Kino on Video presents
Hollywood Rhythm Vol. 2: The Best of Big Bands & Swing (1929-1939)
"Come let us stroll down Lovers' Lane/Once more to sing love's old refrain."- Bing Crosby (as himself)
Stars: Bing Crosby, Rudy Vallee, Ginger Rogers, Artie Shaw, Ethel Merman
Other Stars: Mae Questel, Anna Chang, Cary Grant, Helen Kane, Ruth Etting, Lillian Roth, BobWills and his Texas Playboys, Jack Oakie, Tallulah Bankhead, Kate Smith, Jeanette MacDonald, Maurice Chevalier, The Boswell Sisters
Director: Leslie Pearce, Norman Taurog, Del Lord and others
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (racial stereotyping and blackface performances)
Run Time: 01h:47m:02s
Release Date: 2001-02-15
DVD ReviewWhile the title of this collection of musical films from the period 1929 to 1939 isn't entirely accurate, it also points one in the right direction. The only huge names in the Big Bands present here are Bing Crosby, Rudy Vallee and Artie Shaw, and precious few of the songs are going to be familiar to even knowledgeable viewers. Yet this collection manages to bring together a large number of characteristic pieces and performances which are deserving of being better known.
Most of the short musical films in this collection are from the Paramount Studios (several are from Mack Sennett, who had made a name for himself earlier with the Keystone Kops comedies). After the advent of sound motion pictures with Warner's The Jazz Singer, the folks at Paramount immediately began signing up the musical talent of Tin Pan Alley to produce music for short subjects which would star some of the bigger names of the time. Presented here are a number of highly interesting relics from that time period, many of which feature seldom-seen performances and catchy melodies.
Two brief musical comedies featuring Bing Crosby, Blue of the Night and Dream House (1933 and 1932 respectively), form the attractive and rather charming little bookends for the package. The first finds Bing sharing a railroad compartment with a young socialite who claims to be engaged to Crosby, without realizing that the man himself is in front of her. Her fiancé (Franklin Pangborn) attempts to unmask him as a fraud, but not before Bing manages to belt out three tunes. Dream House features Bing as a plumber by the name of Jack Fawcett. Jack has built a cottage for his intended bride, only to find that her pushy mother has sent her to Hollywood to break into the movies. This short was directed by Del Lord, who did many of the Three Stooges comedies for Columbia; much of the mayhem that the Stooges would encounter on their various construction projects can be seen anticipated on the site of the building of the Dream House.
A highly intriguing little piece is Singapore Sue, a 1931 one-reeler featuring Anna Chang and Joe Wong, popular Oriental vaudeville stars. While they are decent, the real interest here is that it is Cary Grant's first film appearance, in a principal but uncredited role as a sailor trying to pick up Anna, with precious little success. Grant's talent for comedy is already quite visible here, though he still shows the overblown movement and expressions from his stage years.
A 1930 vehicle for Ginger Rogers, years before teaming with Fred Astaire, is included. Ginger plays a secretary secretly in love with her boss in Office Blues. Particularly amusing is her number, Dear Sir, in which she makes hash of a business letter.
Rudy Vallee makes a comical appearance as The Musical Doctor from 1932. This very funny little short seems to be a clear predecessor of the Three Stooges' early effort, Men in Black, in which they wreaked havoc at a hospital. Dr. Vallee here prescribes various kinds of music to resolve ailments, and performs surgery with his favorite instrument (his notorious megaphone). As the amusing nurse, we find Mae Questel, who was the voice of Betty Boop; a good deal of Boop finds her way into this performance as well, emphasizing its nature as a live action cartoon.
Artie Shaw gives lessons in swing with his orchestra, showing the anatomy of a swing tune and how the various pieces fit together, using four songs as a lesson plan. A 1930 short, Her Future shows a surprisingly dishy young Ethel Merman as a girl gone bad at trial; on an Expressionist, Kafkaesque set, the judge's bench towers yards above her as she attempts to justify herself and paint a positive picture for her future. The huge voice that we all know is already there; it's certainly odd to see it coming out of this slight woman!
In A Lesson in Love, (1931) Helen Kane (one of the inspirations for Boop) brainlessly pursues her college psychology professor, first in class and then at a dance. Improbably, the professor returns her affections, leading to all sorts of questionable moral issues that aren't even hinted at here. Lillian Roth stars in the humorous Meet the Boyfriend (1930), directed by Norman Taurog, the Oscar®-winning director of Skippy and Boys Town. Lillian is at first forlorn, then she is comforted after a fashion by her unwilling boyfriend, a geeky bespectacled character who has to be headlocked into submission. The remaining short is a less-than-interesting performance of two songs by Ruth Etting.
