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.

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).