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Monday, July 19, 2021

Closest Opera Got to Winning Us?

 The Rogue Song Sings It Loud and Proud

Not having got last week’s column off my mind, so am dogged especially by the term “operetta,” and what it signifies. Google says, “a short opera, usually on a light or humorous theme and typically having spoken dialogue.” I think what they are thinking, what they mean, is that operetta is diminished opera for those too dense to proper-absorb the real thing. Having lately “seen,” at least heard and sort-of seen, The Rogue Song, an arrival to You Tube that is close as is presently possible to get at 1930’s long missing MGM pageant in two-color Technicolor, I feel a fifty-year goal has been met, if not ideally realized. The Rogue Song starred Lawrence Tibbett, Catharine Dale Owen, plus reasons for anxiety to locate it in full, Laurel and Hardy. Whoever is behind this miraculous assembly should get some sort of film historian award (who gives those out, or has received one? Still waiting for mine but am not optimistic). Dreamt of seeing The Rogue Song from when William K. Everson wrote on the topic. Since then, clips and fragments have turned up. No idea how much had been found until watching YT's reconstruction. Seems a hodgepodge reel surfaced in a Czech archive, which is welcome further glimpse. More thrilling in a way to experience “lost” films dragged from deepest wells by tortured increment than to get them sudden-shiny and new, like earning your hot fudge cake instead of wait staff just plopping it down in front of you. Still however, there is the issue of operettas to settle, first off, is The Rogue Song an operetta, or a first and maybe only instance where real opera got made as a movie? Or maybe not ... but let us pretend that's the case so we can celebrate accordingly.

I think The Rogue Song may have been a closest audiences got to Grand Opera on film simply because Lawrence Tibbett was in it. His was the Certificate of Authenticity for having been lead baritone at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Tibbett’s mere presence assured us we were seeing something like the real, Grand, thing, even if The Rogue Song fell otherwise within junior category called “Operetta.” These needed no apology, had been popular not only on stages, but in talking films of a year before The Rogue Song. Broadway vogue for operetta lasted a lucrative four years between 1924 and 1928. Many ran over five hundred performances. European-styled as each were, they spoke resolute English, so drew a wide and appreciative audience. Properties would be made, and remade, by Hollywood (The Desert Song, The Student Prince, The Vagabond King, others). Again, as Deems Taylor said, the thing that blocked mainstream acceptance for Grand Opera was the fact it was not performed in English, whereas operettas were. Taylor pointed out the paradox of great European playwrights whose dramas had long since been translated into English and presented in the US. Suppose we had been limited from a start to native-generated theatre? Marquees would have gone blank quick. Deems Taylor asked why not adapt European opera to our language? If it worked with Ibsen and like drama, which it did, no reason why opera can't make the transition, fact this did not get done a career-long canker for the composer/critic. What we lacked in the United States, he said, was homegrown opera companies using modern theatre facilities that could be overseen by personnel expert in the ways of translation, with a sophisticated grasp of all languages engaged. Only then would Americans truly embrace Grand Opera (“Think of being able to follow the action of an opera as if it were a play, with the added emotional excitement of the music!”). But imagine effort and expense required to reach that summit. Small wonder Taylor could not see his dream realized. A pipedream perhaps --- we all have them. Now, let’s get back to planning that palace for silent cinema with its full time seventy-piece orchestra.

Operettas were our opportunity to Americanize opera, as close as we got to Deems Taylor’s hope. Operetta pointed a way to a tradition we could call our own, that tradition to be fully formed by the movies once they began to talk and sing. Musicals on film must be acknowledged as America’s contribution to culture, a popular if not a “fine” one. No question we led in that field. Opera aspects were borrowed, adapted, to what US patronage would tolerate, and the best of it was genuinely enjoyed, or else the lot would be rejected at ticket windows. No one showed up at movies because they should. They came because our musicals gave pleasure enough to pay willingly for. One might feel elevated for having gone to see Naughty Marietta, for what was this but opera folks could comprehend, and have fun with. The Deanna Durbin series arrived on soaring vocals and classical airs besides. Leopold Stokowski saw fame expand as never before by appearing in One Hundred Men and a Girl. Fans figured a Dick Powell could cinch opera should he cast his lot with it, but who would want that? MGM collected sopranos against a day audiences would not want them anymore. That day never came, at least through a Studio Era. The Marx Brothers only half-kidded Opera when they spent a Night there, as straight performance by singing support bears out. Comedians were congenial to operetta, Laurel and Hardy building upon promise of The Rogue Song with a longish run at similar set-ups, Fra Diavolo almost a remake for core situation it set up. And so would follow Babes in Toyland, The Bohemian GirlSwiss Miss more of an approximate same. If these had not done well, Roach would not have gone on making them. In the end, maybe we didn’t need Grand Opera on an American plan, most of undoubted opinion that we had improved upon it.

