Unsound on Disc

So, I’m listening to the surviving soundtrack of lost film CLOSE HARMONY (but I would rather do THE TERROR or RETURN OF THE TERROR, whose Vitaphone discs I believe survive, if anyone can help) and I’m trying to mentally reconstruct the image track using audio clues.

Now read on…


Lots of creaking. Possibly musical instruments are being transported. Or possibly Charles “Buddy” Rogers is attempting to act. CLANG! “My trombone,” he explains, stressing the first syllable. Lots of hesitations in the dialogue, which I think would work well if you could see them carrying the “big horn” and the “awful big dru-um.” Buddy’s singsong Kansan accent makes drum a two-syllable word.

A soft background hum — we may now be in a car. I wonder if they’re attempting rear projection.

We learn that Nancy Carroll’s character is a successful nightclub singer. Buddy invites her to hear his band at the warehouse where he will now be storing all his band’s instruments.

The car noise fades out. New scene? loud jazz! Terrible singing — I guess it’s Nancy. “I want to go places and do things, with you.” Fiona suggests, “Could one of the things you do please not be singing?” Applause, sounding like a forest fire breaking out in a crisp packet.


Backstage dialogue: “Looks like you is in a pow’ful hurry tonight.” Some kind of accent there — Hungarian? Gusztáv Pártos is in the cast. But this is a woman. I think it’s the maid from the Tom & Jerry cartoons, the one who exists only from the shins down. I picture her mighty shins towering over little Nancy Carroll in that dressing room, giantess legs reaching way far up beyond the natural limits of such a tiny room’s ceiling.

Knock knock. “It’s me, Maxie Mindel. Are you decent?” “Oh no, wait a minute!” So we’ve been missing a nude scene as well as giant shins.

Harry Green, who made most of the films of his career in 1929 and 1930 before anybody found out, is Max Mindel, who says “I know I’m not good to look at,” and yearns for Nancy. A sympathetic schnook. I picture him peering round one of the maid’s enormous legs and making googoo eyes at Nancy. Nancy decides to recommend Buddy’s warehouse band to Max as an act for his nightclub, the Babylon.

Everything goes quiet. Then — LOUD JAZZ! And a perhaps optimistic attempt to play dialogue at the same time. Green/Mindel seems to be one of the speakers. I’m trying to get a visual image of a band playing in a warehouse (perhaps sitting on crates) but all I seem able to visualise is a sound guy frantically twiddling his knobs.

The band breaks up for the night — mass rhubarbing as they all say goodbye. This takes about ten seconds, which is a lot of rhubarb. Nancy tells Buddy she’s got him a try-out at the Babylon. “How can I ever thank you? Gosh!” Then someone laughs a sinister laugh, very far off in the distance. I think it might be jack Oakie but you can tell only so much from a distant laugh. Does this sinister chuckler herald doom for Buddy?

Then there’s an abrupt, high-pitched wail, like Sterling Holloway falling from a tree. But then Buddy goes right back to thanking Nancy as if nothing had occurred. Perhaps it was a dream sequence? A sort of mental association: when Nancy hears the word “Gosh!” she pictures an effete man becoming deforested. It could happen that way, for some people. You never know with women.

Buddy is tongue-tied. “What’s so scary about me?” asks Nancy. “Your face,” says Buddy, the best line of the film so far. I wonder if they used makeup to make Nancy’s face look scary, or if Cromwell just lit her below as he does to Dorothy McGuire in THE ENCHANTED COTTAGE. Hollywood’s idea of “plain” — walking around with a torch shining up your chin as if about to tell a ghost story.

There then follows twenty seconds of crackly near-silence, broken only by muffled breaths and the occasional vague click. Then Nancy says, “I’m beginning to gather your meaning, Mr. West!” We need little imagination to retroactively paint in the preceding action.

To be continued…



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