the Vitaphone which stirs the already dramatic action to a fury of raucous and strident sound. All the players who speak their lines, do so with a finish which indicates that they must have had experience on the speaking stage before the advent of talking pictures.""'The Midnight Taxi' again emphasizes the fact that the crook can't win. It should rank among the best of the crime pictures which are so much in vogue in theaters everywhere. The present reviewer advises all sort and conditions of people to go to the Liberty Theater before 'The Midnight Taxi' scorches by."A real -- albeit anonymous -- local review of the film from (Waterloo, Iowa - October 1928) with the unfortunate title "'Midnight Taxi Is Full of It'" adds further insight:"On[...]

"Ill-Assorted Companions"


As whatever celestial clockwork mechanism that propelled 2007 is about to wind down to a sputtering and decidedly anticlimactic halt, this lull seems an opportune time to explore items old and new --- before venturing into whatever unknown territory the new year will bring.Enviably oblivious to life as it is in 2007, Alice White (left) is as unavoidable a presence in the realm of the early talking film as Al Jolson --- and it's rather interesting to discover that opinions of her appeal were as divided in 1929 as they are now, when she's discussed at all, that is.In a syndicated newspaper piece dating from August of 1929, writer Dan Thomas puts it out there in a profile that could --- with little alteration -- serve adequately today to describe some of the dubious talents we inexplicably embrace today."How does she do it? She can't act and she's dumber than all get out! Those, and a few more things even less complimentary, have been whispered around Hollywood about Alice White for the last year. And when Hollywood folk start putting somebody on the pan, they can be brutal.""But, while the knockers were thinking up new reports to circulate about Alice, this young actress was forging ahead until now she is one of the biggest stars on the First National lot. For a while, even the First National executives didn't hand Alice very much. In fact, they thought so little of her that they allowed her contract to expire about a year ago. Then, the exhibitors set up such a howl for more Alice White picture that she was brought back and given a new contract -- at $100 a week more than she had been getting.""Alice has even been called high-hat. That, along with a number of other accusations, is untrue. Alice's only trouble is that she rose to stardom too rapidly. She felt that she should assume the airs of a star but she didn't know quite how to go about it. Then, directors tried to drive her and she became stubborn, thereby acquiring the reputation of being temperamental.""If the truth were known, this blonde actress at heart is still just a kid. And once you penetrate her film star exterior, you see that kid. Until she came into pictures, Alice never knew any of the luxuries of life. As a result, once she started tasting these luxuries, she wanted to go to the very top of the cinema pinnacle so that everything she desired might be hers.""Until recently, I was numbered among those who wondered how Alice got by. Then one day I spent the greater share of an afternoon talking to her and I knew. Film audiences penetrated her makeup --- saw the real girl, and liked her --- a thing blind Hollywood could not do.""This youngest of stars, who three years ago was an unknown script girl, is almost pitiful in her desire to succeed. She tries so hard to do what is right that she often oversteps herself and does the wrong thing. Alice's latest film, 'Broadway Babies,' firmly established her as a star of speaking films. She couldn't dance or sing so she learned how to do both for this picture. Studio officials also wanted her to take elocution lessons, but the star showed her superior wisdom by refusing to do so.""'I don't think audiences want me to speak very correct English,' she told me. 'They want to hear me talk as any young American girl would talk, so I am going to keep right on speaking in my natural manner. I have tried to be natural in everything I do, and I think that's why fans like me. So why should I spoil it all by learning to speak correctly?'"Sometimes, even I'm at a loss for word or waggish comment --- and at such points, music is best hurriedly brought forth.Here are two tunes from Alice White's 1929 First National success "Broadway Babies," performed here by the California Ramblers for the Edison label, in the last days of that company's life:"Wishing and Waiting For Love" and "Broadway B[...]

A Yuletide Frolic II : Sinners' Holiday


Greetings of the Season!For this entry, it's all about music and imagery --- and we'll set aside observation, analysis and criticism for the long winter days ahead.Some interesting items are planned for the coming weeks and months --- including a feature-length examination of the infamous and seemingly lost 1933 pre-code scorcher "Convention City," so stay tuned!Don't try to explain the image at left --- I can't either! Likewise, for this free-form entry, don't try to connect up the images with the audio and commentary --- just let it roll over you and enjoy this holiday offering, dear readers!We'll begin with two magnificent recordings by Ben Black & His Orchestra dating from August of 1927, the incredibly lush and melodic "Moonlit Waters" and an odd re-working of the solemn and familiar "Going Home" tricked up in evening clothes and appearing here as "Sailing On." The rustle of silk, highly scented floral arrangements, and the shuffle of feet across a polished ballroom floor countless evenings ago can be palpably felt in these two recordings."Moonlit Waters" (1927) Ben Black & His Orchestra"Sailing On" (1927) Ben Black & His OrchestraSimilarly, the image that comes to mind in the following 1927 recording of "At Sundown" by Lynn Cowan's Loew's State Theater Orchestra is that of Mary Eaton as Gloria Hughes in Paramount's "Glorifying the American Girl" --- sitting at a dingy dressing room table between performances, eagerly opening a much battered and multi-labeled parcel from the boy she left behind in her quest for fame. The chirpy melody is heard on the film's soundtrack --- in stark contrast to the wistful and bittersweet expression that plays out on Eaton's face as she examines the simple gift of an inexpensive mirrored jewelry box."At Sundown" (1927) Lynn Cowan's Loew's State Theater OrchestraI'm continually surprised by just how diverse the readers of these pages are --- an incredible cross-section of geographic locations, careers and specific interests, yet all sharing one common interest and somehow finding their way here for information and entertainment. Truly gratifying!One such reader is Australian resident Phillip Sametz who, with his Sydney based dance band "The Mell-O-Tones," has an incredible knack for replicating period tunes and performing them via live, recorded and broadcast venues.Performing vintage melodies "straight," with little or no elaboration and quite without the often horrendous touches that transform similar attempts into well-meaning but misdirected high camp, The Mell-O-Tones are a tonic."Mona" (Happy Days-1930) - Vocal by P. SametzSeeking more? Visit the Mell-O-Tones official CD link! Thanks to Phillip Sametz and Martin Buzzacot for allowing this worthwhile endorsement!Rudy Vallee's 1928 rendition of "Let's Do It" (a tune inexplicably dropped from both stage and screen versions of Irene Bordoni's starring vehicle "Paris") is wonderful late jazz-age nonsense, so it's only appropriate that Vallee is given the equally nonsensical billing of "Frank Mater" on this Harmony 78rpm disc recording."Let's Do It" (1928) Frank MaterAnd, now's as good a place as any to welcome in Frankie Marvin (Johnny's brother) and Ed Smalle for as fine a rendition of "Caressing You" as you're ever likely to hear --- anywhere, at any price. (Stock up now!)"Caressing You" (1929)An entire post could easily be devoted to Alice White --- and soon shall be --- ("Alice White Forges to Fore in Films Despite Hollywood's 'Anvil Chorus' That She's Dumb and Unable to Act!" screamed one August 1929 article, proving that public taste hasn't changed all that much) but in the meantime, let's gaze at Miss White as she gazes back at nothing in particular, and listen to one of the featured melodies from the sorely overlooked 1930 "Show Girl in Hollywood[...]

