The Vitaphone Shorts!
Once a rather esoteric term known mainly to film collectors and historians, these marvelous ten-to-twenty minute celluloid snapshots are now familiar to many viewers. They are shown theatrically, have been released on laser disk, are circulated among collectors on both film and videotape, and are seen regularly on Turner Classic Movies. Thanks largely to the efforts of Ron Hutchinson (The Vitaphone Project), George Feltenstein (Turner Broadcasting) and Dick May (Chief Preservation Officer for Warner Bros.), these shorts now reach a larger audience than in more than fifty years. Current preservation efforts have saved scores of these short films, and have also created a renewed interest in these one and two reelers from the “Dawn of Sound.” As we review these short subjects, often after a period of many decades of neglect or “loss,” we learn more with each screening. Like all films dealt with in this ongoing series of Celluloid Improvisations, each Vitaphone short has its own story to tell, and Woody Herman and his Orchestra presents a more convoluted tale than most!
The Vitaphone Shorts – A Pre-Primer
Much of the interest in these short subjects stems from the fact that they were originally produced using an early sound system dubbed “Vitaphone” in which the sound was recorded on a 33rpm disk, and synchronized to the visual element (35mm nitrate film) during presentation in the theater. Over the years the shellac sound recordings were often broken or separated from its associated reel of film, and/or the nitrate film was lost or suffered from decomposition due to improper storage. One was often left with a sound disk without picture, or picture without sound. Without the time, energy and commitment of The Vitaphone Project, and its ongoing effort to locate and synchronize the two elements, many of the earlier shorts would remain a memory, a tantalizing entry in a database, or a brief notice in a contemporary trade.
The term “Vitaphone short” is in itself somewhat of a misnomer, and has certainly been a cause for considerable confusion over the years. In reality, it would be more proper to term these films “Warner Bros. shorts,” since this was the company that produced them. “Vitaphone,” on the other hand, originally referred to the sound-on-disk recording system; “The Vitaphone Corporation” per se was formed in 1926 as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Warner Bros., under which name films were copyrighted for many years, even after the Vitaphone sound system had long been abandoned.
As noted in our article on the Joe Marsala soundies, sound films date back to the late 1800s. Thomas Edison’s kinetograph synchronized a moving image with sound recorded on cylinder. Experimental sound films produced in the early 1920s included the Orlando Kellum sound-on-disk shorts, and the Lee DeForest Phonofilms, with sound recorded directly on film. This conflict between two distinct approaches ….. sound on disk and sound on film ….. would involve the industry in an ongoing battle for close to 8 years. (For those interested in a detailed history of the early development of sound film, and the two opposing approaches to sound recording, I highly recommend Scott Eyman’s The Speed of Sound – Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution: 1926-1930 (Simon and Schuster, 1926). Much of the information that follows about the development of the Vitaphone system under Warner Bros. is covered by Eyman in much greater detail.)
Enter the Warner Bros.
While there is still some doubt as to the original family name, the parents of the brothers Warner came from Poland. Ben and Pearl Warner emigrated to the United States in the late 1800s (Ben in 1888, his wife Pearl somewhat later). Eventually their Jewish-American family would number twelve in all, and sons Jack, Harry, Sam and Albert are central to the story that follows.
Drawn to the burgeoning film industry the brothers began managing, and then purchasing, nickelodeons early in the century. The ownership and management of film exchanges —organizations that purchased film prints and circulated them to theater owners— soon followed. By 1912 it was clear that film production was the next logical step in their family business; the film exchanges were sold, and the brothers moved their organization to Hollywood.
At first the brothers operated out of rental studio space. However, by 1922 it was clear that a new home was needed for the company. Land was purchased in Hollywood, and the first site of “Warner Bros. Studios” —finally a site owned by the family!— was a reality. Warner Bros. utilized the talents of Ernst Lubitsch and John Barrymore to establish a reputation as a production concern to be reckoned with.
In March 1925 Harry Warren negotiated the purchased of the New York Vitagraph Studio. Along with a backlog of films produced by Vitagraph, Warner Bros. now had production facilities in Brooklyn, New York. The purchase also brought with it 26 film exchanges, as well as individual movie theaters. The purchase of theaters allowed Warner Bros. to strengthen its role in the vertically-structured film industry: that is, Warner Bros. (and virtually all other major production companies) produced films, and then used their own distribution system to circulate the films to theaters that they also owned.
