WeWriWa—Patya’s Christmas present

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet comes from Part IV of Journey Through a Dark Forest, my third Russian historical, which spans 1933–48, three continents, and about 15 countries.

It’s now Russian Orthodox Christmas 1948, which falls on 7 January. Patya Siyanchuk and Vladlena Zyuganova moved from the Upper West Side to Queens Village in 1945, and are now expecting their third child.

Patya, as some of you might remember, is a former Marine who lost part of his right arm by the Battle of Saipan in June 1944. He was convinced Vladlena would leave him and couldn’t possibly still love him, but he came to realize Vladlena still sincerely loved him and didn’t care about the missing arm.

Vladlena pulls on her cherry-colored robe and steps into matching slippers while Patya maneuvers into a robe matching his dress blues.  As usual, it takes Patya longer to dress than Vladlena.  By the time he’s put on his dark blue slippers, Karina and Bruno are calling them downstairs.

“Somehow I doubt Dyed Moroz left me a new arm under the tree,” he says as they go downstairs.

“Come now.  You’re too old to believe in Dyed Moroz.  But I hope my first gift will be just as good.”

Once they’re in the living room, Vladlena sinks onto the overstuffed red davenport and directs Karina to a Prussian blue present with a bright red bow.  Karina obediently fetches it and puts it on Patya’s lap.

Dyed Moroz, Grandfather Frost, is the Russian Santa Claus.

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The Jazz Singer at 90, Part IX (About those creaky early talkies)

While TJS played a huge role in the talkie revolution and the end of the silent era, it wasn’t an overnight development, contrary to popular misconception. Many U.S. theatres still weren’t wired for sound as late as 1930. Thus, many Hollywood films were released in both sound and silent versions.

Even with growing access to both Vitaphone and Movietone sound-on-film systems, most studios remained slow on producing sound films. Silents continued to be made as usual, along with hybrids selectively using sound.

Warner Bros. released the first complete talkie, Lights of New York, 6 July 1928. It had a paltry budget of $23,000, with an extraordinary gross of $1.252 million. People wanted to hear talking pictures, regardless of quality.

In September, they released Jolson’s all-talking The Singing Fool, which more than doubled the profit made by TJS. Within nine months, its song “Sonny Boy” had sold two million records and 1.25 million sheet music copies.

As Warner Bros. continued going from strength to strength with their talkies, other studios followed suit by quickening their own production pace.

By 1929, all-talking pictures had become the industry standard, though many theatres still weren’t wired for sound. While sound theatres jumped from 100–800 between 1928–29, silent theatres increased too, going from 22,204–22,544.

Many studios still weren’t completely convinced talkies were the wave of the cinematic future. They were seen as popular novelties which would soon wear off. Charlie Chaplin famously held out until 1936. His last silent (albeit a hybrid), Modern Times, is a farewell not only to the silent era, but also the dear Little Tramp.

TJS premièred in Europe 27 September 1928, by London’s famed Piccadilly Theatre. The European film industry almost immediately embraced sound as the wave of the future, and their first hybrid, Ich Küsse Ihre Hand, Madame (I Kiss Your Hand, Madame), released 16 January 1929.

Most of Europe’s major studios began converting during 1929. The continent’s first successful talkie, Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail, released 21 June 1929. It was filmed as a silent, then reshot with dialogue, sound effects, and a soundtrack.

Due to the rapid changeover, and technological limitations, many people had to go abroad; e.g., many French talkies were shot in Germany.

1930 saw the talkie débuts of Poland, Italy, the former Czechoslovakia, the USSR, Romania, Belgium, Greece, and Denmark.

Some countries converted quicker than others. By the end of 1930, about 60% of British and U.S. theatres were equipped for sound, while over half of French theatres were silent through 1932. As of May 1933, less than one in 100 Soviet theatres had sound capabilities.