Present and Unaccounted For


While we'll never know what was being said or heard when the wonderful snapshot to the left was taken, let's see if we can't replicate a bit of their vibrant good cheer for this entry --- a small assortment of items originally slated for the last post ("Crystal Girl") but dropped owing to the length of the feature story.Before straying too far off from the topic of the previous entry --- that of the lost 1929 First National film "Paris" --- now is as good a time as any to mention Irene Bordoni's other 1929 film appearance, in the Warner Brothers revue "Show of Shows" and the topic of missing or deleted footage from this mammoth production.A much earlier post from November of 2006 ("Neither Here Nor There, But...") detailed a bit of footage missing from surviving prints of "Show of Shows" in the form of a spoken introduction to the Georges Carpentier, Alice White and Patsy Ruth Miller sequence, but what else is absent from the print commonly seen today?I've long been puzzled by the inclusion of the melody "Believe Me" in the film's lengthy finale sequence and the fact that this tune was featured as the companion piece on Irene Bordoni's 1929 Columbia 78rpm recording of the languid ballad she performs in the film, "One Hour of Love," a sequence that effectively stops the film not only cold, but quite dead. Was this the best Warners could come up with to feature their vivacious (and highly paid!) performer? As it turns out, it would seem we're only seeing half of her contribution to "Show of Shows" -- and what's missing is a trademark Bordoni eye-rolling and mildly suggestive performance of --- that's right, the tune "Believe Me."A number of period newspaper publicity placements for "Show of Shows" allude to the fact that Bordoni performed not one but two "typically Parisian" numbers, and at least one studio provided "review" of the film provided to local newspapers tells us outright that "Miss Bordoni appears with ten pianists and ten ladies dressed as Bordoni," which gives us some suggestion as to how "Believe Me" was presented.While very badly reproduced, we can see Bordoni (clad in the same gown we see in her performance of "One Hour of Love") and her pianist, Eddie Ward --- and while difficult, one can see the forms of those aforementioned ten chorus girls (wearing identical gowns and Bordoni-style wigs) along with the murky outlines of the ten pianists too.It's easy to visualize the sequence (likely originally in Technicolor) as a sparkling and sly mood-lifter after the meandering "One Hour of Love," and the sequence's original inclusion neatly explains why "Believe Me" is reprised during the film's finale. What isn't so easy to figure out is if this sequence is missing from current prints owing to the elements being too far gone for printing when the highly imperfect current black and white print was prepared, or if the sequence was snipped out following initial runs in key cities before it was farmed out across the United States. For all we know, the sequence may well exist in a as yet undiscovered print --- as well as in audio Vitaphone disc elements for the film that haven't been fully evaluated for content.The clever and unusual ad for "Show of Shows" at left from a February 1930 run in Oelwein, Iowa presents another puzzler --- and one not as easily figured out as Bordoni's case.Midway down the column, there's mention of a feature spot for comedian Lupino Lane titled "Spring Is Here," which it can be supposed had nothing to do with the studio's forthcoming screen version of the Rodgers & Hart production. A scan of period reviews, advertisements and publicity placements all turn up blanks on this one --- leaving only this intriguing mention as a hint that yet another decidedly interesting segment might [...]

"Crystal Girl"


