1920s film musical reviews

My I L<3ve Musicals! list on Letterboxd.

Applause (1929)

‘Applause’, starring a young Helen Morgan made up to look like a washed up burlesque star, is about a singer, Kitty Darling, who has a lowlife husband and a daughter hidden away in a convent. Things change when the money runs out and the daughter is recalled from her safe and cosy world.

From the first scenes of large legged chorus girls wearily high kicking before slavering customers, to the scenes in the railway station where young April Darling sends her sailor lover away so she can bump and grind to save the family pride, ‘Applause’ is never anything other than engrossing.

But the acting honours go to Morgan, who is simply wonderful and heartbreaking. The ending, where she lies dying in her dressing room after overdosing on sleeping tablets, while April and her lover plan an escape for the three of them, is powerful and shocking. A hard hitting early talkie which you’ll remember for a long time.

The Big Revue (1929)

The six-year old Judy Garland making her debut on camera with her sisters (‘The Gumm Sisters’) is just one of the acts on show in this film, which showcases a few juvenile musical performers. She displays star quality even in this one number, which makes The Big Revue worth watching. I just love stumbling across these historical nuggets!

Broadway (1929)

An early backstage musical with wisecracking girls, a choreographer ‘with personality’, a gangster producer, a murder, and sweet little Billie (Merna Kennedy).

Brought to the screen from the stage show, this includes Paul Porcasi reprising his role as the nightclub owner Nick, and survives in both silent and talkie versions.

Director Paul Fejos displays an early affinity for the medium, with interesting camera shots and a few sequences which experiment with sound.

The musical numbers are sound enough, although Glenn Tryon is a bit, well, trying when he isn’t singing. Kennedy and Evelyn Brent go well enough, and the chorus line are decent, but the plot is confused and doesn’t really lift itself from the mundane.

The opening credits are unusual as the giant Devil laughs and stomps around the theatres and clubs of the great White Way. Men of power are corrupt and without morals, and the ambitious girls survive on a smile and the attention of a string of sugar daddies.

There’s also a Technicolor sequence, but it is in poor condition and by this time every other film seemed to have a similar showcase to keep the interest.

I liked this one, and the acting isn’t bad, while the pre-Code naughtiness pokes through here and there.

The Broadway Melody (1929)

This was the first big musical of the talkie era, in the days when musical numbers were still performed live rather than to playback, and before camera booths could allow the same kind of movement which existed before 1927, and before microphones could be small enough and portable enough to catch everyone’s voices.

Bessie Love (1898-1986), who was a marvellous actress still appearing in character parts fifty years later, and Anita Page (1910-2008). a pretty, pouty cutie who appeared to have the same slight eye problem that also afflicted Norma Shearer, are the leading ladies alongside the debonair Charles King (1886-1944), who despite his singing talents was finished in films and back on the stage by 1930.

The songs are by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, and you’ll recognise a couple of them from the later homage to the silent era, Singin’ in the Rain. They’re sparkling and well-performed, and if the bits in-between are a bit forced, and the plot is next to nothing, there’s lots of pre-Code fun including shots of the girls in their underwear, and a few naughty nods.

I like a lot of the early musical features and revues from 1929 into the early 30s, and this is one of the best, gaining itself a Best Picture win because of the way it revolutionised the industry, and to us nine decades on, we can see that the early talkies, despite some limitations, were not the clunky disasters which were parodied mercilessly in later years.

Broadway Scandals (1929)

Not actually ‘watched’ as this film is sadly lost, but thanks to the fact its soundtrack was done on Vitaphone discs, that aspect survives, and with a musical, of course the sound is more than half of the magic.

I can’t rate it, however, as it isn’t the complete thing. It sounds like a fairly bog standard revue of the period with diverting enough tunes.

The Cocoanuts (1929)

Directly lifted from their stage show, this was the first film appearance of the Marx Brothers, at this point a quartet with Groucho, Chico and Harpo being joined by Zeppo, and the long-suffering Margaret Dumont.

As this was made in 1929 it is undoubtedly creaky, but as a new screen team the boys definitely have their personalities sketched out and Groucho and Harpo in particular are great fun.

The Desert Song (1929)

This is a review based on seeing roughly half of this early talkie, a musical starring John Boles, Carlotta King and Louise Fazenda. The story within this operetta is around ‘The Red Shadow’, an outlaw who is also a quiet and unassuming chap when he’s out of his mask.

The songs are superb but their staging is rather static, filmed with one facing camera and microphones which are rather obviously placed – many actors talk to the spaces the microphones are in rather than to their peers on the screen!

‘The Desert Song’ duet is one highlight, ‘One Alone’ is another. And those musical sequences can easily be viewed online, even if the film in toto is harder to find.

Glorifying the American Girl (1929)

Viewing the censored version on the Mill Creek Classic Musicals set, which has some cuts for taste and decency, and no Technicolor sequence.

