Public Domain Theatre: "Jazz Heaven" (1929)

The 1929 film "Jazz Heaven" is the same old story -- boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy and girl break into a piano factory where he can play his song and they end up on the radio without knowing it.

In the 1920s and '30s, song publishers were like recording studios. They were where the hits were born, with the goal being to publish a song and make thousands from sales of sheet music.

The excitement of the music publishing business could be captured onscreen and used as a metaphor for the drama and bustle of a large city, and it's done very effectively in "The Broadway Melody," released the same year as "Jazz Heaven":

Here, by contrast, is the jazzy introduction to the song publishing business in "Jazz Heaven":


All of "Jazz Heaven," in fact, is kind of meh -- not terrible, but not memorable. One exception is the featured song, "Someone." Oh boy, is it featured. It's hard to get it out of your memory, maybe because they play it 67 times. And it isn't bad -- Oscar Levant wrote the music.

Johnny Mack Brown, wearing trousers that come up to his nipples, is our songwriter hero, Barry, who has come to New York City from Mobile, Alabama, and has brought along his sing-song Southern accent.

Barry has been working for days on one special song, keeping the other residents in his apartment building up all night. This gets him in Dutch with the landlady, but her softhearted husband Max (Clyde Cook) helps Barry escape her wrath.

Then, hark! There is a female voice in the next room whose vocal improvising lends the ending to Barry's song! He uses it, they meet, and sparks fly. She is Ruth (Sally O'Neil) and she works for Kemple and Klucke, music publishers. She takes Barry, who she calls "Big Boy," to meet her bosses.

If Barry immediately sold his song to Kemple and Klucke, "Jazz Heaven" would be a 10-minute movie. But there are complications. One is that Barry's song needs lyrics, and after meeting Ruth he is inspired to write some, all about love and stuff. Then Barry's beloved piano is destroyed when Max tries to move it and it rolls down a flight of stairs. That's why Barry and Ruth perform the song in the piano factory (Max is the night watchman and he lets them in) and it goes over the air:

Farmers love it!

Bootleggers love it!

Rich people love it!

BUT! There is still conflict in the air. Ruth is being chased by her bosses, Kemple (Joseph Cawthorn) and Klucke (Albert Conti). Klucke tells Ruth he will orchestrate Barry's song and have it performed at a swell nightclub, but only if Ruth accompanies him.

So she does, leading to a misunderstanding on Barry's part, exacerbated by Cawthorn in full-bore cranky mode:

Cawthorn practically had this kind of role trademarked -- see here for more Cawthornian goodness. He does have one of the movie's better lines -- at the nightclub he tells Ruth, "Look at my spats! I got socks on under 'em and everything."

One of the reasons "Jazz Heaven" is so flaccid is the wan performance of Brown, a former football star who ended up making a lot of westerns, including serials. On the other end of the energy scale is O'Neil, who brings a Betty Boop-ish charm to her role. But a Boop alone does not a movie make, and "Jazz Heaven" is just blah. 

Public Domain Theatre: "Seven Keys to Baldpate" (1929)

(Here's the entire film.) 

Based on George M. Cohan's 1913 play, which itself was based on a novel by Earl Derr Biggers, the man who also gave us Charlie Chan, the 1929 film version of "Seven Keys to Baldpate" takes place in what one character calls "the loneliest spot on earth -- a summer resort in the winter."

To this spot comes William Halliwell Magee (Richard Dix), a best-selling novelist out to win a bet that only gets betted (?) in movies like this -- a rich friend, the owner of Baldpate, will pay McGee $5,000 if he can write a 10,000-word story in 24 hours. (Kind-of-interesting sidelight -- when Cohan played the role on Broadway and in the 1917 film, his character was named George Washington Magee.)

Magee accepts the bet, and his friend says he hopes the book won't be about the usual stuff Magee writes about -- ghosts, stolen money, shots in the night, falling in love at first sight. At this point, of course, Magee meets Mary (Miriam Seeger):

Like most early talkies, there are awkward moments (See what I did there?) in "Seven Keys to Baldpate." Because most of the film takes place on one set -- the two-level lobby of the resort -- it lends itself to staginess, and most of the cast members perform with exaggerated gestures and hammy line readings (this is the kind of movie where Mary is called "meh-dee") that actors utilized before modern, economic sound film acting was introduced by people like James Cagney and Paul Muni.

And the first third of the film, in particular, is glacially paced -- although considering global warming, maybe that's too much of a compliment. When Magee gets to Baldpate, he has to endure what seems like a half hour of expository dialogue with the caretaker and his wife:

Once Magee starts writing his story, the loneliest place in the world suddenly seems like Grand Central Station. Visitors include the mayor, the president of the local railroad, the president's wife, a couple of guys bribing the mayor for the railroad president, and a hermit named Pete, and Mary.

Dix, a husky fellow who usually played humorless heroic types, does at least get to do some comedy:

Here are the complete credits for "Seven Keys to Baldpate."