Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Painted Doll: the magic of the early talkies

The Wedding Of The Painted Doll

It's a holiday today
The Wedding of the Painted Doll
It's a jolly day
The news is spreading
All around the hall

Red Riding Hood & Buster Brown
The Jumping Jack Jumped into town
From far and near they're coming here
Church bells ringing, bringing

All the little dollies from the follies
With the painted cheeks
Little Mama doll has fussed around
For weeks and weeks

Shoo the blues
No time to lose
Rice and shoes
Will spread the news
That it's a holiday
Today's the Wedding of the little Painted Doll

Here come the bridesmaids
Look at them in their places
Look at the fancy laces
Look at them as they smile
All sorrow away

Here comes the bride now
Look at the little cutie
Look at the little beauty
Look at the little doll
It's her wedding day

Here's the preacher and all look
As he takes his little book
He is sure he knows his stuff
'Cause he's done it oft'n enough

Here comes the bride groom
Ready for the service
Just a little nervous
Now the preacher says,
"You're married to stay"

It's a holiday today
The Wedding of the little Painted Doll

Arthur Freed (W) & Nacio Herb Brown (M)
from the 1929 movie, "Broadway Melody"

I finally found a YouTube clip of one of my favorite Hollywood production numbers. It's one of my favorites because it's just about the first Hollywood production number ever, from the 1929 curiosity Broadway Melody. Then of course you know what happened. It was taken down due to one of those silly rules, such as the law against theft.

So I put up the closest thing I could find, which is grainy still pictures, but the music is good.

The days of early sound must have been heady and terrifying: everything was dumped upside-down. Theatres had to scramble to convert all their equipment, careers were shattered, others sprang up full-blown like Athena from the head of Zeus. (Sorry, I used that metaphor a few posts ago, but it was too good not to repeat. This Oscar Levant stuff is getting to me.) It wasn't so much actors with "good voices" who were able to make the switch, but actors who were able to adapt their style to something more fluid, more subtle, with no more fluttering eyelashes or jabbing, full-body gestures.

Try something here, if you will: look at some silent films, both dramas and comedies (and turn off the wretched music that usually goes with them: when I say silent, I mean silent). Then watch some black-and-white movies from ten years later, with the sound off. Observe carefully. It's a whole 'nother ball game, like comparing stage acting to screen acting. The old large gestures won't play. Often, one murmur will do.

This doesn't mean sound films are "better", but they do seem to be from another planet. Much as I'm intrigued by them, I find silent pictures hard to follow. I'm one of those auditory types, and seeing lips moving with title cards strains my imagination.  Except for Harold Lloyd comedies, the pace of silent film seems much slower, and I was raised as a vid-kid on television that, by comparison, moved at light speed.

So, with the release of that awful non-talkie The Jazz Singer (featuring Al Jolson, the most repulsive performer who ever lived), everything changed. Garbo walked in and mowed everyone down with a voice that was heavily accented, "foreign", and far too deep and gruff to match her ethereal beauty. Something about it worked, it snagged people, grabbed them viscerally. Comedians such as W. C. Fields and Laurel and Hardy, who already had a loyal following in silent pictures, exploded overnight into international stars: and need I tell you why?

So anyway, this Broadway Melody, which I have watched on Turner Classics (bailing halfway through the first time because the non-musical part of it is just so awful) is a fine example of the partial transformation that audiences gobbled up at the time. It's a sort of cliche of early talkies that everyone had to cluster around a microphone hidden behind a potted palm, but it actually is true that these movies had a peculiarly static quality. Nobody knew how to deal with a microphone, which to the actors (mimes, by our standards) must have seemed like a voice-sucking monster. That explains why they had to include frenetic production numbers like this one, to keep rigor mortis from setting in.

This is the strangest one ever, with girls being spun around like compasses, a preacher with Harold Lloyd glasses and rubber legs who appears to fall down the stairs, cartwheels and splits galore, girls with a pompom attached to one ankle (??), and precious lyrics sung by one of those young men with a falsetto voice. I also note a bit of '20s choreography I've seen before: the girls stand on one foot, the other leg extended, hold on to the extended ankle, and hop up and down.

The whole thing is so beautiful to look at: not "black and white", but silver and shine. The music has that charming, optimistic "oom-cha, oom-cha" quality that was so popular before the Depression brought it all crashing down. Soon would come a leap in sophistication:  better songs, real plots instead of stilted novelty-driven dialogue ("Take. . . him. . . for. . . a. . . ride"), Fred and Ginger. If you look at pictures from 1929, then pictures from 1931, you will be astounded at the transformation.

In the interim was a mad scramble, studded with quirky little sparklers like this one.