The glorious Mary Eaton (1901-1948, of the ‘Seven Little Eatons’, five of which were vaudeville performers from childhood) is the lead in the rags to riches story of Gloria Hughes, who progresses from the counter of a sheet music store to the Ziegfeld Follies. She is a great little hoofer with a nice voice, and she’s a cute little blonde chorine into the bargain.

There’s a nothing story about her predatory dancing partner, Danny Miller (Dan Healy, 1888-1969, another Follies veteran), who wants her body and soul, enough to agree to a contract, but of course there’s better pickings for her out there. It was the crowning glory of any girl performer to join the Follies in the 10s and 20s, and the final third of this film is a pretty good record of what these shows involved (‘personally supervised by Ziegfeld’).

You’ll spot some familiar faces if you’re quick, including Johnny Weissmuller, Irving Berlin, Helen Morgan, and Mrs Ziegfeld, Billie Burke, but the lion’s share of the show is given to Eddie Cantor, whose comedy was popular enough to keep him in stardom on stage and screen well into the 1930s, and remembered with enough affection for a film to be made about his life in 1953. It might be hard to understand his appeal now, but in 1929 he was a huge attraction.

This film was fully restored by UCLA some years ago, with the censored pre-Code bits reinstated, and the finale put back to its original two-strip Technicolor state, but it remains unavailable, while these flat public domain prints can be found on the Internet Archive, YouTube, and budget sets like Classic Musicals.

Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929)

Lost except for ‘Tiptoe Through The Tulips’ and the finale, this is a difficult film to review, but from what’s available the musical sequences were sumptuous. It’s a moot point whether the rest of the film would stand up today.

Happy Days (1929)

The most disappointing of the anthology shows put out by the major studios at the dawn of talking pictures, and the birth of the movie musical.

This entry into the genre comes from Fox (not yet ‘Twentieth Century Fox’), showcasing a roster of stars including Will Rogers, Charles Farrell, Marjorie White, El Brendel, George Jessel, Dixie Lee (the first Mrs Bing Crosby), Janet Gaynor, and Edmund Lowe.

Its notability is mainly from being the first feature film to be shown in a widescreen process (these prints are now lost), but even at 80 minutes it tends to drag, although there are a couple of musical highlights (White’s ‘I’m On A Diet Of Love’, Lee’s ‘Crazy Feet’, the minstrel finale of ‘Mona’).

The ill-fated White, killed in a car crash in the mid-1930s, is a sparkling delight, but you might struggle to put names to some of the ‘stars’ on show here, and even with a paper-thin plot this film doesn’t really go anywhere. I’m being generous giving it a three-star score because I am a sucker for musical revues, but you might not be so accommodating.

The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929)

Admittedly slow-paced and dated, there is a certain charm to this film that makes it very enjoyable.

I particularly liked the novelty acts and comedy routines – Bessie Love, Marie Dressler, Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton’s Egyptian lady.

And the Gilbert/Shearer Romeo and Juliet section is worth sitting through the rest for anyway (despite its washed out colour, which oddly looked better in the little snippet showed in When The Lion Roars).

I can’t say I was disappointed with any of it – you get mind-boggling acrobats, you get weedy voiced Marion Davies, you get Jack Benny playing his violin and Conrad Nagel as smooth master of ceremonies, and Charles King singing that hideous song about mothers, and Ukelele Ike, well, playing a ukelele, and Joan Crawford’s ungainly dancing … it’s just a real treat, and nice to see from a technical point of view that the sound isn’t bad at all and despite its advanced age it is still watchable.

The Jazz Singer (1927)

The Jazz Singer has crossed into popular culture as the film which finally killed off the silent screen, and it was the first film to include musical moments as part of the plot.

Your view on this film will solely depend on your liking, or not, of star Al Jolson. If you find him unbearable, you might well find this film a difficult watch; on the other hand, if you enjoy his brand of humour and song, this might have some moments you will like.

The silent drama which surrounds Jolson’s excursions into song seems a little laboured, although Eugenie Besserer is touching as his mother, and that’s the first Charlie Chan, Warner Oland, as the Cantor.

Perhaps the best moment in this piece of cinema history is Jolson’s break into ‘talking’ before his song. The ‘wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet’ has passed into folklore.

The Love Parade (1929)

I love Maurice Chevalier and his films with naughty Jeanette Macdonald just sparked and sparkled.

This early Lubitsch talkie is a musical and if the songs are not top notch, and if the plot is a bit silly (she is the Queen of some mythical Kingdom, he is a randy and disgraced French courtier), then no matter.

Much has been made of the gender politics where she has to relinquish power to her mate – but she does it in the same way Mary Pickford’s Kate did in The Taming of the Shrew.

