TCM, ‘The Desert Song’ and me

John Boles mesmerizes Carlotta King in the 1929 movie version of “The Desert Song.”

For all the complaints I hear about Turner Classic Movies, I think it’s still a pretty great channel. Maybe it shows too many post-1970 movies, although this is much less of a problem for me than for the Golden Age purists who grumble about it on the Internet. And there are too many promotions for in-house merch; fewer TCM Wine Club ads in heavy rotation would be nice.

But TCM is the best thing on television we, as lovers of old-old flickers, have. We should appreciate it for as long as we can (or have we not learned the lesson provided by what used to be called American Movie Classics?). Why, even as I type this, TCM is airing Roberta, the Astaire-Rogers musical in which Irene Dunne screen-intros “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Heck, I’m old enough to remember when you couldn’t even see Roberta because of rights issues.

TCM is emerging from a long transitory period created by the chasm left by the loss of Robert Osborne as the primary host. Osborne, who died a year and half ago, represented the perfect balance between film buff and TV presenter: He had a great love for the channel’s fare and the industry’s history but didn’t come off as a know-it-all. An actor by training, he had a great rapport with the classic stars he interviewed over the years. (From here, Osborne’s greatest “credential” was that he was a very interesting interview subject himself, as I found out 15 or so years ago during my past life as a newspaper entertainment writer. A real gentleman, he was.)

I have come to like and respect Ben Mankiewicz as Osborne’s main replacement. Some folks think he’s a wee snarky, but he is young enough to connect with the emerging millennials-for-oldies audience that TCM strongly desires to remain relevant – and what the classic-film audience needs at large. It’s nice that Turner Classic Movies has its loyalists, even if they chafe at the modified rebranding of TCM as a lifestyle channel. But as the option of a la carte cable channel selection looms, TCM will need to build viewership, not just placate those of us who have watched from the jump.

Among the other hosts, Dave Karger is a junior version of Osborne but lower on the warmth factor; I think he’ll grow on people, but the jury’s still out. Eddie Muller provides terrific in-depth intros for the “Noir Alley” titles, and he’s good enough sport to grin and bear his assignments to wine promos. As for Alicia Malone, I am still trying to cope with her accent.

But this wouldn’t be a blog about Turner Classic Movies without a programming complaint, so here’s one: Why, TCM, do you torture us with your schedule?

This is a rhetorical question, as I know the answer: Exhibition legalities, the availability of air-worthy material, and other time-fluid factors complicate the airings of many hundreds of vintage films, and these are beyond TCM’s control. But I am prompted to ask anyway because of the appearance, followed by the disappearance, of the 1929 version of The Desert Song from the online slate for August 2.

I’ve seen The Desert Song – which is one of the very first all-talking musicals – multiple times (and if you are so inclined, you can go to a website with a name rhyming with “Moo Rube”), so I’m not missing much by not seeing it on broadcast TV. Still, it’s a historically important movie – filmed as a full talkie (with Technicolor sequences!) in the fall of 1928, just as Warner Bros.’ part-talking Al Jolson vehicle The Singing Fool was setting box-office records with sound-hungry audiences. Desert Song was supposed to be a key follow-up in the Warners lineup, as WB had bought the rights to the Broadway musical for a lofty $65,000 in May 1928 – two months before the debut of that studio’s landmark all-talkie Lights of New York.

But Warners allowed a legal dispute, mounted by the owner of the West Coast territorial rights to the stage play, to keep The Desert Song on the shelf for a key period of months.  Although the dispute was settled in WB’s favor in federal court in February 1929, it wasn’t until April that the studio debuted the film – and by then, other studios had caught up with their own first full-length talkers. Even at that, Desert Song grossed $1.5 million in the U.S. and $3 million worldwide, impressive numbers for the day.

Advertised as “The World’s Most Famous Musical Romance” – which the stage original may well have been – the inaugural cinematic Desert Song trims some of the Otto Harbach-Oscar Hammerstein-Sigmund Romberg stage score, per the customary necessity of shoehorning three-hour footlight parades into an hour or two of celluloid. But right down to the 10-minute mid-section intermission, it’s by far the most loyal to the Broadway operetta than either of the two later, full-color movie incarnations (1943, in which Dennis Morgan battles the Nazis, and 1953, with Gordon McCrae and not-one-of-my-faves Kathryn Grayson).

