"Danger Lights," or Honey Choo Choo


Plotwise, the 1930 film "Danger Lights" is "The Broadway Melody" with locomotives -- a love triangle involving two people who hate to hurt the odd one out. But it also offers interesting location footage of trains and train yards, a glimpse of Jean Arthur early in her sound career, and one of the few talkie film performances of Louis Wolfheim, who died in 1931 of stomach cancer.

Off camera, Wolfheim had a reputation as a cultivated man -- he attended Cornell University and spoke several languages -- but his stocky, plug-ugly appearance meant a career in tough character roles, including a memorable turn as Stanislaus "Kat" Katczinsky in "All Quiet on the Western Front," made just before this film. Wolfheim's profile wasn't exactly Barrymore-ish -- it looks like two upside-down 7s on top of each other.

Here, Wolfheim is Dan Thorn, a hard-driving railroad yardmaster whose bark is worse than his bite. We know this because that's what everyone is always telling us, and because Dan has opened his home to his disabled railroad buddy Ryan (Frank Sheridan) and daughter Mary (Arthur). Mary is preparing to marry Dan out of obligation, but that changes when Doyle (Robert Armstrong) hits town. He's a tramp who's hitched a ride on a freight, but when Dan finds out he's a former engineer he gives the guy a job. And when Doyle gets a gander at Mary, he makes up his mind to stay:



Oblivious to the attraction between Doyle and Mary, Dan keeps pushing them to spend time together because he's too busy working on the railroad all the livelong day. And when they're walking home across a railroad trestle, Doyle and Mary act on their attraction:



By the time Dan finally finds out what's going on, the couple has made plans to leave town together. But a hitch develops while they're cutting across the rail yard:



Dan is badly injured, because the train in rain hits mainly on the brain.

The only hope is to get him to a Chicago brain specialist within five hours, but the fastest train on record can make it only in seven. A guilt-stricken Doyle takes the throttle, and Dan makes it to the Windy City in record time. To make everything hunky-dory, Dan realizes that he really loves the railroad, not Mary, and he gives the couple his blessing.

Much of "Danger Lights" was filmed in Montana, at the Miles City yards, and director George B. Seitz fills the movie with lots of hard-charging railroad action! Wolfheim is a winning presence as Dan, but occasionally he garbles his lines (at one point he says to someone, "How'd you like to have a new man for your suttapacka job?"). And it's always interesting to see Arthur; here she is just starting to demonstrate her familiar screen mannerisms.


Here is a full cast and credits list for "Danger Lights."


Public Domain Theatre: "Children of Pleasure" (1930)




The 1930 MGM film "Children of Pleasure" tries to whip up big-city showbiz razzle dazzle in the manner of the same studio's Oscar-winning "The Broadway Melody" or "Chasing Rainbows," but due to a wan leading man and subpar musical numbers (including one where the dancers are dressed as brooms), the effect is more like a handful of confetti shaken out of a pant cuff by a surly headwaiter.

The leading man, Lawrence Gray, is a handsome fellow who supported Marion Davies in her first talkie, 1929's "Marianne," and who played opposite Marilyn Miller in "Sunny," one of the year's top-grossing films. But left to his own devices, Gray has little more than a smile and a shoeshine, and a mildly pleasant singing voice.

Gray plays songwriter Danny Regan, whose tunes are being whistled by every Dick and Dora along the great white way. "That's the stuff!" they say in unison. Yes, the world is Danny's oyster -- he even knows Jack Benny (playing himself)!



Danny's big hit at the moment is "A Couple of Birds (with the Same Thing in Mind)," sung in a Broadway revue by Fanny Kaye, played by May Boley. This is Boley's only musical role, which should tell you something. Her other credits include the 1930 film "Moby Dick" (as Whale Oil Rosie) and the 1939 version of "The Women" (as woman under mud pack). From its heard-it-before rhythms to its blackface chorus, "A Couple of Birds" is highly missable.

Meanwhile, back at Danny's music publishers, we meet the warm, vivacious Emma (Wynne Gibson), Danny's former vaudeville partner who secretly lurrves him as she helps him put over his songs. Alas, Danny has met Pat (Judith Wood, acting under the name Helen Johnson), a rather chilly society girl, and the big sap falls for her like a tycoon jumping off a ledge on Black Thursday.

Then there is more plot -- we're introduced to Fanny's piano player and reluctant lover, Andy (Benny Rubin). Fanny and Andy keep popping up to banter about Andy's roving eye.

Fanny (on Andy ogling a secretary): You never looked at me like that!

Andy: You never looked like that!


A production number based upon
particulate matter.
Danny pitches his next big number, called, um, "Raisin' the Dust." And brother, it's sweeping the country! Or at least this soundstage, where the chorus girls wear broom bristles on their arms and legs and rhyme "hades" with "ladies." What fun this must have been to shoot.

At the end of the number, Fanny -- wearing a one-horned hat that makes her look like a cockeyed unicorn -- brings Danny on stage, and in the audience he sees Pat again, much to Emma's disappointment. Danny and Pat finally formally meet at a night, where we also get a number with Lawrence Gray, Wynne Gibson and Benny Rubin.



(Because I can never resist including a number that ends with a joke about "my fanny.")

Anyway, before you can say "Why in the world would you want to marry an iceberg like her?", Danny and Pat are engaged. But she's still hanging around with old flame Rod (Kenneth Thomson playing the same kind of smarmy rich guy he plays in "The Broadway Melody"). And just before the ceremony Danny overhears Pat and Rod making baby talk, and Pat telling Rod "you're Danny's understudy." So the heartbroken Danny breaks up the wedding rehearsal, giving Gray his only opportunity in the movie to display emotion that isn't expressed by a smile.



But never fear -- Danny turns to the long-suffering Emma to relieve his broken heart.