"A moonbeam, a June beam - a rare Tiffany gem!A flower, a bower, a new rose on the stem!"So go the lyrics for the elaborate "Crystal Girl" production number depicted left, which served to kick off a series of Technicolor musical revue sequences in the now lost 1929 First National motion picture "Paris."Directed by Clarence Badger, and starring stage legends Irene Bordoni and Jack Buchanan, "Paris" is one of a maddening clutch of missing (the term "lost" seems unduly gloomy and hopeless) musical films of 1929 and 1930 that would, were they still with us, serve to document a number of stellar stage performers of the 1920's at their peak --- before age, shifting public tastes, drastically changing musical forms and motion picture production codes would alter these personalities forever --- leaving us instead with later film work that, in most cases, barely hints at the qualities that so captivated audiences.Fannie Brice, Ted Lewis, Sophie Tucker --- and, in this instance, Irene Bordoni, can all be seen today in later film work, but none of which has that beautiful immediacy --- that spark --- that captures these souls just as the twenties would fade out and the decade-long party was declared over, done with and which by the mid-30's would seem so distant as to appear a waking dream."Paris," which would serve as the screen debut for the films three leads --- Bordoni, Buchanan and Louise Closser Hale --- isn't a sought after or yearned for title in the way that, say, Brice and Tucker's "My Man" or "Honky Tonk" is --- and this is puzzling, for while "Paris" transfers the 1928 stage production and two of its stars to the screen virtually intact, the Brice and Tucker films were manufactured to create some sort of screen character in which the performers could utilize their special talents. "Paris," on the other hand, is pure and, it would seem, undiluted direct-from-the-bottle Bordoni, who merely stepped from the stage to the screen with nary a hiccup, dragging her hit Broadway success with her. Certainly, I'd rather all three films were available for evaluation --- but if I had to make the awful and impossible decision of choosing one to be discovered in a Glasgow cinema basement or an Arizona cave, it would be "Paris" --- if just for these reasons.The stage production of "Paris" enjoyed a 195 performance run between October of 1928 and March of 1929 at New York City's Music Box Theater, with composers and lyricists Cole Porter, E. Ray Goetz, Walter Kollo, Louis Alter, Bud Green, Harry Warren, Roy Turk and Fred E. Ahlert providing the musical elements. (The fact that Porter's "Let's Do It - Let's Fall in Love" was the shows break out hit likely accounts for the fact that the production is generally --- but mistakenly --- thought of as a Cole Porter solo flight.)By the time the stage run closed, film rights for "Paris" had been secured --- as well as cast members Irene Bordoni and Louise Closser Hale --- the former who was signed by Warners for $10,000 a week ("for three weeks") for work in both "Paris" and their forthcoming revue "Show of Shows."While the stage version of "Paris" could be described as an intimate three-act musical comedy set entirely in a Paris hotel, the vision for the film version was to expand outward. The hotel setting was preserved for the production's book portion --- but Bordoni's revue performer character would be depicted in her element, neatly providing ready-made flash, color and spectacle for the film's Technicolor sequences.Three of the stage production melodies would be retained (including Porter's "Don't Look at Me That Way") but, regrettably, the hit "Let's Do It" was dropped in one of those frequent head-scratch inducing decisions that dot many of the early sound film stag[...]

"Dancing the Devil Away"


Terrors, both real and imagined, hold sway in this entry, so pull up your collar --- steady your trembling hand as you reach for a flickering candle --- and let us furtively amble down the darkened hallways of other days."See and Hear Spook Music!" was one of numerous print lures used to publicize the 1928 Warner Bros. film "The Terror," which holds the honor of being the first sound horror film with dialogue --- and the sad distinction of also being a lost (and much sought after) film as well.From prepared press releases distributed to newspapers at the time of the film's release, and from scattered local reviews, we can gain an impression of the lost film with some sense of immediacy:"In 'The Terror,' mystery thriller at the __________ this week, the opening titles are announced by a masked man in formal dress with the admonition that no one is to leave the theater until the picture is finished. This warning was totally unnecessary because after 'The Terror' began, the fans could do little but grip their seats.""Black shrouded death hovers throughout the picture while the audience shudders and shivers. Flickering lights, ghostly shadows, strange murders, knives flashing in dark places, shrieks and screams, guns blazing out of darkness, dead bodies falling, appalling situations, a treasure hunt sheeted with deadly angers --- and, throughout, spine chilling touches of human comedy!""There are no subtitles. The characters introduce themselves, and the plot is carried along through voice and action throughout the play --- and successfully too, for in 'The Terror' the realization is brought home as to the possibilities of the Vitaphone. There is none of that delay or slowing up of the action, for which there was criticism of the talking pictures when first introduced.""In this picture, thrills run rampant. Peculiar happenings like screwing men's heads to their bodies and holding spiritualistic seances in the dark, are but a few of the highlights of horror." "The story is set in an old house called Monkhall, which is being used for 'rest cures' for the insane, and which is infested with toads, the harbingers of death --- and tells the story of a maniacal murderer, a Mr. O'Shea, who has eluded police and whose crimes are always marked by devilish ingenuity and characterized by mutilation and horrible violence. An old doctor, played by Alec B. Francis, is the proprietor of the place, and by some mysterious influence he is compelled to stay there with his daughter, played by May McEvoy. Then, one character after another is introduced into the scene, while leaving the impression that each is more weird in 'get up' than the one immediately preceding.""As with all mystery stories, the tale is made up of a succession of queer happenings. Edward Everett Horton in the hero's role is fine in such situations and through the constant use of the Vitaphone, his portrayal is colored more effectively than it would be in the silent drama.""As an example of the added effectiveness obtainable through the Vitaphone, director Roy Del Ruth cites the weird effect secured through a hidden pipe organ whose uncanny interruptions of scenes is one of the many factors injecting a creepy feeling into the play. In the silent drama, the weird effect of the organ's playing would be put over only by the registration of the physical reaction of the player's fingers upon the keys and by written titles. In this Vitaphone production the weird melodies of the organ break into the tense dialogue of the actors, thus setting them on the quest of the cause of the mysterious music and make everybody in the audience eager to tiptoe after.""Other scenes, such as the sound of a falling body in the darkness ind[...]