And it would be nice to see and hear 1929 performers John Boles (as the heroic “Red Shadow,” a white Frenchman masquerading as a Moroccan freedom fighter), Carlotta King (in her only feature), Myrna Loy, Louise Fazenda and even little Johnny Arthur in something other than the faded black-and-white images and muffled tones of the currently circulating unauthored print.

Warners, which liberated the ’43 and ’53 Desert Songs to DVD releases in 2014, has indicated that work is being done on a preservation of the ’29 Desert Song, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were to pop up again on the TCM schedule … and stay there until the first note is played.

Anyway, I don’t think anyone is really that upset over no Desert Song this week. If early-sound enthusiasts can survive the appearance/withdrawal of Seven Footprints to Satan on/from the TCM schedule, which happened in 2008, we can endure this. (For the uninitiated, Seven Footprints is a part-talking 1929 First National horror comedy that is archivally held in Europe but is supposedly lacking sound elements. I remember thinking I might need heart medicine when I first read the words “Seven Footprints to Satan” on the TCM “Coming Soon” slate.)

Even without Seven Footprints to Satan, added to the loss of Osborne’s genial presence, and a dwindling audience of folks who remember watching movies in first-run theaters before 1970, TCM continues to impress. Just this week (July 31), it’s offering a terrific daylong lineup of pre-Code pictures. Among them are Downstairs (John Gilbert’s best talkie), Faithless (Tallulah Bankhead at MGM), Safe in Hell (a surprisingly lurid melodrama with the criminally underrated Dorothy Mackaill), and Three on a Match (with Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Joan Blondell and the less-known but wonderful Ann Dvorak).

So … I promise not to be so hard on the best channel ever invented for the small screen because I’m tempted to be too much of a film geek. To paraphrase George Costanza – but in my case, really meaning it, and with no intent of a breakup: It’s not you, TCM … it’s me.

 

SOURCES:

“Vitaphone Unworried on Desert Song Warning,” The Film Daily, June 1, 1928.

“Talker Version Is Not Stage Play Infringement,” Variety, February 13, 1929.

TCM.com

 

Jay Henry: Dressed for business

 

were-not-dressing
In his only credited film appearance, Jay Henry (right) emoted with Ray Milland and Carole Lombard in “We’re Not Dressing” (1934).

Paramount assembled an impressive roster of players for the tuneful We’re Not Dressing (1934), which paired the studio’s biggest song star, Bing Crosby, with a perennial screwball-comedy charmer, Carole Lombard. For this uncredited retelling of J.M. Barrie’s play The Admirable Crichton, the rest of the credited cast consisted of Ethel Merman, George Burns and Gracie Allen, pretend-drunk funster Leon Errol, future Academy Award winner Ray Milland and Jay Henry … a Hollywood one-and-done.

Well, how about “mostly impressive”?

One can watch We’re Not Dressing and hardly know that Jay Henry existed as an actor. Crosby plays a singing sailor who is appointed caretaker of the pet bear owned by heiress Lombard, on whose ocean cruise Der Bingle is employed. Lombard is pursued by two gold-digging playboy princes, but a fortuitous shipwreck turns Crosby into a hero and thwarts the fake royals. Merman longs for whichever prince Lombard rejects – but she gets neither. Merman sings “It’s Just a New Spanish Custom” in a duet with Errol, but Crosby gets the hits: Harry Revel and Mack Gordon’s “May I?” and “Love Thy Neighbor.” It’s heavily lightweight stuff, but anything with Crosby onscreen in 1934 was spun into box-office gold.

Henry and Milland portray the con artist “princes” Alexander and Michael, who vie for Lombard’s affections, although Henry hints suggestively to Milland that “we three could be very happy together.” (We’re Not Dressing beat the Production Code crackdown to theaters by mere weeks.) Milland’s work here led to a long-term Paramount contract and ensuing stardom; Henry, nonesuch.

