TNT and me

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“The Show of Shows,” a 1929 Warner Bros. studio revue, was among the hundreds of seldom-viewed movies that found new life after TNT debuted in 1988.

How much do I love Turner Classic Movies? A lot, as I have written here. But as delighted as I was to finally have non-commercial-interrupted Golden Age movies piped through my TV set via TCM, the real revelation in small-screen film-watching was my first exposure to TCM’s predecessor in the classics-on-cable field … TNT.

Turner Network Television, as it was called more frequently than now, debuted 30 years ago this week, on October 3, 1988. I have a special affinity for TNT, as its infancy aligned to certain significant events in my personal life.

Even with all the cheesy advertisements breaking up its programs, who among us couldn’t love TNT? With its need for programming came the first real emptying of the Ted Turner-controlled film vault, with hundreds of long-unseen pre-1960 MGM, Warner Bros. and RKO gems suddenly available in our living rooms. I never thought I’d get to pose questions like “Can you believe TNT is showing Show of Shows at 4 a.m. Monday?” Of course, I had to ask these questions to myself, as there were no movie message boards or blogs in the late 1980s, nor did anyone within earshot in Flint, Michigan, know what Show of Shows was.

Here’s where the personal stuff comes in: I had to get married to get TNT.

In 1989, I was living in an apartment complex with an in-house cable menu of about 15 channels, so … no go. My then-fiancée lived in an apartment complex with no TNT but with access to AMC (née American Movie Classics), which was frequently showing rarities from Paramount and Universal.

My wife-to-be was no movie watcher (she still isn’t), but I knew she was right for me when she agreed to allow me to time-tape Night World and Love Comes Along at 5 in the morning on her home VCR. (I also knew she was Ms. Right after I dared to show her Freaks and she didn’t run from the room screaming at the climax.)

You think this isn’t significant? Try finding Night World and Love Comes Along on TV at all anymore.

Anyway, we got married and it was all worth it. We moved to an apartment complex that offered both TNT and AMC. Happy ending. Great times. The marriage was pretty good, too, as I recall.

TNT showed reruns of rarely viewed TV shows such as Medical Center and Mr. Novak and produced its own new programming, but its bread-and-better fare was old movies – many, many of which I saw for the first time on that channel. These would have to be taped on VHS, for collectability purposes and because then, as now on TCM, some of the older rarities were aired at times inconvenient for sleep.

One of these was the early musical The Singing Fool, which I wrote about last week. I was so excited to see it show up on TNT that I couldn’t trust my VCR to go on and off as programmed. So, at 3:30 a.m. on Friday, August 10, 1990, I shuffled out of bed, turned on TNT and my VCR by hand and taped the movie … while editing out the commercials.

(This is how good it was for early talkie buffs in 1990: The Singing Fool was airing at the same time as The Pay-Off (a 1930 Lowell Sherman crime drama from RKO) on AMC and Night Nurse (WB 1931, Barbara Stanwyck) on The Movie Channel.)

Seeing The Singing Fool – even with all of its awkward silence-to-sound-and-back-again transitions and schmaltzy father-son scenes between Al Jolson and little Davey Lee – was nearly the highlight of my week. Would’ve been, too … had my first child not been born two days before.

I learned to time middle-of-the-night bottle feedings to select TNT screenings … The Hollywood Revue of 1929The Thirteenth ChairThe Great Divide … and, yeah, Show of Shows. As I rocked my first boy — and, not long after, my second — to sleep with the black-and-white images flickering in the background, I wanted to think, “Someday, son, maybe you’ll enjoy watching Betty Compson and Lawrence Gray as much as I do.”

Yeah, great times. The movies were pretty good, too, as I recall.

A few notes from … Walter Pidgeon?

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Walter Pidgeon wore fancy costumes in “Sweet Kitty Bellairs” (1930) and other early operettas.