A Ghost that Walked


In February of 1928, theater audiences in Kansas City, Missouri were visited by old friends whom they once knew as a family of entertainers --- but folly, fate and whim had long since broken this family apart.While Eddie Foy could be seen upon the stage, his eldest son Bryan was in Hollywood --- working feverishly to refine and adapt the new Vitaphone talking picture process in his role of notable film director --- and Foy's remaining six children could be seen and heard as mechanical shadows on the talking picture screen in early Vitaphone output --- this at a time when the process was finding its way and beginning to emerge from its infancy and fast gaining confidence.Two years earlier, in 1926, the sad and not entirely unfamiliar plight of the Foy Family was thought interesting enough to warrant exposure in print via a syndicated news story:"Eddie Foy, for fifty years the most celebrated clown on the American stage, and the proudest father in the profession, is watching with tear-dimmed old eyes the fall of the curtain on his greatest production.""For more than twenty years his success in the theatre has shared the laurels with his fame as the devoted daddy of the Seven Little Foys. But now, harmony no longer reigns in the famous Foy family. The seven little Foys, old enough to fly from the nest, have flown... and the flight of the Foy children is tinged with bitterness and the once concordant clan is a house divided against itself."The events of 1928 --- both on the Kansas City stage and on the Vitaphone screen --- will be visited in this entry but, to be best understood, other places and earlier days must first be visited.Born Edwin Fitzgerald Foy to Irish immigrants Richard and Eileen Hennessy Fitzgerald Foy in the New York City of 1856, Eddie Foy is believed to have first professionally performed before an audience a mere four years after the end of the Civil War --- at a benefit performance for the Chicago Newsboy's Home in 1869 at the age of fifteen. His performance was striking enough to result in numerous offers for similar engagements, and the next seven years were spent learning his art and honing his talent. In 1876, Foy was engaged by Chicago's "Cosmopolitan Vanities" and by 1878 the performer had teamed with a partner named Thompson to tour the then still wild central West of America with Emerson's Minstrels in which Foy participated in blackface sketches, songs and acrobatic dances.It was during this touring period of the West that Foy is thought to have formed friendship with the legendary Doc Holiday, to have encountered Wyatt Earp and to have been present --- or at least nearby, when the altercation at the OK Corral took place!Perhaps seeking the comparatively normal confines of big city theaters, Foy departed Emerson's Minstrels and returned to the variety stage after having played in nearly every major United States city. Foy's popularity led to his engagement with the Kelly & Mason Co. and a role in "The Tigers," a vehicle with which he toured the country.In the years that would follow, Foy would be included in the casts of some of the most successful and elaborate musical comedies that toured the States and abroad, including "An Arabian Girl & 40 Thieves," "Jack in the Box," "Over the Garden Wall," "Ali Baba," "Off the Earth," "The Earl and the Girl," "Cinderella," "Sinbad the Sailor," "The Strange Adventures of Miss Brown," and "Hotel Topsy Turvy," which had a run of over 150 nights at New York City's Herald Square Theater.During this period of rising fame, Foy would be twice wed to actresses --- Rose Howland in 1879 and Lola Sefton in 1886, and twice widowed. In 1896, he'd wed yet again --- to Madeline [...]

"Sweeping the Clouds Away"


The first anniversary of this blog arrives on October 24th, and I couldn't let the occasion pass without prefacing this entry with a few personal thoughts and observations.First and foremost, is my gratitude to you --- the reader. Your support and encouragement speaks volumes for the topics discussed here, proving what I always felt from the first --- that the films and personalities of the early sound motion picture era could be, and are, as much a topic of interest as the silent era that preceded it and the "Golden Era" of Hollywood that would follow it.Although the number of visitors to these pages is a source of immense satisfaction, I can't say as I'm wholly surprised that --- as of this writing --- over 40,000 individuals have found their way here either to be informed or entertained, or to discover a chapter in film history that had been largely relegated to the shadows and odd corners in decades past.It's a credit to the artists and creative minds behind the material in these pages that I've noted visitors from just about every country on earth --- and have been contacted by students, archivists, researchers, private collectors, and surviving relatives of numerous long deceased and sadly forgotten entertainers who have had fragments of their career revived, examined and celebrated here. No matter the purpose of their writing, the one constant element is their surprise and gratitude in finding information they couldn't find elsewhere --- the small human facts that bridge the insurmountable distance between the past and present. Invariably, I close my replies with "Thank you for taking the time to write." In this instance, thank you for taking the time to read.Perhaps some day the information gathered here will find its way to a publisher's desk and be given the chance to survive far longer and reach further than this tentative electronic medium allows. Then too, someone may decide to pull the plug on this venture tomorrow. Whatever the case, it's my pleasure to aid these distant voices, names and titles in doing what they were created to do --- and still yearn to do --- to entertain.The DVD release of Al Jolson's "The Jazz Singer," the sales ranking of which is doubtless dropping the jaws of studio heads (and doubtless prompting inquiries of "why haven't we thought of releasing this stuff before?") may well serve to spearhead future DVD release of material that didn't previously seem to warrant attention. As always, money talks --- and if there's money to be made, well... you know how it goes.There's little additional praise I can add to the uniformly glowing reviews (discounting the inane opinion piece disguised as a review published in the increasingly impotent "Entertainment Weekly") the 3-disc DVD package has received, except to make a special point of applauding the efforts of George Feltenstein of Warner Home Video, without whom the project likely never would have developed and evolved into the loving tribute to the birth of the sound film that it is.Although most copies of the DVD package (including my own) contain two maddening but ultimately small errors in the form of one reel of "The Jazz Singer" being out-of-sync with the accompanying Vitaphone audio (some may argue ruining one of film film's most exhilarating and memorable sequences --- Jolson's first return home to visit his parents) and one of the surviving Technicolor reels from Warner Bros.' 1929 "Gold Diggers of Broadway" (which contained the "Tip Toe thru the Tulips" number) being swapped for a pretty but leaden ballet sequence from MGM's 1930 "The Rogue Song," I urge all outraged parties to consider what we felt our chances were of seeing any[...]