"Children of Paradise" is based on the play "The Song Writer," which author Crane Wilbur based on the courtship of Irving Berlin and heiress Ellin MacKay. The plot of the movie-play turns out differently than the Berlin-MacKay affair -- despite the strong objections of her anti-semitic father, MacKay and Berlin were married more than 60 years, until her death in 1988 (he died the next year). In a bit of poetic justice, Berlin reportedly helped his father-in-law financially when the old guy was wiped out by the 1929 crash.

As for Gray, his career faded quickly and he ended up in grade-C westerns before dropping out of show business in the mid-1930s.


 

Public Domain Theatre: "Numbered Men" (1930)




The 1930 film "Numbered Men" opens in a prison "built with the bricks of shame," not to mention the cement of indifference and the trowels of sadness.

Inside the prison are men -- numbered men! -- who count the days until freedom and stare longingly at the world of forbidden sunshine just beyond the gates.

One of them is 26521, or "2" for short. He is played by Conrad Nagel and he is a former counterfeiter. He's the nicest darn convict you'd ever want to meet -- a philosophical, pipe-puffing prisoner who is a source of friendship and wisdom.

Another is 31857, or "7," played by Raymond Hackett. He is a young man in prison on a trumped-up charge, and he is slowly going crazy because he's wondering if his girlfriend Mary (Bernice Claire), on the outside, will stay faithful. Whenever he talks about her he starts acting all over the place:




Yes, life behind the walls is lonely -- soooo lonely. So lonely that the pictures of women have been torn out of all the magazines. And, as one convict says, "Somebody even tore out a picture of Ben Turpin!" (Simulation below.)


These prisoners are in the honor group, which means there are never any guards around. In fact, there look to be only about three guards in the entire prison.

Then comes a new member of the group -- bad guy 33410 (Ralph Ince), or "3" for short. 3 framed 7. 3 and 7 almost have a confrontation, but they are divided by 2:




But soft! 2 and 7 have been placed on a road crew, so they will soon be out in the sunshine again! And 3, who is the worst honor prisoner ever, is planning his escape.

From here we cut to a farm, a set that looks a lot like the farm in a previous early talkie entry, "The Squall." By coincidence, this is where the honor convicts come after a day on the road crew. By further coincidence, 7's girlfriend Mary has just taken a job there. By even further coincidence, a small-time crook who used to love Mary is also headed that way. By even further further coincidence, 3 has escaped and is headed for the farm and he knows Mary, too! So Mary, in essence, is the 1930 version of Cookie Fleck (Catherine O'Hara) in "Best in Show," whose old flames came out of the woodwork wherever she went.

Anyway, when the honor convicts come back to the farm after a hard day's work, 7 and Mary are reunited. She wants to him to escape and run away with her, but he will not, so she gets an idea of her own:




In the end, 2 and 7 manage to dispose of 3 and Mary's other old boyfriend, 7's innocence is proven, and the prison honor program is shot to hell.

Here are the full credits of "Numbered Men."


Public Domain Theatre: "The Girl Said No" (1930)




William Haines (1900-73) was one of those movie stars who easily made the transition from silent to sound films. In the late 1920s he was one of MGM's biggest stars -- handsome, athletic and relaxed on screen, with an appealing goofball side.

But he was also gay, and that's why William Haines stopped making movies in 1934.

Actually, it was being gay and being involved in a scandal or two that even MGM's ruthless publicity department couldn't cover up -- or maybe they just stopped trying. He was arrested in a YMCA in 1933 after being caught in a compromising position with another man. The story goes that Haines was then ordered into an arranged marriage by studio brass. He refused and ended up leaving MGM. After two films for Mascot Pictures on poverty row, he left the movies altogether.

"The Girl Said No," released in 1930, follows the formula for a Haines picture. When it begins, he's a well-to-do, happy-go-lucky, likably arrogant guy just out of college. The opening scene tells you what you need to know:




Haines plays Tom Ward, who's just graduated. Through a friend, his father has arranged a bank job for Tom, but he's too interested in going out to party with friends. (Lesson from watching too many movies made in the early 1930s -- large open cars really lent themselves to transporting drunken crowds around town.)

While out on the town, Tom spots Mary Howe (Leila Hyams). She's the steady girl of his college rival (Francis X. Bushman) but Tom is smitten by her and becomes downright stalker-y in his pursuit of her. She tries to discourage him. "I get your chill," he says, "But I'll be right there when your fever rises."

When he finds that she works at a brokerage, he tries to get a job there:




True to the Haines film formula, Tom gets the confidence knocked out of him about two-thirds of the way through the picture. There's a family crisis, and Tom becomes the family's primary breadwinner. He's also in charge of keeping up everyone's spirits around the house, including good old mom (Clara Blandick, later Auntie Em in "The Wizard of Oz").

While he's keeping home and hearth together, Tom stops pursuing Mary, but she misses his fun "kidnappings" and the way he sabotaged all her other dates, and she still can't warm up to his rival. He says he loves her, and the best she can do is "I like you like everything."  Tom re-joins the brokerage (he was fired during his cocky days) and is given a tough assignment -- selling a boatload of bonds to the rich and eccentric Hettie Brown (Marie Dressler), modeled after the real-life Molly Brown, of "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" fame.

The scene with Dressler and Haines lasts about ten minutes, and it's vaudeville stuff -- he wants to get her signature on a check, and he's posing as a doctor so she won't throw him out. Then he gives her some alcohol, and Dressler starts chewing the art deco scenery with her drunk act:


  

Both Haines and Dressler are pros, and the scene -- ad libs included -- flows nicely. The check gets signed and Hettie wants Tom to handle all her financial affairs. Then it's off to foil the wedding of Mary and the rival by (of course) kidnapping and gagging the bride, which she loves, and everything ends happily ever after.

After his film career ended, Haines didn't exactly suffer -- he began an interior design business and many of his clients were the actresses he'd appeared opposite at MGM, including Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer. Nancy and Ronald Reagan were also steadfast clients and friends. Haines was lucky in love, too -- his partner, James Shields, stayed with him for over 40 years and committed suicide a year after Haines died.

