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DVD - Vitaphone Varieties 2 - Notes

by Ron Hutchinson, Co-Founder of The Vitaphone Project

Disc 1

1) HAWAIIAN NIGHTS (1927) Vaudeville frequently featured novelty acts --- all girl bands, non-show business celebrities, even billiards experts --- to add variety to the bill. Hawaiian music was very popular in the twenties, and 78 rpm records on the Victor, Edison and Okeh labels were strong sellers. Here is a Vitaphone short capturing intact part of the Kalama Quartet's touring vaudeville act. Mike Hanapi is the group's leader, and was one of the great early Hawaiian steel guitar players and falsetto vocalists. But if you look closely, some of the female members of the contingent look more like chorus girl's from Earl Carroll's Vanities.

2) WARING'S PENNSYLVANIANS, "THE FAMOUS COLLEGIATE ORCHESTRA" (1927) Popular Victor recording artists with a decidedly collegiate flair in the twenties, The Pennsylvanians were led by Fred Waring, also the inventor of the Waring blender. The band recorded prolifically through 1932, at which time Waring stopped when their records were being played on the radio in completion with their live venues. Drummer Poley McClintock, heard in this short with the Popeye-esque voice, was with Waring for decades. This is one of the earliest Vitaphone band shorts, released in February 1927, and preceded only by the first pop band Vitaphone by Vincent Lopez.

3) JOE E. BROWN in "TWINKLE, TWINKLE" (1927) Beginning his career as a circus acrobat, then moving into burlesque and vaudeville, Joe E. Brown quickly took his trademark wide mouth and howl into the emerging talkies. He successfully adapted to the new medium in Warner Brothers Vitaphone features like the now lost HOLD EVERYTHING ('30). As interest in musicals waned, he began starring in a long and profitable series of B comedies for Warners, and later for RKO, Columbia and Republic. Brown was paid $1000 to appear in this short.

4) THE HAPPINESS BOYS, BILLY JONES AND ERNIE HARE (1927) This is the earliest sound film appearance by recording, vaudeville and radio comic singers Billy Jones and Ernie Hare. Among the first popular radio performers, the team often took the name of their sponsor on the air, such as "The Interwoven Pair" (for a socks manufacturer) or "The Tasty Yeast Jesters" for a yeast company. This short shows that when flubs were made in front of the three simultaneously grinding Vitaphone cameras, they were left in rather than start all over. The team continued performing, mainly on radio, until Hare's death in 1939, with Jones dying the following year.

5) PHIL OHMAN AND VICTOR ARDEN, THE PIANO DUETTISTS (1927) Arden and Ohman teamed up as dual pianists in the early twenties, sometimes also playing organs, and beginning in 1925 jointly leading orchestras on recordings. Ohman was also a songwriter, later collaborating with Johnny Mercer. The team cut countless piano rolls and later appeared in support of Ruth Etting in her own 1929 Vitaphone. On record, the pair mainly performed show tunes, and also played in pit orchestras on Broadway .

6) HARRY WAYMAN AND HIS DEBUTANTES (1927) All girl bands were popular at Vitaphone during the late twenties. In addition to this one, the studio also filmed and recorded The Ingenues, Green's Faydettes, and Babe Egan And Her Hollywood Redheads. All these bands were very popular in vaudeville, and most toured internationally. Harry Wayman appears in this short leading the all female contingent. Consistent with current practice, the band did not just play. Dancing and comedy were included in the act, with Wayman's height figuring in the closing gag.

7) EARL BURTNETT AND HIS BILTMORE HOTEL ORCHESTRA (1928) Brunswick recording artist Earl Burtnett made four Vitaphone shorts in 1927-28 while appearing at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. Three, including this one, have been restored, and they give a good idea of how the bandleader blended novelty, hot dance, and schmaltz on the bandstand. Burtnett's group also appeared in early talkie features such as THE FLYING FOOL ('29) and PARTY GIRL ('30). The orchestra recorded extensively until Burtnett's unfortunate death in 1936. Suffering stomach pains he was told it was his appendix. He told his doctor he had had his appendix out already after World War I, so it went untreated.

