|Volume 3 Number 1||
UCLA's Seventh Annual Festival of Preservation", held in April 1995 Under the direction of Robert Gitt, offered an impressive array of long-unseen vitaphone shorts. The Vitaphone Project is proud to have assisted in locating or providing the lost sound elements of some of these films. Once again, the screening of previously mute sound-on-disc films represents a real cooperative spirit between collectors, archives and the copyright owners.
April 13th saw the recreation of the second Vitaphone program, which was originally shown at New York's Colony Theatre in October, 1926. Restored shorts by The Vitaphone Symphony Orchestra ("The Spirit of 1918"), George Jessel (sound portion only, accompanied by stills), Elsie Janis, and Willie & Eugene Howard proceeded the long-awaited screening - for the first time in 66 years - of "Al Jolson in 'A Plantation Act'". Our last issue detailed the detective work that went into finding the lost and at first unplayable cracked soundtrack disc to this legendary short. After months with record repairer Jim Cooprider, the disc (which was cracked in four places and refused to track for more than a split second) was successfully played all the way through and recorded onto a DAT before shipment to UCLA. Once there, Bob Gitt's crew worked wonders, digitally, and erased the hundreds of "clunks" that occurred at the four cracks on every revolution. The packed April 13th theatre responded to this short much in the same way the October 6, 1926 audience did. Gasps of disbelief - especially after having heard an excerpt of the skipping original disc - led to rousing applause. Jolson's three filmed curtain calls which followed his performance in this short fit the audience's response perfectly.
On April 20th, another packed house was treated to an evening of 1927-29 Jazz Age vitaphone shorts - nine in all. The program for this evening is reproduced in this issue. Virtually every tune received applause, as did members of the Project, and Hugh Hefner and David Packard who underwrote several of the restorations. Special treats during this program were legendary crooner Russ Columbo playing a super hot violin in two Gus Arnheim shorts, the all-girl jazz band ("Green's Twentieth Century Faydettes") the awesome acrobatic drummer of "Harlemania", and being able to watch the son of "Tal Henry And His North Carolinians" see his dad introduce each tune over seven decades of time. We found Tal Henry, Jr. via the CD-ROM "PhoneDisc" and he and his wife flew out for the screening. Also present that evening were the three children of Vitaphone cameraman Ed Dupar, Leonard Maltin, Richard Bann, Mel Torme, Vitaphone friends Jim Bedoian and Randy Skredvedt, and many more. The vigor of these restored performances was incredible, and turner VP Dick May, who was also present, is working with MGM/UA to get some of these great films issued on home video soon.
Bob Gitt kindly gave Sherwin Dunnand and Ron Hutchinson a private screening of several additional restored shorts which couldn't fit onto this year's program. These included the bizarre "Jack Buchanan and His Glee Club" (1928) with Russ Columbo, and "Blossom Seeley & Benny Fields" (1927). We hope that these, too, may one day be made available to the public.
UCLA's Vitaphone programs, packed with enthusiastic audiences, were beyond anything the Project could have comtemplated when it was formed just four years ago. We thank UCLA, the Turner organization (especially Dick May), The Library of Congress, and especially the generous collectors (John Newton, Dave Cotter, Bob Furmanek and David Goldenberg, who made this synchronized dream a reality!
Edna Ferber's novel SHOW BOAT was filmed three times, in 1929, and 1936 by Universal, and in 1951 by MGM. All three versions are now owned by Turner Entertainment Co. In the Spring of 1995, MGM/UA Home Video released a boxed set of laser discs with all three productions.
In the late '40's, MGM acquired the rights to the novel, the Kern-Hammerstein musical, and both of the Universal film versions. The 1936 film, directed by James Shale, with Irene Dunne, Allan Jones and Paul Robeson was complete and in reasonably good condition. The 1929 version, however, was originally released with sound on disc, and the sound was thought to be lost.
The earliest version of Ms Ferber's store was a straight drama based on the novel. It was made four years after the opening of the now-classic musical. But escept for some minor underscoring, it was not a musical, nor did it use much of Jerome Kern's music. for the most part, it was a silent film with synchronized music and sound effects, but with two talking sequences.
When the decision to release it on laser disc was made, it was necessary to decide how to handle the missing sound. The first discovery was that the Library of Congress had playback discs for exactly half of the picture's 110 minute running time. Turner Entertainment Co. arranged with the Library to make 3/4" videotapes of the sound only, with time code. Scott Perry, Turner's sound and editorial supervisor, first played the tapes in rough alignment with the picture to determine exactly what we had, and how well it matched. Once this was done, the existing sound was transferred to 35mm magnetic film to be able to run it with the 35mm picture and get it into exact synchronization.