No matter, for Jay Henry could laugh all the way to the bank, and if his single credit seems something of a lark … well, it was, sort of.

Henry was signed to a movie contract in the fall of 1933 with little to none of the stage experience expected from an actor from the East. He was a native New Yorker (real name: Julian Henry Rosenstein) who, the trade publication The Film Daily reported, came to Los Angeles for “a visit with no idea of entering pix.” He was “spotted on a golf course by a Paramount official … given a screen test” and then pacted for We’re Not Dressing.

Appropriately for a young performer (Henry was 21 at the time), Henry was subjected to inter-studio training: He and other “embryo actors” – Ida Lupino, Kent Taylor and Toby Wing among them – rehearsed for a stage performance of the suspense thriller Double Door as 1934 dawned at Paramount. Shooting on We’re Not Dressing commenced in mid-January.

Henry also was, for a while, regularly name-checked in the fan magazines. He was most conspicuously linked to Dorothy Dell, another nascent Paramount player, whom he accompanied on an impromptu raccoon hunt — hounds included — at an L.A. harbor on a spring night in ‘34. Dell (who would die in an auto accident that June) imported the raccoons from her native Dixie for the out-of-place stunt.

One fan-mag account had Dell denying reports that she and Henry were engaged, although he had gifted her with a good-sized engagement ring. Another had Henry stepping out with another Southern-bred Paramount contractee, Gail Patrick.

By March 1934, with the release of We’re Not Dressing slated for late April, Henry was already being announced for a part in Paramount’s next W.C. Fields comedy, then titled Grease Paint. That film became The Old Fashioned Way, but Henry was nowhere to be found in the finished product. In June, Henry was reported to be driving by auto back to New York.

That Henry apparently never appeared in another movie may have had to do with his ineffectual work in We’re Not Dressing, in which his dark/exotic features, lack of suavity, tentative line readings and slightly oversized nose contrast poorly with the look of fellow “heavy” Milland. The presence of much bigger names also accentuates the problem. In other words, Henry is out of his league.

But here’s the thing … Henry didn’t have to act. The son of glue manufacturer Henry Rosenstein, he didn’t need the money. And anyway, his father intended him to run the family business. In 1938, Henry was mentioned in Walter Winchell’s column as “stuck with the glue millions” and said to be in a “blazing romance” with prominent model Joan Taylor (not to be confused with the ’50s film actress Joan Taylor).

Taylor, from the prestigious John Robert Powers agency, had attracted national attention as an advertising pinup. She and Henry were bridesmaid and best man at the wedding of model and ex-Paramount actress Linda Yale to a paper company executive in December 1938, then they eloped immediately after their friends’ nuptials. By this time, Henry was advertising director of the family concern, the New York City-based Thomas W. Dunn Co., a maker of gelatin and glue.

Jay Henry died way too young – but not during his service in World War II, when he was a Navy pilot who rose to the rank of lieutenant commander. Upon the death of his father in 1949, he rose to the Dunn company presidency. On December 23, 1951, Henry succumbed to a heart attack at his home in White Plains, New York. He was only 39, survived by his wife, mother and sister.

 

SOURCES:

Ray Milland, Wide-Eyed in Babylon (New York: William Morrow, 1974).

“Along the Rialto,” The Film Daily, April 23, 1934.

“Par’s Embryo Actors,” Variety, January 9, 1934.

“Having Fun in Hollywood,” The New Movie Magazine, June 1934.

“Here’s Hollywood,” Screenland, May 1934.

“Tomorrow’s Stars,” Screenland, July 1934.

“Two for Jay Henry,” Variety, March 27, 1934.

“Coming and Going,” The Film Daily, June 25, 1934.

“Walter Winchell … on Broadway,” September 1937.

“Modeling Is Hard Work, Joan Taylor Declares,” Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times, August 10, 1938.

“Broadway,” New York Daily News, December 19, 1938.

“Henry Rosenstein” (obituary), New York Times, October 28, 1949.

“Jay Henry” (obituary), New York Times, December 25, 1951.

Ancestry.com

Where did you go, Guy Robertson?