It was during this period that the Warners developed an interest in radio and began purchasing radio stations throughout the United States. During the setup process of KFWB in Hollywood, Sam Warner encountered Nathan Levinson of Western Electric/Bell Laboratories. Western Electric had developed a disk-film synchronization system, and while others in the film business were not impressed, San Warner was enthralled. Negotiations commenced, and in 1926 contracts were signed that allowed the Warner Bros. to utilize the Vitaphone sound-on-disk process in the production and released of sound motion pictures.
“The Vitaphone System”
While “The Jazz Singer” (1927) is undoubtedly the most famous of the early major studio sound films, its release had been preceded by “Don Juan,” with music and sound effects only, along with a program of one reel (9-10 minute) “performance shorts.” While both sound features were well received, the subsequent evolution of sound film production and distribution was greatly hampered by the challenges inherent in the Vitaphone system. The public had to be convinced that the system actually worked, as did theater owners who would have to install the new sound-on-disk synchronization equipment. Electric sound recording, one must remember, was in its infancy, and the motion picture medium required disk soundtracks that had a minimum of noise, and as high a level of amplification as possible. The fragile nature of the disks was a problem, as was the fact that they could only be used for a limited number of playings; thus, distribution of the disks became a crucial element in the overall process. Maintaining the synchronization between sound and image was always a major concern, but undaunted the brothers moved forward, clearly addressing each and every challenge that came their way.
(Keep in mind that running parallel to this process was the further development of sound-on-film technology, supported by William Fox and Movietone, as well as most of the other major studios. They had problems and successes of their own, which is a story in itself.)
Despite incredible difficulty, and some would argue incredible odds, the Warner Bros. persisted. With the release of “The Jazz Singer” in 1927 it because clear to many that sound film was here to stay. And while the public and press waxed enthusiastic about Al Jolson’s success in the feature, the front office was not blind to the fact that short subjects —ten to fifteen minute shorts featuring vaudeville artists, jazz bands, novelty combos, Broadway stars, radio personalities, and so forth— were equally appreciated, especially among those rural and suburban audiences who were unable to view these performers “live” in the large urban centers. Sam Sax, production executive for Warner Bros. during this period, exclaimed in The Billboard (December 31, 1938), “They [Vitaphone shorts] must provide entertainment — not merely entertainment fashioned to please a New York audience, but entertainment that measures up to and meets the demands of moviegoers in rural and urban centers alike.”
While it is true that the Vitaphone shorts (and those shorts produced by others) received less mention in the press than feature length films, short subjects were popular and profitable, and were a staple of theatrical presentation well into the 1950s. At Warner Bros. there was an intense interest in the music and stage performance of the period. New York City provided a seemingly endless supply of musical, variety and Broadway acts, and to Brooklyn they traveled for more than a decade, after which the production of most of these shorts shifted to Hollywood. With the growing popularity of Swing music, signaled unofficially by Benny Goodman’s success at the Palomar Ballroom in 1935, Warner Bros. turned its attention to the big bands, and with increasing frequency featured them in one-reel shorts. Claude Hopkins, Don Redman, Jimmie Lunceford, Jimmy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Cab Calloway and many others would eventually be spotlighted in one reel band. And in 1938 someone at Warner Bros.— perhaps Sam Sax, who now oversaw the production of short subjects at the Brooklyn studio —noted the emergence of a band led by one Woody Herman, and decided that perhaps this band might make an interesting subject for a Vitaphone short. “We are continually on the lookout for bands showing promise of graduating into the ‘name class,’” exclaimed Sax in the December 31 issue of The Billboard. “During the past months we picked on Woody Herman and Jerry Livingston as potential names.”
From Isham Jones to “The Band That Plays the Blues”
Born Woodrow Charles Herman on May 16, 1913, young Woody Herman has been described as a child prodigy of sorts. By the age of 12 he had mastered song and tap dance performance, and was a capable clarinet and saxophone player. Later in his teens he joined the ranks of the professional musician, and was playing in dance bands led by Tom Gerun, Harry Sosnik, Gus Arnheim and others.
While discographies (including Rust and Lord) note an April 1932 Herman recording session with Isham Jones and his Orchestra, backing Bing Crosby in a performance of “Sweet Georgia Brown, Herman’s participation is somewhat suspect. This recording date is not noted in William Clancy’s wonderful compilation of oral histories titled Woody Herman – Chronicles of the Herds; one would think that Herman would proudly recall Bing Crosby being on his first recording date. Regardless, Herman joined the Isham Jones orchestra full-time in 1934 and recorded with the band on April 25, 1935. It should be noted that while the Jones band appears in short subjects during the early-to-mid 1930s, Herman does not appear in any of these films. In the middle of 1936 Isham Jones decided to retire; Herman, quoted in Clancy, states that “Our last date was in Nashville, in September 1936.” With a number of Jones sidemen in tow, Herman was ready to form his first big band.