Asia and the Pacific were silent much longer. While Japan began experimenting with sound films in 1926, over a third of their films were still silent by 1938. It was traditional to have a benshi (narrator) performing as accompaniment to film screenings, with voices, sound effects, plot summary, and evocative descriptions. Many were stars in their own right.

China’s first talkie came in 1930, but they remained largely silent through 1934.

India’s first talkie premièred 14 March 1931, and was so popular, cops had to control the crowds. Sound proved to be a huge boon for Indian cinema, and helped to bring the industry into its own.

Australia released its first talkie in 1930.

Korea was the final country with a major cinematic industry to make its first talkie, in 1935.

Show Girl in Hollywood (1930) is a documentary about sound filmmaking. It illustrates many of the problems plaguing early talkies, such as microphones dangling from rafters and multiple cameras simultaneously filming in soundproof booths.

Early sound cameras were very noisy, thus the soundproof booths, but this meant cameras couldn’t move very far. To compensate, multiple cameras were used. Actors also had to stay very close to microphones, or their speech wouldn’t be picked up.

Sing-Song Red Girl Peony, China’s first talkie

Many cameras were overcranked or undercranked, for dramatic effect or improving exposure. Many projectionists also ran too quickly to squeeze in more shows and shorten running time. However, this created improper synching and made sound unlistenable. An industry standard of 24 FPS was instituted.

Loud arc lights used in studios had to be abandoned, since microphones picked up every little thing. The quieter incandescent lights, while technologically superior, necessitated more expensive film.

Many early talkies are just that, talky. They’re little more than a nonstop stream of talk, so eager were people to play with the shiny new toy. Gone were the sweeping, panoramic shots, since cameras could no longer move that far. So many early talkies are like filmed stage plays, in the same small setting, held hostage to technological limitations.

While there were notable exceptions, like director King Vidor’s Hallelujah (1929), it took awhile for most filmmakers to start getting back to the same level they’d been at in the twilight of the silent era. In general, people who waited a few years to make their first talkies, instead of jumping right in to play with the shiny new toy, ended up with far superior sound débuts, both technologically and artistically.

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part VIII (A miraculously successful première and reception)

In loving memory of George Harrison, who left the material world 16 years ago today.

Sadly, none of the four Warner Bros. were able to attend the triumphant première of TJS on 6 October 1927. They’d been running themselves ragged with this film, since so much was riding upon its success. All this nonstop work took its toll on Sam’s health, and at the end of September, he was hospitalized.

Sam was diagnosed with a sinus infection, abscessed teeth, and a mastoid brain infection. After four surgeries, Sam fell into a coma. On 5 October, he fell victim to pneumonia caused by sinusitis, osteomyelitis, and subdural and epidural abscesses.

The other three brothers had to go home to California for the funeral, missing their flagship New York theatre’s première.

Samuel Louis Warner (né Schmuel Wonsal or Wonskolaser), 10 August 1887–5 October 1927

The première date was no accident. It was chosen deliberately because it was Yom Kippur, and TJS revolves so closely around that holiday.

Warner Bros. had been in deep financial straits for years. Taking on Vitaphone sound-on-film technology had only added another huge, risky financial burden. If this film flopped, it would be curtains.

Though TJS is, contrary to popular misconception, at least 75% silent, audiences still weren’t accustomed to hearing real sound during a film. This wasn’t just a synchronized soundtrack or sound effects, but actual human speech.

The audience applauded after every song, and went particularly wild after the conversation between Jack and his mother. By the end of the film, they’d gone wild, chanting Jolson’s name as they gave a standing ovation.

It was a miracle there wasn’t a single misstep during the synchronization of the film and discs. Had the projectionist not cued up any of those fifteen discs with the fifteen reels exactly in synch, Warner Bros. would’ve been both publicly and financially humiliated.

TJS met with predominantly rave reviews, in the mainstream press as well as the Jewish and African–American communities. While some reviewers noted it was more of a showcase for Jolson and/or a new technology, they nevertheless praised that aspect.

