Dedicated to the Study and Appreciation
of the Movies and Personalities of the Golden Age of Hollywood

Friday, May 27, 2011

Auditioning for Immortality

I ordered the Warner Archive's Vitaphone Varieties collection because the transition to sound is one of two periods in movie history that particularly fascinate me (the other is the early "outlaw" years circa 1888-1912 with its patent wars, jockeying for supremacy and feverish experimentation). I also hoped that this new batch of 60 shorts would provide the grist for a post or two, like the MGM shorts package I wrote about here and here.

I got half a loaf. I found the collection interesting, but I don't know if anyone else would agree if they don't already share my penchant for the period.

Scott Eyman's The Speed of Sound (perfect title!) chronicles the dizzy suddenness with which silents went out and talkies came in, even as many Hollywood insiders said it was only a passing fad. Only in hindsight do they look to us like dodos standing neck-deep in water shouting "There isn't going to be any flood!" And only in hindsight does it look like it happened overnight; there were three long and confused years before silents finally bit the dust.

That's the period covered by this collection, and it's actually a little less than claimed at the WA site. There are no shorts from 1926, the earliest in the collection being the first, The Revelers (from April 1927, six months before The Jazz Singer). And truth be told, this batch of shorts is a little drab compared to an earlier 6-disc set, Vitaphone Cavalcade of Musical Comedy Shorts. That one covered nearly a full decade, 1931-38, with more familiar names than you'll find in this one. The new collection has a lot of seven-to-ten-minute turns by vaudevillians that I for one had never heard of, and whom I couldn't find in any of my vaudeville references.

They're not all strangers. An amazingly young-looking Jay C. Flippen shows up in The Ham What Am from 1928. Still years from his character-actor heyday in pictures like Brute Force, Winchester '73 or They Live by Night, or singing that the farmer and the cowman should be friends in Oklahoma!, Flippen regales us -- from the usual incongruous Vitaphone parlor set -- with a couple of songs and a lot of jokes, all while flashing a toothy, Joker-size smile and brandishing a cigar the size of a horse's leg.

And here was a surprise: the husband-and-wife vaudeville team of (Frank) Orth and (Ann) Codee. According to Joe Laurie Jr.'s chatty history Vaudeville: From the Honky Tonks to the Palace, written when many of the people he chatted about were still alive and working, Orth and Codee played their act all over the world in five different languages (she was Belgian-born). Like George Burns and Gracie Allen, she started out as straight-man to him, but he wound up playing straight-man to her. When the vaude circuits dried up, they both stepped easily into character work in movies, often uncredited. Orth's stock in trade was cab drivers, waiters, bartenders (or barflies), and newsmen. If the face is familiar but you can't quite place it, try this: he was Duffy, Cary Grant's beleaguered assistant in His Girl Friday

Codee may be harder to place from this picture, but her accent and dignified look kept her busy as Madame This or That: Mme. Borodin, the owner of Margaret O'Brien's ballet academy in The Unfinished Dance; Mme. Bouget in That Midnight Kiss, and so on. Any sci-fi fan will especially remember her, as I do... Dr. Duprey, one of Gene Barry's
scientific colleagues in George Pal's The
War of the Worlds (shown here with
Sandro Giglio as Dr. Bilderbeck,
seeking refuge in a church during
the destruction of L.A.). 

There are a few more familiar names and faces -- comedian Joe Frisco, character actors Montagu Love, Franklin Pangborn and Henry B. Walthall -- but they're not plentiful. For the most part, what the entertainers in this collection have in common more than anything else is their utter and absolute obscurity, then and now.

Who are these people? Some of them seem to have based their act on the premise that they have no talent whatsoever. Like Jack Born and Elmer Lawrence here, using floppy shoes, a Jew's harp, and a sad-sack dead-pan delivery in a vain effort to make themselves (and their jokes) funnier than they are. Did they ever really connect with an audience? We can't know because the audience is, by and large, as gone as they are. Nothing ages like comedy, which is why when we find someone who's still funny -- a Chaplin, a Keaton, a Groucho Marx, even a Moe or Curly Howard -- it tells us something. All we know for sure about Born and Lawrence is that they're not funny now. (Neither, for example, is one Charles "Slim" Timblin, dolled up as a blackface preacher in Revival Day [1930]. Here we have confirmation that at least some people at the time weren't amused: Sitting in Rev. Timblin's congregation are a number of bona fide African Americans, and they don't think he's funny; rather, they look sullen and disgusted at the thought of what they must put up with for -- what, a measly five bucks a day?)

For some reason, during this young lady's nine-minute Cycle of Songs ('28) I had something of an epiphany. Her name is Florence Brady, and she's just one of literally dozens of people in Vitaphone Varieties whom I, who have been studying vaudeville history for nearly 40 years, have never heard of. She's nothing particularly special, but she's not bad; she has pep and a nice voice, and she presents herself well to a camera that is not entirely hostile (she's like a young Rosie O'Donnell who can sing, and without the overweening anger). But I wondered: Did she make this short (and one other earlier in the year) because she was a name in vaudeville, or because she hoped to become a name in vaudeville?

Thousands of vaudevillians were thrown out of work when the two-a-day went belly-up, done in by the one-two punch of talkies and commercial radio. Some of them -- the smart, the quick and the lucky, the Frank Orths and Ann Codees, the William Demarests and Jack Bennys and George Burnses and Bob Hopes -- rolled with it and found work where the new money was. But for every one of them, there must have been many who struggled to sell themselves in a drying-up market until it was too late, then wound up teaching school or clerking in a bank or selling candy at Woolworth's -- and counted themselves lucky to get that. Maybe Florence Brady was one of those, along with Slim Timblin and Born and Lawrence, and Oklahoma Bob Albright, Carlena Diamond, Harpist Supreme, and Frank Whitman That Surprising Fiddler.

