Rediscovering Bing Crosby

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Can this smiling lad really be Bing Crosby? This Bing is a far cry from the elderly gent who sang “The Little Drummer Boy” with David Bowie, not to mention “White Christmas.” The older Bing looked like a man who disapproved of parties, while the young Bing looked like a guy who loved parties. Bing Crosby (1903-1977) would emerge as an iconic figure in the entertainment world during the 1940s through the 1970s. He wore his icon status pretty well, but I think it also wore him out. That’s a whole different story. Instead, let’s travel back in time to the 1930s when Bing just wanted to be a popular singer, not an icon.

Devoted Crosby fans will let you in on a little secret: Bing sang his best during the 1930s and, not only that, but he sang in a higher key and took chances. His singing style became “branded” in the 1940s when he adopted a lower register. For example, if you’ve heard “White Christmas,” you can almost guess his approach to most other songs from the 40s on. The public of that day loved it and loved him too but remember, all those people became fans of Bing Crosby during the 1930s and never stopped. Picking up the Crosby story in his later years, which is how most folks know of him today, is like starting a novel in the middle of the book. So what was all the excitement about? Your blogmeister is happy to show you.

Let’s hear Bing’s very first radio broadcast from September 2, 1931. Bing sings but never speaks and the announcer (Harry von Zell) mentions that Bing’s radio debut had been postponed because of laryngitis. But the truth is that he was scared to death to go on the air. It was a monumental case of “mike fright” but he eventually conquered it – Bing would broadcast every week from 1931 to 1962!

Just click on the link below to hear a 28 year-old Bing Crosby sing three of his biggest hits of 1931. His first song nicely sums up the theme of this post: “Just One More Chance.”

Bing made his first recording in 1926 with a pal from his native Washington State, Al Rinker. The following year the great Paul Whiteman, the proverbial “King of Jazz,” hired Bing and Al for his big band and dubbed them “The Rhythm Boys.” Adding pianist-singer-songwriter Harry Barris to the group, the Rhythm Boys became popular recording artists with Bing clearly spotlighted as the star. When the Boys went their separate ways in 1931, Bing signed on with Gus Arnheim’s Coconut Grove Orchestra at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles and became a west coast sensation. Here is one of the most popular sides that Bing made with Arnheim, with quick tempo changes that are still remarkable. Incidentally, future film star Fred MacMurray is playing the sax, and Bing’s ill-fated rival, Russ Columbo, is violinist.

“I Surrender Dear” Victor 22618, recorded January 19, 1931:

By 1932, Bing was being starred in feature-length films but with plenty of other talent onboard as box office insurance. In fact, Bing would thereafter add one, two or even three co-stars to his films. His first film also started a two-decades long relationship with Paramount Pictures: THE BIG BROADCAST highlighted Bing’s established hit recording of “Please.” Here is that record with Bing backed by Anson Weeks’ Orchestra, with future band leader Xavier Cugat on the violin.

“Please” Brunswick 6226, recorded September 16, 1932:

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The Great Depression had a devastating effect on record sales. Many big name recording artists could no longer command the big salaries they had earned just a couple of years earlier. Bing was one of a handful of reliably profitable recording stars in the early 1930s but just as he enhanced his films with popular co-stars, he did the same thing with records by cutting sides with Duke Ellington, the Boswell Sisters, Guy Lombardo, the Mills Brothers, and others who were best-selling recording artists in their own right. Perhaps as a sign of his status, sheet music offered Bing in expensive color covers:
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Bing’s weekly radio program was heard by as many as 50 million people and helped promote his new records and his new movies. He became a much more confident broadcaster especially when it is remembered that everything he did on the air went out live. This photo circa 1937 shows Bing when he was hosting the Kraft Music Hall:
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Finally, let’s listen to a full-length 30-minute show that kicked off Bing’s 1934-35 season on the air. Although he played a romantic eligible bachelor in his movies, Bing is very proud to discuss his twins that were born over that summer:
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For more info on Bing, your blogmeister has three recommendations. First, you should visit Bing’s official website http://www.BingCrosby.com that is authorized by the Crosby family. Bing also has a Facebook page with over 94,000 members.

Second, I can highly recommend Gary Giddins’ thoroughly researched and beautifully written biography, BING CROSBY, A POCKETFUL OF DREAMS: THE EARLY YEARS 1903-1940, published by Little, Brown.