If you'd like to learn more about Haines, check out William Mann's book "Wisecracker: The Life and Times of Hollywood's First Openly Gay Star."

Here are full credits for "The Girl Said No."




 

Public Domain Theatre: "Back Pay" (1930)


"If the wages of sin is death I've got a lot of back pay coming!"

Corinne Griffith says this about halfway through the 1930 film "Back Pay," and if you understand what it means, you're ahead of me.

"Back Pay," which is a remake of a 1922 film, is about a young woman whose love of money and fast living take her from Demopolis, Virginia to New York City. There she falls into numerous affairs and lives the hotcha life.

Meanwhile, back in Demopolis, Faithful Boyfriend Gerald toils away in the town department store, waiting for his love to return.

Griffith had a successful career in silent movies, but she made only a handful of talkies, and when you see "Back Pay" you'll get a good idea why. The movie opens with her singing "They Didn't Believe Me" in an understated, charming way, but then she starts talking:




Griffith had the looks for pictures but she didn't have the voice for talkies. Her flat, unaffected monotone makes every line sound dull -- even the jokes. And it doesn't help that she's playing a character in her late teens when in real life she was in her mid-30s.

Griffith's character, Hester Bevins, lives with her aunt in what is apparently a house of ill repute. At one point she expresses her disgust with "my aunt in that filthy pink kimono -- sitting there with the men." While Faithful Boyfriend Gerald (Grant Withers) waits in the parlor, Hester sneaks out and hops a train to the big apple with a fast-talking traveling salesmen.

Fast forward a few years, and Hester has hooked up with tractor magnate Wheeler (Montagu Love). World War I is underway, and Wheeler is -- heh heh -- making a killing. "Don't profiteer more than is good for your health," Hester says monotonally.

A little later, while she and her rich buddies are on holiday, Hester ends up driving through Demopolis, so she tracks down Faithful Boyfriend Gerald, who's still working at the store:



By this point, America is involved in the war, and Gerald enlists, while Hester goes back to the city. An intertitle says: "While some marched through New York to lay down their lives, others stayed and laid down their honor." Burn!

Hester is partying at Lake Placid while Gerald is in Germany, dodging bullets and inhaling mustard gas. He ends up in the hospital with lung damage and blind. Hester, on the other hand, sees clearly for the first time, and she marries Gerald, even though (or perhaps because) he's terminally ill.

Then comes Armistice Day, and the end of the war coincides with the end of Gerald:




And although "Back Pay" was close to the end of Griffith's movie career, she went on to lead a pretty interesting life. She wrote numerous books, including a memoir called "Papa's Delicate Condition" that was made into a 1963 film with Jackie Gleason. She was a real estate magnate, worth an estimated $150 million when she died in 1979. She wrote the lyrics to the Washington Redskins fight song because one of her husbands owned the team. And during divorce hearings from her fourth husband in 1966, Griffith claimed that she was actually her own younger sister.

Here are the complete credits for "Back Pay."   

    

 

Public Domain Theatre: "They Learned About Women" (1930)


"I'm Van!" "I'm Schenck!" "Our music doesn't stenk!"
"They Learned About Women" was released in 1930, early enough in the evolution of talking pictures that silent film-style title cards were still used to introduce scenes -- and the leading men, who are supposed to be major league baseball players, are wearing eyeliner. But it's important because it's the only full-length film made by the team of Gus Van and Joseph Schenck -- Schenck died just after the movie was released.


The guys were gigantic in vaudeville -- they were a part of the Ziegfeld Follies from 1918-21 -- and their repertoire included songs like "She Knows Her Onions," "Away Down South in Heaven" and the quizzically titled "If You Want to Miss a Heaven on Earth, Stay Out of the South."

In the movie, Van and Schenck are Jerry and Jack, two guys who play baseball for the Blue Sox by day (no night games back then) and play in vaudeville at night. Their performing style was simple -- Van sang bass and Schenck harmonized on tenor while playing piano.  They did a lot of good-humored ethnic comedy numbers, usually poking fun at the Irish and Jews, such as "Dougherty Is the Name":



What plot there is to "They Learned About Women" involves a love story between Jack and Mary (Bessie Love), who are driven apart by the manipulative Daisy (Mary Doran). As if that isn't enough, the hussy also tries to split up Jerry and Jack!

In between there are several musical numbers that take place in the theatre and on the field -- although staging "Shake That Thing" in the team shower probably isn't the best choice. There's also comedy relief from Tom Dugan and Benny Rubin. Dugan would go on to play Hitler in several World War II-era movies, including Ernst Lubitsch's "To Be or Not to Be," and Rubin would become a popular comic second banana for everyone from Jack Benny to the Three Stooges. Their Irish-Jewish interplay actually echoes Van and Schenck's routine -- and as an added bonus, Dugan's character stutters.

During the early talkie era, Bessie Love was one of the busiest actresses at MGM, with a fresh, charming quality. Here's her big number in the picture, performed live on the set as far as I can tell:




You can see the full cast and production info here.

Public Domain Theatre: "The Matrimonial Bed" (1930)



In vaudeville, Frank Fay was big.

He strolled onstage casually, with a slight swish, and then stood and told jokes -- a revolutionary concept for the time. No juggling, no slapstick, no mugging. He was known for his quick wit -- when he was heckled with a Bronx cheer, he responded, "Two of those made you, pal." As part of his act, he would break down the lyrics of "Tea for Two," interspersed with wisecracks. ("Nobody near us, to see us or hear us." "Who'd want to listen to a couple of people drinking tea?")