The Rogue Song
was treated like Opener Night at the Met. Never had such respect been accorded an upstart shadow play. Lawrence Tibbett’s was the face and voice from which electric bolts sprang, as in ad at left, and by 1930 consensus a most exciting arrival to screens since … who? There was no one to make comparison with, Caruso not having done talkies, nor likely to (d. 1921). There was a formal premiere at Broadway’s Astor Theatre, which meant you dressed up or they would know why you didn't. Seats were fifty cents to two dollars. Think of that on January 1930 terms. Legit was one thing in terms of lording it over movies (except in terms of dollars, which, of course, counted most), but opera was exalted above any/all that pretended to culture. The Rogue Song may have been a first occasion where attending a film amounted to social necessity, a Broadway opening fully equal to anything to debut live on the Stem. It played many Astor months, not so long out west, too much cactus between coasts,  for how could opera catch on in California? Still, there were H’wood celebs said to have seen it over and over, to wit Norma Shearer, who came eight times to the Grauman run, Colleen Moore five, C.B. DeMille the same, Garbo and Jack Gilbert, impliedly together on three occasions. Skittish stars new to talk showed up so they could learn from Tibbett, his baritone booming off walls, and in a few instances blowing tubes to shock and awe of booth staff. This guy made sound and song a force of nature almost unnatural. Got to admit he startles me where unwrapping those pipes for another go at baritoning. Was there such thing as being too exciting a find?

Tibbett breaking the sound barrier got trade attention. Too loud, said Exhibitors Herald-World (2/8/30). We don’t need “back-walls of the theatre … assaulted,” plus ground noise magnified as though Sensurround arrived early by decades. Observed the World’s Peter Vischer : “Magnifying Tibbett’s voice is like doing “The Ten Commandments” with 24 apostles.” All this was good for post-premiere laughs, but MGM had a heavy hand for their sound reproduction being ridiculed. Exhibitors Herald-World circulated wide around the country, so if Metro got known for punk application of talk, let alone singing … well, someone had to walk that back, toot sweet. Fresh-spanked Vischer gave proper penance: “I’m afraid I have done the projectionist an injustice,” he began, having been “advised” by P.A. McGuire of the International Projector Corporation “that the projectionists upon whom I foolishly placed the blame for this minor tragedy had nothing whatsoever to do with it.” An “expert” assigned by MGM was on hand to supervise presentation of The Rogue Song. Whatever went wrong would not have been the expert’s fault either. After all, he was the expert, not some ten dollar a column hack who might not even be at his desk this time next week. By way of keeping that chair, Vischer spent remaining space extolling splendid men in the booth. “There are many … reasons why the projectionist is such an important figure in the theatres today. Space here is quite inadequate to give this subject the discussion it deserves.” Poor Vischer all but polished shoes for bulk of union membership to get out from under this internecine mess he had unwittingly made.

Picture yourself in tuxedo, possibly tails, an opera hat in any event, this being crisp January at the Astor. Definitions of “formal” could vary, as revealed by Pare Lorentz, his an acerbic eye for “proper adulation that should attend a virgin offering of the great art” (sarcasm on … and on). Lorentz saw opening night movie audiences as made up of three disparate groups: the Trade, the Friends, and the Press, each a scruffy lot as he described them. “Friends” were mostly family, many harked recent from the old country, “Papa may wear a Prince Albert, black trousers, and a colored shirt, neatly topped with an August half-price sale straw hat, and Mama may stick a tiara on top of the permanent that looks like Woolworth’s Yuletide set of Christmas decorations.” Were there any so cruel as immigrant offspring eager to separate themselves from a first generation who made the trip across? But these were families of folk who made the movies, created the stars, enabled such shows that were premiering under brightest neon. Such were not to be denied, however they chose to adorn themselves, and were in any event the most enthusiastic members of a first night audience. Legit differed for society swells, more entrenched, as front-row sitters, as in the same seats, “the same tired faces,” as many an actor noted from stages. Alexander Woollcott said, “critics are the only representatives of civilized, decent American life in the first night audiences that we have today,” Woollcott being himself a critic in ripe position to know. Newspapers and magazines leeched many a ducat they would not pay for. Theatres often claimed all admissions sold even where this was not the case. George Kaufman asked, “Where can you find a gathering as dreary, as ruthless, and as moronic as you do at a Broadway first night?” There had to be, above all priorities, the appearance of a hit, whether on stage or screen, long runs necessarily launched off pads that were initial performances.

