The Spirit of Christmas Past in Old Hollywood


Nowhere was the Holiday spirit kept better than in Old Hollywood. As a sign of those times, when Bing Crosby first recorded “Silent Night” in 1935, he thought it was wrong to accept payment and donated his fee to charity. There is a wealth of vintage carols and old time broadcasts available on the Internet but here at OHIC we are pleased to present some rare material that you are not likely to find elsewhere. In the links that follow we will hear unscripted Christmas greetings from President Franklin Roosevelt, a live session with Glenn Miller and his Orchestra just two weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack, plus a young Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney providing unscripted commentary of the Christmas Parade along Hollywood Boulevard, and much more.

President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill:

First let’s begin our trip back in time by returning to December 24, 1940, as FDR concludes his Christmas greetings by making a suggestion involving the White House Christmas Tree that has been followed to this day:

Christmas 1941 was unlike any before or since. Barely two weeks earlier the United States was suddenly thrust into the Second World War, which had been raging in Europe for two years already. America had been officially neutral but all that changed when the Empire of Japan attacked the U.S. Pacific Naval Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on the morning of December 7, 1941. Outwardly, the 1941 Holiday season seemed the same as past years but everyone knew that the New Year would bring dramatic changes in their lives as the nation converted to a war footing.

None were fated to be more affected than popular bandleader Glenn Miller, who would be lost flying over the English Channel just days before Christmas 1944. Of all the celebrity war casualties such as Leslie Howard and Ernie Pyle, none would be mourned more than Miller. So let’s return to Christmas Eve 1941 to hear Glenn and his band broadcasting live on his bi-weekly 15-minute Chesterfield Time:

Lionel Barrymore (grand uncle of Drew Barrymore) seemed to own Christmas from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s with his annual portrayal on the air of Ebeneezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Even now, it is easy to surf the web and hear several different performances of Lionel as Scrooge.

But here at OHIC we give you Lionel Barrymore in A MODERN SCROOGE that was presented by the U.S. Treasury on Christmas Eve 1942 with Fredric March in support. Think of Scrooge if he had lived during WWII America and asked to buy War Bonds, and you’ll have the basic idea behind this energetic little play:

Jack Benny didn’t exactly “own” Christmas the way Lionel Barrymore did, but the holiday spirit of gift-giving conflicted perfectly with his cheapskate character. Year after year from about 1934 through the 1970s, a Jack Benny Christmas Show meant an unsentimentalized treatment of the holidays from a tightwad’s viewpoint.

Trying to select one Benny show from among the decades is difficult because there’s not a clinker in the lot. But the holiday broadcasts from 1938 are particularly caustic and this particular one from December 11, 1938 is a classic of sarcasm. Besides Jack, the show’s regulars are announcer Don Wilson, Mary Livingston (who was Jack’s wife in real life but plays a sort of gal Friday on the show), bandleader Phil Harris (who developed into a very fine comedian), and of course, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, who gets the biggest laughs of all. It is to Jack’s eternal credit that he didn’t care who got the big laughs on his show as long as there were big laughs:

Let’s conclude this visit to Christmas Past with something truly rare. Long before Barrymore as Scrooge or Benny as a gift-giving cheapskate helped to define the Holiday season, it seemed that Christmas did not officially arrive until Madame Ernestine Schumann-Heink sang “Silent Night” at the stroke of Midnight. This Austrian-Czech contralto was considered one of the finest opera singers of her day – in the 19th century! She was popularly called Mother Schumann-Heink because she had seven children (by three husbands!) and one stepson. She became an American citizen in 1905, but had sons fighting on both the American side and the German side during the First World War (1914-1918). Her loyalties were unabashedly American and she sang tirelessly at the camps throughout that war.

By the 1920s, the radio networks would combine and across the land at Midnight on December 25th was heard the distinctive voice of Mother Schumann-Heink singing “Stille Nacht” like an angel from on high. She even had her own weekly radio show in 1934 (sponsored by Gerber Baby Foods, of course) where at the age of 73 she handed out lots of advice to her listeners between songs. Many people who lived back then felt that Christmas was never the same after her passing in 1936 but we like to think that she would be pleased to know we can still hear her proclaim Peace on Earth in the 21st Century:

Silent Screen Stars on Radio

We’re celebrating the publication of our new book, OLD HOLLYWOOD IN COLOR 3: WHEN SILENT STARS SPOKE, so this seems like a good time to devote a post to this particular topic. There’s a lot of Hollywood mythology surrounding the fate of silent movie stars when they made talkies, and even such hit films such as SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952) only served to reinforce those myths. The fact is that most silent screen stars did just fine in talkies and the ones who stand out because they didn’t do well are a distinct minority. You can read more about it in the book (a shameless plug) but here let’s actually listen to the silent stars themselves when they broadcast on radio.

