29 March 2009

"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 prominent radio station to broadcast his party, commenting on the arrival of each guest, etc. As they entered, Beery phoned a certain number and almost immediately from the radio loudspeaker came laudatory words of welcome. The guests thought it very fine and complimented Beery on the stunt."

"William Wellman was one of the last to arrive. As he entered the door of the house, the radio spoke words to this effect: 'Here is Billy Wellman, the slave-driving director who beats his wife, sticks pins in his children and tortures his actors. He should be in jail and probably will be soon.'"

"After Wellman had recovered from the shock, and the guests from their hysteria, Beery revealed that the radio was a private affair and that the 'announcer' was George Bancroft, out in the garage."

We pause for melody! Who, of a certain age, won't recognize Paul Whiteman's 1928 recording of "Dancing Shadows" as serving as incidental scoring on what seemed like countless dozens of silent films in the earliest years of home video marketing? Infinitely more interesting than most of the films it accompanied at that time, hearing it again is not unlike greeting an old friend who, maddeningly, never seems to age.

"Dancing Shadows" (1928)

Mr. Ian McIver, who maintains the astounding "Virtual Radiogram" website based in the United Kingdom -- a mecca for theater organ enthusiasts, historians and all else in between -- and a reader of these pages, kindly sent along two of his favorite recordings by Regal Cinema organist Sydney Torch. The first, "When East Meets West" (a medley recorded in 1935 at the Regal Cinema, Edmonton) fits nicely with our nod towards "Chinatown Nights." The second, "Hotter than Ever," (recorded in 1934 at the Regal Cinema, Marble Arch) is sheer, shimmering cinema organ pleasure.

"When East Meets West" (1935)

"Hotter Than Ever" (1934)

Mr. McIver's website (link in above paragraph) is a multi-layered treasure of information (Jesse Crawford fans will be especially delighted!) of cinema organ history in the States, the United Kingdom, Australia and other locales --- accompanied by heaps of graphics and, best of all, a myriad of audio files. Be prepared to spend many a happy hour exploring! Many thanks to Mr. McIver for sharing with us!

Summer, 1929:

"The rhythmic tapping of the feet of 50 dancing girls - the wailing of saxophones and the high notes of an opera tenor in a theatrical boarding house - the bark of gangster's guns and the quiet 'raise you five grand' in a poker game are said to be some of the high spots in the First National Vitaphone picture 'Broadway Babies.'"

"'Broadway Babies' takes you behind the scenes in a big musical comedy theater, into night clubs of Broadway, and into the theatrical boarding house. It is a story of theatrical life, the experiences of three young hoofers who are fighting for recognition behind the footlights. Dazzling sets, particularly the theatrical scenes and those in the night clubs, promise to be exceptional."

So declared studio publicity releases farmed out to newspaper syndicates in mid 1929, and for once, the claims were valid --- and remain valid in 2009.

Is there a more charmingly cluttered (both visually and aurally) early talking film than "Broadway Babies?" Despite the abundance of optical and audio excess --- or because of it, "Broadway Babies" could easily (and should!) be called upon to serve as the leading surviving example of what talking cinema was like at that point in time --- when the part-talking hybrids had largely given up the ghost, and Hollywood had resolved to embrace and enhance the new medium. Best of all, by today's standards, "Broadway Babies" doesn't dull the senses -- it excites them.

The overly-decorated sets give the eye something to settle upon at every viewing (once one has had enough time to digest Alice White's limited repertoire of acting modes) and the soundtrack, bless it --- is a technical masterpiece of the period. Long before the term "multi-track" had even been a fanciful notion, "Broadway Babies" layers dialogue, incidental sound effects and a nearly start-to-finish astonishingly intricate background musical score into a practically seamless, unified whole.

"Broadway Babies" served as the opening talking picture attraction at the newly wired-for-sound Lantex Theater (Llano, Texas) in late 1929, and the arrival of talkies themselves was deemed of enough importance to warrant a special newspaper pull-out "Talkie Section" as well. Perhaps in the days leading up to the re-opening of the theater, citizens heard this special Victor exploitation recording being played outside the theater or in local record and phonograph shops?:

"Broadway Babies" (1929)

The following publicity placement for the now presumed-lost 1930 film "She Couldn't Say No" was heralded as being written by the film's star, Winnie Lightner, herself. While doubtful at best, the piece does serve to give us an idea of the filmed that can't easily be gleaned otherwise:

"While I was playing the leading role in 'She Couldn't Say No,' I realized for the first time what a heartbreaking experience it is for a woman to love a man who does not love her. I studied the part so thoroughly that I am sure I gained a complete understanding of the character. Of course, it would not do for me to say that I play it convincingly, but when you see 'She Couldn't Say No,' I hope you will enjoy my performance. I sure did my best to entertain you."