Had George Jessel or Eddie Cantor played the lead, things would’ve been so different. As talented and popular as they were, only Jolson could’ve carried it the way it needed to be. His superstardom, charisma, background, and larger than life personality elevated it beyond a B-movie into something really special.

This was truly one of those cases where someone was born to play a certain role, write a certain book, paint a certain painting, or record a certain album. While someone else could’ve done a competent job with the same material, it just wouldn’t be the same.

TJS was Warner Bros.’ biggest hit to date, only surpassed a year later by the all-talking The Singing Fool (also starring Jolson). Though many theatres weren’t wired for any kind of sound, and thus had to play an entirely silent version, it still proved itself as a big earner.

Film scholars and historians estimate TJS made $3.9 million ($126 million as of 2005) in the U.S., and $2.6 million worldwide, for an overall profit of $1,196,750. Warner Bros. had been saved.

In spite of its success, TJS was ruled ineligible for nomination by the first Academy Awards. As a partly-talking picture, it would’ve been unfair competition against the all-silent pictures.

TJS has been referenced and parodied countless times in popular media over the years, and was remade in 1952 (with Danny Thomas and Peggy Lee), 1959 (as a TV movie with Jerry Lewis), and 1980 (with Neil Diamond, Laurence Olivier, and Lucie Arnaz).

Jolson reprised the role in a radio adaptation on 10 August 1936 and 2 June 1947 on Lux Radio Theater.

In 1996, the National Film Registry chose TJS for preservation, based upon it being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” In 1998, the American Film Institute voted it the 90th best American film of all time.

But of course, the film’s greatest impact was in hastening the talkie revolution and sounding the death knell of the silent era.

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part VII (The making of the film)

Had history unfolded differently, this man, George Albert Jessel, and not Al Jolson, would’ve played the lead in The Jazz Singer. One of Broadway’s most popular leading men, he was asked to star in the film adaptation of the play, and signed to a contract with Warner Bros.

4 June 1926, Warner Bros. acquired the play’s rights. In February 1927, Motion Picture World magazine ran a story announcing Jessel’s starring role, and that filming would begin the first of May.

When TJS was reconceived as a sound film, Jessel demanded a larger salary or new contract, which the struggling studio couldn’t afford. They still owed him money for three other films (all now lost), and couldn’t afford to produce any film with a major star.

Jessel also was outraged by the film’s ending, which differed from that of the play. He didn’t want to do that, with or without money.

Popular entertainer Eddie Cantor (né Edward Israel Itzkowitz) was offered the role next, but declined. He was a friend of Jessel’s, and felt sure the difference of opinion could be worked out. Cantor offered his assistance, but wasn’t invited to the negotiations.

By hashgacha pratit (Divine Providence), Al Jolson, whose early life was the inspiration for the story, was then offered the role, and accepted. Jessel may have been a very popular leading man on Broadway, but Jolson was a superstar at the height of his popularity.

Jessel and Jolson were also friends, but after Jolson accepted the role, they didn’t speak for a long time. It felt like a betrayal, after Jessel had confided in him about his problems with the studio. Jolson signed the contract without telling Jessel about his plans beforehand.

26 May 1927, Jolson signed a contract for eight weeks, starting July. His salary was $75,000 ($1,034,052 today).

Also cast were:

Warner Oland (né Johan Verner Ölund) as Cantor Rabinowitz. He was a Swedish-born actor best-known for playing Asian roles, in an era when it was common, de facto practice for white actors to play characters of other ethnicities.

Eugenie Besserer as Sara Rabinowitz. She usually played maternal roles.

May McAvoy as Mary Dale. Probably her best-known other role is Esther in Ben-Hur.

Otto Lederer (in the middle) as busybody gossip Moisha Yudelson.

Fellow Pittsburgher Bobby Gordon as 13-year-old Jakie Rabinowitz. He later became a film and TV director, and was the last surviving cast member of TJS.