In 1929 Fay came to Hollywood with his young wife, Barbara Stanwyck. Sound films were in full swing and the studios wanted performers with stage experience. Stanwyck thought she might try her luck in pictures, too. The studios were making all-star revues to take advantage of sound and Fay appeared in the Warner Bros. entry, "The Show of Shows." He was the emcee, and the players included John Barrymore, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Loretta Young and Myrna Loy. The movie was a hit, and Fay's screen success seemed assured. Yet within a few years he was out of Hollywood and back on Broadway, returning to films only sporadically.

Fay's fizzle is even more mystifying when you see him in 1930's "The Matrimonial Bed." He's good! Despite years on the stage, he seems to understand how to modulate his performance for the screen. The film itself is a lightweight farce, very much like a filmed play, and Fay himself gives it heart and humor.

"The Matrimonial Bed" is set in Lubitsch land -- that non-existent neighborhood in Paris that is filled with rich, charming men and beautiful, indolent women. We open in an art deco home on the fifth anniversary of the death of the master, Adolphe Noblet. In a long expository dialogue, two maids converse about what's happened since -- Noblet's wife Juliette (Florence Eldredge) has remarried, to a stuffy fussbudget (James Gleason), and they have a young son. But everyone, especially Corinne the maid (Beryl Mercer), loved Noblet, who by all accounts was kind, loving and full of fun.

A portrait of Noblet dominates the mantle -- it has just been repaired and returned to its place after falling off the wall and getting torn. "Something," says Corinne, "always happens when pictures fall down without a reason."

Enter Leopold Traubel (Fay), a popular hairdresser (he's having affairs with at least two women) who's here to style Juliette's hair. No one in the house has ever seen him before, so you can imagine their surprise when he turns out to look just like Noblet. Juliette is particularly unnerved, especially when Leopold starts touching her in special places:



Two of Noblet's friends -- Dr. Friedland (Arthur Carew) and Chabonnais (James Bradbury Sr.) --  learn that Leopold has no memory beyond the last five years, and under hypnosis by the doctor Leopold remembers that he is Noblet.

What follows is traditional, somewhat labored farce. To keep Noblet from realizing that his wife has remarried, elaborate white lies connect Juliette's new husband with Juliette's friend Sylvaine (Lilyan Tashman), who's been having an affair with Leopold. But when she confronts him, he doesn't know who she is:




To make matters even more complicated, we're introduced to Suzanne (Vivian Oakland), who is Leopold's wife and the mother of his four sons -- two sets of twins. Noblet/Leopold finally learns the truth, and he also learns that Juliette is happier in her new life with a stuffy husband and young son. And he starts to realize that Suzanne isn't so bad, either:



So Noblet/Leopold conspires with his friend, the doctor -- the doctor will pretend to un-hypnotize Leopold so that he can return to his previous life and ensure Juliette's happiness. The doctor puts Noblet to sleep and he awakens as the more flamboyant Leopold:



It's a sweet ending, and Fay plays the humor as well as the wistful sadness.

Today if Fay is remembered at all, it's for a couple of reasons. One is that his turbulent marriage to Stanwyck, which ended in 1935, is said to have provided the inspiration for "A Star Is Born." Another is that in 1944, Fay scored a personal triumph as the first Elwood P. Dowd in "Harvey" on Broadway. He had a reputation as a drinker and a bit of a bastard, but he's also remembered for saving Stanwyck's fledgling movie career by helping convince Frank Capra to cast her in the 1930 film "Ladies of Leisure." And he influenced one of the best comics of the first half of the twentieth century -- Jack Benny freely admitted that he appropriate Fay's relaxed style and his swishy walk.

Who knows where the truth lies -- but the guy knew his stuff.

Here are the complete credits for "The Matrimonial Bed."


Public Domain Theatre: "Chasing Rainbows" (1930)




About midway through the 1930 film "Chasing Rainbows," Bessie Love -- as Carlie, one-half of a musical comedy team -- gets the news that the other half of the team, Terry (Charles King), has gotten engaged to someone else. Carlie has always loved Terry, and earlier that day Terry was finally feeling something for her, too, so now she feels like she's been hit in the gut.

To cover her emotion, Love plays this scene by crying like she's laughing, which is kind of sweet. And she plays it that way for more than 90 seconds, which is awkward:




But hey! That's life in show business, kid, and if you can't take the hard knocks then you won't be around for the soft knockers, or something like that.

"Chasing Rainbows" reunites Love and King of the 1929 hit "Broadway Melody" in another musical drama set behind the scenes of a show. This time around, they are appearing in a road show production of "Good-Bye Broadway," a show that includes the tune "Happy Days Are Here Again" two years before Franklin Roosevelt appropriated it as his campaign theme.

King's role is less sympathetic than it is in "Broadway Melody," where he can't bring himself to admit that he has fallen for the sister (Anita Page) of his longtime girlfriend (Love). Here, he's a bit of an oaf who's always chasing after -- and getting his heart broken by -- the female lead of the show, while good old Carlie makes his bed and folds his underwear. By the end of the movie, he finally realizes that Carlie is the girl for him, but you find yourself wondering how long it will be before he goes chasing after someone else.


And don't get me wrong -- despite her weird cry/laugh scene, Love is a pip, as they used to say. She's easily the most natural performer in the cast, which also includes Jack Benny -- two years before he would make his debut as a radio comic -- and Marie Dressler.

Both Benny and Dressler provide comic relief, but in vastly different ways. Benny already has his deadpan style in place and wouldn't make funny faces if his life depended on it. Dressler, on the other hand, can't even ask someone what time it is without crossing her eyes. Dressler's frequent co-star Polly Moran is in the cast as well, as a drunk wardrobe mistress.





The hefty Dressler is the butt, you should excuse the expression, of many jokes, such as when the cast hops a train to the next town:

Dressler: Who am I sleeping with tonight?

Benny: There'll be three in your compartment -- Carlie and you.

