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Monday, March 22, 2010

Book Choice --- A Song In The Dark

I’ve been having a wine and cheese couple of weeks in the company of wonderful things recently out in print and DVD. Their having arrived together was a happy confluence for this digger into early musicals. First the book. A Song In The Dark is a newly published second edition of Richard Barrios’ 1995 volume about talking-singing-dancing’s conquest of movies. It was acclaimed then, and thanks to new and updated chapters, is even better now. There's no more informed study on this subject anywhere, but Barrios is never stolid or academic. In fact, he’s the wittiest observer of classic film I’ve come across since Bill Everson left us. There are out loud laughs all through this book. Barrios is dead accurate to history and scrupulous with insider revelations, much of which was new to me. He’s also a long time film collector and knows pot-holed routes these negatives traveled as well as current preservation status of each. Coverage is detailed but not dull. I remembered the 1995 edition as among best film books of that decade. This one pretty much cinches Top Placement for the naughts. That happy confluence I mentioned was Warner Archive’s release of a brace of seriously early musicals that play merrily along with reading A Song In The Dark. You can widen out to DVD’s others have issued, as Barrios covers every talking tune-fest between 1927 and 1934. My best fun comes of reading about films just after watching, so all this falls under heading of time most pleasurably spent, and I’d recommend the parlay to anyone who has interest in this most fascinating of movie eras.

Some will blanch at primitivism of stone-aged musicals, but for me they work precisely because most were banished to obscurity and are somewhat disreputable today, even among classic followers. So many play lumpen and shapeless. It’s as though musicals spent those first several years struggling to give birth, only to miscarry time and again. Owners shamed for having made them drowned many in the river. Few genres starting out require so much of our patience, yet sheer perversity among many of us treasure these relics for just that. Sometimes I prefer feet that clomp instead of tap. Maybe Hollywood was too soon getting slick at their musicals, for visible strain at putting on shows is an endearing trait of earliest ones, the very edge an industry would smooth off to a polished, if duller, sheen. I’m for transporting back to sensibilities of patrons seeing musicals first-run, when the very idea of screen song was revolutionary. What was it really like sitting before Vitaphones fresh out of the box? Being numb to technological innovation, it’s hard for us to imagine standing up to cheer a projected image, yet 1927 audiences did … and often. The earliest talkies are best enjoyed when we channel empathy to folks who were there and amazed when all of it was new. Many personalities that mastered talkies saw fame redoubled, but none more so than Al Jolson. Some might be surprised to learn there are still Jolson fan groups around. Eighty years ago, it seems everyone was a Jolie fan. To watch The Singing Fool and Say It With Songs is to wonder how tastes then could differ so radically from our own. Both were smash hits in 1928-29. I’d wager most of our grandparents had song sheets of Sonny Boy. Part of Al’s success was novelty of sound, but most derived from his virtual leap off a singing screen into audience laps. This was performance 3-D without glasses. Jolson was applauded to a point where he thought more was always more, with subtlety better left to talent his inferior (which for Al was everyone else in show business). For all his public’s huzzahs, the man was not unreasonable thinking himself a god among entertainers.

