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All Talking, All Singing, Not So Much Dancing

A new four-disc set from the Warner Archive Collection, “Vitaphone Varieties,” features some 60 short films, most if not all made with Warner’s sound-on-disc process and recovered thanks to the detective work of Ron Hutchinson and The Vitaphone Project. The wide-ranging collection includes dance band numbers, classical musicians and even several dramatic sketches, but the emphasis is on overlooked vaudeville performers, like the marvelous music and comedy duo of Myrtle Glass and Jimmy Conlin (in the photo above). (Preston Sturges fan, to continue a theme, will recognize Conlin from his many appearances with the Sturges stock company, including his unforgettable characterization of the racetrack tout who induces Harold Lloyd to take his first drink in “The Sin of Harold Diddlebock”). Among the conclusions to be drawn from this fascinating collection: there was an awful lot of talking on screen well before “The Jazz Singer,” and the Marx Bros. weren’t alone as specialists in aggressive, absurdist comedy in the 1920s — have a look at Val and Ernie Stanton, Born and Lawrence and the rather disturbing “Oklahoma Bob Albright and His Rodeo Do Flappers” in this bunch.

For those in the New York area, Ron will be presenting a whole new crop of Vitaphone restorations on Monday, May 9 at Film Forum.

Like early sound, early television required a locked-down camera and allowed for little in the way of dynamic cutting, but the great puppeteer Burr Tillstrom turned those limitations into strengths with the gentle, improvised character comedy of his long running series “Kukla, Fran and Ollie.” 20 shows produced between 1949 and 19564 have been issued on an excellent, home-brewed DVD produced by Mark Milano and available through Amazon . I have reviews of both these short-form compilations in this week’s New York Times column.

111 comments to All Talking, All Singing, Not So Much Dancing

  • joe dante

    Thanks for the kind words, Robert, but let me assure you that there’s nothing guilty about finding pleasure watching Kathleen Quinlan, one of the finest actresses and nicest people I know.

  • Michael Worrall

    Gregg wrote: Bordwell’s book “Making Meaning,” a systematic assault on the expression of opinion in film study. “We’re scientists here, we’re real scientists” is the cry, in a matter akin to Woody Allen in SLEEPER exclaiming “We’re doctors, we’re real doctors, we’re not imposters.”

    Sincere apologies Junko; mad post to follow:

    As opposed to the placement of politics as the main, and ultimately most important, method of analysis that you seem to employ? (As your post on Brian DePalma, a director I myself am ambivalent on, was a shining example of? ) Shall we call this type of theory the Northern California School? I live in San Francisco and like it very much, but a lot of the writing and discussion on art leaves a lot to be desired, particularly when it is reduced to identity politics. But to follow such thinking: Even though I am queer, I must be a self-loathing queer because I will actually defend a film with “bad” politics, based on *gasp!* the filmmaking!! I am glad I studied under Tom Gunning –part of the Wisconsin school?– and not a some phoney baloney professor here in California who will dismiss Griffith because he was a “racist”.

    I think I will take my cold-hearted method of probing a dead film corpse elsewhere, as I would hate to spoil the moral and political lessons that are being instilled here.

  • Alex

    Bordwell’s formalist studies are themselves historical as the anatomy of particular species are embedded in the flow of natural selection, or the structure of the symphony (or Blues) in the structure of an historical entity with a beginning, development and eventual end. Dreyer, Eisenstein and Ozu get the lengthy specialized studies they do because they have distinctive poetics beyond the parameters of the central mode of narrative cinema constituted by the traditions of the classical Hollywood cinema (with its root in the classical Hollywood cinema as the root of the symphony is in Hayden). Dreyer, Eisenstein and Ozu merit special attention as innovators outside the main tradition (as for Northrop Frye Huxley’s fiction lies beyond the novel in the genre of the Mannipean Satire and Proust’s (very largely) beyond the novel in the genre of the confession.

    Sounds pompous, but it all reads as simply as the easy lucidity of Hume (though a bit more orderly than some poor Empiricist, organizationally more like a Kant if there ). I hesitate to praise Bordwell personally, as I dislike flattery and might lapse into it (if simple terms like unassuming risk it).

  • Steve Elworth

    Michael, I thin it would be news to Tom Gunning that he was part of the Wisconsin School. He and Bordwell know each other and respect each other but the differences are huge. Tom Gunning does believe in interpretation and meaning but within an historical context. Both of Gunning’s books are intensive analyses of master directors, Griffith and Lang within formal and historical contexts.