The Orchestra Augmented


Just as we began to believe we knew all there was to know about "The March of Time," MGM's unreleased follow-up to the studio's 1929 "Hollywood Revue," there comes more to learn --- more to consider.Seeing as there doesn't seem to be a single comprehensive study of the film in one place (bits of information are as scattered as the celluloid husk of the production that remains today) these pages seem as good as any to serve as a depository for information. An imperfect research venue to be sure, but far better than none at all.A good deal of what we know today about "The March of Time" was painstakingly pieced together by Jonas Nordin, a Stockholm sound-engineer who, not unlike myself, considers himself something of an Entertainment Archaeologist. Jonas was instrumental in fine-tuning much of what I've written about "The March of Time," and, via a recent communication, provides us with additional insight:"Apparently, 'The March of Time' was indeed complete when shooting finished in February of 1930. After that, (director) Harry Rapf or someone else wasn't happy with the result and decided to make what seems to be random alterations. I think this decision had very much to do with the musical genre suddenly falling out of fashion. MGM simply didn't know what to do with a big budget musical that no one was interested in. So, they tried to make something else out of the $750,000 spent, but failed. I am quite convinced that the finished product that Rapf presented to MGM early in 1930 was much of an artistic disappointment, apart from some good production numbers."We also learn a bit more of what Marie Dressler's contribution to "The March of Time" likely consisted of: A Comic Ballet, and two beautiful parodies of 1890's sentimental ballads --- the titles of which are enough to conjure up the most fantastic mental images: "That's How It's Done On the Stage" and "But Father Mustn't Know I'm Going On the Stage -- He Thinks I'm A Shoplifter."Jonas also relates the heart-breaking account of an employee who worked in the Technicolor vault on several occasions in the 1970's and actually saw much of what was then left of the doomed musical revue: "'March of Time' was in fragments or sections in the vault. There were two-color matrices for certain scenes, and black and white fine grains for others. They also had various variable-density track negatives. (It was) surmised that there was approximately eighty to ninety minutes of basically unedited footage. Yet, we also discovered edited (finished) sections in another area of the vault. (However,) I don't believe that (the film) was finished or 'locked' before the studio pulled the plug on the project before they generated additional expenses. There was a script for the production with the studio legal department too.""Technicolor was, at the time, going through a major purge of their vaults to make room for new materials. So, many two and three-color matrices, optical track negatives, trims, outs and dailies, black & white negatives and fine-grains were being sent to a company in Burbank, California for stripping. They would remove the emulsion and 'repaint' the stock in 1000' lengths for editorial purposes. By the time the footage reached this facility, it was too late to save any product. The owner of the facility showed me hundreds of boxes of film slated for destruction. Many of the boxes were under working titles and I had no idea what they contained, but the time period for other recognizable titles was the late-twenties to mid-thirties."Bleak though the outlook is for additional footage for "The March of Time" turning up any [...]

Old Man Trouble


(image) A minor inconvenience...

Beginning with the next post, a new file server will be employed to host audio files for "Vitaphone Varieties," a move prompted by the erratic performance of the one currently in use.

Please note that until all audio files are transferred to the new server, your ability to listen to audio links contained within past blog posts may well be hampered by slow downloads or error messages.

I hope to complete the transfer of files to the new server within a few days and ask for your patience until then.

Once completed, readers will enjoy faster downloads and no bandwidth restrictions --- resulting in, I believe, a much improved "Vitaphone Varieties" experience for all concerned.

Watch this space for a new post early this week!


"Ne Plus Ultra"


It's always fun to explore early talkies that are lost or obscure, and here we have one that's both lost and obscure, the RayArt production "The Heart of Broadway," which seems to have bowed sometime in very early 1929 and skittered across a handful of screens before vanishing --- apparently forever --- by spring of that year.As described in a Connellsville, Pennsylvania newspaper:"Bobby Agnew, always a favorite with film fans, certainly holds up his record in 'The Heart of Broadway,' the new Rayart drama of night life which opened at the Paramount Theater today. He has the role of Billy Winters, a 'hoofer' in a cabaret, who, because he believes the girl he loves has killed a man in self protection, confesses to the crime himself to save her from the Tombs. She is innocent of the crime as well, and how the whole tragic affair is straightened out and those two youngsters find their happiness affords splendid fare.""Above all, the picture is realistic, and to those who enjoy the study of modern life and its complexities, we recommend a visit to the Paramount Theater during its run. Pauline Garon is the girl, and she plays her part admirably, as she always does. Others in the excellent case include Wheeler Oakman, Duke Lee and Oscar Apfel. It was produced and directed by Duke Worne, from an original story."Odd that a film with so solid (if not earth shattering) clutch of working talent should have fallen so completely off of film history radar. Director Duke Worne had some 70 films notched in his belt by 1928 (and had previously been a film actor from 1914 onward,) while Pauline Garon had recently appeared in Paramount's well received "Redskin" and Warners' "The Gamblers" that same year. Why, even our old friend Wheeler Oakman is here too --- and this talkie business must have seemed old hat indeed to the gentleman who had the misfortune of uttering "Take him for a ride" in Warners' "The Lights of New York" of 1928. Interestingly, the leading man of "The Heart of Broadway," Bobby Agnew ("always a favorite with film fans") appears to have had a stint as a dance director, most notably on "Gold Diggers of 1933" if online film databases are to be considered accurate.Particularly interesting is mention of the sound for "The Heart of Broadway" being provided via the services of "The Synchrophone," a device that doesn't seem to have been associated with any other contemporary production than this one.But, the Syncrophone --- like "The Heart of Broadway," remains a mystery for at least now. Lost technology and a lost film.The 1928 synchronized "Show Girl," also a lost film, was described thus in prepared press materials utilized for a November 1928 run in San Antonio, Texas:"Alice White comes into her own as a full-fledged star for First National in 'Show Girl,' which is showing this week at the Aztec Theater. Not only does she justify the judgment of her producers in selecting her for this role, but she delivers a very entertaining screen play. 'Show Girl' is a story of Dixie Dugan, a world-wise chorus girl, and was written by J.P. McEvoy, and enjoyed a wide circulation in a national magazine. It is filled with the wisest of wise-cracks, and clever situations, and revolves around this girl whose ambition is to become the toast of Broadway -- but not without the aid of a go-getting newspaper reporter. How this chap keeps her on the front pages is a scream, and all the time she is falling in love with him -- but his love making is confined to one sentence, 'S'long, I'll be seein' you.'""After she is kidnapped by a hot-blooded Chilean an[...]