The Singing Fool and Say It With Songs were seldom revived like The Jazz Singer. Their stake in history was more economic than aesthetic. Beyond the fact it was a phenomenal commercial hit, much more so than The Jazz Singer, The Singing Fool is forgotten, Say It With Songs even more so. Warners made both available in a laser disc box of Jolsons back in the eighties. Now they’re part of the Archive Collection, sans remastering. Why throw good money after bad? TCM stays generally clear of Jolson for apprehension over blackface routines spotted through most of his pics. That plus severely dated content leaves them scarcely missed. Al frankly looks more natural blacked up. His face otherwise seems bleached out to me. Maybe it’s distressed negatives at fault. You expect musical stars to play happy and convey it to us, but Warners saw Al as tragic troubadour done in by wiles of women, with sickbeds a persistent last stop for cherub offspring. Say It With Tears might have been a more apt title for that 1929 offering, for here again was Jolson fielding heartbreak. Is this what finally turned audiences away? The Singing Fool’s popularity was endorsement of Al as tragedian. His "Little Pal" was Davey Lee, adorable scamp of every parent’s dream. What was it about Davey’s public that liked him best dead or dying? Infants and toddlers were more vulnerable in those days. Maybe watching one pass on movie screens helped ward off such visitation in real life. Did make-believe surrogates like Davey Lee keep real-life Grim Reapers at bay? The Singing Fool fairly wallows in its ocean of grief. Jolson can barely get out his final (and at least third) reprise of Sonny Boy without collapsing onstage. Of millions watching in 1928, I wonder how many had lost a toddling family member. Enough to make The Singing Fool and Sonny Boy twin smashes, that’s sure. Sometimes entertainment strikes a public’s nerve in ways barely calculated by makers. As risible as we find much of The Singing Fool and Say It With Songs, they did have meaning and affect for a generation that lacked health care advantages we enjoy today, and ham-fisted though he was, Al Jolson spoke to grim chance that stalked his audience and loved ones at home.
Richard Barrios will appear and present a program of early musical highlights this week at the Syracuse Cinefest.


Blogger Samuel Wilson said...

John, I've read and enjoyed both editions of Barrios's book. I appreciate the updated information in the new one but I recall the first edition having a stronger narrative momentum that's sacrificed a bit in the new edition's streamlined approach. But that may be because the history's no longer new for me. In any event, the Barrios book is an indispensible textbook for appreciating the aesthetics of "obsolete" film.

11:52 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

You know, of course, that composers of "Sonny Boy" pretty much wrote it as a joke (Jolson had given them the first two lines as inspiration). They were allegedly stunned to see people openly weeping when Jolson sang it.

I saw "The Singing Fool" at a convention celebrating Jolson's
100th birthday. Even as a Jolson fan, I thought the climax was corny. Yet when the lights came up, people were, once again, weeping. Jolie still had it in him!
(By the way, Davey Lee autographed my program the same day!)

4:22 PM  
Blogger Unca Jeffy said...

I gotta get to that Warner Archive e-mail I've been putting off for too long...NOW!

I too love the hell outta the old musicals. In fact teh whole beginning sound era is great to watch 1928-1933 or so. Artists learning how to use new tools. Great stuff!

6:42 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

This is by no means a scientific conclusion, but three of the four sets of great-grandparents in my family lost toddlers, two due to pneumonia. The third died during the 1918 influenza epidemic, which took a heavy toll on many families. I'd wager the sentiment in "Sonny Boy" rang true for a significant percentage of patrons.

7:10 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson sent along some interesting thoughts on a later Jolson film, Hallelujah, I'm A Bum:

I recall seeing that one and being disappointed (it was released on regular DVD some years back). It was comparatively slick, and had some nice bits (a long trucking shot through a bank goes from businessmen talking million dollar deals to tellers working out a dollar loan for lunch). But I can't help but feel it felt strange even in the 30's -- especially in the 30's, with its band of happy bums. They were like Top Cat or Freddy the Freeloader, living in comic comfort in Central Park and getting gourmet handouts served to them behind restaurants.

This effectively scuttled the plot, which had "King of the Bums" Jolsen rescuing a pretty suicide who lost her memory, then taking a job (easy enough since the mayor -- a very young Frank Morgan -- was one of his buddies) to become worthy of her. In the end he loses the girl (who was the mayor's girlfriend) and returns to his old life in Central Park. This could have been moving (walking away from a safe berth was obviously no small deal), or funny, or satirical, but somehow comes off as the end of a TV episode where the status quo is restored for next week.

Harry Langdon was a streetcleaner with unclear politics -- he ranted in old-style communist language, but most of his ranting was directed against the bums as parasites. If he or the producers had the confidence to ditch his trademark silent costume, it might have registered as a pretty good turn, despite the strange material. Some of the Rodgers & Hart songs were nice, but no showstoppers, and the rhyming dialogue gimmick didn't really click.

Ultimately this is one of those films where the whole is maddeningly less than the sum of its parts, even when viewed through academic eyes.