Let’s take a look at, well, really listen to, three silent stars who never made any talkies: Theda Bara, William S. Hart, and Rudolph Valentino. Strange to say, as talkies supplanted the silents beginning in 1928 and finishing the job by 1929, some stars just walked away from their fame and fortune. Some like Constance Talmadge had become independently wealthy while others married into money or went into business, especially southern California real estate. Perhaps the most famous of early screen stars – we’re referring to the 1910s – was Theda Bara, the movies’ first sex goddess or “Vampire” as they were called then:

Theda’s name is supposedly an anagram for “Arab Death” but I have no idea of its significance. Her real name was Theodosia Goodman and by all accounts, she was nobody’s fool. Here’s an effective study of light and shadow:

By now you’re probably wondering how Bara came by her reputation, at least based on these two photos. OK, here’s one of the most iconic photos of Theda Bara from the lost film, CLEOPATRA (1917):

Now that we’ve been properly introduced, just click below to hear Theda Bara on the November 9, 1939 broadcast of Texaco Star Theater. You’ll hear host Ken Murray, comedian Irene Ryan (who later played Granny on TV’s “Beverly Hillbillies”), and singer Kenny Baker who asks Theda a very good question:

William S. Hart was film’s iconic cowboy star in the 1910s into the early 20s. A New York stage-trained actor – he played Messala in BEN-HUR in 1899 – he transferred his genuine love of the West into a lucrative movie career as a star, writer, producer and director:

Bill Hart retired before talkies came in but he recorded a beautifully spoken prologue to his last film, TUMBLEWEEDS (1926) when he reissued it in 1939.

But Hart occasionally made an appearance on radio in the 1930s to recite his own poem, “Pinto Ben.” Here is Rudy Vallee introducing him on the December 13, 1934 broadcast of the Fleischmann’s Hour:

Rudolph Valentino was the super star of such silents as THE SHEIK (1921), BLOOD AND SAND (1922), and MONSIEUR BEAUCAIRE (1924) among many other hits.

Sadly, Rudy didn’t live to make a talkie but he was broadcasting in 1923, long before most of his movie star colleagues were.

None of Rudy’s broadcasts were recorded but he did make two commercial recordings in 1923, thus preserving his singing voice.

At any rate, he carries a nice tune and the timbre of his voice at least suggests that Rudy had a good chance of success in the talkies:

Mae Murray was a Ziegfeld Follies dancer who enjoyed a successful film career from the mid-1910s through the 1920s:

Mae can be easiest described as a successor to Theda Bara although instead of having an exotic sort of mystique like Bara, Mae was a straightforward American gal with a frank sex appeal:

By now you probably want to see one of Mae Murray’s iconic photos to understand her appeal of nearly a century ago:

Unike Theda Bara, Mae did make a few talkies but not successfully. So her appearance on the December 6, 1939 Texaco Star Theater is noteworthy. Host Ken Murray gets in some laughs by the fact that he and Mae have the same last name:

Mary Astor was still in her teens when she played leading lady opposite such celebrities as John Barrymore and Douglas Fairbanks Sr. She is all of 17 here in BEAU BRUMMEL (1924):

By the 1940s it seemed that Mary Astor had been around forever although she was still a relatively young woman. She transitioned superbly to sound films, so much so that many people would forget that once she was a silent film star. She ably added radio broadcasting to her list of accomplishments:

We’re in luck because next we have a complete performance by Mary in the popular half-hour suspense show called, well, “Suspense” that was broadcast live on February 16, 1943:

Lillian Gish’s career in silent films preceded everyone else listed here, having made her first films in 1912 working for director D.W. Griffith. And she was still starring in films through 1987 with THE WHALES OF AUGUST.

Lillian made her best-remembered films during the 1920s such as WAY DOWN EAST (1920), ORPHANS OF THE STORM (1921), both directed by D.W. Griffith, THE WHITE SISTER (1923), LA BOHEME (1926), THE SCARLET LETTER (1926), and THE WIND (1928), among many others.