8) ABE LYMAN ORCHESTRA (??), THE MAESTRO OF SYNCOPATED SYMPHONY (1927) Drummer, songwriter and bandleader Abe Lyman appears in the second of two of his 1927 Vitaphone shorts. The first has its surviving soundtrack disk but no film. The band toured in vaudeville and also performed in the pit of Broadway shows like "Good News" whose hit "Varsity Rag" is played here. The band enjoyed a long stay at Hollywood's Cocoanut Grove, and appeared in many early talkie features such as GOOD NEWS PARAMOUNT ON PARADE, HOLD EVERYTHING, and PARDON MY GUN (all 1930). Lyman recorded over 100 sides for Brunswick, and his band worked steadily through the 1930's on radio and 78's.

9) EDDIE PEABODY in 'BANJOLAND' (1928) Crowned "The King Of The Banjo" Peabody was a headliner in vaudeville, recordings, radio ("National Barn Dance" among others) and film. He made three Vitaphone shorts with his partner Jimmy Maisel, and later for Paramount. A trouper to the end, Peabody died in harness while playing at a nightclub in 1970.

10) JOSEPH E. HOWARD, AMERICA'S POPULAR COMPOSER (1928) While Joseph E. Howard's claim to fame was as the composer of such turn of the century his as "Goodbye My Lady Love" and "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now", he spent the last four decades of his life with an "and then I wroteâ?¦." act reprising those tunes. He wrote for many Broadway shows, and was still doing his nostalgia routine on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in the 1950's. He never retired, performing in clubs, vaudeville and radio until his death in 1961.

11) CHAZ CHASE, THE UNIQUE COMEDIAN (1928) Chase was a bizarre vaudevillian with plenty of fiber --- and just about everything else --- in his diet. He normally worked silently, somewhat incongruous for a Vitaphone short. While eating paper, matches, string and even a small ukulele, Chase was one of the few performers in show business with no imitators. He appeared in many Broadway revues, Hollywood features like THE MAN ON THE EIFFEL TOWER (1949) and START CHEERING (1938) and several more Vitaphones in the thirties. He was still doing his same act on telethons in the 1970's.

12) ROY FOX AND HIS MONTMARTE CAF� ORCHESTRA (1928) First playing with Gus Arnheim's orchestra (in whose 1928 Vitaphone shorts he appears), he soon formed his own band and they appeared regularly at Hollywood's Montmarte Café. In this short, Fox starts by alleged announcing over Warner Brothers' own KFWB radio station. In the thirties, he moved his band to England where they had much success. His theme song, befitting his moniker as "The Whispering Cornettist" was "Whispering".

13) GUIDO DEIRO, THE WORLD'S FOREMOST PIANO-ACCORDIONIST (1928) Deiro popularized the accordion and made many 78's during his long career. Another claim to fame was as Mae West's first husband. According to his son Robert, who funded the restoration of this short, it was Guido who crafted West's persona.

14) NORMAN THOMAS QUINTETTE in 'HARLEMANIA' (1929) Norman Thomas put together his quintette in the twenties and toured widely in vaudeville and on club dates. His brother Sonny is the pianist and singer, and the star of the group is drummer Freddie Crump. It is Crump's truly acrobatic antics that makes the act. The group toured Europe in 1931, and was still performing in the late thirties. Crump began his solo act in 1942.

15) BLANCHE SWEET in 'ALWAYS FAITHFUL' (1929) This Vitaphone short is one of one of many one and two reel playlets that provided theatre owners the ability to balance band and vaudeville shorts with a little drama. Blanche Sweet was one of the earliest film stars, beginning at Biograph in the early teens under the direction of D.W. Griffith. She made over 100 silent films through the mid-1920's, but only three talkies. She shows herself to be quite a natural actress for sound movies both here and especially the following year in Alice White's feature SHOWGIRL IN HOLLYWOOD ('30). In that film, she ironically plays an actress in her early thirties who was washed up because of her age.

16) GREGORY RATOFF in 'FOR SALE' (1929) Often using his accent to his advantage as an actor in films, Ratoff also directed many features, including ROSE OF WASHINGTON SQUARE ('39) INTERMEZZO ('39), and Mae West's THE HEAT'S ON ('43). He produced and wrote many Hollywood films. Multi-lingual, Ratoff was the first to make Vitaphone shorts in languages other than English. This particular short was also filmed in German and French.