Third, and this just in, a few days ago the Warners Archive released Bing’s 1933 hit film, GOING HOLLYWOOD (1933), co-starring Marion Davies. This MGM musical shows the Crosby persona long before he played Father O’Malley in GOING MY WAY!
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Bing and Mary Boland in 1935’s TWO FOR TONIGHT

Published in: on August 1, 2013 at 7:15 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Happy July 4th – Will Rogers Style

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Last year we paid tribute to those Yankee Doodle Boys James Cagney and George M. Cohan (it’s still available on this blog if you missed it). This year we recognize another Red, White, and Blue American – Will Rogers (1879-1935). Born and raised in Oklahoma before it became a state, Will was part Native American and would quip to the Blue Book 400, “Your ancestors might have come over on the “Mayflower,” but mine were standing on the shore waiting to greet them.” You just gotta love a guy like that!

Will Rogers became famous in the Ziegfeld Follies during the 1910s, along with Fanny Brice, W.C. Fields, Marion Davies, and Eddie Cantor, among others. Before that he traveled the world exhibiting his cowboy riding and roping tricks, first touring in South Africa around 1902. As the new century progressed, Rogers adapted his laconic style successfully to every new media: silent films, radio, and talkies. He eventually left off his cowboy routine and focused on his folksy wit and wisdom.
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Even FDR cracked up when Will Rogers observed, “I am not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”

One of Will’s earliest silent films was based on Washington Irving’s famous tale, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Retitled, THE HEADLESS HORSEMAN, this 1922 silent film was a good vehicle to showcase Will’s personality and is available today on DVD:
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Playing Ichabod Crane, Will had to submerge his ingratiating personality to be faithful to the prig character created by author Irving. Still, his winning ways came through as the this frame grab suggests:
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The role of Katrina Van Tassel was charmingly played by Lois Meredith, a New York-based actress:
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This well-known story of Americana was filmed on location in the Hudson River Valley, New York, near where Irving had lived and wrote in Tarrytown. THE HEADLESS HORSEMAN is historically important as the first feature film to use the new panchromatic film stock. Unlike the old orthochromatic film stock that did not photograph certain colors such as blue, and missed clouds entirely (with clear skies looking gray), panchromatic film brought out all the details as these frame grabs indicate:
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The story’s climax where Ichabod meets up with the title character is well-handled in an early Halloween frightful style. Faithful to the Irving original, Crane vanishes from Sleepy Hollow thereafter, but word would come that he had established himself quite well elsewhere.
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Will Rogers made many silent films although most of his earliest ones, such as LAUGHING BILL HYDE (1918), are lost. During the 1920s, he decided to finance his own series of two-reel comedies but went broke doing it. Happily, when sound films came along in 1929, Will became a huge film star thereafter.

Now let’s hear Will Rogers speak for himself in this April 21, 1935 radio broadcast that sounds very much like our own political situation today – our Government is spending money faster than it can take it in and everybody has a plan to fix it. Although we have restored the sound somewhat, it’s a bit rough to our 21st century ears but Will’s insights are right up to date. Will talks extemporaneously with only a few speaking points to guide him so his style of speaking may take a minute or so to get use to. Enjoy the full ten minutes!

