Posted by Greg Ferrara on January 8, 2014
It’s rare that a single event changes the movies forever. So rare that, for all intents and purposes, it’s happened only once, with the advent of sound. The advent of color had almost no immediate impact. From two strip to three strip, developed from almost as early as the cinema itself, color movies didn’t become the norm until the late fifties/early sixties. Special effects, like stop-motion, optical printing, and blue screen all saw increased use in certain types of movies but by no means became the norm for all movies. CGI has had a slow, gradual acceptance into mainstream cinema, used to fill in where extras once served or create backdrops where matte paintings once ruled the day. And 3-D, while being adopted and retrofitted for many a movie, still isn’t the norm and even if it was, it would have taken years to get there. But sound? Holy cow! Once they knew it could work and draw in the audiences, specifically with that single event in the form of the release of Warner Brothers’ The Jazz Singer, in 1927, that was all she wrote for the silent period. Everything became sound and the vanishing handful of silents left were almost all done by Chaplin.
In 1928, most movies begun as silents were finished as sound and by 1929, despite malingerers like Chaplin, the silents were dead. Making a movie with no sound presented a problem to only one genre in particular. You could make silent westerns, comedies, dramas, horror, science fiction, historical epics and so on but you couldn’t make musicals. Because, you know, no music. Oh sure, you could compose a score for the silent film to be played against, but you couldn’t do a proper musical with songs and dancing until sound came along. And while you could do comedy, it had to rely on the visual type. Comedic banter was pointless in the silents. So when sound came about, musical revues, employing singing, dancing and vaudevillian routines, became a big deal. Much of the time, these were done as shorts that would show a little of each, sometimes as feature length narratives with some basic plot loosely stringing the action together, like The Broadway Melody, and sometimes, they were all out feature length revues, purposely recreating the look and feel of a vaudeville production. The Hollywood Revue of 1929, with several silent performers, including Joan Crawford, making their first foray into sound, is one of my favorites.
Now, let me qualify that statement, “one of my favorites.” The Hollywood Revue of 1929 is done with a leaden touch, its comedy poorly timed (because no one knew how to pace for sound film yet), its camera practically immobile, and its musical numbers performed in static, unimaginative ways (Singin’ in the Rain, in front of a backdrop of Noah’s Ark, at the climax, being the highlight, I guess). The fact is, it’s not very good. In fact, it’s another example of how bad movies were at the onset of the sound era. But I find it fascinating because this revue on film documents the awkwardness of the transition better than most, as everyone involved seemed to be trying to figure out what to do. It fails so much of the time that I can’t look away. I’ve seen it, I kid you not, five times all the way through. It throws everything it can at the viewer, from sound, first and foremost, to comedy, singing, dramatic readings of Shakespeare with a comic twist, and even a handful of color sequences. And all of it fails, but in a way that should be studied and analyzed.
The revue is emceed by Jack Benny and Conrad Nagel who introduce acts to a movie theater audience (and now a computer/television/smart phone audience) they can neither see nor hear. Nagel has the honor of introducing Joan Crawford, right near the start, as “the personification of youth and beauty and joy and happiness!” Given how Joan’s persona played out over the years, this now seems knowingly funny (“Joan Crawford?! The personification of joy?!”) but the fact is, she made it unlike so many of the rest. There are singers here we all know, like Ukulele Ike (Cliff Edwards), and actors from John Gilbert to Marie Dressler, but Joan is arguably the most successful performer in the whole movie. While some, like Jack Benny, enjoyed great success, Joan became an all-time Hollywood legend. All these years later, even with another legend in the cast, Norma Shearer, she’s the one person in the movie that has the best chance of being known by modern day casual moviegoers.
After being introduced, Joan sings “Got a Feeling for You” and then adds in a flapper dance, something in which Joan specialized. If it looks awkward and clunky today, that’s because flapper dances weren’t known for their grace, but Joan performs the hell out of it! Once Joan’s done, there are a series of comedy skits and other songs and dances that fill out the revue. This being 1929, there’s also unnerving blackface, right at the top of movie(!), and contemporary comedy ill-suited for modern audiences, like a skit of Romeo and Juliet where Norma Shearer and John Gilbert, supposedly being directed by Lionel Barrymore, are asked to rename the play “The Neckers” and perform it using modern (to 1929) slang. It doesn’t work. But it is in color and, call me crazy, just seeing something in sound and color from 1929 still amazes me. So, there’s that.
In the end, what the Hollywood Revue of 1929 shows is how little anyone understood the possibilities of sound film in 1929. It treats sound as an opportunity to finally get revues up on the screen, as if we all had to suffer through years of cinematic art and now, at last, we can just film vaudeville routines! And, to a degree, they weren’t entirely nuts. The movie was a huge hit. Still, it’s as cinematically limited as they come which is why it’s such a great movie to watch to understand what happened for a brief period during the advent of sound. People grasped, desperately, for anything that might work. I rarely recommend movies almost exclusively for their historic/archival value over basic quality or entertainment values but this is one time I will. It currently plays on TCM’s On Demand service until January 10th. Give it a view and see a world you will never see again.
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