Macdonald is a revelation here if you have only ever seen her in her teamings with her later singing sweetheart pairing with Nelson Eddy (although those films were sweet and romantic).

With Chevalier the sparring is sexy and resolutely Pre-Code – they make a fine pair and they fizz under their director’s firm touch.

A Plantation Act (1926)

A valuable record of the minstrel act which made Al Jolson famous.

Blackface was the first form of entertainment that could be described as typically American, and became the most popular art form during the 1840s. The songs and dances included may have attempted to be authentically black, but it was the use of spirituals (such as Swing Low, Sweet Chariot) that became more prevalent in later years. There were also influences from other traditions such as the circus.

Jolson was undoubtedly the most famous blackface performer of the early 20th century, and well beyond the mid-point of the century minstrel shows commanded huge audiences. I can recall seeing the Black and White Minstrels on television as a child in the 1970s.

It is perhaps worth noting as well that even African-American performers became minstrels, in many cases as a first route into showbusiness.

So, minstrel shows and blackface performance is historical fact and important to the understanding of the evolution of showbusiness, music and live stage routines.

This short presents Jolson performing three of his most enduring numbers, including “April Showers” (which I will always associate with my grandad, who used to sing it). His character is the predicatable happy slave worker, content with his lot, which although it makes for uncomfortable viewing today, was nothing unusual at the time.

Viewing this as an example of early talkie entertainment, it is fairly static in its presentation, but the Vitaphone sound disc is clear, and Jolson puts his songs across well. There’s an attempt to make a farm/plantation setting believable, with strategically placed chickens and a barn, and the print available is tinted.

Hard to rate, but it isn’t awful, and it isn’t outstanding. Rating against other Vitaphone shorts of the period it is average.

Red Hot Rhythm (1929)

This film is lost so I am commenting purely on the one clip that is available, a Multicolor number featuring either Alan Hale or James Clemmons (no one seems really sure), a line of flame-haired dancers, an orchestra, and some fiery effects. The dancing is somewhat hyperactive and the song (the title song) is catchy.

Photoplay back in 1929 said the colour sequences and dance numbers were the only thing of importance about this. Thanks to Vivian Duncan of the Duncan Sisters this – very low quality – clip has been saved, but director Leo McCarey thought this was one of his worst films.

Rio Rita (1929)

Bebe Daniels, with a ridiculous accent and a trilling voice to rival Jeanette MacDonald, is Rita, being romanced by mysterious gringo John Boles. Their operetta duets are fairly pretty and Bebe gets to wear some good costumes.

In another storyline interwoven with that of Rita are Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey (with little Dorothy Lee) in a comic divorce-based plot. Woolsey is the wise-cracking cigar-chomper with the glasses, Wheeler the little guy with the high voice and a nice line in song ‘n dance.

Rio Rita is a fun early musical with primitive Technicolor bits and one Berkeley-esque overhead shot with the frilly girlies doing their thing round Wheeler. Dorothy Lee’s voice reminded me of Helen Kane (the lady who introduced I Wanna Be Loved By You before Marilyn got her hands on it).

My favourite bit music-wise is the catchy ‘Sweetheart, We Need Each Other’; otherwise the invisible girl only seen by the boys after quaffing some seriously strong plonk is a really funny bit.

And I did like the fact that for 1929 this wasn’t as primitive as other early talkies I’ve seen. Good stuff (and an invaluable record of a Ziegfeld show of course).

Sally (1929)

Originally filmed in 2-strip Technicolor, this film now survives as a mainly black and white print with some colour footage intact. This rags to riches story (Sally starts from an orphanage and ends up with her own show on Broadway) stars Marilyn Miller – little seen and perhaps only known to film buffs because of Judy Garland’s impersonation of her in ‘Till The Clouds Roll By’. Miller was a beautiful and talented artist, as ‘Sally’ proves.

Supporting her is a very young Joe E Brown (best known as Captain Andy in the third film version of Show Boat) who is a lot of fun, and Alexander Gray, who like many other leading men of the early talkies is a bit of a stuffed shirt. You’ll also spot the Keystone Kops’ Ford Sterling as ‘Pops’.

‘Sally’ is a hugely enjoyable early talkie. The colour sequence is lovely and bright – it is a pity that we lose the impact from the rest of the film. The songs are good and Miss Miller is a treat to watch.

Show Boat (1929)

The first film version of the Kern-Hammerstein musical, which had premiered on stage in 1927, from the Edna Ferber novel published a year before.

What remains of this film (and it is sadly incomplete) is a part-talkie with a prologue of songs from the original show (including Helen Morgan singing ‘Bill’ – she would get to play Julie in the 1936 film). I know I have seen the ‘Hey Feller’ segment with picture as well as sound before, but this version shown on TCM retains an ‘overture’ title card to accompany the songs.

