Tomorrow, to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Vitaphone, Warner Brothers’ revolutionary sound-on-disc system that finally meant the breakthrough of talking pictures, Turner Classic Movies will be showing over four dozen of these early talkies, produced from 1926 through the 1930s. The fun starts at 6am (that’s why I’m telling you about it now) and continues through the wee hours of the next day. In the prime time slot, starting at 8pm, my old pal Ron Hutchinson of the Vitaphone Project will guest host with Ben Mankiewicz, and give us his take on many of these old jewels, which he has been so instrumental in preserving and sharing with the world. Ron was extremely helpful to me in my research for my book No Applause circa 2003, and also took part in our 100th anniversary tribute to the Palace Theatre at the Players Club in 2013.
This was a highly experimental time; in this line-up you will find a surprising diversity of approaches to combining sound and picture. Some, like The Better ‘Ole (1926) starring Sydney Chaplin and Don Juan (1926) with John Barrymore are essentially silents, with a soundtrack of music and special effects. The groundbreaking The Jazz Singer (1927) with Al Jolson is about half “silent”, with only the musical numbers featuring sync sound. Some, like Art Trouble (1934) are straightforward narrative comedy shorts of the sort we associate with Laurel and Hardy or The Three Stooges (Art Trouble happens to star Harry Gribbon, Shemp Howard, Marjorie Main, and a very young Jimmy Stewart). And many of them — probably the bulk of them, given the crudity of the technology in the early days — are just straightforward records of vaudeville acts, the kind of thing Jim Moore and myself paid tribute to with our “Vaudephone” series. Needless to say, I should hope, some of these old Vitaphones are often the best (and sometimes the only) place to see actual vaudevillians do their thing. This is why, for vaudeville fans, this program is not to be missed. Record them all now — watch them at your leisure!
If you aren’t up for 24 hours of film watching (wimp!) here are some special things to watch out for:
- Not surprisingly, Ron will be presenting some of everybody’s favorites during his prime time slot. These are ones he frequently shows at his live screenings, and consequently some of the first ones I ever watched, and have watched the most. They include Rose Marie the Child Wonder (1929), starring Rose Marie (who’s still with us!) when she was a precocious, jaw-dropping child star; Lambchops (1929, my favorite of them all, starring the young, heartstring-pulling, PERFECT Burns and Allen); and the hilarious The Happy Hottentots (1930) starring the one and only Joe Frisco.
- The musical Show Girl in Hollywood (1930). The Mad Marchioness blogged about that film here when she was still bloggin’
- Some other key vaudevillians in the wee hours: Blossom Seeley and Bennie Fields (1928), Harry Fox and His Six American Beauties (1929); Ben Bernie and His Orchestra (1930); and a most interesting artifact, Butler and Brennan in You Don’t Know the Half of It (1929). This latter one is cool because it is one of our only ways to experience the seminal team of Savoy and Brennan, though it is only by proxy. Drag queen Bert Savoy was dead at this point, so his old partner Jay Brennan performs it with a woman named Ann Butler!
- How to Break 90 #3 Hip Action (1933) will be a thrill for W.C. Fields fans — it’s a rare bit of arcana most of us have never seen, where a bunch of golf pros show their stuff and Fields cuts up for the camera
- Ups and Downs (1937) features a very young Phil Silvers; Paree Paree (1934), a very young Bob Hope; Seeing Red (1939), a very young Red Skelton
- The very first Ripley’s Believe It Or Not film (1931)
- The Ingenues, The Band Beautiful (1928) is a very early recording of the all-girl band I wrote about here.
And this is only SOME of them! For playing times for the various film, and more information go here. I couldn’t be more excited.