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

Charles Delaney: A smiling, flying Irishman

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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.

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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

A sad end for Albert Gran

Albert Gran Gold Diggers
Albert Gran and Winnie Lightner made a lively pair in the hit musical “Gold Diggers of Broadway” (1929).

Albert Gran, a classically trained character player from Norway, was among the busier actors in Hollywood at the dawn of sound.  As silent movies fell away and talkies came to stay, Gran remained very active – despite the heavy Scandinavian accent that could have distanced the corpulent oldster from Depression-era moviegoing America.

Screen fans in Gran’s day likely remembered him most for his serious role as an aged cab driver in the Fox silent 7th Heaven (1927). If he is recalled nowadays, it is for lighter fare, perhaps most notably as the moneyed object of comedienne Winnie Lightner’s affections in the 1929 Warner Bros. mega-hit (and now conspicuously lost) musical comedy Gold Diggers of Broadway, but he was also in a few early talkers that you actually can see on TCM or DVD.

The voice turned out not to hurt, but Gran disappeared from cast lists three years into the full-talkie era. He’s one of those performers whose absence you might not have noticed – until you thought about him for a moment and wondered, “What became of that guy?”

The truth – as we found – is sad to consider, but perhaps it tells us something of Gran’s humanity and personal character, especially at a point of duress.

But first, some background. Albert Gran was born in 1872 in Bergen, Norway, where his father was posted as the English consul for many years. His family opposed Albert’s plans to become an actor, so the young man journeyed to England in the early ’90s to build his theatrical resume.

In London, Gran’s mentor was the famed actor-manager Sir Henry Irving. By 1897, his work had extended to the United States, and Gran was among the first actors to bring the works of his countryman Henrik Ibsen to the American stage, where he toured in scenes from Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and Brand.

By this time, Gran had been welcomed back home and had trod the boards for the Norwegian National Theater and at the Royal Theater of Copenhagen. In 1910, he came to the U.S. to stay and became a renowned Broadway regular, particularly adept at comedy and at playing fatherly roles even in his 30s.

His co-stars in New York included Ethel Barrymore, Eva Le Gallienne, Ann Harding, Henry Hull, Lionel Atwill and Sidney Blackmer. Gran was strongly active in Actors’ Equity, which also endeared him to many fellow performers.  In the play Tarnish, it was said, Gran shed tears so effectively every night for a year that the constant strain on his tear ducts began to affect his eye use.

In 1925, Gran made what would be a permanent move to the Los Angeles area. Two years later, he was in 7th Heaven opposite the popular screen romantic team of Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, in what Picture Play magazine called “a marvelous character makeup which absolutely obliterated his own countenance and personality … completely a person other than himself.”

Gran followed up his 7th Heaven portrayal with a similar role as a postmaster in John Ford’s Great War drama Four Sons (Fox, 1928).  “It gives Gran more opportunities to show us what a really good actor he is,” commented England’s insightful journal The Film Spectator.

Gran’s first talking feature was opposite Dolores Costello in Glad Rag Doll (1929), First National’s first complete talkie. His second was Gold Diggers of Broadway, a Technicolor remake of Warners’ 1923 success The Gold Diggers. Gran plays an attorney named Blake who advises caution to businessman Stephen Lee in blessing the relationship of Lee’s nephew, Wally (William Bakewell), with a showgirl, Violet (Helen Foster). Unexpectedly for him (not for us), Blake is eyed by one of Violet’s housemates, boisterous Mabel, who might make an actress if she can remember even the briefest of lines.

Gold Diggers of Broadway was a huge box office success, and it introduced the standards “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” and “Painting the Clouds With Sunshine.” Its complete soundtrack is extant, but at this writing, only portions of its picture element remain. A seconds-long sequence of banter between Gran’s and Lightner’s characters was recently found in, of all places, a kiddie toy projector, so there’s hope for the rest.

Gran can be seen more distinctly in other early musicals: Tanned Legs (RKO, 1929); Follow Thru (Paramount, 1930); and a pair from Warners, the studio revue The Show of Shows (1929) and the especially delightful operetta Kiss Me Again (1931, with soprano Bernice Claire and Walter Pidgeon). His ability to play dunderheaded fathers and other authority figures came in handy in the traditional musical comedy format imported to cinema from the stage.