To most film fans, Walter Pidgeon will be best remembered for his stolid acting in classics such as How Green Was My Valley, Forbidden Planet and, to cite just one of his many pairings with Greer Garson at MGM, Mrs. Miniver. But as we mark his 121st birthday on September 23, I’ll admit that I think of him first as a baritone in early musicals, both comedies and operettas.

A native of New Brunswick, Pidgeon (1897-1984) came to the United States after World War I service with his native Canada. He went into banking initially but gained a footing on stage and in silent pictures. When talkies came in, Pidgeon – who had studied voice at the New England Conservatory of Music – found himself in demand for singing parts.

Pidgeon sang in such Warner Bros.-First National songfests as Bride of the Regiment (1930, opposite Vivienne Segal); Sweet Kitty Bellairs (1930, with Claudia Dell); Viennese Nights (1930, Segal again), and Kiss Me Again (1931, Bernice Claire). He also appeared in, but did not sing in, Warners’ The Hot Heiress (1931) and Show Girl in Hollywood (1930). By 1931, Warner Bros. had no use for Pidgeon’s baritone, as musicals were out of vogue.

Pidgeon also sang in Universal’s first talkie, Melody of Love (1928), which may or may not be a musical. (Someone will have to find it, and see it, before we know for sure.)

Pidgeon endured a downturn in his film career and returned to New York for a spell in the 1930s, but as we know, he rebounded very nicely.

I’m planning to write more about Bernice Claire and Kiss Me Again soon, so consider this a teaser of sorts …

On top of the world: Al Jolson’s ‘The Singing Fool’ turns 90

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In 1928, the star — and the sound — made “The Singing Fool” a runaway hit.

“You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” was what Al Jolson exalted when he opened his mouth to sing in his landmark 1927 (part-)talkie, The Jazz Singer. He might have said the same for the following year’s The Singing Fool, in which audibly crazed audiences heard even more talk and song by the singular entertainer billed as far above the title as Warner Bros. could accommodate.

The Singing Fool premiered 90 years ago tonight at the Winter Garden theater in New York City, where a scribe from the movie trade publication Exhibitors Herald and Moving Picture World reported thusly:

“It is doubtful if, in all the history of … films, there has ever been so exciting and spectacular an opening as came to the Winter Garden. … Of course, the Warner Brothers were the center of attention, for Jolson has been their great discovery, in many ways the cornerstone of the great edifice they are now building. …

“The picture was a smashing success. Though the script is not quite worthy of the star, he showed himself to be so extraordinary that no one can doubt but that it will take the country by storm, as did The Jazz Singer.”

Folks unfamiliar with The Singing Fool might think the musical drama is an all-talkie, but actually only about two-thirds of its 102 minutes includes dialogue or musical numbers to augment a fully synchronized underscore. And it premiered two months after Warners debuted the first all-talking feature, the otherwise-routine crime drama Lights of New York. The novelty of the Lloyd Bacon-directed Singing Fool tends to overshadow its story of the “fool” of a singer-songwriter played by Jolie, who rockets from waiting tables to nightclub and recording fame while gaining and losing an unloving wife (Josephine Dunn) and a greater love, his “Sonny Boy” (played by 3 1/2-year-old Davey Lee).

The almost unbearably sad “Sonny Boy” was written in that hyper-mood as a joke by the songwriting team of De Sylva, Brown and Henderson, but the public made it the first song from a movie to sell more than 1 million copies of sheet music and phonograph records. It and the more upbeat “I’m Sittin’ on Top of the World” and “There’s a Rainbow ’Round My Shoulder” were what patrons were humming as they left theaters after watching The Singing Fool. The cringey father-son scenes don’t play so well today, and Jolson’s overbearing quality would catch up to him as an actor (his ensuing WB releases were flops, and his contract with the studio was allowed to run out in 1930), but that wasn’t the case nine decades ago this evening.

The Singing Fool sometimes gets lost in the recitations of early-sound-history shorthand: Edison … the French … the De Forest shorts … WB and Vitaphone … Fox-Case … Don JuanThe Jazz Singer Lights of New YorkThe Broadway Melody … and now we’re into 1929. But The Singing Fool was a signal accomplishment as the first talking-film megahit. It cost less than $400,000 to make, but it grossed $3.8 million in this country and nearly $6 million worldwide, setting box office records unrivaled until Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs came along nearly a decade later.