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On the Set with Al Jolson

This time we turn the spotlight on Al Jolson (1886-1950) who by sheer force of his personality became known as “The World’s Greatest Entertainer.” It’s said that he bestowed the title on himself but the point is that nobody disputed it.
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There were four great male pop singers during the 20th century and in chronological order they were Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Elvis Presley. They all excelled in singing love songs but two of them were gentlemen – Crosby and Presley – and two of them were tough guys – Jolson and Sinatra:
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Al isn’t glaring at the camera in this production shot from WONDER BAR (1934). His scorn is directed towards an off-camera Ricardo Cortez who plays a gigolo in the story:
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The New York premiere of THE SINGING KID in April 1936. Al is partially hidden behind the microphone while Mrs. Jack Oakie speaks into it as her husband looks on. On the left is none other than Ruth Roland, the serial queen of the silent screen. After retiring from films, Ruth made a fortune in real estate. No wonder she’s smiling!
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Jolson played only one historical role in films – other than himself, that is. Al’s characterization of E.P. Christy, the minstrel man of the 19th century, won critical praises and stole the show. That’s Don Ameche as Stephen Foster and Andrea Leeds as his long-suffering wife in the Technicolor production, SWANEE RIVER (1939):
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Jolson was active in the Republican Party during the 1920s, campaigning for Warren Harding and even writing a song for him. Here Al visits President Calvin Coolidge at the White House in October 1924:
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Al was a sportsman and proudly displays his day’s catch:
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A deleted scene from ROSE OF WASHINGTON SQUARE (1939), a nostalgic musical of the 1920s, which even in 1939 seemed like a long time ago:
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Al and his third wife Ruby Keeler in 1929, singing songs over the air to promote his new film, SAY IT WITH SONGS:
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After Broadway and Hollywood, Jolson became a major radio star during the 1930s and thereafter. But what’s the point in talking about Al – let’s listen to him. Click below to hear the Colgate Tooth Powder Show of January 5, 1943. Right smack in the middle of the Second World War, this show has plenty of jokes to keep up morale in dealing with the wartime challenges of rationing and shortages. Broadcast live from New York City, Al’s guest, Monty Woolley (The Man Who Came To Dinner) was such a hit that he became a regular on the show. Al performs a terrific medley of George Gershwin songs at the end:

All of the Jolson movies mentioned in this post are now available on DVD. Of course, the film that Al is primarily remembered for, THE JAZZ SINGER (1927), is also out on Blu-ray. Check ’em out!

Old Hollywood in 3D Color

This site was established almost two years ago and dedicated to transforming old b/w photos of Old Hollywood into color by using modern software. Now we’re ready to take the next step by adding computer-generated 3D to our color transfers. Last month we inaugurated this process on our sister site, ArlissArchives.com by unveiling the first-ever 3D images of George Arliss. Similar to the extremely limited use of color photography in Old Hollywood, unfortunately the studios of that era also did not participate in the popularity of 3D or stereoscopic photography. That task is bequeathed to us in the 21st century. Today there are several different 3D processes but here we are using an original low-tech version that dates back to the 19th century. It is based on an optical illusion to trick our brain into believing it is seeing an object from two slightly different perspectives, hence the illusion of depth perception. Let’s start off with a very chic Myrna Loy circa 1935:
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If you see only two identical images of Myrna and no 3D effect, then you either need to use a viewer device or learn the simple knack of “free viewing.” The easiest way to obtain a viewer is to find one of the many books on old stereoscopic slides because these volumes include a simple fold-up plastic or cardboard viewer. Check your public library. Your blogmeister dispenses with using viewers (the “training wheels” of 3D) and relies on the technique of free viewing using only, pardon the expression, my naked eyes. Let’s give the 3D treatment to Rudolph Valentino in MONSIEUR BEAUCAIRE (1924):
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To try free viewing, you need to guide each eye to focus on only one of the two images: the right eye on the right image, the left eye on the left image. At first your eyes won’t cooperate so by using the edge of your hand extended from your forehead to the tip of your nose, your hand will block the right eye from seeing the left image and vice versa with the left eye. A piece of cardboard or a business envelope will work as well as your hand. The next step is to relax and look “through” the images and you will notice (with a little patience) that the images start moving together to form one image. Once they fully merge you’re in 3D. Try it with Myrna and Rudy (each should line up easily) or give Strongheart and Lady Julie below (circa 1925) a try:
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You’ll want to experiment with moving the images, i.e., the screen, anywhere from 9 to 13 inches from your eyes until the images start moving together. Also, smaller image size works easier than larger sizes so you if the images are not fully merging together, adjust your screen to make the images smaller. After a little trial and error, you’ll find a size and a focal length that works for you. Here is a photo that begged for 3D – Lon Chaney Sr. as Quasimodo in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923):
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Once you’ve experienced the 3D effect of free viewing, you’ll know what to look for and subsequent 3D images will come through faster. Here, the Russian Revolution is about the break out in TEMPEST (1928) but Louis Wolheim (top) and John Barrymore find time to horse around in this photo that seems designed for 3D:
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This photo has a lovely scenic perspective that enhances a 3D view – June Collyer and George Arliss on the set of ALEXANDER HAMILTON (1931) wait for nightfall to film an outdoor scene:
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Since today (April 1st) is Lon Chaney’s birthday (1883), here he is again with Norma Shearer in HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1924), the very first film produced by the then-newly organized Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Shearer and Chaney remained top stars at MGM, Norma until her retirement in 1942, and Lon until his death in 1930:
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It may be unkind to note that W.C. Fields’ nose always seemed to be in 3D even in 2D photos. At any rate, here’s an unusual portrait of Mr. Fields sporting a middle eastern look:
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Gloria Swanson and her co-star Rudolph Valentino pause in filming a scene for BEYOND THE ROCKS (1922). This film represents the only pairing of these two iconic stars and was considered a “lost” work for decades until a nearly-complete print turned up in the Netherlands just a few years ago and is now on DVD. Ironically, this scene below was among the missing footage in the rediscovered print:
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This striking portrait of Lon Chaney in character for OUTSIDE THE LAW (1921) seems to anticipate 3D:
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Clara Bow personified the “Roaring Twenties” perhaps more than anyone else. She was dubbed the “It Girl” and everybody under 90 knew what that referred to, and maybe people over 90 too. Some of her films were considered risque but her studio, Paramount, cancelled her contract in 1931 – even after her successful transition to talkies – when her private life was found to be racier than her films:
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Finally, before Hepburn & Tracy, Lombard & Gable, or Rogers & Astaire, there was Garbo & Gilbert, that is Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. They ignited the screen in films such as FLESH AND THE DEVIL, LOVE (both 1927), A WOMAN OF AFFAIRS (1928), and the talkie QUEEN CHRISTINA (1933). Not surprisingly, they were lovers in real life, at least for a time in the late 1920s. Here is an iconic image of them from FLESH AND THE DEVIL given both the color and the 3D treatment:
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Future posts here will continue to be in color (the raison d’etre for this site) but we’ll be more sparing in using 3D. The stereographic effect is more welcome as a novelty from time to time than as a constant component of photos, or movies for that matter. Perhaps those folks back in Old Hollywood knew this all along.