Even when musicals temporarily went out of vogue due to a box office glut, Gran kept working, as he did beside John Barrymore in the now-lost society comedy The Man From Blankley’s (1930). And when Gran wasn’t in pictures, he was on stage: A February 1932 Los Angeles Times ad named him among the cast in a locally playing David Belasco production of Cyrano de Bergerac, starring Richard Bennett (father of actresses Constance, Joan and Barbara).

In the 1930 U.S. Census, Gran was listed as single and living in Santa Monica with a butler and a chauffeur. A magazine item from the same year identified the actor as “one of the most famous hosts of filmland” in an account of a lavish, candle-lit buffet supper peopled by name performers, producers and songwriters. Maybe he was living beyond his means, for Gran found himself in bankruptcy court in 1931. According to the trade publication Motion Picture Herald, he explained to an L.A. judge that he “gave away all of his earnings to needy friends.”

Gran had finished what would be his final role, in WB’s Employees’ Entrance (1933), and was living in Encino, California, when he met his demise under an atypical circumstance – a Good Samaritan gesture gone horribly wrong.

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A newspaper clipping about the unexpected death of Albert Gran in 1932.

On December 9, 1932, Gran was driving on Ventura Boulevard in Los Angeles when he spotted a man – described as a “Negro chauffeur” in news accounts – lying in the street after just having been hit by an automobile while he was attempting to cross the busy highway. As the driver who hit the man was summoning an ambulance, Gran stopped and – despite his advanced age (70) and excessive poundage – decided to exit his own car to render assistance to the victim. It was then that Gran was himself struck by a passing vehicle.

Both victims were taken to a nearby hospital; neither survived. Gran died on December 16, and the Los Angeles Times reported that news of his accident had “been kept quiet because, even [if] he had recovered, one of his legs would have to be amputated.”

Actor Conrad Nagel presented the eulogy in the Christian Science burial rites. Nagel also identified his friend’s body at an inquest by a coroner’s jury at which Gran’s death was declared accidental.

Albert Gran 7th Heaven
Gran earned laudatory reviews for his role as a taxi driver in Fox’s “7th Heaven.”

SOURCES

Ancestry.com

“Ibsen Undefiled,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, March 31, 1907.

“Albert Gran Suported [sic] Famous Feminine Stars,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, November 10, 1912.

“When the Director Shouts: Cry! Cry! Cry!” Motion Picture, July 1925.

“Making Faces,” Picture Play, January 1932.

“Earle Foxe Gives a Great Performance,” The Film Spectator, January 21, 1928.

“Fads and Fashions,” Hollywood Filmography, May 17, 1930.

“Asides and Interludes,” Motion Picture Herald, April 4, 1931.

“Similarity Marks Traffic Accident on Boulevard,” Van Nuys (California) News, December 12, 1932.

“Last Rites Tomorrow for Actor,” Los Angeles Times, December 17, 1932.

“Jury Finds Gran Death Accidental,” Los Angeles Times, December 20, 1932.

Irene Dare, where have you gone?

The astounding rise to stardom of Shirley Temple in the 1930s at Fox prompted the studios to recruit more kiddie performers. And to Hollywood they came: Jane Withers, Judy Garland, Deanna Durbin, Bobby Breen, Bonita Granville, Donald O’Connor, Peggy Ryan – and figure skating prodigy Irene Dare.

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Irene Dare skated in a pair of late-1930s RKO musicals.

Two-thirds of Dare’s film career consisted of a pair of RKO-released musicals for independent producer Sol Lesser: Breaking the Ice (1938) and Everything’s on Ice (1939), the latter her only “starring” feature. Her other film appearance was as a specialty act in Monogram’s Silver Skates (1943).

But what happened to Irene Dare? We’d like to know as part of our research for a movie book project. And is it true that she acted with a young Paul Winchell – or at least the voice of the future ventriloquist legend – in Everything’s on Ice?

A native of St. Paul, Minnesota, Dare (b. 1931?) came to California to support Breen in Breaking the Ice for Lesser’s Principal Productions.  Born Irene Davidson, Dare had been skating since age 4. Dare attracted enough attention, and in and out of her home state, for the standout skater Evelyn Chandler to suggest that the New Yorker Hotel book the girl for its famous ice skating nightclub show.

Dare’s debut at the hotel was abruptly canceled by New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia because liquor was sold at the club. The controversy became national news, which prompted RKO Pathe to prepare a newsreel story about Dare. This got her noticed by Lesser, who had been having success with a series of musicals for RKO release starring “boy soprano” Breen — his latest youth protege on a long list that also included Jackie Coogan, Jackie Cooper and Baby Peggy.

