The Monday Intertitle: Bum! There, I’ve said it.

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Al Jolson exults in for once being the palest guy onscreen.

My screening of HALLELUJAH, I’M A BUM! (Lewis Milestone, 1933) was cut short by the realisation that I was watching a version recorded, I suspect, from Australian TV. Nothing wrong with that, and it should not be inferred that I bear any grudge against that antipodean┬ácontinent, where Milestone himself shot one feature (KANGAROO, 1952). But in Great Britain and the Commonwealth, the word “bum” means something else. We know about the US usage, and might even occasionally lower ourselves to using it that way, but evidently the censor wasn’t going to let that pass.

The retitling was amusing and wouldn’t stop me watching and enjoying the film, but Al Jolson sings about the joys of being a bum in Central Park, and the censor drowns out the “B” word each time with an amplified bird tweet. Bizarre — and unusually inventive for a censor, usually not such a creative breed. It even fits in with the scene, which begins with Al whistling and features a chorus of crows. My question is, what did the Brit and Aussie audiences think was being censored? It HAD to be worse than “bum” in their minds.

Your best advice is to watch the scene, mentally subbing in the worst one-syllable swear-word you can think of whenever that twittering strikes.

Worse, it turns out the whole song has been massively chopped, with passages of Lorenz Hart recitative in which the bums tramps speak of their activities, which involve — gasp! — a lack of respect for law and order — pruned away altogether — you can hear the hot-splice in the celluloid as it bumps across the sound head. I’m actually intrigued now to watch both versions to see what else the British or Australian censor objected to in 1933…

What else do we need? Oh yes, an intertitle!

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This is the opening of THE FRONT PAGE — it’s followed by a scene of the city hangman testing his gibbet with a sack of flour (“Sunshine Flour Ensures Domestic Happiness) — and it’s clear that Milestone is more interested in the Hecht-MacArthur play’s satiric intent than Hawks, or even Wilder. Hawks seems to disregard this aspect altogether, without removing it, so it sort of motors along in the background, an acid undercurrent to the romantic comedy and farce elements. One reviewer wrote of the Hawks movie, “The trouble is, when they made THE FRONT PAGE the first time, it stayed made. No longer really true, since HIS GIRL FRIDAY has eclipsed its predecessor utterly. And deservedly — it’s far funnier — despite Milestone’s amazing camerawork and a generally fine cast. (Pat O’Brien’s impersonation of Lee Tracy is spookily accurate, and rather outrageous, since he’d won the part from LT, who originated it on Broadway. PO’B must’ve been sitting in the front row with a miniaturized dictaphone yet to be invented.)

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OK, since I love you, here’s another intertitle. From the silent version of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, which I haven’t written about much directly during the ten days of Lewis Milestone Week, since it’s already very well-known, kind of to the detriment of LM’s reputation, but it’s informed everything I’ve written.

Andrew Kelly’s fine book, Filming All Quiet On The Western Front reports that several cast members told film historians that no silent version ever existed. Fortunately a print showed up to prove them wrong. So much of film history is based on oral accounts, and the human memory is so creative and tricky — before digital, it was the only medium that could not only store, but edit, re-colour, re-compose, re-light, enlarge, crop, keystone and diffuse.

OK, one more, because I can’t stop. And one more Milestone post, tomorrow, a sort of Grand Finally. And then, more or less, I’ll off be reporting from the Rotterdam International Film Festival, and then from the Curzon Soho in London, both times in the company of my film NATAN.

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“HELLYES!” Line is spoken by a parrot. The Hays Code was powerless, since its authority does not extend to the avian family.

This is from FINE MANNERS, which still shows traces of Milestone dynamism even though he walked off the picture after a disagreement with Gloria Swanson. I’m almost certain that, unlike the case of Von Stroheim and QUEEN KELLY, the disagreement did not involve him having somebody dribble tobacco juice on her, but you never know.

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13 Responses to “The Monday Intertitle: Bum! There, I’ve said it.”

  1. THAT’S what Harry Langdon sounds like? I just imagined he’d be a bit more Henry Gibson. Brilliant clip.

  2. He does have a pretty good voice for his persona, which makes sense since he started on stage. There are very few silent stars who really had voice trouble.

  3. Jolson at most becalmed:

  4. Larry Hart can break your heart:

  5. Langdon used a voice in the Roach shorts that was a bit different than in Hallelujah, I’m A Bum, a kind of a milquetoast distracted nattering.

    I just got the Coltrane/Hartman album this past weekend!

  6. “Egghead” is kind of a departure for Langdon as a character, and a typically weird 30s take on the left-wing intellectual character.

  7. Thank God the film wasn’t called Hallelujah I’m a Fanny!

  8. Ironically, in some territories the film was retitled Whoop-de-fuckin-do I’m a Tramp.

  9. My account of working as an usher during a 1973 revival of “Hallelujah I’m a Bum” in Caldwell, NJ: http://grimshaw.jeff.tripod.com/Suppose.html

  10. Oh, man, that’s beautiful.

  11. Just watched the censored and uncersorsed versions of them side by side. Interestingly the changed line “depression cannot cramp-Hallelujah I’m a Tramp” is an alternative take,Jolson is standing in a different position and he’s actually saying those changed words. It seems they knew they were going to have trouble, but then why only do an alternative for that one ‘bum line?

    Also while I can sort of understand the censorship issues around bums if that clip above is correct, the censor also inexplicably omits a beautiful very 30s Milestone-esque transition: After the Mayor looks at the photo my version fades to workers on skyscraper frame with a distant image of Central Park matte-ed(?) in behind them. The camera then appears to zoom in on this image, then fades to a tree with birds, then pans down the tree to Bumper. Whereas your version goes straight from the mayor to Bumper’s face. Why cut that out? Did the censors think it was too much? Did they decide it didn’t advance the plot

    Great film anyway, I was ready to sneer at it and it completely won me over. Although like another Milestone you mentioned I think the most dazzling tricks are in the first half an hour.

  12. Censors are, in a way, frustrated filmmakers, only they choose to destroy rather than create. And since it’s all about preserving good taste, why shouldn’t they intervene if they feel the filmmaking is too gaudy? Once you start altering somebody’s work, where does it end? Britain’s James Ferman used to pride himself on solving tricky problems in order to make his interventions invisible to the layman. I think if you’re going to censor, you should use bleeps and genital fogging and all of that and make it as obvious as possible that you tampered.

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