 

KING KELLY OF THE USA2
Guy Robertson (right) appeared with Edgar Kennedy in his only feature film, 1934’s “King Kelly of the U.S.A.”

The romantic musical comedy King Kelly of the U.S.A. (Monogram, 1934) was the only feature film for its top-billed player, stage baritone Guy Robertson, who prominently starred before the footlights from the late 1920s through the early ’40s but is pretty much forgotten now. His cinematic opportunities may have been limited by his strong facial resemblance to James Cagney, and there was no one quite like Cagney – even in a musical comedy. Robertson has also become a lost player of sorts, with only sketchy information about his probable whereabouts, but we think we know some of what happened to him.

A New York City native born in October 1898 and reared in Denver, Robertson was the son of stage actors: His mother, Maude, performed under the name Dollie Davis, and his stepfather, William N. Webb (aka William Webb Robertson), was a notable enough actor and director to merit his own New York Times obituary upon his death in 1934. Robertson was packed off to prep school – where, he would recall later, his roommates were Vincent Youmans and Norman Rockwell – and was educated as an engineer at Lehigh University. The tie to Youmans, the future composer and producer, didn’t hurt once the footlights won out.

With a Broadway musical career going back to 1919, Robertson became a matinee idol through prominence in such shows as The Circus Princess, White Lilacs, The Perfect Fool, and The Street Singer. He co-starred in Nina Rosa (the Sigmund Romberg show to which stage actress Ethelind Terry escaped after co-starring in the 1930 MGM flop Lord Byron of Broadway) and hosted the Broadway Varieties radio show. Robertson missed out on an even bigger success: He was initially announced as male lead Gaylord Ravenal in the original 1927 Ziegfeld production of Show Boat but was replaced, although he finally got to play the role in a 1930 St. Louis production (with W.C. Fields as Captain Andy).

Robertson’s film experience was scant, however. A trade publication report in late 1928 indicated that he was reprising his stage role in an independently produced all-talking screen version of the operetta White Lilacs, but the movie seems to have not been released. He was seen, however, in a 1929 Vitaphone short, High Waters, in which his singing accompanied stock footage of the Mississippi River, and in a 1933 Warner Bros. one-reeler, How to Break 90 #5: Impact, in which he was identified only by his first name and did little more than fill out a foursome to play with the famed golfer Bobby Jones. Another false start in the flickers occurred in 1933 when Robertson was signed by producer B.P. Schulberg, the former Paramount production head now releasing independently through that studio. Schulberg told the trades that Robertson to “become more popular in pictures than he was on the stage.” But it didn’t happen. At one point, Robertson was set to participate with Edmund Lowe and Wynne Gibson in Schulberg’s production Her Bodyguard, but he did not appear in the finished film.

Trem Carr, production chief of Monogram Pictures, pacted Robertson in the spring of 1934 with the intent of repeating the recent success of young leading man Ray Walker, who had starred in five films for the company. Robertson filmed King Kelly of the U.S.A. in June and July, just after a live stint – playing a movie star, of all things – in the musical comedy All the King’s Horses in New York. All the while, Robertson had to endure descriptions of him as a prettier version of Cagney. Judging by a 1936 interview with the Los Angeles Times, he was good-natured about it: “Oh, oh.  That chap is the bane of my existence. But I guess if I have to be like somebody, I’d rather it be Jimmy than anyone else.”

For director/co-screenwriter Leonard Fields in King Kelly of the U.S.A., Robertson sings three unmemorable songs (“Believe Me,” “Right Next Door to Love,” and “There’s a Love Song in the Air”), all written by Bernie Grossman and Joe Sanders (the former leader of the Coon-Sanders Nighthawks jazz orchestra) in an old-school romantic style that was becoming passé by 1934. In the scenario, American stage producer James W. “King” Kelly (played by Robertson) takes his new show, Kelly’s Affairs of 1934, on an ocean liner to an engagement in Paris.  He falls for a passenger, Catherine (Irene Ware), secretly a princess from the small kingdom of Belgardia. T. Ashmore Brockton (Franklin Pangborn), an efficiency engineer en route to a job in Belgardia, tries to buy the contract of Kelly’s featured dancer, Maxine, so he can romance her.