Lesser figured he’d found his next prodigy when he watched the newsreel footage of Dare performing her acrobatics in a St. Paul ice carnival. The little girl moved to Hollywood with her parents, Harry and Violet Davidson, and two siblings, Harry and James; a sister, Louise, was born in California, according to U.S. Census records. Irene’s father, a newspaper engraver in Minnesota, obtained a similar job in Los Angeles.

Lesser’s investment in Dare seemed worth it when the girl earned strong reviews for Breaking the Ice, even though she appeared for only a few minutes and two numbers. Lesser acted fast to sign Dare for her own starring feature, announcing to trade reporters that he would aim all his productions for children in an ambitious slate of films for 1939. Lesser put Dare on a lengthy schedule of personal appearances across the country with a company of 60. He engaged longtime dance director Dave Gould, who had supervised the ice sequences in Breaking the Ice, to conceive a touring two-hour ice show to support Dare and a supporting cast of 10 skaters.

Everything’s on Ice placed Dare with veteran comedians Edgar Kennedy and Roscoe Karns. A special 50- by 75-foot ice rink was set up for the film after originally being built for the International Casino in New York City. When she’s not skating, Dare’s character engineers a romance between her sister (Lynne Roberts) and a young man (Eric Linden) who’s secretly a millionaire. Among the film’s stabs at comedy is a scene in which Kennedy, playing the girl’s father, asserts authority over his wife (Mary Hart) by spanking her.

Director Erle C. Kenton, who would become better known for making Universal horror pictures, doesn’t give Dare much to do besides the production numbers; she’s often shown distracted with practicing or exercising – in other words, being a kid — as the other actors emote. Sometimes she recites dialogue in a self-conscious rhythm that matches dance moves, seemingly to make her more comfortable. But Dare is a real ice dancing dynamo, most notably in a jaw-dropping climactic number that features costumed polar bears singing, and costumed penguins dancing to, the original tunes “Birth of a Snowbird” and “Everything’s on Ice.”

A teenager in 1939, Paul Winchell went on to become a famous television personality and cartoon voice actor, but his participation in Everything’s on Ice seems a bit murky. He had won first prize on radio’s Major Bowes Amateur Hour and had been hired to tour with Ted Weems’ band, so his career was just emerging. According to a Los Angeles Times story in June just as shooting of the Dare movie was about to begin, Winchell was a “Rival for Edgar Bergen!” who had contracted for a part in what was to be his first film: “Funny thing about this engagement, though, Winchell himself won’t be seen on the screen, but his dummy will, and Winchell’s voice will be heard.”  This article mentions that plans were in the works to feature Winchell in a series of shorts, which apparently were not filmed.

At least two nationally syndicated articles, both from July, reported that Dare was to do “a duet with a ventriloquist’s dummy,” and the cast list for Everything’s on Ice that appeared in Photoplay magazine just after the film’s release listed Winchell as “Jerry.”  However, there was no sequence of that type, and seemingly no Jerry, in the slightly abridged print of Everything’s on Ice viewed by this writer.

Everything’s on Ice garnered mixed reviews – Variety called it “a moderate program supporter [that] … will suffice for the family and kid trade.”  But any thought of continuing Dare in a series apparently ended after the film’s 65 minutes.

Dare stayed busy on the skating circuit, then reappeared on film, billed fifth in Silver Skates, which was a showcase for Monogram’s new adult ice skating discovery, the singularly named Belita. Dare was a cinematic has-been, although Everything’s on Ice was shown frequently on TV as Frolics on Ice and fell into the public domain.

What happened to Irene Dare/Davidson? I can’t seem to find anything on her after 1950, except that she apparently was married in California to a man named Shockley from the early ’50s until 1970.  Is she still living?  And can someone provide more information on Winchell’s possible appearance with her on screen?

 

SOURCES

“Youngest Star Cashes in on Planned Career,” Washington Post, July 30, 1939.

“Irene Dare on P.A. Tour,” The Film Daily, May 25, 1938.

“Gould to Conceive Show,” The Film Daily, June 29, 1938.

“Another Ventriloquist Signs for Film Duty,” Los Angeles Times, June 16, 1939.

“Jimmie Fidler’s Hollywood,” McNaught Syndicate column, July 1939.

“Film Reviews: Everything’s on Ice,” Variety, September 6, 1939.

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

 

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