Rarely has a band created a musical legacy as strong as the one left by Woody Herman and his various “Herds.” And rarely has a band had such an inauspicious recorded beginning. Indeed, listening to Woody Herman’s first two years of recordings provide little idea of what was to come. Perhaps no major swing band, save perhaps Tommy Dorsey’s, was given such a large proportion of undistinguished popular songs to record. During the period 1937-1939 it was clear that the Herman band was desperately seeking a identity, not sure if it wanted to follow in the musical footsteps of Isham Jones, try to interpret pop songs with a beat, spotlight Herman as a featured crooner, or perhaps even play some jazz.
The first two years of Herman recordings for Decca have been collected on two Classics CDs. And if the transfers and sound quality are somewhat indifferent, a close listening is highly instructive. Classics has wisely started off with a group of 7 titles recorded when Woody was still with Isham Jones. These sides, in fact, are often more interesting than the Herman orchestra numbers that follow. The arrangements (many, I would assume, by Jiggs Noble) are tight and well-conceived. The sense of “swing” is subtle and well-integrated into what the arranger had in mind. If nothing else, this was a highly polished, musical outfit.
The early Herman sides, on the other hand, largely lack distinction, and listening to all of the them in chronological order can be somewhat of a chore. Herman had not yet honed his considerable vocal skills, and while ten years later we would look forward to his vocal efforts, here he is featured on almost every track, and his vocal works often seems forced, mundane, certainly not always in tune, rarely of much interest. Tired pop songs follow uninspired novelties, only to be followed by less-than-successful attempts to reinvestigate a standard or two. The only bright spots seem to be the inspired drumming of Frankie Carlson, the delightful and inventive trombone work of Neal Reid, Woody on clarinet, and the occasional solo by Joe Bishop on flugelhorn or “Saxie” Mansfield on tenor sax.
It is not until the session of April 26, 1937 that the true potential of the band is first realized. This date produced four wonderful recordings, all truly informed in terms of their jazz content, sense of swing and indebtedness to the blues: Dupree Blues, Doctor Jazz, Trouble in Mind and It Happened Down In Dixie. Herman sings on all of them, and only on the third title does he fall prey to the intonation problems that plagued him during this period. The arrangements are uniformly strong, all Dixie-flavored, reminding the listener of Bob Crosby or perhaps the Dorsey Brothers Decca band of 1934-35. The rhythm section contributes in a most positive manner, thanks largely to the propulsive beat laid down by guitarist Hy White and drummer Frankie Carlson. Among the soloists Woody is strong; it is clear that Jimmy Dorsey was an important influence on his playing. Joe Bishop and Saxie Mansfield make positive contributions, but it is Neal Reid who impresses most often with his bluesy, inventive approach on the trombone.
Immediately following this date, however, we return to the stock arrangements, dire pop tunes and tired Herman vocals that harken back stylistically three our four years; once again we return to music that can be almost anybody’s orchestra, save that “anybody” would certainly not claim something as dreadful as Stardust On the Moon or Calliope Blues.
If the above seems overly harsh, keep in mind that the music is being evaluated in contrast to what was to follow. Not only did the “Band That Plays the Blues” record some wonderful sides in the period 1939-1944, but the Herman Herds of the later 1940s and early 1950s created a legacy of recorded sound that will be listened to (and perhaps envied) as long as our music lives. And to be fair, there are recordings during this period that point to the future; Woody was developing as a vocal and instrumental talent. Saxie Mansfield’s tenor sax, if an acquired taste, did no harm, Bishop was always interesting, and Reid and Carlson never fail to delight the listener. In any case, someone at Warners was listening carefully to the press, the recordings and broadcasts, and probably to word-of-mouth. In early-to-mid 1938 it was decided that the Woody Herman band was ready for the exposure that a film short could provide!