Not that many theaters around the country were wired for sound when Singing Fool made its run, but It could command top dollar. Ticket buyers for opening night at the Winter Garden got in for $11, and the film went for $3 for its regular run there … this in a day when the average price of a movie ticket was 25 cents.

Pare Lorentz, then a young, intellectual film critic whose landmark documentaries about the New Deal were a few years ahead, had to offer at least grudging praise of Jolson in The Singing Fool: “Obvious and tedious as the climax is, when the blackface comedian stands before the camera and sings ‘Sonny Boy,’ you know that the man is greater, somehow, than the situation, the story, or the movie.”

Turner Classic Movies isn’t airing The Singing Fool for its birthday (that channel hasn’t shown it since 2014), but the TCM website has what is alleged to be a trailer of the British reissue here. And there is a DVD available for purchase from Warner Archive (info here).

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Little Davey Lee became a short-time star after appearing with Al Jolson in “The Singing Fool.”

SOURCES

“1st $3 Top Film Is Jolson’s at Garden,” Variety, September 26, 1928.

“Jolson’s Singing Fool Makes Spectacular Garden Opening,” Exhibitors Herald and Moving Picture World, September 29, 1928.

Judge, October 20, 1928.

EMB, The First Hollywood Musicals: A Critical Filmography of 171 Features, 1927-32 (McFarland & Co., 1996).

Scott Eyman, The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution, 1926-30 (Simon and Schuster, 1997).

 

 

Frank Richardson, the Joy Boy of Song

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Frank Richardson (standing second from left) appeared in the hit 1929 movie musical “Sunnyside Up” with (clockwise from top right) El Brendel, Marjorie White, Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell and Sharon Lynn.

Happy 120th birthday to Frank Richardson, who was billed as the “Joy Boy of Song.” He brought his high energy and even higher tenor to a few early Fox musicals before the fickle demand for Hollywood songsters necessitated his return to vaudeville … and obscurity.

What we remember from Richardson – most notably in the box office hit Sunnyside Up — was accomplished on the West Coast, but this vocalist and comedian left his heart in Philadelphia. He was born in that city in 1898, died there in 1962, and wrapped up his documented showbiz career as master of ceremonies of a live Christmas show starring the Three Stooges in nearby Haddonfield, New Jersey, in December 1961.

Richardson was well known to Philadelphians long before his film debut, in William Fox Movietone Follies of 1929. He made his theatrical debut at the precocious age of 8, in response to a “Tryout Night” offer from a local theater, but his high “boy soprano” never fully broke. He performed in minstrel troupes in the Philadelphia area and with the Emmett Welch Minstrels on the “Million Dollar Pier” in Atlantic City, then went solo on stage and ditched the blackface. He recorded for the Victor label in 1923-24.

His act was lauded by Variety in 1927 thusly: “Frank Richardson … blasted into pop songs and semi-ballads that kept him bending and encoring until he had gargled every ditty in his rep. The youngster has come out from under cork and has a delivery like twin ambidextrous pitchers. He can yoddle [sic] a tenor ballad with the best, works like a beaver, has a hop on his fast one and enough personality for a railroad passenger agent.”

With such force in his act, why not the movies? His “audition” of sorts came in 1928 with two Vitaphone shorts filmed in Los Angeles. In the single-reelers, he sang such familiar tunes as “Bye Bye Pretty Baby,” “My Blue Heaven” and “Red Lips (Kiss My Blues Away).”

Richardson was signed by the Fox studio in March 1929 and placed in Movietone Follies, appearing as himself in color revue scenes and introducing the song “Walking With Susie.”