The true awkward acting honors, however, go to Nita Martan and Eddie Phillips. She plays the vamp who gets her claws into Terry -- she wants to marry him because his sister is married to a big Broadway producer. Phillips plays her smooth boyfriend. But their bad acting, especially in their scenes together, is anything but smooth:




Benny fares a little better -- one of his early radio writers, Al Boasberg, contributed dialogue to the movie. Benny plays the stage manager, and his speech to the cast near the end of the movie is similar to the kind of material he'd soon be doing on the radio:

  

"Chasing Rainbows" originally included several production numbers in two-strip technicolor, which as of this writing are lost. Here's a link to the complete cast and credits. 

Public Domain Theatre: "Sally" (1930)



The 1930 film "Sally" is more than an awkward early talkie -- it's also a kind of time capsule, preserving the elements of an elaborate Flo Ziegfeld stage show and the winsome performing style of its star, Marilyn Miller, who appeared in Ziegfeld shows and reviews from 1918 through the early 1930s.

"Sally" is based on the Ziegfeld success that ran from 1920-24, including a world tour and a final series of performances back in New York City. Miller appeared in a 1925 film version as well as this one, for which she reportedly received the record-breaking salary of $100,000 -- roughly a thousand dollars per hour of work.


Sally Bowling Green works as a waitress in a Manhattan hash house. She's an orphan who was abandoned at the offices of the Bowling Green telephone exchange, hence her name. Her dream is to be a dancer, but in the meantime she's the world's worst waitress.

Sally strikes up a friendship with Blair Farrell (Alexander Gray), a society swell who always stops outside the restaurant and waves at Sally inside. Alas, Blair is betrothed to another rich woman and is bound by family pressure.

When Sally messes up one too many orders of flapjacks, she is bounced from her job and ends up as a waitress at the Elm Tree Inn, a roadhouse managed by the gruff-but-kindly Pops (Ford Sterling). Sally's co-worker and buddy is a waiter named Connie (Joe E. Brown). In real life he is the Grand Duck Constantine of Czechoslovenia and Pops, a native of the same country, keeps Connie on the job out of loyalty.

Blair has been looking all over for Sally, and when he finds her at the Elm Tree Inn they don't waste much time before breaking into the show's big number, Jerome Kern's "Look for the Silver Lining":


Miller and Gray make an appealing pair, although his singing style doesn't date as well as Miller's. Her dancing style is pleasant, as well -- she actually seems to be having fun and doesn't stomp with the joyless passion of a Joan Crawford or a Ruby Keeler. One of the movie's highlights is this charming eccentric dance that Sally does with Connie:


Blair is in love with Sally, and as one of the Elm Tree Inn's best customers he persuades Pops to let Sally perform for the patrons. She is a hit! Hooper, a big time agent (T. Roy Barnes), happens to catch Sally's act, along with his frail, Rosie (Pert Kelton, forever known in trivia circles as the first woman to play Alice Kramden in "Honeymooners" sketches). Hooper hires Sally to appear at a high society soiree but she must pretend to be a Russian entertainer. Why? Because if she doesn't, there's no third act.

Originally filmed in two-strip technicolor, "Sally" exists now only in a black-and-white print with just a moment of two of recovered color footage. Here it is, from a number called "Wild Rose," with Sally doing her Russian act:



As a result of her appearance, Sally signs a big contract with Flo Ziegfeld and Blair disappears. Cut to Sally's opening night on Broadway, and a big old production number with dancers dressed as butterflies:


After the show, all of Sally's old friends come backstage to congratulate her, but Blair is nowhere to be found -- or IS he??!?!

Miller was a huge star on Broadway, but only made three films, with "Sally" being the first. She returned to the stage after the third film, 1931's "Her Majesty, Love," and died in 1936 of a sinus condition. She was 37.

Public Domain Theatre: "The Squall"







There's an old story in the theatre about a production of "The Diary of Anne Frank" where the actress in the title role gives such a bad performance that at the end of the play, when the Nazis enter, audience members yell out, "She's in the attic!"

At the end of the 1929 film "The Squall," you may feel the same way.

The Lajos family has been sheltering a runaway Gypsy girl, the nubile Nubi (Myrna Loy), and she has repaid their kindness with lying, deceit and never-ending attempts to seduce every guy in the joint.

The Gypsies have now returned -- we have seen their tiny covered wagons come over the hill (a miniature shot). They are led by their whip-wielding master, who wants Nubi back, and you can't wait to see her get kicked to the curb.

Nubi is another one of Loy's turns as an exotic temptress -- for other examples, see "Thirteen Women" and "The Mask of Fu Manchu." And she is indeed a little Hungarian hottie, with her flaming eyes and cheekbones as sharp as razor blades.  

But the movie she's stuck in is a lot like a bad opera, filled with cheering peasants, singing gypsies and characters with names like Josef and Uncle Dani.

"The Squall" takes place on the Lajos family farm, where, an intertitle tells us, "the labor of years has been crowned with prosperity and content (sic)." (I'm still wondering where "-ment" went.)

In the Lajos household, prosperity takes the form of nice wardrobes, plentiful food and lots of expository dialogue. We witness romantic hi-jinks between the cook, Lena (Zasu Pitts), and farm hand Peter (Harry Cording). Father Josef (Richard Tucker) and mother Maria (Alice Joyce) are plump and prosperous, doting on son Paul (Carroll Nye), who is engaged to the lovely Irma (Loretta Young).

But there are storm clouds on the horizon, foreshadowed by dialogue that is as subtle as a pile driver. Such as when Maria says, "Our lives have been like a summer day -- without a cloud. If only it could be that way until the end." Fat chance, Maria.

Or take this exchange, between Irma and her grandfather (Knute Erickson).

Irma: Oh, I just hate squalls. They only make everyone so unhappy. I'd like someone to tell me why we have them.

Grandfather: Perhaps there's a reason, Irma. God gives us shadows that we may know light. He gives us sorrow that we may know joy. He gives us Zasu Pitts so that we can appreciate Myrna Loy in a peasant blouse. (OK, I made up that one.) And perhaps he sends the squall that we may learn the beauty of a limpid sky.

