Sound on Disc
John Cromwell was first shipped out to Hollywood when sound came in, and it was felt that men with stage experience were needed to help the dumb actors talk. Of course, these new boys knew nothing of film technique — so Cromwell was paired up with A. Edward Sutherland (the former Mr. Louise Brooks) on the theory that Sutherland knew film grammar and Cromwell knew acting. Sutherland, in fact, was probably perfectly capable of handling his actors himself, whereas within a couple of films Cromwell had surpassed his partner in composition and camera movement. You either have the gift or you don’t.
CLOSE HARMONY (1929), the first Cromwell-Sutherland film, is now missing presumed lost. Nevertheless, I have not failed you, dear Shadowplayer. Am I not the man who, when devoting a year of his life to the films of Alfred Hitchcock, managed to review Hitch’s lost film, THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE, using the power of a woman’s dream? So, learning that the soundtrack of CLOSE HARMONY still survives on disc, I obtained a digital copy and sat down to enjoy it in audio form, applying my imagination to the problem of the missing mise-en-scene.
Of course, a film soundtrack, stripped of imagery, does not automatically become a coherent radio play. Not even a Kevin Smith film guarantees that. So the action of this movie takes a fair bit of mental reconstruction, and is perhaps more fraught with ambiguity than would have appeared at the time to audiences who could actually see it.
We begin with jaunty jazz music — the credits sequence, no doubt. Sutherland & Cromwell’s names would have appeared somewhere in here, along with stars Charles “Buddy” Rogers (a star from silents, notably WINGS) and Nancy Carroll (who also starred for the duo in THE DANCE OF LIFE) and the ingratiating Jack Oakie, already a veteran. Without titles, the tune seems to go on a long time and gets awfully repetitive — maybe it also covers the opening action? Suddenly voices break in — a conductor talking to his band — we’re present at a rehearsal! The light, pleasant voice sounds like Rogers as we hear him in talkies such as FOLLOW THRU and TAKE A CHANCE. Then a snooty lady breaks in and starts berating him: “Who gave you license to turn my house into a dance hall?” So we’re not in a theatre, as I had assumed, but somebody’s home. Rogers has apparently broken in and set up an orchestra in dead of night. The homeowner is understandably upset. But then she says, inscrutably, “Remember, you got a date. A business date with ME, Saturday.” We are three minutes in and this film seems more inscrutable than INLAND EMPIRE.
What seems to be a new scene begins with a slow, repetitive thunking sound. It’s either a ticking clock or a depressed man walking downstairs. This goes on for around forty seconds, making me suspect that possibly the image track was doing most of the heavy lifting here. It’s interrupted by the call of a cuckoo, so either it was a ticking clock or the staircase has led our downhearted protagonist out into a Viennese wood. I prefer the latter option, since as far as I can tell we haven’t had any exteriors yet, and I’m prone to claustrophobia.
No sooner has the songbird fallen silent than a fight breaks out, characterised by the sound of crashing furniture. What this stuff is doing out here in the woods I can’t say, so maybe we are inside after all. After ten seconds of this Donnybrook, Rogers’ voice rings out pleasantly with the words “Evening, Mrs. Prosser, hope I didn’t disturb you.” So that possibly we were not listening to a fight. I’m not even certain this is a different scene from the first one.
Mrs. Prosser, the same woman from before, snaps at Rogers some more, and I’m forming the impression that maybe he’s trying to sneak out of his rented accommodation. Then she starts yelling “Police! Police!” which either means I’m right, or the story has taken a surprisingly dark turn. This suspicion may be supported by the fact that her voice, though undimmed in emotion, suddenly gets much quieter. It’s possible that this signals the film cutting to a long shot, but I’m leaning towards the suspicion that the dastardly Rogers has zapped Mrs. Prosser with a shrink ray. No buddy, he.
Now an Irish-American policeman starts yacking and negotiates an agreement on the rent. Many exciting dramatic possibilities — shrink rays in the Vienna woods! — collapse into a bland singularity.
Then a well-spoken girl shows up — Nancy, I think — and pays the $35 Buddy owes. I’m assuming this is the girlfriend to the rescue, but the narrative takes a more intriguing turn when the supporting cast evaporate and Buddy remarks “You don’t even know me!” This is solid storytelling — the problem has been removed, but a mystery has taken its place. And I’d rather grapple with a mysterious Nancy Carroll than a problematic $35, even if I can’t see either one.
To be continued…