The missing reels withoug dialog were covered by duplication sections of the existing music, and reusing it in such a manner that it fit dramatically. The big problem was what to do with the two reels remaining that had talking and singing sequences. We did not have a dialog continutiy, so the first thought was possibly to hire someone who could read lips. After asking sevral film historians, Scott MacQueen of Walt Disney Productions told us he believed a copy of the dialog was in the New York State Archives, having been deposited there at the time of the original release as required by the New York censorship board. He assisted us in contacting the Archive, and obtained the needed transcript. It still was something of a lip-reading project to be sure just what we had, as some minor sections of the picture were missing.
Once the dialog was matched to the picture, subtitles were prepared and appear with the laser disc (with no sound at all) for the reels involved.
In addition to the discs for the feature itself, we also have the first disc (10 minutes) of a prologue which Universal filmed after completion of the feature to capitalize on the musical show, but do not have any picture to match it. This disc has Otis Harlan, who plays Captain Andy in the feature, as master of ceremonies, and includes Helen Morgan singing "Can't Help Lovin' That Man Of Mine". The disc ends with Harlan announcing "and now Jules Bledsoe will sing 'Old Man River'..."
(Bledsoe originated the part of Joe in the 1925 stage production). Regrettably, we do not have this second disc, or know of its existence.
This release of the laser disc (now in stores) will undoubtedly be the first time since the early 'thirties that it will be possible to see the earliest screen version of SHOW BOAT almost the same as its original release.
The Pathe Film Exchange entered the era of talking pictures in 1928 with no fewer than 14 different series of one and two reel short subjects. They were sound-on-film productions which were also issued in sound-on-disc versions for theatres requiring this format. These shorts included comedies ("Checker", "Manhattan", "Golden Rooster", and "Folly" series), cartoons (Aesop's Fables), musicals ("Melody series), "Buck and Bubbles" series, and news and sports reels. Most of these films were thought to be lost, through the combined forces of Pathe's bankruptcy and sale to RKO in 1931, and neglect.
Incredibly, 29 of these shorts, plus two complete Pathe features, were found by collector Gary Larcher recently. Because these were 16mm safety prints with separate "16" soundtrack discs for home use, they survived. Released for the home simultaneously with their theatrical run, these 16mm versions were for people who could afford one of the home "Vitaphone" setups which offered a silent projector synchronized to the shellac disc. Because 16mm film for home use was always safety - not nitrate - stock, these films did not deteriorate.
Gary in generously working with the Project in hopes of getting some of the more interesting titles restored and seen again. Among the most tantalizing films in this collection are:
Plus comedies with Jimmy and Lucille Gleason, Al St. John, Jimmy Augrey, Nat Carr, Emerson Treacy, seven Aesop's Fables cartoons (one disc is stamped as "1928") with great vintage music, and two complete features: "Sailor's Holiday" with Alan Hale and Sally Eilers, and "Paris Bound" with Frederic March and Ann Harding.
This kind of find shows that there are still plenty of "lost" titles out there still waiting to be found. And, yes, the Pathe rooster crows audibly on every short!
In addition to the incredible collection of early Pathe talkies reported in this issue, the following discs have been located since our last issue:... discs for both reels of Laurel & Hardy's 1930 Hal Roach comedy "Brats". These discs are significant as this film currently exists only in its (great) 1937 reissue version which has totally different background music from the original. This was the team's first film with their theme song, "Dance of the Cuckoos" and also has other obscure Hal Roach bakcground themes. Dick Bann has indicated an interest in restoring this film with it's original discs.. discs for the Swedish(!) version of the 1930 Universal Technicolor film "King Of Jazz" with Paul Whiteman. Carl Laemmle made at least 9 different foreign versions of this film, and each had a different master of ceremonies. The Swedish film boasts actor Nils Asther as the host, and reportedly has at least some different music... discs for the 1929 British thriller "The Wrecker" which was released in the U.S. by Tiffany-Stahl... a different batch of Pathe discs for '29-'30 shorts... more discs for home "Vitaphone" set-ups, circa 1930. These are for Universal and Columbia shorts. By late 1930, these systems were no longer being sold or supported by the studios... discs for 1929 Tiffany features "Peacock Alley" and "Woman To Woman"... MGM '29 feature discs for "Tide of the Empire" and "Mysterious Island"... a complete set of sealed, never before played, discs for the '29 Morton Downey Pathe feature "Mothers Boy"... the original (mute) nitrate 35mm print of a short titled "Presenting Harry Warner" circa '29, in a can labeled "mastbaum Theatre" - for that massive Philadelphia theatre's opening. finally, at press time the Project became aware of a huge (thousands) collection of soundtrack discs previously unknown to us and archives. We'll report the details in our next issue!