7:36 PM  
Anonymous Richard said...

Your enthusiasm for the Richard Barrios book matches my own. I have the new edition as well.

I have loved classic films since I was a kid, and I (foolishly)thought I knew everything about movies, and musicals especially. However reading A SONG IN THE DARK opened up a whole new world of film history to me; and around the time the book was first published, the Film Forum in New York had a series of pre-code musicals and I was fortunate enough to see FOLLOW THRU, SUNNY SIDE UP, WONDER BAR and MURDER AT THE VANITIES on a movie screen.

Now, thanks to the Warner Archive, so many films, familiar to me only as stills from the pages of THE MGM STORY and A SONG IN THE DARK, can now be seen once more.

12:10 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Richard, of those musicals you mentioned, "Follow Thru" is the one I've never seen, but would most like to, what with its two-color Technicolor and what's said to be a beautifully preserved print.

3:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


To quote a certain Mr. Hardy, "I didn't realize that such a deplorable condition existed in your home!" No FOLLOW THRU? That's one of my all-time top favorites.

You've been very generous to me, and so I will be glad remedy the lack of FOLLOW THRU in your collection.

5:39 AM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

You won't be disappointed in Follow Thru John, and if what Mr. Finegan is able to provide you is anything like the UCLA Film Archive print I saw at Palo Alto's Stanford Theatre, the Technicolor will be exquisite.

Most of all, though, thanks for the heads-up that a new edition of the Richard Barrios book is out; I lent out my first edition copy some years ago and never got it back.

[And BTW, just to show an oblique little connection to an earlier post of yours: Believe it or not, I now own Mr. Barrios's (former) personal print of the 1933 Alice in Wonderland!]

1:44 AM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

John, Richard and Michael,

Looking back at this juncture, I would have to say my whole life has been a "deplorable condition" (Do I see a show of hands out-there?) Interestingly, (and maybe not so interestingly, as this really concerns human life, not movies) my grandfather took his last name after his first born son (Jerome) died during that influenza epidemic of 1918. It was just at that time that his first hit song was published, "Just A Baby's Prayer at Twilight" by Waterson, Berlin and Snyder and since his last name at that time was Krause, Irving Berlin suggested he Anglosize it, since all things Germanic were looked upon with some disdain. Since I hate the name Krause, I'm far more grateful to Mr. Berlin for that than for "White Christmas"!

I also read with some interest your reactions to "Hallelujah, I'm A Bum". It was not a success in 1933, for probably the very reasons you pointed-out, John. (Contrast this with Eddie Cantor's "Roman Scandals" that same-year, which I gather was a mega-hit at the Box Office.) It's source of inspiration would appear to be not the later Top Cat, but "The Beggars' Opera" and in this very experimental - sense I think works rather well. The production was I understand beset with problems from the get-go, and was the one and only result of a planned partnership among Joe Schneck, Lewis Milestone and Jolson. After that, Jolson went back to Broadway to do "Wonder Bar" and Warners brought him back to film it. I find the film, although flawed, really quite enjoyable. The long tracking shot in the bank you mention was a very typical Milestone "Touch" (you'll notice that he does this alot, going all the way back to "The Garden of Eden" in 1928, and there is a similar tracking shot thru a hotel in "The General Died at Dawn"). The last little man in that scene, (the bank teller) who says one-word, "No!" is Larry Hart himself. His partner Rogers is the young and good-looking photographer who wants to snap Morgan's pic at the corner-stone ceremony. Although it's true the score did not have any real hits that emerged, "You Are Too Beautiful" is a genuinely beautiful number and a pretty fair title in the R&H catalogue. This was, by the way, a particular favorite of Mel Tormes'. Somebody once told me that he kept a 16mm print at his home.

Deplorably yours,


7:11 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

RJ, I've had the DVD of "Hallelujah, I'm A Bum" for several years, but had not gotten around to looking at it (I'd seen the film years ago on a UHF public domain movie series). Having read your observations, I'll certainly want to get it out now.

9:36 AM  

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