Gish made her first talkie in 1930, ONE ROMANTIC NIGHT, but didn’t care for the new medium. She moved to New York where she continued her career in the theater, on radio, and occasionally, in films such as DUEL IN THE SUN (1946), and eventually on television. Among her more unusual broadcast appearances are as a guest panelist on the popular quiz show, “Information Please.” No, Lillian wasn’t slumming because only the brightest and best of celebrities were permitted to appear on the show. Here is Lillian Gish on the October 11, 1938 live broadcast of “Information Please”:

We have barely scratched the surface of exploring silent stars on radio. Perhaps in a future post we can hear from Gloria Swanson, Norma Talmadge, Richard Barthelmess, John Barrymore, Conrad Veidt, and even D.W. Griffith. Do you have any requests?

Humphrey Bogart in Shakespeare’s HENRY IV – Live

As a sort of tribute to this week’s celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee, here at OHIC we are adding a bit of Will Shakespeare to our usual offerings. The summer of 1937 saw the two major radio networks, NBC and CBS, in a dueling Shakespeare competition. NBC offered John Barrymore in “Streamlined Shakespeare” each Monday night during that long-ago summer. Directly conflicting was CBS’s impressive array of Hollywood stars stepping out of their usual screen personas to play famous Shakespearian characters in hour-long adaptation of eight of the Bard’s plays. So join us for a Monday night in late August 1937, when listeners from coast to coast could hear HENRY IV broadcast live from Hollywood, starring Walter Huston in the title role, Brian Aherne as the Prince of Wales (Prince Hal, successor to the throne), Humphrey Bogart as Harry Hotspur (one of the rebels against the King), Walter Connolly as the comical Sir John Falstaff, and Dame May Whitty as Mistress Quickly, the tavern proprietor. She was 71 at the time of this broadcast and appeared in films right up until her death at the age of 82.

Please click the arrow button below and within five seconds you will be transported to August 23, 1937, to hear a celebrated group of Golden Age film stars strut their stuff in HENRY IV. All are quite good but Bogart is clearly the actor that attracts our attention in what appears to be his one and only foray into Shakespeare:

We have not found any photos of this broadcast, but the following images show Bogie as he was in the mid and late 1930s at the time of the HENRY IV broadcast.

Although he had been making movies since 1930, Bogart’s breakthrough film did not occur until 1936 when he and Leslie Howard (pictured here with Bette Davis) repeated their stage roles in the hit film, THE PETRIFIED FOREST. Bogie later repeated his role of escaped bank robber, Duke Mantee, on television in 1955:

Bogie and Bette Davis were also co-starred on radio in the late ’30s:

During those years Bogie played the bad guy in films opposite James Cagney, and also Edward G. Robinson, pictured here in BULLETS OT BALLOTS (1936):

Years later, a sombre Bogart, with Robinson, attend funeral services for his HENRY IV co-star Walter Huston on April 11, 1950:

Another portrait of the youthful Humphrey Bogart in 1937, when his iconic roles in THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) and CASABLANCA (1942) must have seemed a long way off:

Jean Harlow – Live!

I suppose the first time any of us hears the name Jean Harlow, we learn two things at once. First, that she was a beautiful blonde movie star of the 1930s, and second, that she died at the age of 26. Thus, Miss Harlow rarely has a chance to be “living” for us, if you know what I mean. After all, Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo (see our previous post) were contemporaries of Harlow who left their screen careers circa 1940 and basically disappeared. Both enjoyed very long lives post-Hollywood, so why couldn’t we have the same expectation for Jean? But no, her name is barely introduced to us and it is embraced by tragedy. Yet, like Rudolph Valentino before her, or Marilyn Monroe after her, through her films Jean Harlow proves to be an endlessly fascinating embodiment of love and mortality. Perhaps to put it more bluntly, an irresistible combination of sex and death.

The Warner Bros. Archives released a terrific dvd set of Jean’s films earlier this year but, after all, films are carefully rehearsed, reshot if there are mistakes, and carefully edited to delete other shortcomings. So while Jean certainly was living when she made her movies, we know there’s no “anything can happen” possibility of a truly live performance. That brings us to our current post on OHIC – a rare, truly live performance by Jean Harlow on the Lux Radio Theater in December 1936 less than six months before her death. Jean did little radio work and this broadcast seems to be the only one that has been preserved. The story is MADAME SANS-GENE, based on a popular 1890s play, turned into a famous opera by Giordano, that Gloria Swanson made into a successful (and now lost) silent film in 1925.

In the 1960s, Sophia Loren starred in a remake of this story of a feisty young woman during the French Revolution who confronts washing laundry and dealing with Napoleon with equal disregard.