He gained even more followers in a full-fledged part, as a “ham” songwriter who was part of a secondary comedy couple with blonde cutie Marjorie White, in Sunnyside Up (1929). Richardson, White and funnyman El Brendel played in support of Fox’s popular romantic duo of Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, but they attracted much attention on their own. Richardson and White get to sing the B.G. De Sylva-Lew Brown-Ray Henderson title song and “You’ve Got Me Pickin’ Petals Off of Daisies,” and Richardson adds a suggestive verse of “Turn on the Heat” to the film’s blistering-hot dance chorus number.

White, Richardson and Brendel are also part of the massive cast of the Fox studio revue Happy Days (1930), in which Richardson sings “Mona” and then dresses as a clown(!) to accompany Dixie Lee and tap dancer Tom Patricola in the elaborate “Crazy Feet” number.

White and Brendel were signed to co-star in the next De Sylva-Brown-Henderson musical comedy, Just Imagine (1930), but Richardson was placed in a less-prominent song show, Let’s Go Places (1930), in which he played the flippant manager of a movie-crashing singer (newcomer Joseph Wagstaff). Richardson also was heard briefly in unbilled, singing, non-dialogue parts at Fox in Masquerade (1929), High Society Blues (1930) and John Ford’s action drama Men Without Women (1930, in which he sings “Frankie and Johnnie”).

When Richardson wasn’t working before the camera, he was indulging his passion for golf and dutifully making personal appearances on behalf of his films and those of others. He was especially popular in Philadelphia, the trades noted.

Fox knew better than to keep Richardson and White apart, and they were reunited for the “New” Movietone Follies of 1930. They lead the blackface number “Here Comes Emily Brown,” which boasts a Southern horse racing motif – and a chorus that, according to studio publicity, numbered in the triple figures.

Brendel is also on hand, and, as a valet who poses as a lumber magnate, he steals the film from Richardson, White and romantic leads Buster Collier and Miriam Seegar. Unfortunately for all involved, the 1930 Follies hit theaters at midyear, just as musicals were going out of vogue with the public. Fox chose to falsely advertise it as a non-musical — to the satisfaction of no one.

And with that, Frank Richardson’s film career was over. By the fall of 1930, he was back in vaude, on the RKO circuit. He would spend most of the rest of his life as a nightclub performer, mainly in the Philadelphia area, and as an official of the American Guild of Variety Artists, for which he served as president of the Philly chapter.

An odd incident in Richardson’s life came to light in 1933, when it was reported that a showgirl named Joan Williams had filed a $100,000 breach-of-promise suit against the performer. She asserted that Richardson had asked her to marry him and that she had accepted the proposal – only to learn that Richardson was already married. (He had married the former Adele Boyer in 1919.)

A few months later, Williams dropped the suit, and she and Richardson married after he had divorced his first wife. Upon Richardson’s death from a heart attack at his Philadelphia home on January 30, 1962 – six weeks after he hosted the Stooges – Richardson was cited as her widower. Two sons survived him.

Like most skilled singers, Richardson won over his audiences through the force of his personality – genial, in his case – and not just the power of his tones. Sunnyside Up, Happy Days, Movietone Follies of 1930 and Men Without Women all survive today, so we’re fortunate to have of him what we do.

 

SOURCES

“Vaudeville Reviews,” Variety, November 9, 1927.

Frank Richardson Has Been on Stage Since 8,” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 2, 1930.

“Vaude Notes,” Inside Facts of Stage and Screen,” December 6, 1930.

“Sang After School, Won Film Contract,” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 19, 1932.

“Vanities Girl Sues Frank Richardson for $100,000 Balm,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 25, 1933.

“News From the Dailies,” Variety, November 7, 1933.

“Philly AGVA Vote May 26,” Motion Picture Daily, May 5, 1942.

“Frankie Richardson, Singing Star, Is Dead,” Philadelphia Inquirer, February 1, 1962.

Ancestry.com

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A Fox ad for “Sunnyside Up” features (from left) Frank Richardson, Marjorie White, Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell and a combative El Brendel.

Alice White: A flapper’s life

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Alice White was a Jazz Age movie charmer whose relatively short starring career was followed by many tumultuous years.