  • Michael Worrall

    P.S.: Steve, I agree. My senior year at SUNY Purchase with Tom –during which he taught his first class on Lang and told me that he partly did so for me, along with showing THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and HALLOWEEN in his class “The Horror Film”, still rates as one of the high points of my life. My rancor here has nothing to do with Tom in any shape or form, Tom’s a first-rate teacher, historian, and writer along with being an extraordinary person; to which I am merely a shadow.

    I should take this moment to thank the generosity of our host, Dave Kehr, for allowing me to post and that I firmly place Dave’s writing on film up there in the ranks of Tom Gunning and company. (Wisconsin School or not.)

  • Barry Putterman

    Well, you know, both “identity” and “politics” are terms which are actually more expansive than is often understood. For instance, one’s aesthetic orientation can be much more central to one’s identity and politics than who one votes for or sleeps with.

    In any event, this seems to me to be a very opportune moment to begin contemplating the moral lessons which could be learned within the aesthetic universe of Otto Preminger.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Alex, per your post of 3:52, I’ve just reread the relevant sections of Bordwell’s book on Ozu. It was he who criticized Schrader (and other people who’d written about Ozu) and not the other way around. It’s something I’ve noticed he does systematically – when he tackles a topic he puts all previous authors on the subject in their place. To be sure, he has real and significant differences with Schrader, Donald Richie, Noel Burch and other American or European film scholars, and what they say about Ozu, but I’m not sure why he has to win every fight, or even bring them up. This is particularly true when the individual whose work he finds fault with is working the same territory in more or less the same way, as in his comments in his books on film form on Barry Salt, who preceded him in the practice of paying close attention to rigorously counting shot length and the likes by a few years.

    This is called marking one’s turf. That said, comparing Professor Bordwell to SLEEPER’s Miles Monroe (and by extension Kristen Thompson to Diane Keaton’s Luna the poet) is a bit strong, given the very high quality of their work overall, which Alex sums up nicely at 6:36. They’re the opposite of imposters, they’re great scholars, but their pleas that they’re employing scientific method rankle a bit. If nothing else, Screen’s structuralist critics also sincerely felt they were being scientific in their use of psychoanalyis and semiotics, as did many Marxist critics going back to Eisenstein and Vertov.

    Barry, while the non-academic world may perhaps be just as vicious as the groves of academe, my comment about the “common pursuit of true judgment” was referencing what we do here, on this blog, where everyone is always agreeable and pleasant.

    Michael, I’ve already suggested that if you wish to discuss cinema with me, you should use my private email. I do owe you thanks for reminding me during our discussion of HALLOWEEN of Fred Camper’s work, which you asked if I’d read. I looked at his excellent website and immediately decided to read his essay on Minnelli ( A fine piece, it neatly dovetails a consideration of Minnelli’s formal qualities with what his work is saying, its meaning; its second paragraph gets right into what concerns Camper, which is just what Minnelli’s major theme might be.

    I’d add my praise to Joe Dante for his incredible episode of TWILGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (and for Kathleen Quinlan as well, always good, as in the recent dud HBO movie CINEMA VERITE).

  • Barry Putterman

    Gregg, every actual scientist I have ever met was acutely aware of his field’s long history of trials and errors and stood in genuine awe of how much more knowledge was still needed before any real grasp of the subject could be claimed. It does seem to me that anybody who believes that theirs is a superior approach based on its scientific methodology has little understanding of what science actually entails.

    I make no claims to science in adding my voice to the Kathleen Quinlan choir.

  • Brian Dauth

    And let’s also remember the scientific notion of the observer-expectancy effect (which I was reminded of by friends with whom I had dinner tonight. The subject turned to movies and I praised HEREAFTER, which drew the reponse: “But it was Eastwood, and in 10 years I have never heard you say a bad word about him.” Guilty as charged, I returned to my crab cakes).

  • Alex Hicks


    Thanks for the clarification on the timing of “first” criticism between Bordwell and Schrader. On putting “all previous authors on the subject in their place,” well, it’s very academic to start off with a critical review of the “literature” to justify the venture just begun. Also, the likelihood of Bordwell initiating criticism is somewhat increased by the fact that Schrader wrote his Ozu book before Bordwell wrote his.

  • Barry Lane

    Re Looser Than Loose

    Recently screened Polite Society consisting of Syd Chaplin x 2 and Earle Foxe x 3. The presentation was in every way outstanding. A fine recommendation. My personal preference went to the Earle Foxe-Van Bibber stories, which while not at all faithful to their source, a collection by Richard Harding Davis, were certainly not a bit disappointing.