17) ANN BUTLER AND JAY BRENNAN in 'YOU DON'T KNOW THE HALF OF IT' (1929) This act originated in the early twenties as Savoy and Brennan. Jay Brennan, seen here, was the straight man who tried to keep his partner Bert Savoy on topic. Savoy was a man playing a somewhat gravelly-voiced woman. The team came into their own in Greenwich Village Follies. The act temporarily ended when Savoy was struck and killed by lightning in 1923. But Brennan continued the same act with other partners, including Stanley Rogers and, here, Ann Butler. But both Rogers and Butler were really imitating Savoy. In Butler's case, she's a woman imitating a man imitating a woman. With the death of vaudeville, Brennan wrote several "B" movies and also became a songwriter.

Disc 2

1) GEORGIE PRICE in 'DON'T GET NERVOUS' (1929) Offering a unique glimpse of making a short at the newly soundproofed Brooklyn Vitaphone studios, "Don't Get Nervous" features vaudevillian and musical comedy star Georgie Price. The on-screen (and actual) director of this short is Bryan "Brynie" Foy, one of the original Seven Little Foys. Georgie Price was kind of a cross between Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor, and was used by the Schuberts to keep Jolson in line as a back-up. He began his performing career in Gus Edwards' "School Days" troupe, then became a vaudeville and Broadway headliner. He frequently did impressions as part of his act, particularly of Eddie Cantior, Jolson and Harry Richman. Georgie returned to Vitaphone in the thirties to make a number of two reel musical shorts. He continued performing on radio, early television (he was Milton Berle's summer replacement) and night clubs. Price briefly retired in 1934 and bought a seat on the stock exchange.

2) KRAFT AND LAMONT in 'RARIN' TO GO' (1929) This is a little known vaudeville act, reflective of the type working in second-string circuits. Warner Brothers sold their Vitaphone shorts as "canned vaudeville" which could be shipped to theatres throughout the country (and some internationally). This short demonstrates how gay humor was ubiquitous in comedy of the time. This soon faded with the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934.

3) GRACE JOHNSTON AND THE INDIANA FIVE (1929) The discovery of the long missing Vitaphone soundtrack disk for this short in the late 1990's was truly cause for celebration. This film marks the only talkie appearance of the legendary jazz musicians who comprised The Indiana Five. The group recorded extensively on 78's in the twenties, and today their records are highly collectable. The group broke up within months of the making of this Vitaphone. Singer Grace Johnston bookends the group's performance of "Clarinet Marmalade" has a powerful and assured delivery. Throughout the thirties, she often appeared on radio and recordings.

4) FRED ALLEN'S PRIZE PLAYLETS (1929) This Vitaphone is Fred Allen's first sound film, which he followed up the following year with "The Still Alarm" with his co-star from Broadway's "The Little Show", Clifton Webb. Released in September 1929, Allen here tries to sell a producer three of his playlets. He went on to have a long and successful career on radio, leveraging his dry wit and acerbic humor as a contrast to the pun-filled radio comics who filled the airwaves. Allen made a number of feature film appearances at Fox and Paramount. His most personal is his one starring picture, "It's In The Bag" (1945). He had less success on early television, finishing his career as a panelist on "What's My Line?".

5) BERT LAHR in 'FAINT HEART' (1929) Vaudeville and Broadway star Bert Lahr made his talkie debut in this two-reel Vitaphone short. As was fitting for a star of his stature, he was paid $10,000 for appearing in this short --- far more than just about any other performer working at the studio. Lahr was able to expand his cop routine here, originally done with his wife Mercedes, and he also incorporated many of his catchphrases. He had variable success in Hollywood, with the notable exception of "The Wizard of Oz". This was likely due to his unique and powerful personality. He once asked "How many parts are there for lions anyway?" His female support in this short comes from Bobbe Arnst, then Mrs. Johnny Weismuller. At the time she was a popular shimmy dancer and singer in revues. Her own 1929 starring Vitaphone short is currently being restored.