The Vitaphone Project has garnered publicity for its' efforts recently in a big Charlotte (NC) Observer article on the Tal Henry short, featuring Tal, Jr. who was found by the Project via a CD-ROM phone directory disc. New Jersey Network, that state's public television station, is planning segment on the project to be produced by Marc Fields, great grandson of vaudevillian Lew Fields. And both Film Forum and the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria are planning programs of Vitaphone shorts for their coming '95-'96 seasons. Ron Hutchinson spoke about the project at the Library of Congress on September 19, 1995 as part of the ARSC Conference, and the presentation yielded several strong leads for discs and potential underwriters.
Many of our readers have asked how they might help underwrite, in whole or part, the restoration of a Vitaphone film. A typical restoration of a sound-on-disc film costs $2,000-$3,000 per reel. There are currently about 100 1926-30 shorts for which both disc and picture exist and can therefore be restored. Most of the restorations are done at UCLA, usually in partnership with collectors, archives like The Library of Congress, AFI, or other groups. UCLA can now accept tax-decuctible donations to go towards Vitaphone restorations. If you are financially able to underwrite $1,000 or more, please contact us for possible titles. For lesser amounts, you may indicate the type of Vitaphone short (jazz, vaudeville, dance, playlet, operatic, or "any") along with the words "VITAPHONE RESTORATION" on the check's memo line. Send your donation to:
A cache of over 12,000 reels of nitrate film, mostly American shorts and features, has been found in France, and is currently being reviewed and cataloged by a friend of the Project. Many of the films were re-titled into French, and so must be viewed individually to determine what they really are. The collection was amassed by a French film enthusiast over many decades. It is our hope that at least a few picture elements of Vitaphone shorts are found. There are over 80 shorts for which discs only exist.
The large collection of American nitrate film returned to the US last year by the Australian government include two restorable early sound gems: Reel 6 (in Technicolor) of the otherwise lost '29 Warner musical "Gold Diggers of Broadway" (includes the big "Tip Toe Through The Tulips" number) and a trailer for the lost Ernst Lubitch '28 Paramount feature "The Patriot", which had synchronized music and effects. Bob Gitt at UCLA is handling these restorations, and Project charter member Dave Goldenberg had discs for both(!) in his own collection.
A five minute nitrate print of Harry Warner welcoming the opening night crowd to the huge new Mastbaum Theater in Philadelphia ('29) was found by a collector. A quick check of our database showed a collector who had the disc for this one showing only film. And the Project's John Newton even had a copy of the Mastbaum's opening night program. The major studios frequently made special one-shot films for the openings of their big theaters during the 1927-30 building boom. The Warner short accompanied a generic two reel theater opening short with studio stars Jolson, Richard Barthlemess and others.
MGM/UA's 8 hour-plus laserdisc set of over 40 Vitaphone shorts titled "Swing, Swing, Swing" has sold exceptionally well, and was the 15th best selling laserdisc according to Boston discounter LaserCraze. We detailed the contents of the wonderful set in our last issue. Volume 2 is already in the works, and the Project has suggested titles to the producers for consideration. this next set will focus on vaudeville, comedy and performances, still with lots of music. In all probability, volume 2 will include the 1926 Jolson short, "A Plantation Act", as well as 1929 shorts by Burns & Allen and Baby Rose Marie. Once you have a laserdisc player (they also play music CD's) and have seen these pristing shorts in this format, you'll never question your decision to get one!
The Project has proposed to UCLA and The Library of Congress that the following Vitaphone shorts be seriously considered for the next ten restorations. both disc and picture elements exist for the following:
We also hope that some of the recently discovered Pathe shorts, including Crosby's first, can also be restored in the near future. Still no financial support yet on the 25+ operatic Vitaphones which are restorable.
and John Newton:
Do you have film soundtrack discs (Vitaphone, Paramount, MGM, etc.),
production information, stills, or other ephemera on pre 1940 short films?
We urgently need this data for a major film restoration program.
Replies will be kept confidential. Project endorsed by copyright
THE VITAPHONE PROJECT
To contact The Vitaphone Project write to:
5 Meade Court
Piscataway, NJ 08854
or email Ron at firstname.lastname@example.org
or project member Bill Cappello at email@example.com