The Rogue Song
was tendered as more than mere movie. It was an event. Here would be opera accessible to all. Lawrence Tibbett sang in English. He toured also on behalf of The Rogue Song, mid-landers getting sole opportunity to look upon a face and voice that graced elite attendance at the Metropolitan in New York. You felt cosmopolitan for catching Tibbett wherever he detrained to perform for single nights across the United States. This artist was wise enough to cater for a vast public most opera performers never came into contact with. He had been exposed to varying audiences thanks to training in stock, Tibbett and handlers knowing value of becoming a competent actor in addition to honing a natural gift for song. “People literally stormed the auditorium” when he gave a Los Angeles recital, Tibbett's star quality now a recognized commodity. MGM let it be known that they had another Valentino, but unlike a voiceless Rudy, this one “might be heard throughout the length and breadth of Times Square” (said critic Mordaunt Hall, who covered the Astor opening where Tibbett’s voice threatened to overpower the theatre’s all too fragile sound system). Idea of Tibbett splitting speakers had, despite Metro efforts to quell it, become something of a show-world joke, as if conventional playback could not contain a force so powerful. Color was regarded a plus, for perhaps final occasion, for it was not long before palette limit made rejecting the format an easier option (red-green only, and whatever could be bled between them). I doubt Metro kidded itself that success would be had outside sophisticated environs. Using Laurel and Hardy for support was a firewall against failure. Tibbett noted them billed above him for midwestern engagements but did not mind. He had sense to know L&H were good for the picture, and for his prospects as a picture personality.

“A Riot in Cleveland,” it reads, but could this, or any trade ad, be trusted? Showmen outside Gotham bubbles saw artifice as applied to new releases, tricks of which they were assumed to be unwary. “The favorite one is the forced run on Broadway, an effort to delude the exhibitor in the outlying districts --- and to what avail?” said William A. Johnston at Motion Picture News. “This is such arrant bunk. Putting up a false front and yelling about it is an Indian medicine show trick. The sales tricks in this business are no more intelligent, ethical, or dignified.” Salesmen for the film companies were deliberately misleading theatre brethren, latter increasingly wise to ruses that included misrepresentation of first-run receipts and attendance for New York first runs. Everything had to be perceived as a hit, even if it wasn’t … especially when it wasn’t. No venue down the line wanted to book a known flop. Pete Harrison of Harrison’s Reports was suspicious of glow off The Rogue Song as touted by Metro, and conducted his own inquiry. The Rogue Song, said Harrison, “made a failure in the small towns, where operatic singing does not go over very much. (It has) made a failure also in some big cities” (one was Chicago, where The Rogue Song did a quick fade). Pete as trade watchdog was fed up with “fictitious figures” said to represent theatre income, “padded numbers” giving the impression of a hit. Broadway houses were known to spread free tickets in order to create lines and fill seats that would otherwise remain empty. What all this amounted to was a breakdown in trust between vital agencies of distribution and exhibition. Yes, The Rogue Song was a two-dollar attraction on the Main Stem, but elsewhere? Showmen in a final analysis had to trust their own better judgment, not that of a sales force whose job it was to book MGM product, fit or not for individual situations. Harrison’s advice re operettas was terse: Just don’t play them, unless they prove themselves a success in markets similar to yours.