Kelly receives word that his show’s work permit has been canceled. Brockton buys Kelly’s show for $1,000 – and his contract with Belgardia. In Belgardia, Kelly and aide “Happy” Moran (Edgar Kennedy) meet the eccentric king (Ferdinand Gottschalk), who wants the kingdom’s financial troubles cleared up, although Belgardia’s only asset is a surplus of unsold mops. Kelly proposes that Belgardia pay its debt to neighboring Moronia by marrying off Princess Tania to Prince Alexis of Moronia (William Orlamond), but he doesn’t know Catherine is Tania. Kelly must figure out how to save the kingdom from bankruptcy while keeping Tania for himself; his solution is to sell the mops on a “Voice of Romance” radio show sponsored by “Personality Mops.” With help from the grateful housewives of Belgardia, Kelly and Tania are united.

The story is mainly derivative but with an odd mix of Ruritanian-type operetta and Depression-era consumerism, with a short, primitive animated sequence thrown in. The script favors Edgar Kennedy, cast as right-hand man to Robertson’s girlie-show impresario whose good-old American ingenuity saves a European kingdom. Moreover, however competent his performance, Robertson’s screen time with female lead Ware (1910-1993) isn’t enough to generate fireworks. This wasn’t much of a booster to Ware’s career, which was stalling after an early impact in Fox’s Chandu the Magician (1932). (As in Chandu, she would be menaced by Bela Lugosi, this time with Boris Karloff, in Universal’s The Raven in 1935.)

The Film Daily praised King Kelly of the U.S.A. as “an amusing burlesque [that] … develops a considerable number of laughs,” and Motion Picture Herald predicted that Robertson “should be found appealing, especially to the feminine portion of the patronage.” But those were opinions of the showmen’s media; patrons came away with a different view. A theater manager from Florida reported to Motion Picture Herald that he was impressed with “a pleasing musical that Monogram should be proud of” after watching a screening, but he said that he would report again after his patrons responded. A few weeks later came his follow-up: “The paying customers don’t agree with me.  They didn’t like it and said so.”

An exhibitor from Oregon was even more direct in his submission to MPH: The exchange told me this was a good comedy. My customers told me it was not.  I am inclined to believe them, for they were sincere enough to get up and walk out in the middle of it. I didn’t see the picture, because after getting the comments on the first show, I hid in the office for the remainder of the run and trembled every time someone knocked on my office door.”

Most of the humor in King Kelly is provided by Kennedy, dumb blonde Joyce Compton, fussy Pangborn, and eccentric Gottschalk – an amusing enough lineup, you’d think – and Robertson was deemed worthy enough by Monogram to be announced for two more films, the first to be titled Smiling Irish Eyes. However, Robertson’s career went in another direction, back to the stage, with what would become his greatest triumph, as Johann Strauss II in the operetta The Great Waltz. Robertson originated the role in New York in September 1934 with such acclaim that Monogram used it in its trade ads: “Monogram presents a great box office star in his film debut … Guy Robertson, hit of New York’s $44,000-a-week stage smash is now starring for you … sign him up by booking King Kelly of the U.S.A.

Robertson played well over 1,000 performances of The Great Waltz. When he brought the production to Los Angeles in 1936, Robertson was asked by that city’s Times in an interview if he would like to play the Strauss role in the movies. “Of course, I would.  Don’t be silly,” he replied. “But I’ll wager if any studio has a Strauss picture in mind, it’ll pick Ted Healy for my role while I, Johann Strauss, gnash my teeth.” What actually happened was that MGM made a Strauss musical called The Great Waltz in 1938, without Robertson – and, thankfully, sans Healy. Robertson consoled himself in expanding his repertoire by playing George, seriously and with no music, in Of Mice and Men on tour.

Robertson’s career decline began in the early 1940s, although he found temporary bliss after marrying stage actress Audrey Christie in 1938. By 1942, while touring with his wife in the comedy My Sister Eileen, Christie was granted a divorce on grounds, according to a wire service report, “that Robertson twice struck her in a quarrel over his gambling.” A month later, at age 44, Robertson enlisted in the U.S. Navy, for which he divided his time between doing service radio shows in Chicago and serving on a destroyer as a chief petty officer in the South Pacific. After the war, he worked as a production director for the Mutual Broadcasting Company and returned to the stage as an actor and also as a singer/emcee in a touring show called The Copacabana Follies.