Here’s a happy 114th birthday to that blonde jazz baby Alice White, whose spunk and cuteness made her a popular star of light comedy and musical films of the late-silent/early sound era.

The title of a 1929 fan-magazine story praised Alice as “The Girl Who Licked Hollywood” – meaning that this 5-foot, 98-pound spitfire had shot to the top of her profession quickly, and through the force of her vivacious, no-nonsense personality. That personality wasn’t always an asset, however.

New Jersey-born and Hollywood-bred, White was a script girl for Charlie Chaplin and a secretary for a spell. But the camera liked her better in front of it.

“I was so stubby and fat and pink-looking that everybody there called me ‘Peter Rabbit.’ I had no thought of becoming a movie actress,” White recalled in 1958. “One day, the still cameraman had a new lens he wanted to test, and he said, ‘Peter Rabbit, how about posing for me?’

“So I put on an act with gestures … [and] the pictures turned out fine. When Mr. Chaplin saw them, he said, ‘Peter Rabbit, you ought to go into the movies.'”

Upon losing nearly 40 pounds, White moved up fast. She cagily signed a studio contract that demanded no worse than second leads. White’s first big hit was in a synchronized silent, First National’s Show Girl (1928), in which she portrayed Dixie Dugan, the wisecracking Broadway chorister made famous in J.P. McAvoy’s popular novels and comic strip.

She couldn’t play Dixie, at least not by that name, in every picture, but similar roles at FN and Warner Bros. kept on coming – in films with self-descriptive titles such as Naughty Baby (1928), Hot Stuff (1929), Broadway Babies (a 1929 musical/crime drama opposite frequent co-star Charles Delaney), The Girl From Woolworth’s (1929), Playing Around (1930), Show Girl in Hollywood (a delightful 1930 musical Dixie Dugan sequel), The Naughty Flirt (1930) and Sweet Mama (1930). When called upon to sing and dance, White could do so adequately but no better than that, and although she did take on a few serious roles, her lack of range or growth as an actress caught up to her.

Some of White’s talkies are occasionally shown on TCM and are available on DVD for modern appraisal, but while she lived, White’s onscreen achievements were overshadowed by personal setbacks, both self-inflicted and by chance.

In 1931, after an argument with a studio executive over money, she was bumped down to a Poverty Row chiller, Tiffany’s Murder at Midnight (which you can watch here). She spent most of ’31 and ‘32 refocusing her career with a vaudeville tour.

White returned to the movies in 1933 and even landed some parts back at the majors, opposite Joe E. Brown, for example, in Warners’ A Very Honorable Guy (1934). But a headline-grabbing scandal emerged. In the fall of 1933, two men were indicted in Los Angeles for the robbery and attempted disfigurement of an English actor, John Warburton. It was alleged the defendants were acting at the behest of White and her longtime boyfriend, banker-turned-actor-turned-agent-turned-screenwriter Sy Bartlett, in retaliation for a vicious beating of White by Warburton during a party in Beverly Hills.

“He beat me up all over the street and grabbed me by my hair,” White said in newspaper accounts of her testimony to a grand jury about Warburton’s alleged attack. “It’s a wonder I didn’t die.”

White and Bartlett were exonerated in the affair. They soon married but were separated within a year and a half. By 1937, their union was kaput, and White – in search of what turned out to be a temporary $65-per-week alimony award — told a judge that she had $100 left in the bank and was living with a friend because she couldn’t afford to pay rent.

White’s final film appearance saw her on screen with another ‘20s jazz baby, Joan Crawford, in Warners’ Flamingo Road (1949). By this time, Crawford was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood and White’s ninth-billed “comeback” role as a roadhouse hostess was little more than a novelty.

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By the time Alice White (left) made “Flamingo Road” (1949), she was firmly in support of Joan Crawford, her jazz-baby contemporary of the ’20s.