6) 'THE OPERATION' WITH EDGAR BERGEN AND CHARLIE McCARTHY (1929) This first talkie by ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy, Charlie McCarthy, was made when Bergen was already hitting his stride in vaudeville. The pair would have much more success on radio on their Chase and Sanborn Hour. There, Charlie could get away with risqué banter frowned on by censors if it came from a human. This reached scandalous proportions when his routine with Mae West as Adam and Eve got the actress banned from radio. Bergen and McCarthy went on to make a dozen shorts for Vitaphone through the late 1930's, before finally moving to Hollywood.

7) JACK OSTERMAN in 'TALKING IT OVER' (1929) "The Bad Boy of Broadway" is forgotten today, but his off the cuff conversational style lived on in one of his biggest fans, Bob Hope. Osterman was a songwriter and star of many revues, but his drinking problem eventually made him nearly unemployable. In the mid-thirties, publicity surrounded his being hypnotized to stop drinking so he could show up at every performance. He was frequently an MC on vaudeville bills. He also wrote material for other comics. In this short, filmed at the Brooklyn studios in 1929, he sings two of his compositions between banter about Vitaphone and show business.

8) LOU HOLTZ in 'IDLE CHATTER' (1929) ?? Lou Holtz was one of vaudeville's top tier monologists, MC's and dialecticians. He often hosted shows at the leading houses, and broke the record at the famed Palace theatre by playing there for 13 consecutive weeks. Often on radio, he made few film appearances. In addition to this Vitaphone, he appeared in a wonderfully Pre-Code Columbia rhyming "Musical Novelty" in 1934, "School For Romance" with Betty Grable. Years later, he was a regular guest on Jack Paar's talk show. His son, Lou Holtz, Jr., wrote "The Cable Guy".

9) SCOTT SANDERS in 'SCOTCH TAFFY' (1929) Sanders presents intact one of his many vaudeville routines in this Vitaphone one-reeler. He was an English character comedian, and was well known in British music halls before touring in America in the late twenties. Following this short, he appeared in supporting roles in a handful of features.

10) THE POOR FISH (1930) This is one of many single reel Vitaphone "playlets" of the period. This one stars character comedian Hobart Cavanaugh and Natalie Schafer --- later Mrs. Thurston Howell III on "Gilligans Island". These playlets were frequently drawn from sketches that were part of ate 1920's vaudeville bills. They offered a change of pace with straight comedy, singing or band acts. Released in early 1930, this Vitaphone has Cavanaugh and Schafer supported by Stanley Ridges. He was a character actor who appeared in over sixty features, and at least five Vitaphone shorts.

11) SHAW AND LEE in 'GOING PLACES' (1930) The bizarre and deadpan comedy team of Al Shaw and Sam Lee were enthusiastically rediscovered with the restoration of their 1928 Vitaphone short, "The Beau Brummels". Even their worst jokes get laughs because of their delivery. The team appeared frequently in Broadway shows like "Pleasure Bound" and "Five O'Clock Girl". In 1930, concurrent with the release of this short, they joined comedian Phil Baker on "The Sinclair Radio Program", whose theme song was the same as this film, "Going Places". Later, they were regulars on "Jack Oakie's Koillege" and made many supporting feature film appearance during the 1930's. These included "Mrs. Wiggs Of The Cabbage Patch" (1934) and "The Gracie Allen Murder Case" (1939). They continued appearing in films and on radio through the early fifties.

12) TRIXIE FRIGANZA in 'STRONG AND WILLING' (1930) At the turn of the last century, Trixie Friganza was a beautiful and slim star, known as "Broadway's Favorite Champagne Girl" and "The Grand Duchess of Comedy". As she aged, she used her increasing girth and domineering personality to play threatening mothers-in-law in such films as Buster Keaton's "Free and Easy" (1930). Trixie's first Vitaphone short, "My Bag 'O Trix" (1929) was restored just before the nitrate completely decomposed. It is included in "The Jazz Singer" 3 DVD deluxe set. She retired in 1940, bequeathing her money to the Flintridge Academy of the Sacred Heart and taught drama there in return for the nuns providing her with a home and care as her arthritis became crippling.