Or maybe not. Maybe these shorts aren't really acts but auditions -- a gig in a novelty medium, the Vitaphone short, that they hoped would get them some attention and a season's contract with Alexander Pantages or B.F. Keith. Even as late as 1930 only the farsighted could see that vaudeville was dying -- it had been around for over half a century, after all -- so it could have looked like a smart career move in a competitive biz. (They just didn't know how competitive it was about to become.) Unless somebody out there remembers these people (and surely somebody might) and fills us in, I guess we'll never know. 

A recent 16mm acquisition confirms that these kinds of auditions didn't die with vaudeville -- and, not incidentally, restores my faith in Warner Bros. shorts, so badly shaken by Vitaphone Varieties. It's Toyland Casino from 1938, another Vitaphone short (although by this time, of course, "Vitaphone" was an in-name-only thing). The premise is short and simple -- a bunch of pesky kids annoy a hotel manager with their playing around in the lobby, so they compromise by having the kids stage a night club revue to entertain the guests. The picture gets that out of the way in a quick 45 seconds or so; the rest of the 20 minutes is devoted to song, dance, or both from every kid Warner Bros. could find who wanted -- or whose parents wanted them -- to become the next Shirley Temple or Jackie Cooper. The kids give it their best respective shots, with varying degrees of success, but for most of them there would be this one short and then -- at least according to the IMDb -- nothing more.

But not all. Take five-year-old Francine
Lassman, for example. Born Abigail
Francine, she dropped the first name
for this appearance -- where she looks
and sounds like Our Gang's Darla Hood,
singing "Five and Ten Cent Soldiers on
Parade" before a phalanx of tap-dancing
kids in satin uniforms -- and for childhood
appearances on radio. In time, though,
she would drop "Francine" and rework
"Abigail Lassman" to become...

Abbe Lane, the sultry songstress and
wife (1952-64) of bandleader Xavier 
Cugat. Lane once boasted that she was
considered "too sexy for Italy" -- hard 
to imagine unless you've seen pictures 
like this.

 Then there's 13-year-old Bobby Hastings. He shows up in 19th century garb a la Irish tenor Chauncey Olcott singing "In the Gloaming" with a sweet old-fashioned lilt. Hastings would go on to a pretty amazing run. He shortened his name to "Bob" and in the late 1940s played teen comics hero Archie Andrews on radio. There followed a long career as a journeyman actor in which he appeared in an astonishing range of TV series in the 1950s, '60s, '70s and '80s: The Phil Silvers Show, The Untouchables, The Donna Reed Show, Ben Casey, Dennis the Menace, The Twilight Zone, Emergency, Adam-12, The Rockford Files, All in the Family, General Hospital, Lou Grant, The Dukes of Hazzard -- you name it. If you remember the original McHale's Navy, you might recognize him... Lt. Elroy Carpenter, perennial suck-up to Joe Flynn's Capt. Binghamton. 

I'm pleased to report that both Abbe Lane and Bob Hastings are still with us, 78 and 86 respectively at this writing. Continued good health to them both.
Right about the two-thirds mark Toyland Casino pops a real surprise -- the Moylan Sisters, Peggy Joan (6) and Marianne (8), ride out on carousel horses and sing a close-harmony version of "My Little Buckaroo" that ties the whole short up in a ribbon and sets it in our laps. They sing with the sort of joined-at-the-hip sibling harmony that would later distinguish the Everly Brothers (without the rock-n-roll, of course). There are quite a few talented kids in Toyland Casino, but the Moylans are stars -- and they know it. The other kids are doing their best to sell themselves, but Peggy Joan and Marianne are already beyond that -- they're selling the song.

The Moylan Sisters made it to stardom for a while, but not in movies (they made only four shorts like this one). Starting in 1939 they had their own 15-minute radio show Sunday afternoons on the NBC Blue Network. They continued at it through World War II and dropped out of show-biz about 1951. You can learn more, and hear samples of their singing, here. I understand that Marianne passed away in the early 1990s, but as far as I've been able to learn, Peggy Joan is still with us. If so, and if she reads this, I'd be delighted to hear from her.

I'm going to close with a real treat. Of all the auditions for immortality in Vitaphone Varieties and Toyland Casino, I think the Moylan Sisters deserved the best shot at it, so here's a YouTube clip of their rendition of "My Little Buckaroo". The song was written by M.K. Jerome and Jack Scholl for Warner Bros.' 1937 The Cherokee Strip, where it was introduced by Dick Foran. It was a huge hit on record for Bing Crosby, and was covered by just about every singing cowboy from San Antonio to Gower Gulch. But I don't think the song ever got a better performance than it does here from these two little grade-schoolers from Sag Harbor, Long Island. (If M.K. Jerome's grandson R.J. happens to read this post, I'd be interested to hear his take.)


Kevin Deany said...

Very interesting post, Jim. I don't know alot about these vaudeville acts, but I remember getting a big kick out of the short featuring The Beau Brummels, that can be found on the massive The Jazz Singer DVD set. I wondered if they appeared in any other shorts? I found their deadpan humor very funny.

Jim Lane said...

Kevin, I also think Shaw & Lee ("The Beau Brummels") are pretty funny. According to Joe Laurie Jr.'s Vaudeville, they had a good long run as a team, their career outlasting vaudeville by nearly 30 years. They made one other short, Going Places in 1930, and played bits and walk-ons in a number of features, some of which are available on video today: Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch; Ready, Willing and Able; The Gracie Allen Murder Case; King of Burlesque. Their last appearance was in I Married a Woman in 1958. Sam Lee died in 1980, age 88, and Al Shaw in '85 at 82.

janitox said...

mariane was genial

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