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Let's Hear It For Vitaphone!

Leonard Maltin By Leonard Maltin | Leonard Maltin August 26, 2010 at 4:00AM

Carlena Diamond, "Harpist Supreme"
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Carlena Diamond, "Harpist Supreme"

Thanks to a rousing endorsement by film critic Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times, there was a sell-out crowd at the UCLA Film and Television Archives’screening of newly-restored Vitaphone shorts on Saturday night. Previous screenings have drawn a good crowd, but I don’t recall seeing the SRO sign go up before. What’s more, the audience was completely simpatico with the entertainment, creating a kind of time warp in which vaudevillians of the late 1920s were playing to an enthusiastic response in 2010. For me, it was a little slice of heaven.

If you aren’t up to speed (24 fps, that is) on Vitaphone shorts, please zip to the bottom of this column for background information.

If you’re already an aficionado, let me share with you some of the goodies we saw last weekend, following a show at New York’s Film Forum last month. Bob Gitt of UCLA introduced each cluster of shorts with interesting facts and—

—lore about the performers, which made the evening that much more enjoyable.

The musicale began with The Gotham Rhythm Boys (1929), a lively and talented trio of musicians on stringed instruments, and continued with British comedians Val and Ernie Stanton in English as She Is Not Spoken (1928), a hilarious, well-honed act of funny patter and puns. Retribution (1927) is a dramatic playlet starring that silent-screen stalwart Henry B. Walthall that seems a bit juicy until it pulls the rug out from under us. Perhaps the best-received short of the night (as I’m told it was in New York) was Conlin and Glass in Sharps and Flats (1928), a rip-roaring comedy act with music featuring Jimmy Conlin—later a fixture of Preston Sturges comedies and scores of other films—and his wife, singer Myrtle Glass. To attempt to describe this raucous bit of nonsense would defeat the cleverest wordsmith. I look forward to its release on DVD so everyone can share in the fun.

Carlena Diamond is featured “in one,” to use an old vaudeville turn, doing some of her fancy fingerwork in Harpist Supreme (1929), including an impossibly fast rendition of “Nola.” The short concludes with Diamond picking up a miniature harp and playing while clog-dancing! Let’s see someone try that on America’s Got Talent.

Gitt told us that Harry Fox was a headliner as early as 1900, and was still slick and funny almost thirty years later when he made Harry Fox and His Six American Beauties (1929). With his smooth delivery of slyly funny patter, he reminded me of Frank Fay and another Vitaphone star, Jack Osterman, but I wasn’t prepared for six hefty washerwomen to join him draped in purloined hotel towels. Incidentally, the fox-trot was named for this performer, whose wives included one of the Dolly Sisters.

Frank Whitman was billed as That Surprising Violinist (1929) and lived up to that title as he played his instrument in a number of remarkable ways. Oklahoma Bob Albright and His Rodeo Do Flappers (1929) featured the beefy baritone imitating Jules Bledsoe’s rendition of “Chloe” (which, I confess, I can never hear without thinking of Spike Jones’ classic parody).

The deadpan approach of comedians Born and Lawrence, stars of The Country Gentlemen (1929), reminded me of the rediscovered Vitaphone duo Shaw and Lee (although Kenny Turan wasn’t a fan). And longtime favorite Franklin Pangborn starred in Poor Aubrey (1929), a skillful enactment of George Kelly’s comic sketch that he later expanded into the full-length Broadway play The Show-Off. Helen Ferguson, Ruth Lyons and Clara Blandick (Auntie Em) costarred.

The evening concluded with accordionist Al Lyons and his Four Horsemen (1928), which I must confess was my least favorite act; I found the musical foursome too self-conscious in their attempts at spontaneous humor. But that’s my only quibble with a knockout program that left the audience hungry for more.

Not to worry: there are two more Vitaphone programs planned for early 2011, as Warner Bros. has funded restoration of fifty shorts we’ve never seen before. As radio commentator Gabriel Heatter used to say, “There’s good news tonight!”

The Rebirth of Vitaphone

Closeup of a Vitaphone disc label; the projectionist was supposed to mark how many times it was played.

In 1926, Warner Bros. began filming Broadway, opera, and vaudeville stars, at their Burbank and Brooklyn, New York facilities. These ten-minute short subjects were intended to show off the marvel of Vitaphone, which synchronized picture and sound through use of a 16-inch record that was played in unison with a projector. (Someone has posted a working mechanism on YouTube at: www.youtube.com.

Even before the release of The Jazz Singer, these one-reel acts brought music and dialogue to life. The number of theaters that were wired for sound multiplied with each passing year—and seemingly, so did the number of short subjects ground out by Warners.

A handful of these films have been available for viewing, but it took a unique cooperative project to bring new restorations to life, using the 35mm negatives deposited at the Library of Congress and the 16-inch discs stored by UCLA. Preservation officer Bob Gitt supervised the first batch and the most recent, along with Ned Price at Warner Bros. and a number of skilled technicians. The final ingredient was the participation of the volunteer-run Vitaphone Project www.picking.com/vitaphone, whose tireless cheerleader Ron Hutchinson started surveying record collectors, inventorying his findings, and playing matchmaker for picture and sound elements. A number of individuals even paid for restorations and new 35mm prints, to the delight of audiences at Film Forum and the New York Public Library in Manhattan, Cinefest in Syracuse, New York, the Telluride Film Festival, and UCLA itself, among other outlets.

Best of all, a number of the shorts were released on the deluxe 80th anniversary edition of The Jazz Singer to widespread acclaim. Long-forgotten entertainers acquired new fans thanks to this exposure. The comedy team of Shaw and Lee, who convulsed audiences with their short The Beau Brummels, are now lionized by a small but hearty band of admirers.

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