The first sound segment begins after around half an hour and centres on Gaylord and Magnolia acting on stage together, then planning to marry, and eloping. Laura La Plante is far too mannered as Magnolia – although this is not as noticeable in the silent sequences – I much prefer Irene Dunne’s playful take on the character, or Kathryn Grayson’s haughty naivete, while Joseph Schildkraut is a little bit stiff with his Germanic accent as Gay, lacking the charm of either Allan Jones or Howard Keel.

The second sound segment is after Gay loses their money on an expensive horse and starts to ridicule Magnolia for wanting to sing, but this is where the track has been lost, so we get subtitles, and it doesn’t really work to paper over the cracks.

Emily Fitzroy is a priceless Parthy (she can be comic, cruel, and tragic, often at the same time), and Alma Rubens does well as Julie (although the racial storyline is completely removed, and she is fired from the Cotton Blossom simply for being too fond of the infant Magnolia, who – it is strongly hinted – might be her child).

Of the songs in the musical, we hear ‘Old Man River’ and ‘Goodbye My Lady Love’ as background music, but there are no songs as such (in the original print there were five songs, but not in the same context as in the stage show). Joe and Queenie, in this surviving version, are purely peripheral, and unlike any other version, we lose Captain Andy quite early on, during the raging storm in which Magnolia gives birth to Kim. No ‘After The Ball’ reunion for father and daughter here.

Interestingly this is the only one of the films which includes Hetty the whorehouse madam who is the Belle Watling to Gay’s Rhett Butler (he really is a river rat, and a cheat in all senses as well as a gambler), and this is how Julie comes back into the story, not as a lounge singer missing her man. There is also no reunion for Gay and his daughter Kim, so ultimately this film is more downbeat than the others.

Because it is no longer a musical in its surviving form (it kills the scene where Magnolia sings ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man of Mine’ towards the end to see her sing it but not hear it!), I cannot give it a higher score, but the differences in storyline, some excellent performances, and that inclusion of Morgan’s song in the prologue, nudge it up just a tad, and TCM’s attempt to salvage lost sound sequences is laudable.

Show of Shows (1929)

Some marvellous musical numbers jostle with low comedy (MC Frank Fay is an acquired taste) and snatches of high drama (John Barrymore as Richard III).

This was the Warner Brothers entry into the revue anthology films of the early days of talking pictures, showcasing most of their stars – Mary Astor, Richard Barthelmess, Monte Blue, Hobart Bosworth, Chester Conklin, Lupino Lane, Myrna Loy, Chester Morris, Rin Tin Tin, Ben Turpin, and Loretta Young.

Enjoyable, even if it is now a shadow of what it was (it was originally presented in colour), it only survives from a black and white copy for television.

Splinters (1929)

Fun army revue film which, despite ageing sound and worn-out visuals, still manages to be entertaining. It is based on the stage revue of the same name, and was one of the first sound films to be released in Britain.

Nelson Keys and Sydney Howard star, Jack Raymond directs and Herbert Wilcox produces. The musical numbers have survived in better condition than the scenes around them.

Sunny Side Up (1929)

One of the early talkie musicals, this one teams silent sweethearts Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor, and gives them both the chance to share their questionable musical gifts.

This film shouldn’t work at all, but Gaynor has charm, and Farrell is watchable, and there are other compensations including the sparky Marjorie White (who should have had a long and fruitful career, but sadly died early, in 1935).

Recently given a lavish restoration, this musical sends its audience away humming the tunes, and in between has made them laugh and forget their troubles, just a bit. Why ask for more?

Syncopation (1929)

Who knows now there was a third Bennett sister who was born between Constance and Joan? But there was, and Barbara Bennett plays the female lead here, Flo.

It is fairly clear why her screen career didn’t endure, and sadly her personal life was no better and her life ended by suicide in 1958.

Alrhough the perennial impersonator of Hitler, Bobby Watson, plays Bennett’s nice as pie husband, your eye will get drawn to Morton Downey’s crooning and to the cutie who plays Peggy: that’s the bubbly Dorothy Lee, who found fame with Wheeler and Woolsey.

Word has it that Bert Wheeler saw Syncopation and looked all over town for Dottie, knowing she was just right for his sweet and silly musical comedy romance schtick. You can see here what Wheeler saw in her.

Ian Hunter is the impresario who offers Flo and Benny a break: he’s always a bit stiff, but has his english charm to pull him through.

Director Bert Glennon became a cinematographer for the likes of John Ford, and this film certainly looks good, even if it is stilted by the technical limitations of the time.

“Do Do Something” is the musical highlight of this film, which was RKO’s first musical, while Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians are top-billed as the band.

Trivia note: Watson is the diction coach tormented by Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor in 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain.

 

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About Louise Penn

Writer, reviewer, editor, creative. Blogger since 2011. View all posts by Louise Penn

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