While somewhat dated in approach, the films are quite entertaining. Several do feature racial stereotypes or blackface performances, and to Kino's credit these films are presented intact and without censorship. The disc is nonetheless a charming and amusing look back at musical entertainment some six to seven decades ago, despite the less-than-acceptable racial attitudes when seen in today's light.
Bing Crosby: Auf Wiedersehen, My Dear, Ev'ry Time My Heart Beats, Where the Blue of the Night Meets the Gold of the Day, It Must Be True, Dream House
Rudy Vallee: Keep a Little Song Handy, Missin' All the Kissin', Mammy
Anna Chang: How Can a Girl Say No, Open Up Those Eyes
Joe Wong: Open Up Those Eyes
Ginger Rogers: I See Where We Can't Get Along, Dear Sir
Artie Shaw and his Orchestra: Nightmare, Free Wheeling, I Have Eyes, Shoot the Likker to Me, John Boy
Ethel Merman: My Future Just Passed, Sing You Sinners
Helen Kane: I Love Myself Because You Love Me
Ruth Etting: My Mother's Eyes, That's Him Now
Lillian Roth: Sort of Lonesome, Me and the Boyfriend
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+
|Aspect Ratio||1.33:1 - Full Frame|
|Original Aspect Ratio||yes|
Image Transfer Review: As is to be expected, the black and white picture often suffers from scratches, speckles and contrast issues. However, black levels are quite good and a nice range of greys is usually visible. Video bit rates are quite low, usually around 3 Mbps. The Crosby shorts are in the best condition; Singapore Sue is sadly in poor shape, lacking in definition and clarity, but by and large the picture quality is acceptable for materials of this age.
Image Transfer Grade: C
Audio Transfer Review: The soundtrack is a 2.0 mono. Blue of the Night suffers from a low rumble throughout much of its duration, but otherwise the films sound at least decent. The hiss, cracks and pops that one associates with early sound film are present but are frankly not as bad as I feared when I read the dates of some of these shorts. Unsurprisingly, the newest film (the Artie Shaw vehicle from 1939) also sounds the best. Sound is generally tinny and limited in range, but not intolerably so, especially for fans of music of this period.
Audio Transfer Grade: C+
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 34 cues and remote access
Music/Song Access with 28 cues and remote access
- Seven additional musical performances
The principal extra is a set of seven additional musical performances, mostly from a slightly later period, and most of which appear to be excerpts from other films rather than independent shorts themselves. Regrettably, Kino neglected to provide a "play all" button for the extras, giving them less than optimal accessibility. First up is a 1951 performance of Sittin' on Top of the World by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, done in an easygoing and pleasing Western swing. Ginger Rogers is featured again in Used to Be You, a song she wrote herself and which she performs with Jack Oakie, the two of them initially appearing in drag behind a scrim. They soon come forward for a brief dance number which would not cause Astaire any uneasiness.
The sultry Tallulah Bankhead is up next with It Had to Be That Way. which is visually uninteresting as Tallulah just sits upon a piano, but it's definitely worth a listen. Kate Smith follows with Here Lies Love; it's clear that unlike Ethel Merman, Kate was always something less than dishy. Jeannette MacDonald gives a nearly operatic performance of Love Me Tonight, and Maurice Chevalier follows with a workmanlike but uninspiring Louise. Closing out the package is a truly wonderful little gem, Heebie Jeebies by an ensemble I'd never heard of, The Boswell Sisters. These sisters sing a mesmerizing and animated close harmony in this exhilarating little boogie-woogie number that I found to be one of the best things on the entire disc. They give an enthusiastic and clearly black-influenced reading complete with a decent scat bridge and a hot muted trumpet backup. This nifty little piece raises what would otherwise be a B- or C+ for these extras up to a B+. I've listened to it about a dozen times now and could listen to it a dozen more. For more on the Boswell Sisters, see this article, which includes a 10-minute audio clip of interviews with a group of 3 professors reenacting the group and excerpts from a number of Boswell recordings.
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsWhile not full of well-known favorites, there is a great variety of material, much of which has an enduring charm. Well worthwhile for fans of big band or swing music, this disc features films not likely to be encountered anywhere else.
Mark Zimmer 2001-01-11