"It Doesn't Have To Be Lobster"


A new season of "Vitaphone Varieties" posts --- and one which will feature a more prolific posting schedule --- must begin with apology for the delay, due entirely to file server outages that did not permit uploads, curbed downloads and refused inquiries as to why. (Indeed, if any reader can recommend a reliable file-server, do let me know?)Kicking things off, two of the finest recordings of two melodies from a film that should seem an old friend, if not a close acquaintance, by now.Here's Jean Goldkette & His Orchestra letting loose in richly spirited and lush renditions of: "Painting the Clouds With Sunshine," and "Tip Toe Thru the Tulips," from -- need you ask? -- "The Gold Diggers of Broadway."Captured here by the camera lens as it looked on a random day in 1919 --- a neatly arranged and sedate phonograph store window --- at a time when the owner would be hard pressed to imagine a day when his shop, it's product line and likely the entire structure that the shop inhabited wouldn't exist as even a living memory.It's curious then that the contents of the shop --- phonographs and recordings, should linger on so persistently, albeit in forms and in use far removed from their original purposes. Vintage phonographs are, in the best circumstances, rescued, salvaged and collected, restored, lovingly tended to and played often.Then too, and alas, a good many of these survivors sit sadly in the corner of rooms serving as little more than a visual curiosity or decorating accent --- their wooden and iron frames silently aching to again vibrate with the music they were designed to play but instead left to harbor dust and termites --- their bodies turned into a lifeless husk that once, long ago, pulsated with music and rhythm. With life.To kick off this new season of blog entries, and to ease our way into what I plan (or at least hope!) to be a considerably more prolific positing schedule, we have both an artist and a recording that defy the passage of time. Behold Irene Bordoni (right) jauntily perched atop an ocean liner deck fitting, circa 1927 or thereabouts. Fashions of the period, so alien and yet oddly familiar at the same time to our eyes, are here taken to new heights --- with an elaborately stitched design serving as a cryptographic monogram ("eye" + "bee" = I.B.) and stockings imprinted with both Bordoni's visage and one of another gentleman I'm hesitant to guess the identity of. Any thoughts, readers?The tune, "Let's Misbehave" is from Cole Porter's "Paris," the 1928 stage production that would, in time, reach the screen in somewhat altered musical form as a similarly titled 1929 Warner Bros. part-Technicolor production which survives today only via Vitaphone disc sound elements.An image, word and audio "reconstruction" of the lost 1929 film "Paris" is in preparation for these pages, and it promises to be one of the more interesting posts of this sort --- watch for it! But, in the meantime, here's Miss Bordoni accompanied by Irving Aaronson & His Commanders:"Let's Misbehave" (1928) Irene Bordoni"You could have a great career, and you should.Only one thing stops you dear, you're too good!If you want a future darling, why don't you get a past?"Now, for some old business. An earlier post, "A Summer Idyll" (13 August 2007) lightly explored the abandoned Metro revue "The March of Time" and its participants, and focused upon the equally stirring and melancholy "Father Time" finale in particular. But what of the rest of the film? Do we know what and whom it would have contained? What it all would h[...]

Pleasure Bound


Late summer of 1912. The sun still warms and heats but the warmth doesn't cling as it did only weeks before. The tree leaves, once lush and soft, now rustle crisply in the breeze sweeping in from the ocean only a few blocks away. End of season at Coney Island's Luna Park."Dardanella" (1919) - CalliopeThis mother and her young son, about to enjoy a hot-dog (tongs are barely visible in the counter clerk's right hand) are, I believe, stopping for a bite to eat before venturing homeward. No child --- of 1912 or 2007, would be easily convinced to pause outside the gates of such a wonderland for food --- and even if persuaded, their attention would surely be intently fixed upon the entrance and the pleasures behind it. No, this young fellow seems content, a bit wistful and perhaps a bit bored at this point. He's had his day. Autumn is ahead --- and school, two elements that could easily result in his pensive pose. Hence, perhaps, this end-of-summer fling provided by an understanding and indulgent mother.You may consider this blog entry to be something of an end-of-summer fling too, as it consists of little more than the voices, music and faces of another day. Simple pleasures I wanted to share with readers before taking a long overdue and much needed holiday in early September, with the next scheduled entry due to appear here the week of the 17th.While the piping, somewhat mournful strains of "Dardanella" still linger, let's listen to a different version of the melody --- this time vocalized across the great expanse of time by Vernon Dalhart and Gladys Rice (a photo of whom can be found at the conclusion of this blog entry.)"Dardanella" (1920) Dalhart & RiceIt's always a jolting surprise to hear Vernon Dalhart's clear melodic voice freed of country, western or hillbilly trappings --- regional vocal dialects that he could turn on and off at will, and lay on as thinly or thickly as required. Personally, it's this unaffected voice that I find the most pleasing and effective, for he possessed a fine sweeping range all too often kept under wraps in things like "The Prisoner's Song" or "The Wreck of the Old '97"--- recordings which would define him to this day, despite the fact that Dalhart as a man seemed to have vastly little in common with the overall clad hayseed character they conjure up. The distinguished, crisply suited gentleman we see here seems so at odds with the recordings which would long outlive him!Al Jolson would introduce "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody" in the 1918 stage production of "Sinbad" (404 performances) and would keep the tune at the ready throughout the rest of his career. A simpler, but no less effective rendition was recorded by Vernon Dalhart (left) and I'll leave it to readers to decide if the tune holds up sans wringing hands, breast beating and bended knee."Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody" (1918)You won't encounter a more gentle and endearing Dalhart than in the next offering, "My Baby's Arms," which was introduced by vocalist John Steel in "The Ziegfeld Follies of 1919." While Dalhart couldn't claim the crystalline trills that Steel so effortlessly flung from his slight frame, this performance of "My Baby's Arms" gives some indication of how effective Dalhart was upon the classical and light opera stage where he began his career in such vehicles as "Madame Butterfly," "Girl of the Golden West" and "H.M.S. Pinafore.""My Baby's Arms" (1919) - Vernon DalhartAnd here's John Steel himself, in his mid-twenties --- at the dawn of t[...]