Cantor Yossele (Josef) Rosenblatt as himself. He was considered the greatest cantor of his era, with a sweeping career spanning multiple cities and countries.

Richard Tucker (far left) as producer Harry Lee. He was the first official member of the Screen Actors Guild.

The synchronized musical performances are, in order:

“My Gal Sal” (dubbed by an unknown singer as Bobby Gordon lip-synchs)
“Waiting for the Robert E. Lee” (a popular 1912 song), also dubbed as Bobby Gordon lip-synchs
“Kol Nidre” (dubbed by Joseph Diskay with Warner Oland lip-synching)
“Dirty Hands, Dirty Face” (Jolson)
“Toot, Toot, Tootsie (Goo’ Bye)” (Jolson)
“Kaddish” (Cantor Rosenblatt)
“Blue Skies” (Jolson)
“Kol Nidre” (Jolson)
“Mother of Mine, I Still Have You” (Jolson)
“My Mammy” (Jolson)

After “Blue Skies,” there’s a brief ad-libbed conversation between Jack and his mother. This comes to an abrupt halt when Cantor Rabinowitz enters and shouts, “STOP!” The dialogue then reverts back to intertitles.

The sound sequences were shot at a different speed from the normal silent sequences. If you watch very closely, you can pick up on the differences, particularly when one stops and the other starts.

The first time I saw TJS, I was jolted by these sound sequences. While I of course knew they’d be there, it’s a very uncanny, surreal feeling for a silent film to suddenly break into sound. I image that’s what it felt like to 1927 audiences.

The Winter Garden and Lower East Side scenes were shot on location. Though filming began in June, the Vitaphone sequences were mostly saved for late August, since they were so technologically complex. On 23 September, Motion Picture News reported production was complete.

The budget was $422,000 ($5.76 million today). This was a colossal sum for the financially struggling Warner Bros., who typically didn’t spend more than $250,000. Only the John Barrymore films Don Juan and The Sea Beast (both 1926) had been more expensive.

To finance TJS, Harry Warner stopped drawing his salary, moved his family to a smaller apartment, and pawned his wife’s jewelry. The brothers worked themselves ragged on the production, since a lot was riding on both this film and Vitaphone being successful.

This costly experiment paid off big-time, though Sam Warner sadly died just before the grand première.

WeWriWa—Enjoying a Thanksgiving feast

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet comes a few pages after last week’s, when Cinni invited Harry to be her family’s Thanksgiving guest after he was thrown out of the soup kitchen for fighting with his thuggish older brother.

No one was home when they arrived at Cinni’s house, so Cinni went next door to her easily-annoyed neighbor Mr. Valli to ask for help with cooking. Cinni discovered her family went to the Vallis for Thanksgiving dinner.

Cinni’s mother is quite displeased she was out so long getting a turkey. She’s much happier after seeing all the food Cinni and Sparky won, but discovering there’s yet another guest to cook for upsets her again. Finally, she starts cooking before it gets any later.

This has been slightly edited to fit 10 lines.

Mrs. Filliard fumed as she hoisted the turkey out of the wagon and pulled the stuffing out of the refrigerator.  While she prepared the turkey and other food under the Smalls’ careful directions, Cinni, Sparky, and Harry went into the living room to read comic books and listen to the radio.

It was 10:30 when supper was called, wonderful smells wafting all through the house.  These were the kinds of smells which were supposed to permeate the air much earlier on Thanksgiving, but better late than never.

“This is the greatest thing anyone’s ever done for me,” Harry said as he took a seat. “Remember, Cin, one day I’ll pay you back for tonight.  Don’t think I ain’t thankful just ‘cause I ain’t in a position to do something so nice anytime soon.”

“Of course I know you’re thankful, Harry; unlike some people, you know what being thankful’s all about.”

The Smalls intoned a blessing over the feast arrayed before them, and then everyone dug in.  It was the sweetest, most delicious Thanksgiving meal Cinni had ever had.