Another wild marriage to a screenwriter, one Jack Roberts of Columbia Pictures, fizzled in divorce in 1949 after eight years. According to the Los Angeles Times, White told a divorce court that Roberts “called her vile names, threw things around and was carrying on with other women.” White and Roberts accused each other of spouse-swapping allegations involving a studio musician, William Hinshaw, and his wife, actress Barbara Brown.

White found new work in her old occupation as a secretary. In 1957, she fell off a ladder while trimming her garden, landed on a pair of scissors, and was temporarily blinded for several months as a result.

“My life isn’t so frantic anymore,” she said in a 1958 wire-service interview when asked if she missed her acting career. “I never look back. What’s past is past. I never saved a clipping when I was a star.”

Childless and now a redhead, Alice White died in 1983 after suffering a stroke in her Hollywood Hills home. Her death made headlines nationwide, so at least she had not been forgotten.

The moral of our story: Even if you think you have the movie biz licked, the Hollywood fates can lick right back.

 

SOURCES

“The Girl Who Licked Hollywood,” The New Movie Magazine, December 1929.

“Alice White Charges Actor ‘Beat Me All Over Street,’” Associated Press report in Philadelphia Inquirer, October 14, 1933.

“Slugging of Ex-Sweetie Reveals Alice White’s True Love – Or Does It?” New York Daily News, October 15, 1933.

“Alice White’s Husband Forced to Pay Alimony,” Los Angeles Times, September 2, 1937.

“Alice White Making a Comeback,” Associated Press report in Newport (R.I.) Daily News, May 23, 1958.

“Actress Alice White Dead at 76 [sic],” United Press International report, February 25, 1983.

“Former Actress Alice White Dies,” Los Angeles Times, February 26, 1983.

“Alice White, 76 [sic], Flapper Movie Star in ’30s,” Associated Press report in Chicago Tribune, February 27, 1983.

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Alice in her heyday, as we’d like to remember her.

A few words about Capitolfest 2018

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The Capitol Theatre in Rome, N.Y., is the annual home of Capitolfest.

When the audience at Capitolfest applauded at the sight of Eleanor Boardman, I knew I was in the right place.

My son and I had driven from Michigan to attend our first Capitolfest, the annual classic-film extravaganza in Rome, New York, expressly to sit through the 68 minutes of the 1933 science-fiction musical It’s Great to Be Alive. (I am writing about that Fox picture for a book project I am soon to finish.) But we wouldn’t be getting our money’s worth without attending some of last weekend’s other screenings, which brings me to Boardman and the newly restored 1930 adventure Mamba.

For the uninitiated, it’s common to applaud familiar names at insider events such as this, and even if most of the world has forsaken Boardman – a striking blonde whose acting career ended in 1935 – we buffs haven’t forgotten.  She looks great, if not terribly expressive, in Mamba, which is a thing now because, as Hollywood’s all-Technicolor talking drama, it’s back in circulation after being feared lost.

Jean Hersholt delivers a colorful performance as the nominal star of the piece, produced by the third-tier Tiffany studio (which, probably not coincidentally, went bankrupt not long after). In German West Africa not long before the outbreak of World War I, a powerful plantation owner (Hersholt) is called “Mamba” by the locals and hated by both the occupying Germans and British. To curry favor, the planter secures an arranged marriage to the daughter (Boardman) of an Austrian creditor, and when she moves with him to Africa, she becomes mutually attracted to a German military officer (‘30s Poverty Row reliable Ralph Forbes).

Mamba was restored at UCLA from a unique 35 mm nitrate print that was owned by a collector in Australia. (The back story is told in a charming short documentary, The Theatre of Dreams, which preceded the Mamba showing in Rome.) Mamba is not an ideal restoration – the source material was in terrible shape – and I am not one to criticize painstaking efforts to preserve rare cinema. I was disappointed in Mamba as a movie, although given the constraints of the script and the resources of the producing company – even if Tiffany was spending more than its usual – this might have been expected.

Mamba is a not-insignificant piece of history, however, and if this restoration were available to me on DVD or Blu-ray tomorrow, I’d not hesitate to buy it.

