Needledrop

OK, time to finish this thing. CLOSE HARMONY, an early talkie which has been entirely lost apart from the talki (and music) making it genuinely, as the ads said, 100% talking. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack and trying to picture the pictures, mentally.

Now read on…

Nancy Carroll is trying to seduce apple-cheeked Jack Oakie away from his bandmates, as a vicious act of feminine sabotage. This leads to a bust-up between Oakie and “Skeets” Gallagher. The epithet “dirty double-crossing rat” is flung around, and then there’s a muted “pop” sound as of an apple-cheeked bandleader getting biffed on the snoot. It started in a simple scheme to get Charles “Buddy” Rogers a gig in the Babylon nightclub, but it has ended in… BLOODSHED.

SUDDEN LOUD JAZZ! This usually indicates a scene change in this film, although it’s just possible that some passing musicians, sighting the brawl, have launched into a number in order to provide encouragement and accompaniment to the mayhem. Oh, I recognize the tune — it’s “Running Wild”. And there’s a lot of yelling going on, so maybe my second guess was correct.

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“I heard every word you said!” cries an irate Buddy — then there’s some crying from Nancy — “Wait! Let me talk to you!” The classic lover’s misunderstanding has kicked in. Buddy is upset because he thinks Nancy was sincerely romancing Oakie. If in fact he knew she was vamping Oakie in order to ruin his career for Buddy’s benefit, would he be delighted, like a true sociopath, or would he wonder what kind of fiendish girl he’s got himself involved with? I think I would feel at least a bit of a chill.

A bang, as of a cudgel descending upon a skull, then a rapidly diminishing auto engine rev and rumble. So either Buddy jumped in a car, slamming the door, and drove off, or he coshed Nancy with a length of plank and we heard the sound of a nearby vehicle diminishing to nothing as she sank into unconsciousness, an early, sophisticated example of subjective sound. This time I think my first guess is more likely to be right.

The next sound we hear is twenty seconds of audio crackle, with Nancy’s sobs breaking through in spots. This is consistent with either of the previous scenarios. Then a rumble, suggesting an elevated train more or less replaces the crackle. So I think we’ve made the transition from a scene of heartbreak to a scene of public transport. Astonishing the breadth of human experience this movie contains, even without its image track.

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Now we hear the lisping, heavily accented tones of nightclub impressario Max Mindel, but we don’t hear precisely what he’s saying due to the lisping, the accent, and what could still be an elevated train. Skip it. He makes a phone call — it sounds like he’s asking for “Ben Birnham and Johnny Bakery” though no such characters appear in the cast list. Evidently he’s anxious to speak to his singers, Oakie and Gallagher. We hear a bell ring — sounding like a bicycle down a well, but apparently intended to suggest a telephone. The filmmakers show a commendable faith in their audience to figure this out, although I suppose a telephone position prominently in shot would have been of some help to the poor customers.

The word “Hello” is now spoken about ten times, and Max learns his star act has broken up.

A pause, with a sound suggestive of a rotary phone or possibly a pair of dice rattling in a cup. But it proves to be neither: it’s Charles “Buddy” Rogers, feeling sorry for himself. Not for the first time, I am impressed by his bold choices as an actor. Would Pacino have thought of using a soft rattling sound to suggest such depths of emotion? Of course he wouldn’t. He would have yelled something. Not Buddy. Nancy is consoling Buddy and maybe this is the Reconciliation Scene, in which case we can compare it to the one in King Lear. Less kneeling, more rattling.

Hitchcockian suspense as Nancy lays out her plan and a deathly silence falls, remaining fallen for some time. As it turns out, Buddy is horrified at the scheme, and when Max comes in and offers Buddy the gig, he resolves to get Oakie and Skeets back together, sacrificing his own possible career advantage for the sake of being a square guy. Buddy enunciates all of this in his best Phoebe Dinsmore English. Soon, the lads are reunited, using the term “Well I’ll take vanilla,” which speaks volumes.

But Nancy is appalled that Buddy has messed up his career prospects and their marriage prospects, and storms out. When you’ve been told off by Nancy Carroll, you know all about it. She even calls him yeller.

SUDDEN LOUD JAZZ! “Yeller, huh?” muses Buddy. CACOPHONOUS APPLAUSE. MORE SUDDEN LOUD JAZZ. I have no idea what’s going on or who’s playing. This one has some great mad percussion though. It sounds like a jazz band falling downstairs.

Then, before we can really make sense of any of that, Nancy and Buddy have their second reconciliation, very rapidly, and —

SUDDEN LOUD WEDDING MARCH!

THE END

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5 Responses to “Needledrop”

  1. John Warthen Says:

    Don’t know if this soundtrack-fantasia bears repeating, but if nothing else it clarifies why I check your website every day: you wrote the hell out of this self-assignment. Your prose sashays delightfully in the absence of that old distracting photographic stuff.

  2. Thanks! Also — exciting news! Via James Layton on Facebook: Close Harmony is NOT LOST! Universael preserved a 35mm copy and screened it in NY in 2011. Of course, the chances of the rest of us getting to see it anytime soon are slim, until Universal wise up and follow in the path of Warner Bros and their magnificent Archive imprint.

  3. If it were really lost, there would be a Froggy Macintyre review on the imdb.

  4. You make an excellent point.

    Though I fear many of Froggy’s more provably bogus write-ups have been purged. I particularly miss his coverage of The Golem and the Dancing Girl, memorably titled Her Muddy Buddy is no Fuddy-Duddy.

  5. Wow. We need to save the rest of the F.G.M. archive to the Internet Archive STAT!

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