And then … Robertson’s name disappeared from public view – at least until King Kelly of the U.S.A. transitioned to TV and, later, home video. Why did his career fade? Perhaps an answer is hinted at in one of the last recorded notices of Robertson as a performer, this one for a 1946 stop of Copacabana Follies in Indianapolis, where a writer opined that Robertson’s voice was “a little rusty” and “shaky.” Robertson’s ultimate fate was not documented, and the birth-death information for him on the Internet Movie Database at this writing is almost certainly incorrect. (The IMDB info seems to match that of a Missouri-born former government official in California who died in an auto accident in Sacramento in March 1960.)

However, recent research indicates that the singing actor moved to Erie, Pennsylvania, in the late 1940s, worked there as a hotel and club singer, and died in a veterans’ hospital in Erie on February 1, 1974, at age 75. Information on the Guy R. Robertson who died in Erie in ’74 jibes with many of the vital statistics (date and location of birth, family members’ names, military record in both world wars) known about the actor.

Oddly, though, the local newspaper obituary for the Guy from Erie doesn’t mention his fame on the stage … which opens up another mystery even as one seems to have been solved. If anyone has more information on the actor-singer Guy Robertson, please let me know.

 

SOURCES

Ancestry.com

“William N. Webb Dies; Actor and Director,” The New York Times, November 1, 1934.

“His Parents Decided to Keep Him Off the Stage,” Wilmington (North Carolina) Sunday Morning Star, November 26, 1939.

“Powers Cinephone Is Now Making White Lilacs,” Motion Picture News, December 8, 1928.

“Schulberg Signs Robertson,” The Hollywood Reporter, April 10, 1933.

“Schulberg Starting Bodyguard Monday,” The Hollywood Reporter, May 3, 1933.

“Guy Robertson Telephones Reactions to Spectacle,” Los Angeles Times, December 21, 1936.

“Reviews of the New Features: King Kelly of the U.S.A.,” The Film Daily, September 11, 1934.

“Showmen’s Reviews: King Kelly of the U.S.A.,” Motion Picture Herald, September 15, 1934.

“What the Picture Did for Me,” Motion Picture Herald, October 27, 1934; November 3, 1934; and December 29, 1934.

“Divorce Given Famed Actress,” International News Service report, quoted from The Daily Times (New Philadelphia, Ohio), September 10, 1942. (Wire-service accounts of Robertson’s enlistment in the Navy appeared in many newspapers in late October.)

“Varied Acts in Keith’s Copacabana Follies,” Indianapolis Star, March 9, 1946.

“Guy Robertson” (obituary), Erie (Pennsylvania) Daily Times, February 4, 1974.

Raising the curtain (or: All About Me)

Welcome to a new blog about old movies!

My name is Edwin M. Bradley … but please call me Ed.  I am a writer, editor, refugee newspaper journalist, and current art museum curator/college English instructor who was a daily newspaper film reviewer for 20 years. I have authored three books about early film history, with emphases on pre-1940 musicals and the transition to sound in Hollywood.

My latest tome, Unsung Hollywood Musicals of the Golden Era (McFarland & Co.), examines 50 obscure and obscure-ish 1929-39 films that are either unfairly unrecognized or deservedly ignored. It was recognized by Huffington Post and Classic Images magazine as one of the top new film-related titles of 2016. My other books are The First Hollywood Musicals (1996) and The First Hollywood Sound Shorts (2005).

The purpose of this blog is to look at unusual and/or little-known movies (not necessarily musicals, for I love pre-1950 horror and science fiction, too) and movie people. I hope you enjoy it.

By the way, I am nearly finished with a fourth book, to be published by McFarland. Its tentative title is Tone-Deaf Divas, Crooning Cowpokes, and Synthetic Songsters: Rediscovering 75 Hollywood Musicals of the 1930s. We’ll have more to say about that later.

Me
Me