Many of 1929-30 releases were truly movies for the moment, communities wiring for sound not able to fit half the deluge onto lately retrofitted facilities. I found no record of my hometown playing The Rogue Song. Not that it held much promise for patronage like ours (“formal” for us was a button-down shirt rather than overalls). What was streamlined by early 1930 measure was antique in extremis by a same time the following year. Early talkers were not just movies on the march, they were movies at a dead run, each season an upgrade to alarming degree upon the last. The Rogue Song had no residual value. It was not even released to television in black-and-white, elements likely gone by the fifties when syndication packages were made up. Most of what had been shot by two-color process vanished by the time buffs started caring. Think of the hair’s breadth by which Mystery of the Wax Museum and Doctor X survive, both a single battered print short of oblivion. The Rogue Song was famously lost, and longed for, only because Laurel and Hardy were in it. I made a Google pass for fan pages dedicated to Lawrence Tibbett but could not find any. Sic transit gloria mundi, as they said upon riddance of Caesar and Spartacus. Pieces of The Rogue Song do keep turning up however, a jigsaw puzzle that --- who knows? --- might someday be fully assembled. Dedicated enough fans would rather see such than enter Valhalla. In a meantime, there are souvenirs we can gather, like scraps illustrated here. Of note is a pressbook back cover at right showing poster and lobby card art, Laurel-Hardy featured on but one 11X14, and nothing else. What a neat collectible that would be, assuming we’d have a house or car to mortgage for it.


Blogger Filmfanman said...

Operas and symphonies are frequently lengthy works, taking hours for a complete listening-through. As a result, the technical limitations of recorded music for the home had some influence on the market for opera recordings (and for other classical music), as for a very long time - even continuing into the present for those not using computers for their audio playback - the recordings themselves had a hard time limit of 3 minutes, later increased to twenty or so minutes, and now an hour a quarter or so, before one had to disturb oneself and physically get up to change the record, the tape or the disc to continue to listen to the piece. Radio could, and perhaps did, broadcast an opera or a symphony complete without interruption - but I suspect commercial considerations kept very many from doing so very often.
That technical limitation must have had some effect on skewing the listening public towards the three-minute pop song and away from long-playing classical music over the many decades it existed.
Speaking for myself, opera and operetta have only come into my life via movies; first, as filler to be suffered through during old B&W comedy films; then, once I was middle-aged and DVDs became available, via two fine films, Zefferelli's film of Verdi's "La Traviata" from the mid-1980s and Mike Leigh's "Topsy-Turvy", about Gilbert & Sullivan, released at the turn of this Century.
Other than those specific films, I approach listening to opera or operetta like I approach listening to recordings of Native American music or African traditional music - I listen like I'm learning about the unfamiliar music of other people, people who live far from me in space and/or time.

8:34 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

What impresses me about the surviving elements on paper for The Rogue Song (and other movies) is how identical the ads feel with the use of exactly the same images over and over again. I have even noticed this in ads from other countries and in other languages. The text may be different here and there, but the images are always exactly the same. This applies to so many titles, and when you actually find rare, alternate, and different images those are usually welcomed and better.

8:56 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

TCM ran a 1930 Metro feature titled "Men of the North" directed by Hal Roach. Was Roach given that assignment in return for lending them Laurel & Hardy?

By the way, I turned it off after 15 minutes. It was fairly unwatchable to my eyes.

12:20 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

MEN OF THE NORTH was the first MGM production that was filmed simultaneously in several language versions. Its importance is this fact and not the quality of the film.

MGM (and Fox) also produced some talkie remakes of silent films in non-English versions only. The one I would like to watch is WU-LI-CHANG, a talkie remake of Lon Chaney's MR. WU with Ernesto Vilches, an actor that originated the role on the stage in Spanish. It would be more of a curiosity than a good film, since Chaney's silent version is quite mediocre, and Maria Newman's score made everything even worse.

8:21 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

Comic opera always has room for slapstick; and the best movie musicals are all comedies, too. Or at the very least, they have a featured role for the comic relief. Gilbert and Sullivan's most popular stuff seems to all be light and comic in tone.
On the other hand there's something about tragic opera that just seems somehow foreign to the sensibilities of English-speaking audiences - but I can't put my finger on just what that something could be that makes it such a hard sell in the Anglosphere. I don't think it's something that can be cured by mere translations or the use of super- or subscripts, though.
On the other hand, if the future is retro, the sky may be the limit for trad opera. Who can say?

10:53 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

David Stilwell supplies insight to what it was like to encounter THE ROGUE SONG when it arrived new:

My mother was 13 yrs old in 1929 and remembers the overbearing drum beating from MGM for the Rogue Song. She tells me that local newspapers were awash with ads and anything that didn’t move had a bill board or poster acclaiming Lawrence Tibbett or the movie. I naturally asked her if she saw the movie and she told me she was sick of it before it opened.

1:45 PM  

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