A simple story of a simple mouse

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NOTE: All images are used solely to illustrate the subject for the purposes of a film review and historical background, and as such are consistent with Fair Use Doctrine.

Released 18 November 1928, Steamboat Willie was Mickey and Minnie Mouse’s official début. They’d both appeared in silent cartoon Plane Crazy, released 15 May 1928, but it failed to find a distributor after its screening. Another pre-stardom, silent, unreleased cartoon was The Gallopin’ Gaucho, in August 1928. Due to Steamboat Willie‘s success, both cartoons were remade with sound and released 30 December 1928 (The Gallopin’ Gaucho) and 17 March 1929 (Plane Crazy).

Steamboat Willie was Disney’s very first cartoon with synchronized sound, and the first cartoon with a fully post-production soundtrack. Its title is an obvious spoof of Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. Walt Disney did all the voices (unintelligible though they may be).

Mickey is steering a steamship when the giant, mean captain, Pete, creeps up behind him and yanks him away from the wheel. Naturally, Mickey is quite upset. When Pete tries to kick him, he runs down the stairs, slips on soap, and lands in a bucket of water. Smarting with humiliation, Mickey throws the bucket at a laughing parrot.

Back at the wheel, Pete (who’s been watching Mickey’s antics) takes a bite of chewing tobacco and spits it into the wind.  It flies backwards and rings the bell. Hoping it’ll happen again, Pete spits a second time, only to get hit in the face.

The steamboat stops by Podunk Landing for livestock, where Mickey attempts to milk a very skinny cow. When he feeds her hay, she instantly becomes plump.

Minnie comes running up alongside the boat just before it sets back off, but doesn’t make it in time. Mickey uses the same hook he used for the livestock to bring Minnie aboard. On deck, Minnie accidentally drops sheet music and a guitar, which are promptly eaten by a goat.

In a gag many modern viewers might’ve guessed would happen, Mickey and Minnie use the goat as a musical instrument, in this case a cranked phonograph. Mickey also uses various objects and animals on the boat as instruments.

Pete has had enough of Mickey’s hijinks, and throws him at a potato bin. (I love how Mickey peels the potatoes left-handed!) The parrot from earlier reappears, and Mickey throws a potato at him, knocking him into the water.

The film was produced from July–September 1928, at an estimated budget of $4,986 ($72,675, or £57,414, in today’s money). An unfinished version had a test-screening on 29 July, with live music and sound effects. The audience (Disney employees and their wives) sat in a room adjoining Walt Disney’s office, with the film projector outside. The film was projected through a window.

The audience loved it, which was all the incentive needed to finish the film. Walt Disney decided to use the Cinephone sound-on-film system.

Steamboat Willie premièred by NYC’s Universal’s Colony Theatre (now Broadway Theatre, on 1681 Broadway), and initially ran for two weeks. It was one of the shorts played before the part-talkie feature Gang War (starring Jack Pickford, Mary’s brother; Olive Borden; and awesome character actor Walter Long). Walt Disney was paid $500 a week.

Critics and the general public alike loved the cartoon, which led to nationwide theatrical release and Mickey’s first two cartoons being redone with sound and publicly released.

The film has been referenced, featured, spoofed, or paid homage to in countless films, TV shows, cartoons, and video games over the years. In 1998, it was inducted into the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

When novelty matters more than quality

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Released 6 July 1928, Lights of New York is the first true all-talking feature film. While there were some prior features with synchronized soundtracks, sound effects, and short dialogue sequences, never before had a feature been able to take advantage of the new sound-on-film technology for an entire film filled with all of the above. However, as with many other early talkies, explanatory intertitles are sprinkled throughout.

Bootleggers Jake Jackson (Walter Percival) and Dan Dickson (Jere Delaney) are very anxious to return to New York and get out of the little town they’ve been hiding out in. They’re running out of money, and want the opportunities which come with the big city.

They’re thrilled to discover their barber friend Gene (Eugene Palette) is going to New York tomorrow. Gene’s young friend Eddie Morgan (Cullen Landis), son of the hotelier (Mary Carr), is also eager to go to the big city. Though his mother is very reticent to loan him money and let him leave, she finally sends him off with her blessing. She makes him promise he won’t fail or lose the money.