13) THE YACHT CLUB BOYS in 'A PRIVATE ENGAGEMENT' (1930) This short follows The Yacht Club Boys first two Vitaphones, released in May 1927. In negotiating their first salary from Warners, the group succeeded in getting $3000 for two shorts. The gutsy quartette then asked for an additional $1000 but Sam Warner declined, saying $3000 was enough "and at that price they got away with murder". Regardless, the group was a leading exponent of tightly written comedy songs, and for the next decade appeared in Paramount shorts, Fox features, on radio, in recordings, and another series of Vitaphones i(this time two-reelers) in the mid-1930's. Their stay in England in the early thirties was also well received. The personnel changed from their mid-twenties debut, and by this short included Jimmy Kern, who later directed many episodes of "I Love Lucy".

14) JOSEPHINE HARMON in "HARMONIZING" (1930) Harmon is an undeservedly forgotten vaudeville personality and was like a combination of Sophie Tucker and Fannie Brice. Self deprecating, and not above broad mugging, Harmon also wrote such songs as "Kitty From Kansas City", popularized by Rudy Vallee. By the mid thirties, she retired to Rhode Island as the wife of an industrialist. Once you see Harmon, you will never forget her!

15) PAT O'BRIEN in 'CRIMES SQUARE' (1930) Filmed at the Brooklyn studios just before O'Brien headed to Hollywood to begin his long feature film career, this playlet was his fourth and last Vitaphone short. Already, O'Brien's delivery is fast and hard-edged. It's interesting to note that other east coast performers working at Vitaphone that year --- including Joan Blondell, and Humphrey Bogart --- soon joined O'Brien as part of the Warner Brothers' stock company.

16) EDGAR BERGEN in 'THE OFFICE SCANDAL' (1931) Bergen and McCarthy's second Vitaphone short (of eventually 12) has Charlie using inside romantic information at the office in order to get a job. Even at this early stage, it was clear that Charlie's personality and material trumped Bergen's skills as a ventriloquist. The team had one or two shorts in release every year through 1937 except for a break in 1933. In 1937, after moving west, their radio success was fortified when a recovering W.C Fields joined the cast of their "Chase and Sanborn Hour" and his ongoing feuds with Charlie drove the show to the top of the Hooper ratings.

17) HELEN MORGAN in 'THE GIGOLO RACKET' (1931) The celebrated and troubled torch singer made few film appearances, and this was her only short subject. Previously, she was on the screen in Rouben Mamoulian's "Applause" (1929) and joined many other performers in Paramount's salute to Florenz Ziegfeld, "Glorifying The American Girl" ('29). Most of her career was spent performing on Broadway, notably in the wildly successful first run of "Showboat" in 1927. This two-reel Vitaphone was released in the spring of 1931, and uses a well worn backstage plot to frame her several songs. Ann Blyth played her in the 1957 biopic "The Helen Morgan Story". Sadly, her alcoholism caught up with her and she died at age 41 of cirrhosis of the liver just as she was being signed for another Broadway show.

18) JACK HALEY in 'SUCCESS' (1931) Jack Haley initially made his name in vaudeville with his wife Flo, in an act similar to Burns and Allen's. The team made a 1927 Vitaphone short, "Jack Haley and Flo McFadden in 'Haleyisms", for which only the soundtrack disk (found in Jerry Lewis' collection) survives. Haley was soon performing as a single on Broadway and in vaudeville. He eventually took advantage of the new opportunities provided by talking pictures, making shorts for Paramount and eleven for Vitaphone. In 1930, he appeared in Paramount's all-Technicolor musical "Follow Thru" with Nancy Carroll and Buddy Rogers, recreating his role from the 1929 Broadway run. He later appeared in several dozen Hollywood features, and is best remembered as the Tin Man in "The Wizard of Oz" ('39) During his early thirties Vitaphone tenure in comedy two-reelers, he was even teamed with Shemp Howard. Haley was godfather to John Lahr, son of another Vitaphone star in this set, Bert Lahr. He was also the former father-in-law of another star who began her career in early Vitaphone shorts --- Judy Garland.


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Corresponding Secretary & Editor Ron Hutchinson 5 Meade Court
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Co-Founders: John Newton
Sherwin Dunner
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