Archive for Al Jolson

The Coming of Sound, and Vice Versa

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on July 1, 2020 by dcairns

1927! The coming of sound sends sonic shockwaves through Hollywood. When Al Jolson throws open his hideous face and emits the words, “You ain’t heard nothing yet,” the screen’s first audible double negative shatters box office records as the public rushes to hear the rules of grammar nakedly flaunted by a charcoal-smeared buffoon.

Rival studios rushed to compete with Warner Bros’ twin innovations of synchronized sound and discoloured actors. MGM tries painting Norma Shearer with a kind of luminous wode and filming her in pitch dark sets to save money, but the experiment is judged a failure and Shearer gets an unpleasant rash; at Columbia, they go one step further and paint everything black, actors and sets alike, or so the publicity goes. An expose reveals that the cameras were loaded with black leader and that no sets were built at all.

A sound.

Stars who had been happily moving their lips attractively without a care for dialogue, suddenly had to undergo terrifying sound tests to ascertain their suitability for the microphone. “In the old days, we used to just say ‘Elbow elbow elbow,'” recalled Charles “Buddy” Rogers, “Because lip scientists had ascertained that the word ‘elbow’ creates the most attractive lip movements of any word in the English language. Of course, poor old Lars Hansen had to say ‘armbåge’ because he was Swedish, which didn’t look half as good. For my part, I’d gotten so used to elbowing that I found it hard to quit. I’d be looking into Clara Bow’s eyes and I’d say ‘I’m absolutely elbow about you,’ and then next thing you know William Wellman’s coming at me with big stick, and that’s how the mic boom was invented.”

Of course, as the legitimate cinema moved to sound, the nascent porn industry had to follow suit. Promoters raved about the slapping and squelching sounds that could now be enjoyed for the first time, and THE JIZZ SLINGER was advertised with the slogan “You ain’t heard fuckin’ yet!”

During the silent era, adult movies had enjoyed steady popularity, often following the hits of the day with pornified versions, like ORPHANS OF THE SPERM starring the Gash sisters, Lillian, Dorothy and Jenna, LITTLE ANAL ROONEY with Mary Prickford, and ROBIN NUDE with Douglas Bareflanks. With the coming of sound it was found that John Gal-butt squeaked like a dormouse at the moment of climax, ending his career, while the heavily accented pantings of He-male Jannings in the “grunty” remake of THE LUST COMMAND sent the star packing back to his native Milwaukee.

For a time, film production was dominated by the demands of the sound man. On set, soundproof booths constrained the camera, the director, and the actors. Screenwriters were forced to contrive scenarios which convincingly explained why everybody was in their own individual fridge-like box, staring helplessly from the window and enunciating at one another. William Powell played Philo Vance in THE INDIVIDUAL SOUNDPROOF BOOTH MURDER CASE in which the dapper sleuth had to explain how a prominent business magnate had been stabbed to death inside an individual sound-proof box (the solution involved little person Billy Barty in another, much smaller box) and musicals were frankly a pain in the ass.

Inventive directors got around the problem by starting early, before the sound man came to work, and shooting the cast with their backs to the camera to obviate the need for lip-sync. The popular college musical FACING AWAY was shot in its entirety with the cast’s back to the camera. “All singing, all dancing, all looking the other way!” raved the publicity, and studios began giving long-term contracts to the actors with the most attractive craniums. Phrenologists were in demand.

In porn, this innovation proved restrictive on the variety of sexual positions and camera angles achievable: porn musical genius Jizzby Jerkeley’s spectacular overhead shots helped, and everyone agreed that it was better than a porn movie with everyone in individual soundproof booths, helplessly smearing their features, facial and otherwise, against the glass. The only such film made, I’M HERE FOR YOU, BILLY (1930), was not a hit.

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

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 27, 2014 by dcairns

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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 continent, 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.

The Amazing Colossal Jolson

Posted in FILM with tags , on August 18, 2009 by dcairns

fury

Terror has a new face!