After the four friends arrive in New York with $5,000 from Mrs. Morgan’s savings, Gene and Eddie start their barbershop, only to discover Jake and Dan are using it as a front for a speakeasy. Gene and Eddie are disgusted by this business, and decide to return home as soon as they break even and can repay Mrs. Morgan.

Kitty Morgan (Helene Costello), Eddie’s girlfriend, arrived in New York ahead of him to work in a nightclub, The Night Hawk. She’s very uncomfortable with her boss, Hawk Miller (Wheeler Oakman), and wants to quit. Eddie reassures her there’s nothing to worry about with Hawk, since he’s got his own girlfriend. He also gives her a gun to protect herself.

Hawk, who controls Jake and Dan’s speakeasy, is very worried about his business being shut down after a bootlegging raid ends in a cop’s death, and orders Jake and Dan to find someone to take the fall for the crime. Predictably, they suggest Eddie.

After Jake and Dan refuse to do it themselves, Hawk says he’ll take care of setting up Eddie. He also warns them to get out of town.

Hawk calls Eddie to his office and says he just got a tip that he might be raided by feds. Until the situation blows over, Hawk asks Eddie to hide his supply of Old Century liquor. Eddie immediately, cordially agrees.

Between acts, Hawk strongly suggests Kitty dump that sap Eddie, and reminds her she owes her career to him. After Kitty leaves, Hawk’s girlfriend Molly Thompson (Gladys Brockwell) tells him to lay the hell off Kitty, and takes him to task for all his other odious actions.

Two detectives come to speak with Hawk about the cop’s murder, convinced he knows something. Hawk denies all knowledge, and the cops say until they solve the case, they’re closing every speakeasy. The search of his office turns up nothing, but the detectives press on for information.

Hawk tells them to come to the barbershop at 10:00, and he might show them something interesting. Kitty of course overhears this, and phones Eddie to warn him. Meanwhile, Hawk summons Jake and Dan to his office to discuss what they’re going to do.

And then everything starts hitting the fan.

Lights of New York had a budget of $23,000, and earned $1,252,000 ($18,248,988, or £14,407,576, in 2017). Originally, it was planned as a two-reeler, with a $12,000 budget. Warner Brothers hadn’t yet committed to an all-talking feature, but with bosses Jack and Harry Warner abroad, the crew gradually expanded the plot more and more.

Louis Halper, who’d been left in charge, wired Jack for the extra money. Jack wasn’t very pleased to learn four additional reels had been shot, and told director Bryan Foy to turn the film back into a two-reeler. Foy believed this initial refusal stemmed from the Warners’ plans to make their first all-talking feature more prestigious.

Foy screened the film for an exhibitor friend, who was so impressed he immediately offered to buy it for $25,000. In response, Jack and Harry asked their brother Albert to watch it.

Albert loved the film, which convinced Jack and Harry to release it.

Critics weren’t wild about the film. Disregarding the technological marvel of an all-sound feature, the acting, plot, direction, and production are pretty bad. As with many very early talkies, people flocked to see it not because it was quality cinema, but because it was an exciting novelty.

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part XII (Final thoughts)

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Happy heavenly 99th birthday to my favorite writer, Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn! May his memory be for a beautiful, eternal blessing.

So much was lost, due to the film industry’s rush to follow the new at the expense of the old. While I’m glad sound-on-film technology exists, a middle ground would’ve been better.

Moviemaking took a huge step backwards when talkies became the law of the land. Cameras could no longer move as far; microphones picked up every little thing; actors couldn’t move far from the microphone; and most films became like stage plays, limited to a very small set, with nonstop (often bad) dialogue.

Sound was a huge boon for actors with great voices. Some, like Ronald Colman and William Powell, had been successful in silent pictures, but took their careers to a whole new level with their voices.

Other actors, like W.C. Fields, had started in silents, but needed sound to rise to success, with a trademark voice giving their characters a whole new boost.

Sound also was a huge boon for my belovèd Laurel and Hardy. Their voices matched their characters perfectly. I mentally hear their voices when I watch their silents. No other voices would’ve felt right on them.

Other actors never could’ve succeeded in silents, regardless of their talent. Can you picture the Marx Brothers as silent comedians? Even Harpo’s character only works when everyone around him speaks. Watching the lost Humorisk (1925) would be a very surreal experience!

