TNT and me

show-of-shows
“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.

George Houston: Old before his time

george-houston-cowboy1
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

Charles Delaney: A smiling, flying Irishman

Charles Delaney-Alice-White-Woolworth
Charles Delaney gets to know Alice White a little better in First National’s 1929 comedy with music “The Girl From Woolworth’s.”

Let’s wish a hearty 126th birthday today to Charles Delaney, a jaunty, handsome fellow from the East who topped out in leading-man roles as sound was taking hold in Hollywood.

Delaney’s career mirrored that of a better-known, East Coast-bred Charles – Charles Farrell — in that they were both late bloomers to top parts and well-known for being paired with cute-as-a-button female stars.

Farrell (who would have turned 118 today, by the way) was, of course, the longtime screen partner of Janet Gaynor. In Delaney’s case, however, he was widely associated with two ladies: Sally O’Neil and Alice White.

Delaney got his big break in films opposite O’Neil in Frisco Sally Levy (1927), was reteamed by MGM with her in The Lovelorn (1927) and was heard as well as seen with Sally in the Tiffany musical romance Kathleen Mavourneen (1930). At First National, he played White’s sweetie thrice — in the synchronized silent Show Girl (1928) and two 1929 talkies, Broadway Babies and The Girl From Woolworth’s.

Delaney served his female contemporaries well, as his open-faced, distinctly Irish look and energy appealed to viewers without being a distraction. In a 1928 review of Universal’s Home, James, in which Delaney appeared with Laura La Plante, New York Daily News critic Irene Thirer praised him as “our idea of a leading man, who is just handsome enough and yet not too handsome. His pleasing appearance and flashing smile ought to net him more good roles.”

They did, although Delaney’s work at the peak of his career isn’t that easy to find. In Broadway Babies, Delaney plays a brash stage manager whose romance with singer-dancer White is imperiled by the presence of Fred Kohler’s “importer” from Detroit. Delaney spends much time stewing, but Alice comes around. There are three songs in this musical comedy, but Charlie sings none.

In Kathleen Mavourneen, a contemporary story inspired by the long-running play by Irish writer Dion Boucicault, Delaney is a singing plumber named Terry. He is in love with O’Neil’s Kathleen, who is just off the boat and living in an Irish neighborhood of NYC. The local ward boss (Robert Elliott) is the younger man’s competition for the heroine’s hand, but the plumber wins out over the pol. The two leads perform a pair of James Brockman compositions, “Kathleen” and “Mother My Own”; she may or may not be dubbed, but his voice sounds as if it was.

Kathleen Mavourneen was no help to Delaney’s career, or anyone else’s. Filmed in the summer of 1929, it sat on the shelf until the middle of 1930, possibly because of instability in the management of the Tiffany studio. Thus considered creaky by the time it could be seen, the picture was dismissed by The Film Daily as “a week number plugging the Irish angle,” while Photoplay readers were advised to “save your money.”

(For the curious, Broadway Babies occasionally airs on TCM and is on a Warner Archive DVD, and Kathleen Mavourneen is in the public domain and is easy to access.)

Charles Edward Delaney was born on August 9, 1892 to a large New York City clan; his coachman father and housekeeper mother, both born in Ireland, produced six children on U.S. soil. According to accounts of Delaney’s life written when he was a film actor, he left his native country during World War I to serve in the Canadian flying corps. While the claim of Canadian duty might be legitimate, we also know that a Charles Edward Delaney was posted at the Bay Shore U.S. Naval Air Station on Long Island in 1917.

Charles-Delaney-young
A young Charles Delaney.

In any case, Delaney became known as a stunt flier after the war, and that skill is what brought him to Hollywood. He was credited for flying stunts in as many as 200 movies (a likely exaggeration). He also was said to have performed in vaudeville in a mind-reading act but that his stage career ended when he was injured in an airborne publicity stunt. His acting credits date from 1922.

If there was any doubt over Delaney’s two-fisted nature, it would have been countered by a tussle with Jack Kearns, the former manager of champion boxer Jack Dempsey, after a golf outing at the El Rancho Country Club in July 1929. Kearns emerged with two black eyes and Delaney sustained a broken nose following a disagreement with Delaney over their scores. “We made up and will be good friends again, but I don’t think we’ll play golf together,” Delaney wisely told a Los Angeles Times scribe.

Delaney’s reputation as an action man widened the scope of his parts even as the prestige of his projects began to decline. In 1931, Delaney – now pushing 40 — was cast in two “Thrill-O-Dramas” for the small-time Sono Art-World Wide Company. In Air Police, he was a federal law enforcement pilot battling illegal-immigrant smuggling with Kenneth Harlan, and Hell-Bent for Frisco (now lost) saw him playing a prizefighter.

With the majors, Delaney had played opposite canines as well as humans – with Bonaparte “The New Dog Star” in MGM’s The Thirteenth Hour (a 1927 Old Dark House thriller with Lionel Barrymore) and the great Rin-Tin-Tin in The Man Hunter (Warner Bros., 1930). Now, on the way down, he was a crusading journalist who was Captured in Chinatown (1936), a Consolidated Pictures Corporation production with “Tarzan the Police Dog” and the much prettier Marion Shilling.

Delaney married circa 1920 and stayed such, living childless in Los Angeles. (There was a curious 1926 newspaper report about his saving his wife in a suicide attempt when he discovered the gas from his stove being turned on.) Until his death on August 31, 1959, he continued to play small roles, credited and not, in films and television, with many Westerns included.

When he left us, his final role — billed seventh in the teen exploitation drama The Beatniks (1959) — was new on display in theaters. With direction, script and songs by legendary voice actor Paul Frees, that undistinguished film gives Delaney quite a bit to do as a fatherly talent agent who (despite the bad influence of gang punk Peter Breck) tries to turn “singing sensation” Tony Travis into a star.

There are worse ways for an actor to go out.

Charles-Delaney-and-Peter-Breck
In his film finale, “The Beatniks,” Charles Delaney stares down gang creep Peter Breck.

SOURCES

Home James, Comedy at Hip, Has Laura La Plante as Star,” New York Daily News, September 11, 1928.

“Charles Delaney Affords Story for Movie Thriller,” Los Angeles Times, April 24, 1927.

Kathleen Mavourneen,” The Film Daily, July 20, 1930.

“Brief Reviews of Current Pictures,” Photoplay, October 1930.

“Kearns Makes Ring of Nineteenth Hole,” Los Angeles Times, July 9, 1929.

“Stunt Flier Decries Movie Perils,” New York Daily News, March 22, 1931.

“Answers to Movie Fans,” Lincoln (Nebraska) Star, January 15, 1928.

“Actor Rescues His Wife From Death by Gas,” Los Angeles Times, September 14, 1926.

“Charles Delaney” (obituary), Los Angeles Times, September 2, 1959.

Ancestry.com

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