Outside, the squall is kicking up, and then there is a scream and a frenzied banging at the door. The family hears it, but they are so busy feeding their faces with content that a servant answers. In tumbles Nubi, who is fleeing from her abusive master because "He keel me!"

Nubi immediately plays on the family's sympathy by explaining that she is a reluctant Gypsy, having been stolen as a baby. The kind-hearted Maria offers her shelter from the squall, little realizing that her act of kindness will throw her marriage, her happiness, nay, HER VERY LIFE into Jeopardy! (Used with the permission of Merv Griffin.)

Nubi looks out the window at the tiny Gypsies as they leave the farm. Then she speaks a little monologue that makes all the men hot and bothered:




Nubi's first conquest is Peter the farm hand, who lip-syncs a little song about his love for Nubi while currying the horse. No, really:



Then Nubi moves on to Paul, and as a result he starts giving Irma the cold shoulder. "Never mind, Irma. Your old granddaddy loves you, and isn't that enough?," her granddaddy asks, answering his own question. 

Finally, Nubi tries to seduce the master of the farm, Josef. "I am keesing your shadow," she purrs. Longtime wife Maria is watching from the shadows. What's a wife to do? "My husband -- half of my life," she says. "My son -- the other half." Not to get picky, but aren't they the same half? Or isn't there at least one-third of overlap?

Anyway, leave it to Maria to finally understand how dangerous Nubi is, while the men are all derp-derp-derpy about her. So when the Gypsies return, she makes the move to get rid of Nubi:




With Nubi gone, content returns to the family farm.

Here are the full credits for "The Squall."

 

Public Domain Theatre: "Weary River" (1929)




A better title for the 1929 film "Weary River" might be "The Sad, Sensitive, Singing Bandleader Convict."

OK, maybe it wouldn't be a better title, but it would be more descriptive of the trials and tribulations faced by our morose hero, Jerry Larrabee, played by hall-of-fame frowner Richard Barthelmess.

"Weary River" is a bit of an odd duck in that it is a part talkie, alternating silent and talking sequences. You might expect the difference between the two to seem herky-jerky, but director Frank Lloyd (he was Oscar-nominated) makes the transitions surprisingly smooth. 

Richard Barthelmess runs the gamut of emotion.
As the movie begins, Barthelmess-as-Jerry isn't sad at all! He enters a speakeasy where everybody knows his name. He is a high-living gangster, and always on his arm is the beauteous Alice (Betty Compson) who, when the occasion calls for it, can make with the tears like nobody's business.





But for the time being, everything is beer and skittles (the game, not the candy) -- Jerry and Alice are living the high life, cohabiting a ritzy apartment and wearing well-tailored duds. Then Jerry gets a visit from the cops, personified by Robert Emmett O'Connor. (Who else?) They're chummy, but an innocent bystander has been killed in a shootout between Jerry's gang and their rivals, and Jerry has been fingered as the shooter. So Jerry goes downtown:



Then, before you can say "The Shawshank Redemption," Jerry is in the jug. At first he is bitter about being there, and causes a mini-riot with a few guards. But the prison warden (William Holden, but not the one you're thinking of) is an understanding sort. He cautions Jerry about the pitfalls of running with "bad companions," and Jerry, a budding musician, starts leading the prison band. When Alice comes to visit, the warden (wrongly) pegs her as a bad sort and discourages her from seeing Jerry.

Meanwhile Jerry, miserable and inspired by a minister's talk, writes a song called "Weary River" and sings it on the air. The patrons of the nightclub where Jerry used to hang out listen raptly, including Alice:




"Weary River" is a hit -- so much so that Jerry sings it, in its entirely, at four different times throughout the movie. Magically, Jerry is then released from prison and tours the country as the "Master of Melody." But then thoughtless people start throwing the word "convict" around:



How does Jerry react? By crying all the way to the bank? Nope. He gets bitter and frowns even more than usual. His vaudeville career nosedives, and he starts hanging out again with those bad companions the warden warned him about. The warden learns of Jerry's possible defection and rushes to help, as does Alice. Will they save the Master of Melody, or will he turn into a Maker of Mayhem?
  
"Weary River" is well intentioned and sincere, and even a little prescient -- within a year, thanks to the Great Depression, a lot of people who saw this movie would be sailing weary rivers of their own.

Here are the complete credits. 

Public Domain Theatre: "Say It with Songs" (1929)




There is so, so, so much to make fun of in the 1929 film "Say It with Songs" that it's tempting to just kick back and start taking shots.

I mean, come on -- you have Al Jolson in full "world's greatest entertainer" mode, hamminess in overdrive, shoving his mug into the camera in what seems like every single scene, including one where he singlehandedly saves his son's life and restores his speech through pure Mammy power.

You have scenes of suffocating parental pathos between Jolson and Davey Lee, who was a huge hit opposite Jolson in 1928's "The Singing Fool" as Jolson's otherwise nameless son, Sonny Boy, appearing here as Jolson's other otherwise nameless son, Little Pal.

Finally, our man ends up in stir, the world's saddest convict, cheering up the other inmates with a passive-aggressive little ditty called "Why Can't You?" that includes these lyrics:

Violets from tiny seeds
Fight their way up through the weeds
Violets can do it
Why can't you?


Yes, prison isn't bad enough -- the punishment includes an Al Jolson motivational seminar. See for yourself:




So there's a lot to make fun of in "Say It with Songs." And yet -- stay with me here -- this movie is not totally absurd. It actually offers just the slightest taste of what would be the future at Warner Bros.: the urban-based, tough-talking, fast-moving dramas, like "The Public Enemy" and "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang," that the studio would be known for just a few years hence, all under the supervision of Darryl F. Zanuck, who gets top writing credit for "Say It with Songs."