Many actors who rose to stardom in the sound revolution came from Broadway and vaudeville. Actors like Cagney and Bogart needed to use their voices to fully bring their characters to life, and couldn’t have been as successful with just pantomime. Their voices made them who they were.

Sound enabled genres like gangster movies and musicals. While both ended up kind of overdone, to the exclusion of other worthy genres, those kinds of stories couldn’t have worked in silence. These genres were also just what Americans in the Great Depression needed for escapist entertainment. They certainly could no longer relate to things like flapper stories.

Sound also made necessarily dialogue-heavy stories more practical. Sometimes a story can’t be properly, fully understood without reliance on dialogue to convey important information and establish characters. I dislike silents with too many intertitles, esp. when they’re huge chunks of text.

However, a longer transitional period could’ve alleviated some issues. If more time had been spent working out the technological kinks, while still making hybrids and silents, the switch-over would’ve gone so much more smoothly.

In general, people who waited a few years, instead of jumping right in to play with the shiny new toy, had better début talkies. There’s less of a “Look, we can talk!” vibe. Most early talkies are so dated and creaky next to the aesthetically superior silents of the late Twenties.

Early talkies are hit and miss for the same reason so many 1910s feature-length films are. It’s a new medium still finding its voice, without years of history to fall back on for help. Even talented actors can’t save some of these films.

Many great late silents bombed, or were critically panned, because talkies were more in demand, no matter how poor the quality. Yet many late silents have aged far better than most early talkies.

Intertitle writers and accompanying musicians lost their jobs; directors could no longer speak during filming; and playing mood-setting music during filming had to stop.

So many filmmakers have forgotten how to tell a good story without constant talk. Just picture one of your favorite cinematic battle scenes. Can’t you easily understand what’s going on without the soldiers stopping to chat? Isn’t there greater emotional intensity because it’s all conveyed without words?

Many good horror movies also create a creepy, foreboding mood without saying a word. It’s all about visuals and atmosphere, not people gabbing about a monster on the loose, or how scared they are.

If TJS hadn’t been the catalyst, another film would’ve done it eventually, perhaps with the same results. It’s impossible to say if a later revolution would’ve allowed room at the table for both types of films, or if sound would’ve been dismissed as just another trend after a few years.

Hollywood still doesn’t have the greatest track record of accurately depicting religious Judaism, but TJS represented an important, positive step forward (in spite of falsely calling Judaism a “race”).

TJS represents a poignant, simultaneous ending and beginning, a mixing of excitement and uncertainty. “That’s all there is to life, just a little laugh, a little tear.”

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part XI (So who did survive the transition successfully?)

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In loving memory of John Lennon, who was taken from this life 37 years ago today.

As discussed in Part X, very few actors’ careers were ended due to the coming of sound. There were many complex, complicated factors at play.

But just who made a longterm, successful transition from silents to talkies, for longer than a few years of coasting on earlier laurels?

1. People already trained in stage acting. This includes actors like John and Lionel Barrymore, whose background included vocal acting, not just pantomime. They knew how to use their voices,  and were familiar with memorizing lines.

Left to right: John, Ethel, and Lionel Barrymore, 1904

2. People who were just starting to become big names. In this group are actors like Anita Page, Joan Crawford, Loretta Young, and Barbara Kent. They’d become popular, but not for long enough to have become associated with the “old-fashioned” types of characters or way of making films.

3. Huge superstars who had a great deal of freedom to continue making pictures on their own terms. The foremost example of this kind of actor is Charlie Chaplin, who was his own boss and had the luxury of making silents till 1936. Harold Lloyd also continued regularly making films, though neither of them were as popular as they’d been in the silent era.

4. People who hadn’t yet graduated from extra and minor roles. These were actors like Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, Boris Karloff, and Clark Gable.

5. People who’d been around for awhile, but either hadn’t made much of a real impression yet, or hadn’t had their true potential revealed with the right kind of roles. This group includes actors like Myrna Loy, W.C. Fields, William Powell, Marlene Dietrich, and Fay Wray.

6. People whose talent and appeal was such it enabled them to have successful careers in both eras. These lucky people include Laurel and Hardy, Norma Shearer, Ronald Colman, Rod La Rocque, Bebe Daniels, and Greta Garbo.