Silent Screen Stars on Radio: Part 2

Some months ago your blogmeister posted a thread called “Silent Screen Stars on Radio” that proved very popular. I promised a possible sequel so here it is. Radio during the 1930s became a veritable haven for silent screen stars, regardless of whether they were successful in talkies. Let’s start our tour with one the most popular stars of the silent screen, Norma Talmadge. Norma made only two talkies then decided to retire from the screen in 1930 with her wealth intact. Here is Norma in her final film, DUBARRY, WOMAN OF PASSION (1930):
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She was married to George Jessel for several years during the ’30s and appeared with him on his weekly variety show, “Thirty Minutes in Hollywood.” Legend claims that Norma left sound films because of a pronounced Brooklyn accent but fortunately her radio work vindicates her vocally. Here Norma co-stars with Gilbert Roland in her first talkie, NEW YORK NIGHTS (1929):
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Let’s listen to an excerpt from the March 6, 1938 broadcast with Jessel and a ten-year singing prodigy, Josephine, who asks Norma about her film career:

Gloria Swanson was one of the greatest stars of the 1920s and her transition to talkies was not only successful but revealed her excellent singing voice. However, times were changing quickly in the early 1930s and the fickle public shifted its attention to newer attractions. La Swanson produced her own films and by 1934 she realized it was time to move on to other pursuits. But she was never gone from the public scene for very long, which may explain her spectacular return to films in SUNSET BLVD. in 1950. Here is Gloria making a very early broadcast circa 1928:
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Let’s join Gloria as guest on Eddie Cantor’s show on March 9, 1938. This being a live broadcast, the performers keep rolling, mistakes and all:

Now for something completely different. Conrad Veidt was one of the most popular international stars during the silent film era, first gaining notice in the groundbreaking THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1919). Connie, as he was called, traveled from Germany to Hollywood in 1926 at the request of John Barrymore, who wanted him to play the crafty King Louis XI in Barrymore’s new epic, THE BELOVED ROGUE (1927). Here is an original autographed portrait of Connie taken about the same time:
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Veidt returned to his native Germany in 1929 where he continued his career, by then starring in sound films, until he fled his homeland in 1933 with the rise of Hitler. His career continued uninterrupted in Britain, though he struggled mightily to learn English, and eventually returned to Hollywood in 1940 where he donated most of his earnings to the American and British war effort. One of his most impressive films at that time was A WOMAN’S FACE (1941) with Joan Crawford in the title role:
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Connie said that this film was his favorite, even more so than CALIGARI, and described his role as “Satan in a tuxedo.” The public agreed because he was asked to recreate his film role not once but twice on radio. Here is the first broadcast, a half-hour version from April 19, 1942, with Bette Davis playing the Joan Crawford role, and Bette’s old co-star from her early days at Warner Bros., Warren William. All three stars donated their salaries to the Motion Picture Relief Fund:

The great director D.W. Griffith was rarely heard on radio but made an exception when another great director, Cecil B. DeMille, asked him to appear on DeMille’s show, Lux Radio Theater. The 1930s were a difficult time for Griffith although he was regarded by the film industry as the most influential of the pioneer filmmakers. He was given a special Academy Award but would have much preferred to be given a film to direct instead. No doubt he would have been pleased with this commemorative stamp issued in his honor decades later:
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Let’s join D.W. on June 29, 1936 as Cecil B. DeMille welcomes him:

Marion Davies is remembered today as the mistress of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst, and as the inspiration for the character of Susan Alexander, the untalented mistress of Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE (1941). Welles would spend his later years explaining that he felt Marion Davies was one of the most talented stars of Hollywood, in both silent and sound films, and he made the Susan Alexander character untalented so nobody could claim that she was suppose to be Marion, but alas, it didn’t work out that way.
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Let’s hear Cecil B. DeMille again as he converses with Marion Davies and Brian Aherne at the conclusion of the November 29, 1937 Lux broadcast of PEG O’ MY HEART that Marion had made as a film in 1931. I believe this broadcast turned out to be her last professional appearance, after having made what proved to be her final film earlier in the year. Also, it was said that Marion spoke with a stammer, something that was never heard in any of her sound films. However, you can hear that she is having some difficulty getting through her scripted remarks:

Finally, we have not one but two Barrymores, John and Lionel. The brothers started making films back in 1912 and possibly earlier, to supplement their theater earnings. By the 1920s, the Barrymore Brothers were starring on the New York stage and in big budget films too, although they worked separately during the silent era. Here is one of their joint stage appearances in 1919 in THE JEST, which F. Scott Fitzgerald immortalized in his first novel, This Side of Paradise.
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John in one of his spectacular swashbucklers of the silent screen:
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The talkies held no fear for either Lionel or John, in fact Lionel directed as well as starred in them. Alas, this talkie comedy from 1930, with John and a very young Loretta Young, is lost:
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By the early 1940s each of the Barrymore Brothers had his own weekly radio show but Lionel also made guest appearances on John’s Sealtest Show, which headlined Rudy Vallee, who was responsible for hiring John for the show:
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The Sealtest Show was a slapstick comedy series where the stars and guests were satirized. But just to let listeners know it was all in fun, John and Lionel took time out to perform a scene from Shakespeare’s RICHARD III. Here Rudy Vallee introduces the scene on the May 1, 1941 broadcast:

I passed over shows with all-but-forgotten silent screen stars such as Bert Lytell and Aileen Pringle but just let your ol’ blogmeister know of any requests. And thanks for stopping by.

On the Set with Warner Oland

Today, the name Warner Oland (1879-1938) is synonymous with Charlie Chan, the fictional Honolulu detective created by Earl Derr Biggers. But Mr. Oland was much more than a talented character actor. He spoke several languages and, with his wife Edith, made the first English language translations of plays by August Strindberg. Born in Sweden, his family emigrated to the United States when Warner was 13 years old. He gravitated from the stage to films in the 1910s and first attracted attention playing the villain in Pearl White’s legendary movie serial, THE PERILS OF PAULINE (1914).

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In those days the craft of acting included the ability to credibly portray characters of different nationalities or ethnic origins, and even different races. We are much more parochial today about these things but Warner Oland was the first actor to successfully portray a Chinese hero in American films. How successful? He starred in seventeen Charlie Chan films at 20th Century-Fox from 1931 through 1937 (technically, 18 films if we count an uncompleted one begun in January 1938 but abandoned as Warner’s health deteriorated).