Of course, it's a bug jump from Al Jolson to Paul Muni. (Adapts Jolson voice) But you can see the seeds -- the tiny seeds! Fighting their way up through the weeds! Mammy!

"Say It with Songs" is tailored to Jolson's, ah, unique style. Here he is Joe Lane, a singer on his way up at a radio station. The movie's first scene establishes the station's programming -- a combination of commercials, singers and health and beauty "experts":



But then there is Joe, who stands out like a sore thumb. He is on the way up, but he has his irresponsible side. This is demonstrated when he gets involved in a crap game at the radio station. This is further demonstrated when he promises his wife he'll meet her for a date and keeps her cooling her heels for two hours. She makes empty threats to leave him, but the love between Joe and Little Pal keeps her from pulling the trigger.

But soft! There is trouble behind the microphone. The station's unscrupulous manager (Kenneth Thomson, a cad once again) is making moves on Joe's wife Katherine (Marian Nixon), the very mother of Little Pal!

Katherine tells Joe about the passes, and he knocks the station manager silly. Unfortunately, the guy falls and hits his head on a lamppost, and he ends up seriously killed. And before you can say (with apologies to Johnny Cash) "Jolson Prison Blues," Joe is in the jug.

Meanwhile, on the outside, Katherine has sent Little Pal off to boarding school and she goes back to work for a doctor who's always loved her. To spare her from society's wrath, Joe tells Katherine he wants a divorce, giving Jolson the opportunity to act noble and victimized at the same time.

Then Joe is released from prison, and "Say It with Songs" really gets maudlin. Here's the scene where Little Pal recovers, no thanks to a network of doctors, but because of fatherly egotism -- I mean, love:




A couple of facts about "Say It with Songs": The songs were by the writing team of DeSylva, Brown and Henderson, who also wrote the megahit "Sonny Boy" for "The Singing Fool"; as part of his deal, Jolson's name was added as a songwriter, entitling him to a share of that sweet royalty money. This is in addition to the $500,000 he received from Warners. Also, contrary to Wikipedia and other sources, "Say It with Songs" wasn't a flop -- it grossed more than $2 million, which placed it in the rarefied company of other pre-code Warner hits like "Noah's Ark" and "42nd Street."

"Jolson Prison Blues." Heh.

Public Domain Theatre: "Flight" (1929)




In his 1929 film "Flight," Frank Capra demonstrates a skill that would take other directors a few more years to accomplish -- he makes an early talkie movie filled with action.

Outside.

While keeping the sound quality high and the performances natural.

To understand how different "Flight" is from its contemporaries, consider the entries in our "Awkward Early Talkie Theatre" category -- stagy, immobile, filled with overacting and arched reading of dialogue.

"Flight," by contrast, boasts an easy assurance and striking locations, most notably a naval base at San Diego that poses as Pensacola.


This was the second of three films that Capra would direct with Jack Holt and Ralph Graves -- the first was 1928's "Submarine" and the last would be 1931's "Dirigible." These movies were the "Top Gun" of their day, filled with the latest in military equipment and technology.

Beyond the flashiness, though, the movies worked because of the rapport between Holt and Graves -- a macho camaraderie that also included moments of startling vulnerability.

In "Flight," Graves (who is also credited with the story) is Lefty Phelps. In the opening moments of the film, his college football team is playing in the Rose Bowl, giving Capra the chance to include lots of real-life game footage. Lefty isn't a team star, but the coach puts him in for one last crucial play -- one that Lefty screws up by running in the opposite direction and scoring a winning touchdown for the other team.


After the game, as Lefty is hiding out in the men's room, he has a brief tussle with Panama Williams (Holt), a Marine sergeant. He accuses Lefty of intentionally throwing the game. Lefty heatedly denies it. Panama, seeing that Lefty is genuinely hurt and scared, apologizes.

We fast forward a few weeks, and Lefty has joined the Marines -- maybe because of Panama's considerate behavior, or maybe because of the snazzy recruiting poster he saw in the men's room. Anyway, Lefty is trying to keep his identity secret, but when it comes out, he confides again in Panama, and shows him a particularly harsh newspaper article:


            

Certainly Holt and Graves have their moments of roughhousing and swaggering, but their relationship is unexpectedly warm. Capra seems to let them ad lib some of their dialogue, which leads to a "damn" or "hell" getting slipped in now and then.

Despite the help of Panama, Lefty washes out as a Marine pilot. He watches dejectedly as his fellow Marines get their wings:




But Panama has a plan -- he'll keep Lefty around as his mechanic.

Meanwhile, there is some romantic tension in the form of nurse Elinor (Lila Lee). Panama is crazy about her, but she only has eyes for Lefty. Lefty feels the same way, but he keeps Elinor at arm's length out of loyalty to Panama. This leads him to leave camp and get stinking, only to be rescued by Panama:


  

Elinor confesses to Panama that she loves Lefty just as the Marines, who by now are in Nicaragua, have to leave to fight a group of bandits. The pilot Lefty is riding with makes a crash landing, leaving Panama to set out on a dangerous rescue mission.

Certainly "Flight" fits a pattern that action/adventure movies use to this day -- heroes/friends quarrel and then unite against a common enemy at the end. And Lefty gets his confidence back by becoming a hero in dire circumstances. But this is a particularly well-done example -- all the more striking, and un-awkward, considering its age.

Here are complete credits for "Flight." 

Awkward Early Talkie Theatre: "The Broadway Melody"

Star-struck sisters coming to New York, struggling songwriter, backstage drama, misguided love -- it's all there, and more, in the 1929 film "The Broadway Melody." It's like a cliche incubator. It also has those awkward little touches we love in early talkies -- hammy acting, stilted silences and a musical soundtrack that makes it sound like the orchestra's in the bathroom.

To the concrete canyons of Broadway, where there's a broken light for every heart, or something like that, come the something-something sisters, Queenie (Anita Page) and Hank (Bessie Love). Queenie is blonde and stauesque, if you know what I mean and I think you do, and Hank is a little pepperpot of personality. ("I'm gonna lay that dame like a roll of linoleum," she says of a rival at one point.)