"In the story I am Winnie Harper, a big-hearted night club entertainer, who falls madly in love with Jerry, a racketeer, and then almost breaks her neck reforming him - which is always a silly thing for a woman to do. But then, Winnie loved the way she did everything else. With all her heart and soul."

"She succeeds in keeping him on the straight and narrow path for a long time by employing him as her manager. Inspired by the love she lavishes on him, she goes on to bigger and better things until she lands a job as the prize attraction at the swellest night club in town. With Jerry drawing 10% of her salary things go along smoothly and Winnie begins to think that her luck has changed and that she and Jerry are going to live happily ever after."

"Blinded by her own love, she refuses to see that Jerry's indifference is due to the fact that he does not love her. And then the dreadful blow! Winnie discovers that Jerry has fallen in love with a society girl who is attracted to him because he is so different from the men she has been acquainted with all her life. To keep up with her crowd he joins the 'gang' in a job, is arrested and sent to jail."

"Winnie still fights for the man and just when she thinks she is winning, the society girl steps into the picture again. Believe me, this poor girl certainly has her heartbreaking moments. When you see the picture you will sympathize with her just as I did. Of course, Jerry eventually comes to his sense but - well, it's too late. In watching the misfortunes of Winnie you, too, are going to understand what a tragic thing it is for a woman to love in vain."

Clearly, today's film trailers which painstakingly spell out each plot twist and treat you to every notable scene, visual element or clever line of dialogue, can trace their lineage back to this sort of counter-productive publicity placement! Sadly, at this stage in the game, it is unlikely we'll ever have the chance to see for ourselves --- but, stranger things have indeed happened.

As performed by vocalist Welcome Lewis, these two covers of melodies from "She Couldn't Say No" are pleasant enough, but nobody could belt 'em out like Winnie, so --- lacking Vitaphone disc audio in absence of the film itself, we must content ourselves.

"Watching My Dreams Go By" and "A Darn Fool Woman Like Me" (1930) Welcome Lewis

Melody that arrived between the end of the Great War and the dawn of the 1920's is as unique, to my way of thinking, as it is difficult to describe. There's a palpable sense of release and relief in this music, as we moved away from the terrible struggles and senseless death that permeated the War, and began to find a new place and sense of self in the weak first light of the new decade. Teetering and wavering between the old and the new, tentatively dipping into new forms of musical expression, these tunes capture a moment in time and history when all seemed possible, once having survived what was once deemed impossible.

"Darling" (1919)
"Rose Room" (1920)
Art Hickman & His Orchestra (Above)

"Make Believe" (1921)

Nora Bayes (Above)

"Oh By Jingo" (1919)
as performed by:

Margaret Young (1920) and Frank Crumit (1920)
(Imagine what Charlotte Greenwood did with this song!)

"Girl of My Dreams" (1929)
"I'm Waiting for Ships That Never Come In"
Performed by Maurice Gunsky (above)

Has anyone any information about this rather interesting vocalist?

Medley from "Whoopee!" (1930)
Medley from "Monte Carlo" (1930)
Performed with Orchestra by Pianist Raye de Costa

Medley from "The Love Parade" (1929)
Jack Payne & His BBC Orchestra

"Why Be Good?" (1929)
Vitaphone Disc Excerpt
A quiet, lilting melody in a sea of swirling jazz --- can anyone identify it?

"Nola" (1927) The Revelers
"Hello Bluebird" (1926) Vincent Lopez & His Orchestra
"High, High, High Up in the Hills" (1927) Nat Shilkret & the Victor Orchestra

Excerpt from "Jack White & His Montrealers"
(Vitaphone Short Subject # 791)
"I'm Ka-Razy For You" ("Say It With Songs") - Ruth Petty
"Mean to Me" - The Lee Sisters

Medley - "The Gold Diggers of Broadway" (1929)

Wishing all Readers a Happy, Safe and --- Let's Hope --- PROSPEROUS Spring Season!