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Boris Karloff co-starred with Warner in CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA (1936)

Warner had already established himself in a variety of ethnic roles during the silent film era, most notably as Cantor Rabinowitz in THE JAZZ SINGER (1927). He also impersonated an Austrian Archduke in the lavish DON Q, SON OF ZORRO (1925):
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DON JUAN (1926), the first feature film to use synchronized sound, had Warner in the historical role of Cesare Borgia. Here is Warner on the DON JUAN set with Montagu Love on the right, and seated left to right, Helene Costello, Estelle Taylor, and Myrna Loy:
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Elaborately costumed as an unscrupulous Frenchman in WHEN A MAN LOVES (1927):
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By 1929, sound films revealed Warner to have a rich and soulful voice. Here he plays an American gangster in THE MIGHTY (1929) with Raymond Hatton (standing) and George Bancroft:
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By 1931, Warner switched tracks from villain to hero with CHARLIE CHAN CARRIES ON, one of four lost Chans. The film became an unexpected hit and the second film in the series, THE BLACK CAMEL (also 1931), was actually filmed in Hawaii. Here, Warner looks as menacing towards Dorothy Revier as Bela Lugosi in THE BLACK CAMEL:
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Offscreen, Warner was a doting papa to his schnauzer Raggedy Ann:
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Back at work, Warner takes time out for a Ouija Board on the set of CHARLIE CHAN’S SECRET (1936), a story that involved spiritualism and seances:
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Producer John Stone (left) confers with director H. Bruce Humberstone as Warner and William Demerest listen on the set of CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA (1936):
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Two visiting Chinese doctors on their way to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore stop by the set of OPERA to check Warner’s pulse:
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Author Earl Derr Biggers wrote six Chan novels and based Charlie Chan on a real life Honolulu detective named Chang Apana. Warner met Apana when he was in Hawaii filming THE BLACK CAMEL. It’s worth noting that Warner Oland admired Charlie Chan because the character had many qualities that Warner lacked. Chan was a non-smoker and a teetotler whereas Warner was a heavy smoker and (later) a heavy drinker. Chan had eleven children but Warner, who liked kids, was childless. Eventually, Warner remained in the character of Chan even when not filming and signed his name on legal documents as Chan.

Keye Luke played Chan’s son Lee in several of the later Oland entries in the series, here in OPERA. The two actors became good friends offscreen:
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Celebrity-endorsed products are nothing new. Here is Warner and apparently Charlie Chan recommending the new 1938 Desoto:
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Today, many of Warner’s films, silent and sound, are readily available on DVD including all of his surviving Charlie Chans.

A Golden Age Christmas at the Opera

Christmas time around the old Metropolitan Opera House in New York City (torn down in the mid-1960s) was almost magical thanks to one of its greatest stars, tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921). He made the rounds of all the offices with a gift for everyone, even the lowliest stagehand would receive a gold coin from the Great Caruso. But what does this have to do with Old Hollywood? The tie-in may seem tenuous until we remember that a number of opera stars from the Golden Age of Opera made movies too. In Caruso’s case, he starred in two films in 1918 but only the first one, MY COUSIN, was released. It can be viewed today on DVD.
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In any event, here is Caruso in 1916 singing “O Holy Night” in French, as only he could sing it:

Alma Gluck (1884-1938) was one of the great sopranos of the Golden Age of Opera, which began about the time of her birth and continued through to the First World War (1914-1918). Alma has no direct connection with Old Hollywood, but she was the mother of actor Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (TV’s “77 Sunset Strip” and “The FBI”) and grandmother of actress Stephanie Zimbalist.
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Listen to Alma Gluck in 1913 singing Gounod’s “Ave Maria” with her husband, violinist Efrem Zimbalist Sr.

Tenor John McCormack (1884-1945) was one of the most popular figures in the history of opera. His career at the Met coincided with Caruso’s during the 1910s, then he went on the concert stage singing both opera and popular songs, a rare thing even for an opera singer today. McCormack’s records were best sellers and when sound films arrived in 1929, Fox hurried to star him in SONG O’ MY HEART (1930). Fox even held a nation-wide contest so fans could vote for the songs they wanted McCormack to sing in the film.
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Here John McCormack in 1915 sings “Adestes Fideles” with his distinctive Irish brough heard even in Latin:

Sigrid Onegin (1889-1943) was a contralto who was considered the natural successor to Ernestine Schumann-Heink, which is saying a lot. As far as we can tell, Sigrid had no connection to Old Hollywood but after listening to her you may well feel that she should have.
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Sigrid’s rendition here of Mozart’s “Alleljah” in this 1928 recording is superb:

You would never guess from this photo of the young Giovanni Martinelli (1885-1969) that he was one of the bon vivants of his era. He made his debut in 1910 and sang his last performance at the age of 80 in 1966. Many music critics considered Martinelli the successor of Caruso during the 1920s and both tenors possessed a gregarious personality as well as stunning voices.
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From 1926, Martinelli sings “Gese Bambino”:

Ernestine Schumann-Heink (1861-1936) made her opera debut at the age of 17 in 1879 and became the greatest contralto of her era. Her first starring role occurred by chance when the Hamburg (Germany) Opera asked Schumann-Heink to sing the title role in Bizet’s “Carmen” without any rehearsals. She was a hit and the following night she was asked to sing in another opera without rehearsal. On the third night Schumann-Heink was offered a principal role in Wagner’s “Lohengrin,” again with no rehearsals. On this basis, she was offered a ten-year contract. She debuted at the Met in 1898 and continued there through 1932. Schumann-Heink also appeared in movies and radio. This photo of her is from the 1935 film, HERE’S TO ROMANCE:
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“Mother” Schumann-Heink, as she was called, first sang “Silent Night” over the radio in 1926 and it became a Christmas tradition that she sang each year at the stroke of Midnight. In a previous post, we offered her speaking on her 1934 radio program before singing this carol. Here is her famous 1926 Victor recording:

It may be that Christmas this year will be more somber than usual. As our thoughts and prayers are with the families in Newtown, Connecticut, perhaps this post may be an appropriate reminder of the true meaning of Christmas.

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:

On the Set Again with Karloff & Lugosi: A New Halloween Tribute

Last Halloween and thereafter, we received quite a number of hits on our tribute to those unsurpassed masters of the macabre, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Since there’s plenty more, we decided to salute our horrific heroes again for this Halloween. Admit it, we know that we’re in the presence of the masters when reciting a single line such as, “I never drink – wine,” from DRACULA (1931), or “I dislike to be touched,” from THE MUMMY (1932), can be more blood curdling than the goriest of chainsaw massacres.

On the DRACULA set, Bela Lugosi greets Horace Liveright who produced the Broadway play version that brought stardom to Lugosi. The film’s director Tod Browning stands to the left of Bela:

Boris Karloff has survived the rigors of makeup and costuming as he checks the script before filming a scene for THE MUMMY (1932):

But nothing was as arduous as sitting for hours as makeup artist Jack Pierce literally made a Monster out of Boris. Judging by the status, I’d say they were only at the beginning of the procedure:

By contrast, Bela Lugosi’s greatest makeup challenge as Dracula was to make himself look as handsome as possible:

The boys would vary their horror film appearances with an occasional non-horror movie where they still gave audiences the creeps. Here Bela Lugosi as a medium matches wits with Warner Oland as Charlie Chan in THE BLACK CAMEL (1931), the only Charlie Chan movie filmed on location in Hawaii. Bela and Warner are standing in the lobby of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel:

Boris Karloff plays an anti-Semitic Prussian nobleman whom George Arliss has outwitted in THE HOUSE OF ROTHSCHILD (1934):

Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein shares a tea and cigarette break with Boris on the set of BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935):

It was inevitable that Boris and Bela would be teamed, but the real surprise is that they worked very well together. The first and arguably the best of their co-starring vehicles is THE BLACK CAT (1934), a film that had nothing to do with Edgar Allan Poe, and almost nothing to do with cats either:

Their third pairing is a personal favorite of your blogmeister, THE INVISIBLE RAY (1936), a stylish sci-fi yarn that seamlessly blended in the Gothic horror elements of their earlier films. Here Dr. Karloff has been poisoned by his discovery of Radium X, and appeals to Dr. Lugosi for help. You just know this will turn out badly:

These guys seem to be holding their own Halloween party. On the set of SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) they are really celebrating Boris’ birthday – from left to right, Boris, director Rowland V. Lee, Bela, and Basil Rathbone:

Halloween Bonus! Hear Boris Karloff and John Carradine on INFORMATION PLEASE, a live and unrehearsed radio show exactly as broadcast on February 20, 1942:

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?

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