Hank's boyfriend Eddie (Charles King) has just joined the Zanfield Follies, and he's promised Hank that she and Queenie can join the show. We first meet Eddie at the Ye Olde Gleason Music Publishing Company, overseen by character actor James Gleason, who also co-wrote the dialogue. Eddie has just put the finishing touches on the movie's title song: 



Eddie and the girls are reunited, and since he hasn't seen Queenie since she was a little princess, he's surprised, to put it mildly, that she's grown so tall -- and stuff.

Meanwhile, there is backstage drama aplenty. Queenie and Hank get jobs in the chorus, and Queenie ends up as the main visual attraction, if you know what I mean and I think you do, in a big production number. There she attracts the attention of oily rich guy Jacques (Kenneth Thomson), who, in a bid at regular-guy status, signs his calling card "Jock." Queenie is attracted to Eddie, but out of loyalty to her sister she starts hanging with Jock.

Time out for some backstage banter:

Gay designer on his outlandish costumes: I design the costumes for the show, not the doors to the theatre.

Chorus girl: I know that -- if you had, they'd be painted in lavender.

Then it's time for the big-time production of "Broadway Melody":




Hank is mystified by Queenie's behavior. Eddie, mixing his metaphors, says, "I guess the bright lights just got under her skin." Then Queenie and Eddie have an awkward scene all their own:


There's a lot to like in "Broadway Melody," and if you don't like you can pass the time by counting how many times Queenie and Hank undress and slip into skimpy costumes and/or underwear. We also see them performing their vaudeville act, "Two Harmony Babies From Melody Lane," which includes the line "We can do more with a vo-de-oh-doh/Than Mr. Rockefeller can do with his dough."

When it's all said and done, Hank realizes that Queenie loves Eddie, and she steps out of the picture. At the movie's end, she's ready to go on a vaudeville tour with a new partner, and with the advice of her stuttering agent (Jed Prouty):        
     



Here are the complete credits, if you know what I mean, and I think you do.

 

Awkward Early Talkie Theatre: "Hollywood Revue of 1929"

"The Hollywood Revue of 1929," MGM's entry in the look-at-us-we're-talking sweepstakes, is a lot like Warner Bros.' "The Show of Shows," released later that year. It's a big-budget hodgepodge of skits and songs featuring almost every performer on the lot (a select few were exempt -- Al Jolson isn't in "The Show of Shows" and Greta Garbo isn't in "Hollywood Revue").

The budget is so big, the chorus ends up passing the hat.


Both films were designed to introduce audiences to the brave new world of talkie films -- the ironic thing is that early talkies, because of cumbersome cameras and sound recording equipment, were much less "free" than silent films. The setting that both studios use to showcase sound is very static -- a clearly defined stage, proscenium arch and all. ("Broadway Revue" even has a pit orchestra.)

Joan Crawford warms up for her big dance number. 


Still, this was a chance to see your favorite actors and actresses talk, dance and sing. MGM used to brag about having "more stars than there are in heaven," and at least a galaxy or two is accounted for here -- Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, John Gilbert, Marie Dressler, Bessie Love, Anita Page, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and many others.

Like "The Show of Shows," "Hollywood Revue" prides itself on being very up to date, with sketches that poke fun at quaint Victorian songs and melodramas. The opening number of "Hollywood Revue" and at least part of the proceedings take place in the context of a much more modern setting -- a, um, minstrel show.


The emcees here are Conrad Nagel and Jack Benny. Benny was a headliner in vaudeville by this point, but this is early in his career and he's just beginning to perfect the mannerisms and low-key style that he would utilize so successfully in radio and television. The emcee of "The Show of Shows" is Frank Fay, whose stage persona Benny freely admitted to appropriating, and in comparing the two, Fay comes off as more effective (at least to me). Here's Benny in a sketch with William Haines:



Here, by comparison, is Frank Fay in "The Show of Shows":



The other emcee, Conrad Nagel, is pleasing and polished -- like almost everybody else he sings a number, a song that sends lyrics of love right up into Anita Page's nostrils.

The two performers who are featured most prominently in "Hollywood Revue," however, are singers -- Charles King and Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards. King was the male lead in MGM's other big film of 1929, "The Broadway Melody," and gets far more attention here that he merits. (He sings the song "Your Mother and Mine," which is parodied in "The Show of Shows.")

Edwards, on the other hand, was never a big star, but he was a reliable second banana in several MGM films of the early 1930s. (And he was the voice of Jiminy Cricket in "Pinocchio.") His singing style is simple and appealing, and here he accompanies himself on the uke:



That is some art right there.
Comedy bits are offered by Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and Marie Dressler, but they are minor stuff. There are also quite a few ensemble numbers with elaborate sets and costumes.

And then, toward the end, there is for me the most wince-able portion of "Hollywood Revue" -- a bit, shot in two-strip Technicolor, with Norma Shearer, John Gilbert and Lionel Barrymore.

You've probably heard of it if you haven't seen it -- Gilbert and Shearer perform the balcony scene from "Romeo and Juliet," and then director Barrymore tells them that, under studio orders, the dialogue must be updated.


Norma Shearer tries and fails to act like a regular person.
It's one of those ideas that has "cute" written all over it, and not in a good way. It also features what is supposed to be good-natured, natural bantering between the three, and it's truly squirm-worthy.

Soon enough comes the ending, also shot in two-strip Technicolor -- it's the movie's big hit song, "Singin' in the Rain," sung by the entire cast, in rain slickers, as they prepare to -- board Noah's Ark?



SEE Cliff Edwards in a rain hat! SEE Joan Crawford looking around for her camera! SEE Buster Keaton look like he wishes he was somewhere else!

SEE the complete credits for "The Hollywood Revue of 1929"!