This network radio broadcast was heard live by at least 30 million listeners from coast to coast, and by shortwave around the world. The host is Hollywood pioneer director Cecil B. DeMille, and Jean Harlow’s co-star is Robert Taylor. It was no coincidence that their new film, PERSONAL PROPERTY, was just going into movie theaters for the holidays. The imposing-voiced Claude Rains plays Napoleon with the same authority as he did earlier in 1936 in the Marion Davies film, HEARTS DIVIDED.

Here then at just a click of the button below is the complete hour-long live broadcast of MADAME SANS-GENE as heard on December 14, 1936:

A rare photo of the prinicipal cast rehearsing for the broadcast – from left to right Robert Taylor, Jean Harlow, Claude Rains, and C. Henry Gordon:

While you’re listening, enjoy some OHIC color transfers of Jean Harlow:

Jean seems more concerned with that overhead microphone than with the famous and feared gossip columnist Louella Parsons:

Later in 1937, Louella Parsons published this souvenir biography:

Jean and Clark Gable heat up the screen in RED DUST (1932), the first of several films they made together. Gable has the strange distinction of starring in the final films of the two most famous “goddesses” in film history: SARATOGA (1937), Harlow’s last film, and THE MISFITS (1961), Marilyn Monroe’s last film. It was also Gable’s last film, in fact he predeceased Marilyn:

Jean seems dressed for playing horse polo here. I can’t place the film but it may be from BLONDE BOMBSHELL (1933), a pre-Code satire on a sexy Hollywood star who looks just like Jean Harlow:

On the set of CHINA SEAS (1935) with co-star Wallace Beery and his daughter, Mary Ann, who had a small part in the film, and director Tay Garnett:

A promotional coin from Popsicles:

Jean Harlow made quite a number of good films during her brief life but legend will always claim first and foremost that her most memorable performance was as the sultry vixen in Howard Hughes’ First World War epic, HELL’S ANGELS (1930). Incidentally, it is the only film with color footage of Jean. Although she was virtually unknown at the time, look who dominates the poster art:

Garbo on the Air – Sort Of

The 1930s and 40s are known collectively as the Golden Age of Radio for several reasons. Among them is the fact that virtually every major Hollywood film star appeared on radio broadcasts. A few, such as Bing Crosby and Edward G. Robinson, starred on their own weekly shows. During the Second World War (1939-1945) even the few holdouts among the movie stars joined in to boost morale. Perhaps the only major star who never broadcast was the reclusive Greta Garbo. Her voice would be heard via radio only when it was lifted from her movie soundtracks and broadcast to promote her films.

Of course, the Divine Garbo never appeared in a color film either, but we can rectify both her colorless image and her absence from radio here at OLD HOLLYWOOD IN COLOR. First, the radio broadcast: “Garbo Laughs” was the ad line on her 1939 hit film, NINOTCHKA, directed by Ernst Lubitsch. The following year, radio’s Screen Guild Theater broadcast an adaptation starring Spencer Tracy in the role played by Melvyn Douglas on the screen, and Rosalind Russell playing Garbo’s role, the title character. Roz Russell was a versatile actress who became even more accomplished in her later years. But tackling a role so recently impressed in everybody’s mind by Garbo herself seemed risky if not foolhardy, even on radio.

But Roz surprised everyone by not merely giving a believable performance as the cynical Soviet operative, but by pulling off a dead-on impersonation of Garbo herself. Anyone tuning in late to the show would have sworn they were listening to Garbo in person. Here then is the closest that OHIC believes we will ever come to hearing the Divine Garbo on radio, courtesy of Rosalind Russell.

Click the Play arrow below to hear the complete half-hour live show, NINOTCHKA, on Screen Guild Theater, exactly as broadcast on April 21, 1940, starring Spencer Tracy and Rosalind Russell as “Garbo.”

While you’re listening, these color transfers may be of interest. Garbo’s first American film was TORRENT (1926) and is available today on dvd:

With Lucy Beaumont

A late 1920s portrait in the then-typical soft focus:

An iconic photo of Garbo and her offscreen lover John Gilbert in FLESH AND THE DEVIL (1927):

An unusually modernistic poster design for 1928:

An exotic Garbo in Java with Nils Asther in WILD ORCHIDS (1929):

And a decade later in NINOTCHKA (1939):

An original color poster

Spencer Tracy made his first color appearance in the glorious Technicolor outdoors epic of 1940, NORTHWEST PASSAGE. He would not appear in color again until the 1950s:

An original color poster

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