"A Summer Idyll"


A stretch of Coney Island in the early years of the last century, and the slower pace that summer dictates was as much in place then as it is now.Numerous e-mails from anxious readers prompts and encourages me to return to my post and to assure readers that August and September will be represented by at least two entries each!It's pleasant to lose yourself in photos such as the one seen here, in which the grouping and body language suggests a young couple (far left) on a seaside outing in the company of one or the other's formidable mother (center) and a younger, unmarried sister (right.) A jacket and sweater draped across the back of the bench indicates the morning would have been an unseasonably cool one --- but the presence of bathers wading in the surf hints at the fact it also warmed up nicely. A wrapped box on the edge of the bench looks to be chocolates or similar sweets (a peace offering for Mother perhaps?) and sister seems to have temporarily flung aside the folded newspaper she brought along as a proxy companion.Wishing them all well, we leave this group in their world of 1912 and trot ahead a bit to 1914 for a melody that once seemed to be everywhere during the summer season and is now but a faintly familiar strain. Certainly, I recall the song from my own childhood of the 1960's --- piped thru loudspeakers at seaside amusement parks for the benefit of patrons who would have had living memory of the tune's first appearance, and serving as comfortable "old fashioned" fun for a younger generation that was being transformed by music of quite another sort. All but forgotten today, 1914's "By the Beautiful Sea" is a surprisingly --- not risque, but decidedly bold composition, as the lyrics will reveal. Two versions are offered here --- a voiceless piano transcription, and a fine 78rpm vocalization by Ada Jones and Bobby Watkins."By the Beautiful Sea" - Piano"By the Beautiful Sea" - Jones & Watkins"Joe and Jane were always together,said Joe to Jane, 'I love summer weather,so let's go to that beautiful sea,follow along -- say you're with me!'Anything that Joe would suggest to her,Jane would always think it was best for her,so he'd get his Ford ---holler 'All aboard! Gee I want to be...'(Chorus)By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea,You and I, you and I, oh how happy we'll be!When each eave comes a-rolling in,we will duck or swim,and we'll float and fool around the water...Over and under, and then up for air,Pa is rich, Ma is rich, so now what do we care?I love to be beside your side beside the seaside,beside the sea, beside the beautiful sea!Joe was quite a sport on a Sunday,though he would eat at Child's on a Monday,and Jane would lose her millionaire air,and go to work marceling hair.Every Sunday, he'd leave his wife at home,say 'It's business honey, I've got to roam,'then he'd miss his train, get his Ford and his Jane,and say 'Come with me....'(Repeat Chorus)There's something neatly surprising and modern at discovering that the sea romping Joe and Jane are in fact using the shore as their trysting place --- with Joe abandoning wife ("it's business, honey") to fetch his hairdresser girlfriend in his Ford, enabling the pair to head off to the seaside and lose themselves in the throng of hundreds of other Joes and Janes in similar circumstances. Then as now, there's a long, long trail a-winding...That aside, the business of seaside dips looked to be at least as troublesome as it is today, just considerably more uncomfortable. Bathin[...]

"Big Whoopee Show"


We enter this installment in the cheerful company of Bessie Love, Cliff Edwards and one very lucky ukulele! The trio suggests a swift, soaring, swooping, varied and light-hearted pace is in order for this entry and we'll insure that happens with our very first musical selection:"When Erastus Plays His Old Kazoo" (1927)The artists here are the Savoy Orpheans, and you won't likely find a more merry, bright and tight orchestration of this infectiously gleeful tune than this one. Just try keeping still during this one!Interestingly, a 1929 newspaper item concerning the (then) new trend of talkie stars appearing on phonograph records, and mentions that Bessie Love would be stepping before the microphone for a disc of vocalizing and ukulele strumming --- but alas, I can find no listing suggesting any such recording was released. Perhaps one of the many 78rpm experts to visit these pages can offer further information?Some three years earlier, in October of 1926, the multi-talented Bessie Love was called upon by Photoplay magazine to demonstrate the surprisingly complicated steps and moves that constituted a new dance that was then sweeping the globe, serving as, really, a cultural "release-valve" for the incredible energy that had been steadily building since the close of the Great War."The Charleston is one of those things that, like a striking slang phrase, seems to come from nowhere, yet is instantly everywhere. It just came naturally, like time or space, no beginning and, apparently, no end."The dance would flare up and burn hotly --- with a myriad of variations --- for a scant two or three years before being relegated to quaint novelty status. Despite that, it lives on still today --- as much an all encompassing cliche representing an entire decade as "The Twist" and "The Hustle" would define, via dance, later periods. This, of course, before popular culture was inexplicably purged of the ability to originate anything new!Bessie sagely advises prospective hot steppers, "Don't try to do the dance fast at first. If you do, you'll get into difficulties."Indeed, with such exotic-sounding step interpolations as "The Turkish," "Picking Cherries," and especially "Falling Down Stairs," you may prefer --- as I do --- to examine Miss Love's dexterity (and that of Anna Q. Nilsson, Shirley Mason and Ann Pennington in the accompanying images) while listening to a late 1925 recording of the immortal tune by the Savoy Orpheans, who have lingered long enough to perform:"Charleston" (1925) - The Savoy OrpheansThen too, as this isn't a topic I'm ever likely to visit again, you really ought to hear Paul Whiteman's 1925 rendition, which threatens to self-combust with each listening. Oh yes --- it's mighty hot to begin with, and then made even more so with the addition of a delightfully lunatic nonsense vocalization that says nothing --- and yet, somehow, says it all."Charleston" (1925) Paul Whiteman & His OrchestraNot unlike dance steps that spring up and fall from favor with the arrival and departure of seasons or with shifts in the collective mood, so it was with popular authors of the day. Print ads for RKO's "Dance Hall" (1929) boldly called attention to the fact that this was "Vina Delmar's Big Whoopee Show," and while that name (and entire phrase) might prompt eyes to narrow and brows to arch today, audiences of 1930 knew the name well --- and, more importantly from a marketing standpoint, knew what the branding signified.We howeve[...]