7. Foreign imports who couldn’t hack it in English-language films, but did just fine with speaking roles in their native languages after going home. This group would include Emil Jannings, Conrad Veidt (who later successfully broke into British and U.S. films after mastering English), and Lars Hanson.

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part X (Common myths debunked)

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Over the past 90 years, many myths and misconceptions have sprung up about TJS, the end of the silent era, and the dawn of sound. While many have a sliver of basis in truth, the truth is a lot different and more complex than popular opinion suggests.

Myth #1: TJS was the first talking picture.

As discussed in Part VI, sound-on-film technology had a long history, full of fits and starts, going back to 1894 or 1895. TJS was merely the most popular and successful, due largely to Al Jolson’s star power and charisma. This is similar to the oft-repeated myth about BOAN being the first feature-length film.

TJS also wasn’t even the first all-talking feature. That was 1928’s Lights of New York. TJS is at least 75% silent.

Myth #2: The silent era immediately ended after TJS came out

As discussed in Part IX, the transition from silent to sound film was very long and slow. Even if the entire film industry worldwide had decided, right then and there, to make sound the law of the land, they couldn’t wire all theatres for sound overnight. They also needed to buy a lot of expensive new equipment and film.

China, Japan, and Korea were largely silent well into the Thirties. They didn’t want to fix something that wasn’t broken. Japan also had the tradition of the benshi, a narrator who accompanied film screenings and was a star in his own right.

Myth #3: Most silent actors had horrible voices, and thus had to retire

Many actors had wonderful or at least competent voices, though they weren’t always best-served by early sound recording technology. People were so enamoured of talkies, they flocked to see anything and anyone. They didn’t mind voices which weren’t professionally trained, such as Clara Bow’s Brooklyn accent. All they cared about was hearing someone talk during a movie.

Some actors genuinely had very thick accents or serious speech impediments which prematurely ended their careers, but this wasn’t the norm. Rare exceptions included:

1. Karl Dane (né Rasmus Karl Therkelsen Gottlieb), a funny-looking character actor who became a comedian in his own right. His thick Danish accent soon relegated him to lesser and lesser roles, until MGM yanked his contract. He tried several other careers, but nothing panned out. Deep in depression, he finally took his own life.

2. Many foreign exports, like Emil Jannings and Conrad Veidt. They had heavy accents combined with poor English. However, their acting careers continued when they returned to their home countries. Other foreign actors, like Nils Asther, took voice lessons and were cast in roles where accents were expected.

The same thing happened with the large community of Russian actors in France. In that case, going home wasn’t an option if they valued their lives and freedom.

3. Raymond Griffith, a comedian whose voice was barely above a whisper due to childhood vocal chord damage (screaming every night in a stage play). His final acting role was a dying French soldier in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), which had extra poignancy with his natural voice.

True blame goes to factors including:

1. ALL stars have a shelf life! Even actors who’ve been successful for several decades eventually slow down or lose popularity to the new generation. These actors just happened to reach their expiration date in the early sound era.

2. Some actors were looking towards retirement anyway. Vilma Bánky, for example, had a thick Hungarian accent, but wanted to leave acting for the full-time role of Rod La Rocque’s wife. She retired in 1930, just as she’d announced she would.

3. Studio politics and personality clashes. Enough said!

4. Even big-name silent stars, and the types of characters they played, were increasingly seen as outdated and unfashionable, reminders of a bygone era.

5. Marriage (or lack thereof). Many women either chose to retire upon or shortly after marriage, or had husbands who insisted they stop working to be full-time wives and mothers. William Haines refused to enter a lavender marriage and dump his boyfriend (whom he was with for 47 years, until his death).

Myth #4: John Gilbert had a terrible, squeaky voice

Jack’s career was sabotaged by the vile, vindictive Louis B. Mayer. He had a lovely voice and well-received talkie début, but Mayer kept giving him sub-par roles. The wonderful Irving Thalberg gave Jack some great films, and ex-lover Greta Garbo chose him as her leading man in Queen Christina (1933), but the damage had already been done.

His depression with inferior films and long periods of unemployment led to increasing alcoholism, and Jack died of a heart attack at age 36.