A surprise for the positive at Capitolfest was another 1930 talkie: The Storm, an early William Wyler-directed drama from Universal. Some inventive camera work and exciting exterior action scenes give way, over the course of 80 minutes, to a taut, intimate account of a love triangle in a cabin deep in the Canadian wilds. The participants are portrayed by Lupe Velez, William “Stage” Boyd and Paul Cavanaugh, three actors for whom I have no special affection, but who do good work. Velez masks her strong Mexican accent by adapting it to French-Canadian, and Cavanaugh proves he had more to him than the debonair clubman roles to which he would become typecast.

Wyler wrote in his autobiography that he considered The Storm to be his worst film. Maybe his memory was faulty.

Ronald Colman was the designated star of Capitolfest 16, and this event showed one of my Colman favorites, Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back (1934), a lively mystery drama that also sends up the private-eye genre. I had not seen The Night of Love (1927), a Colman teaming with frequent co-star Vilma Banky, but this story of Gypsy revenge in medieval Spain is first-rate, especially when Colman and heavy Montagu Love play mind games with each other in the first half hour, with innocent maidens as the victims.

I will have much more to say about It’s Great to Be Alive at a date TBA, but I certainly did not regret the effort taken to view the print restored by New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Brazilian tenor Raul Roulien, a Maurice Chevalier type without the charisma, is top-billed as a playboy who ends up being the last man alive on Earth (no kidding!), but Edna May Oliver steals the futuristic show. The songs are unmemorable, but the offbeat humor is highly enjoyable. And in what other picture can you hear Edward Van Sloan call Emma Dunn “Sugar”?

Next year’s Capitolfest stars are to be Joel McCrea and Frances Dee, so expect plenty of early RKOs and Paramounts. The Capitol Theatre looks great, and once the marquee is restored to its original 1928 state (as, we were told, is planned), it will look even better. I eagerly await a Roman return.

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William Wyler didn’t like “The Storm,” but we did.

George Houston: Old before his time

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George Houston was a baritone cowboy star for a while in the early 1940s, but he came to the movies as an opera singer in the 1930s.

Like so many others – Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart and Judy Garland, to name three — George Houston received his film baptism in a Vitaphone short subject. Unlike those more-fabled names, Houston used his commanding operatic baritone to become a small-part player in big pictures, endured a stint as the lead of Poverty Row sea adventures, and capped his picture career as a cowboy star. But like so many in Hollywood, he died way too young.

The end came for Houston (1896-1944) due to a heart attack suffered after he collapsed while walking along a Hollywood street. He was only 48, so if we must imagine an older Houston, we will have to rely on his heavy-makeup look as an octogenarian in the Vitaphone musical comedy Masks and Memories (1934). Besides being Houston’s debut picture, this “Broadway Brevity” was a rarity among Vitas for its three-reel (32-minute) length, the more to fit in some elaborate dance numbers set at a Mardi Gras ball in New Orleans.

I reference George Houston and Masks and Memories now because one of its infrequent showings is scheduled for 5:55 p.m. EDT Tuesday, August 14 on Turner Classic Movies. The star of the mini-musical is singer Lillian Roth, who, in present-day scenes and long-ago flashbacks, plays the object of the affections of both Houston and Clark Gable-lookalike Weldon Heyburn. Houston plays Heyburn’s aged Uncle Andy, who we see as a bitter, reclusive old man in 1934 and, to show us how he got that way, as a loving but stubborn steamboat captain of 1874.

The tale sounds melancholy, but it’s actually not, thanks mainly to the revue numbers and some comedy from secondary couple Queenie Smith and Jack Good. Houston is completely serious as he sings “The Rhythm of the Paddle Wheel,” written for the piece by Warner Bros. house composer Cliff Hess. (Hess was, in his own youth, a pianist on one of those Mississippi River boats so loved by Andy.)