"The Battle Cry of Syncopation"


Looking at us, as we look at her --- Sophie Tucker --- on the set of the 1929 Warner Bros. & Vitaphone production "Honky Tonk," a film considered to be lost. Not misplaced, but left to slowly decay and fall away into the same abyss of nothingness that ultimately claims all that is not tended to --- looked after --- preserved.Tucker is seen here with her personal pianist Teddy Shapiro, and the pair gamely plays along with the Warner Bros. publicity machine --- hoping to make the best of what Tucker deemed a bad situation, a bad script and what she expected to be a bad film.As she gazes at the lens, she couldn't have known we'd be returning her glance some seventy-eight years in the future --- but that knowledge would have, doubtless, pleased the entertainer immensely. And, when you come right down to it, the fact that picture elements for her film "Honky Tonk" have apparently vanished would have also likely pleased her too, cruel though that may seem to us from our vantage point.How ironic that the small clutch of early talking films and musicals that would likely have the greatest and widest appeal today are not only those that were --- by and large --- either panned or politely ignored by the public they were created for, but also featured persons or production elements that we'd so readily embrace, study and applaud today were it only possible. While much of what we're left with today is good --- and some of it exceptional --- the list is far eclipsed by titles not necessarily of historical importance, but rather films that (had they survived intact) serve to illustrate pivotal moments in early-sound cinema history as well as likely cause us to reevaluate our perceptions and notions of the period.Not many months after the halting uncertainty of the stilted dialogue contained in something like "The Lights of New York" (WB-1928,) cinema strengthened and gathered itself together swiftly enough to evolve into the smooth, swift, dazzling kaleidoscopic Technicolor hued "On With the Show!"(Picture right - Note the portrait of Paramount star Mary Eaton on one cosmetic case!) and "Gold Diggers of Broadway," (both 1929) but because these latter two films are either largely lost or exist only in murky black and white step-down prints, we're unable to see the pay-off --- the evolution --- the natural progression --- and instead we're left with the oft trotted out painful footage from "Lights of New York" to illustrate and wrongfully represent the entire period.For "personality" pictures of the period, Mr. Jolson's work is certainly with us today --- but he comes packaged with heavy and uncomfortable baggage that will cloud his name forever, or for as long as we feel the need to call special attention to that fact and indulge in far too much hand wringing and fretting while his films remain largely kept from view.We have legendary Ziegfeld performer Marilyn Miller's "Sally" (WB-1929) and "Sunny" (WB-1930) both with us, but as films which exist only as muddy, imperfect shadows of how they originally looked and sounded. Because of this, viewers today are left to struggle to locate, beneath the grain and muck, the same unique spark of vitality that Miller so effortlessly radiated and which 1929/30 audiences found so easily when these films once glistened and shimmered upon theater screens instead of appearing as gray smears on television monitors.Indeed, some of the most yearned-for "lost" films of t[...]

"Eyes Front - Ears Wide Open - and Listen!"


The magnificent bit of artwork at the left is detail from an insert poster for the 1928 Fox thriller "A Thief in the Dark," which is one of countless films that appeared at the end of the silent era with little fanfare, did whatever box-office business it was expected to do, and then simply vanished into the chasm of lost films from which few ever manage to climb out from, or even wave a feeble hand from some dark corner on the globe to confirm it's survival and signal for help."A Thief in the Dark" doesn't appear to have been especially memorable, or profitable either for that matter, but it does seem to have been finely crafted and wonderful entertainment for the scant few weeks the Spring and Summer of 1928 that it flitted across cinema screens before leaving this world, presumably forever.Archive database descriptions of the film, as per normal, effectively strip away the aura of mystery and intrigue that both Fox and the film itself manufactured, so let's instead attempt to restore some of that initial enthusiasm and "buzz" that surrounded the film by reading a compilation of contemporary newspaper press releases to learn more of 1928's "A Thief in the Dark:""Jewel thieves, ghosts, secret stairways, hidden passageways, swishing panels and spiritualistic materializations, coupled with hilarious comedy situations all go to make up 'A Thief in the Dark,' Fox Films' circus comedy melodrama.The story is from the pens of Albert Ray, who directed the film, and Kenneth Hawks, Fox Supervisor. Together, they paint a vivid picture of a gang of side-show crooks who attempt to steal a fortune in jewels from an eccentric old recluse and his pretty granddaughter."I wouldn't need one word more to convince my to reserve a seat in advance for a screening, but for the skeptical among us, let's continue..."Thirty trick sets, designed by Harry Oliver, the Fox art and technical director, were created under his direction for the Albert Ray production in which thrills and chills alternate with laughter and suspense."Oliver was chosen to head the corps of technicians who set the stage for this mystery photoplay because of a theatrical background that fitted him for the job. Before coming to moving pictures fifteen years ago, he spent six years backstage at theaters, 'pulling the strings' scores of times for the late Harry Houdini and the late Harry Kellar, world renowned magicians.""If the hoo-doo numeral '13' is considered unlucky by some, Director Albert Ray fears it not. He began shooting on February 13th, and during that first scene, a black cat walked across the set. Turning around while the cameras paused, Ray happened to look into the eyes of a visitor on the set --- and those eyes were crossed, hardly a good omen to some showmen. To top this off, there are 13 players with important roles in this picture, and one of them is handled by Gwen Lee, who is one of the 13 Wampas Baby Stars for 1928."The cast of "A Thief in the Dark" featured Michael Vavitch as 'Professor Xeno,' the turbaned mystic depicted in the poster (who meets a spectacularly gruesome end in the film when a jewel case, wired with explosives, blows up in his face,) along with George Meeker, Doris Hill, Gwen Lee, Noah Young and Marjorie Beebe. Photographed by Arthur Edeson ("All Quiet on the Western Front") and with titles by William Kernell, "A Thief in the Dark" clocked in at six reels at a time when enough of its con[...]