The son of a blind New Jersey clergyman, Houston was trained in New York as what we now call the Julliard School and came to pictures from the realm of grand opera and operettas. He appeared initially with the Rochester (New York) American Opera Company and was praised by The New York Times, upon his troupe’s 1927 performance of Mozart’s The Abduction From the Seraglio as “the leading member of the cast in … artistic achievement … [with a] bass-baritone of sonorous, manly quality.”

Six-foot-2 and well built, Houston spent a few years in the employ of theatrical impresario Earl Carroll and amassed stage credits that included “Chee-Chee” (his Broadway debut), “Fioretta” and “The New Moon” (in which he no doubt sang “Stout Hearted Men”). He also spent a full year (probably in the early 1930s) under MGM contract but was never used.

But it was only a matter of time for Hollywood to take note, and Houston became part of the mid-1930s trend toward recruiting operatic performers for the movies. His feature debut was in Columbia’s 1935 drama-with-songs The Melody Lingers On, in which he sang a selection from Carmen before his character was killed off halfway through.

Movie’s minor leagues beckoned, as Houston was cast as “Cap’n” Bill Jones, a bare-chested, tattooed tough guy who battles South Seas treasure hunters in Grand National’s Captain Calamity (1936). The studio touted Houston’s character as a “fighting skipper who revels in the crunch of knuckles against jaw bones.”

As if not to let Houston’s voice talent go to waste, he takes time out from all that battling to sing a pair of songs to female lead Marian Nixon – and in color, to boot. Grand National thought enough of the result to put Houston in a similar singing he-man role in Wallaby Jim of the Islands (1937), now in black-and-white. A Wallaby Jim series was promised by GN, but the studio went under.

Meanwhile, Houston was being seen in briefer roles in major-studio fare. In MGM’s Greta Garbo starrer Conquest (1937), he was billed 12th as a grand marshal. In the musical Let’s Sing Again (RKO, 1936), he was billed third as the father of its star, Bobby Breen.

In the most prestigious film among his credits, Houston sang with Oscar-nominated soprano Miliza Korjus in The Great Waltz (MGM, 1938), in which he makes the most of his limited screen time. And when someone was needed to play George Washington in the historical drama The Howards of Virginia, Houston was the man in the RKO Cary Grant release of 1940.

In late 1940, the new indie company Producers Releasing Corporation signed Houston for a series of B-Westerns as “The Lone Rider.” Houston amassed a lot of screen minutes, if not large financial compensations, in 11 quickie features, all with Al “Fuzzy” St. John as comic sidekick.

But Houston and Westerns weren’t a great fit: Oater fans liked their singing heroes with less operatic tones and more informality (hence, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers over the likes of, say, Houston or Fred Scott or Dick Foran). In 1942, Houston was replaced as PRC “Lone Rider” by Bob Livingston, a more-seasoned sage-brusher.

Houston’s Poverty Row Westerns, now in the public domain, are easily accessible. Examples include Frontier Scout (Grand National, 1938); The Lone Rider in Frontier Fury (PRC, 1941); and Houston’s final film, Outlaws of Boulder Pass (PRC, 1942).

Houston was by now married to another opera singer, Virginia Card, and was busy as founder and stage director of the American Music Theatre of Pasadena, California, a group presenting opera in English. He mentored Howard Keel and John Raitt, among many aspiring song stars.

Houston seemed to have new career momentum. According to print obituaries, he was preparing to take his company on a national tour sponsored by the Theater Guild of New York when his heart gave out on November 12, 1944.

 

SOURCES

“Guntoting, Gallant, Scrapping Skipper,” The Courier (Waterloo, Iowa), March 3, 1937.

“First Wallaby Jim at Brooklyn Strand,” New York Daily News, March 1, 1938.

“George F. Houston, Opera Singer, 47” (obituary), United Press report, The New York Times, November 13, 1944.

“George Houston, Singer, Expires During Stroll,” Los Angeles Times, November 13, 1944.

“U.R. Graduate May Be Starred in Own Show,” San Bernardino (California) Sun, April 4, 1944.

http://www.b-westerns.com