Woody Herman and his Orchestra
Production Commences in Brooklyn
Relative few documents are extant for any of the early Vitaphone shorts, although what does exist has been stored and is available at the University of Southern California. Much of the information that we have comes directly from the participants via interviews held over a number of years. Frankie Carlson, who was the drummer on the early “Band That Plays the Blues,” remembered the film well. In a telephone interview he recalled, “We did this short on the East Coast. Some of the guys drove out, and some might have taken taxis. Anyway, we did the film in a couple of days out on Long Island somewhere [the Vitaphone Studio in Brooklyn].” When asked when the filming took place Carlson said, “I remember it was Fall, but it was hot …. sort of an Indian summer sort of thing.” The December 27, 1938 copyright of the film suggests that Carlson’s memory is correct, and that a fall production date seems entirely reasonable. This inference is further supported by the fact that Lee Wiley, whose participation in the film will be discussed shortly, returned from a stay in Hollywood on October 15, opening at The Yacht Club with Bobby Parks and his Orchestra. (Wiley’s activities during this period are covered in Len Selk and Gus Kuhlman’s Lee Wiley – A Bio-Discography.) Future discographers may well date the film’s soundtrack as “ca. mid-to-late October 1938.”
Woody Herman also recalled the short, and in a interview between sets a year or two before his death recalled to me, “Yah, someone in the booking office was contacted by the Warner Bros. people. Now that I think of it, my people may have been the ones to call Warners. I don’t know …. but anyway, we were excited about the possibility of making a film. We knew that the short would be seen in places where we hadn’t played, and that it would be great publicity for the band. I wasn’t very happy about the music we were recording but you know, I sort of thought I might make it as a vocalist-leader —hah!— and I seem to remember that I suggested that we film some of our hotter numbers. I might have even given someone a list of the songs that might work well, but I’m not sure. Remember, this was fifty, sixty years ago!”
Sometime in October, in automobile, subway or taxi, the band made its way to the Brooklyn studios for their first day of work, music and instruments in hand, where they met the Warner Bros. production team, the recording engineer, probably director Ray Mack, and, assuming that she didn’t travel to Brooklyn with the band, vocalist Lee Wiley.
Who suggested that Lee Wiley might be a part of this short subject is lost to time. “I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t me,” asserted Herman in 1996. “Maybe someone in the booking office. But she hadn’t been singing with the band, although she might have come by to see us. No, the idea that she sing with us probably came from the people at Warner Bros.”
It is almost certain that Warner Bros. put together the talent that appears in this short. The eclectic nature of most 1930s musical shorts —big bands, dancers, vocalist, hillbilly artists, jugglers, impersonators, and novelty combos all performing in one ten minute film— was almost more typical than not, and certainly the result of a studio demand that they get the “most bang for their ten minute buck,” especially in middle America and the South where these shorts provided a staple of musical entertainment.
The decision to feature Lee Wiley was an unusual one in some respects. Keep in mind that, despite the high regard in which she is held today, Wiley was relatively unknown to general audiences in 1938. She may have been one of the finest singers on the scene, but few outside of New York City, Chicago or Hollywood would have seen her live, and despite a fair amount of radio exposure, she would not have been as well known as many other big band or radio singers. Indeed, Wiley had not made a commercial recording in over a year when the Woody Herman short was produced, and had not had a regular recording contract since 1934. My suspicion is that someone at Warner Bros. was familiar with her work, perhaps from her regular radio exposure during the previous year, recognized that she was a considerable talent, and figured that her talent could be purchased at a reasonable price.
Rehearsal and Recording
For the most part the Vitaphone band shorts utilized relatively little original material. In order to keep costs down the bands often played music that was “in their books,” as opposed to performing special material put together by the studio music staff. There would have been some pressure to use music that was controlled by Warner Bros., thus helping keep costs even lower. There are exceptions, of course, especially when a band was required to back a novelty / variety act, or a vocalist with whom they had not worked before. Working from a stock arrangement, or an arrangement put together by someone in the studio’s music department, would not have been difficult for the musicians in most big bands. Hence, rehearsals, if any, were probably limited to a quick run-through during the hours preceding the actual recording.
In the case of the Woody Herman short, however, a rehearsal was probably called for. While the band would be performing three or four tunes from its own book (as noted below, the soundtrack for the fifth number was probably pre-recorded “canned music”), they had not worked with Lee Wiley before, and a run down of her number was necessary. My suspicion is that the tunes were rehearsed in the Brooklyn studio before the actual recording session. Pianist Tommy Linehan clearly recalled rehearsing the number “You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby” with Lee. Hy White also recalled Wiley’s presence, and not surprisingly commented briefly on her feminine charm and seductive nature.
From my conversation with Hy White I would speculate that the rehearsal mentioned by Tommy Linehan was pretty much just a quick “run through” of material in the recording studio. It is reasonable to assume that the band rehearsed for an hour or so, perhaps took a short break, and then recorded the music for the short subject. The recording session certainly should not have taken a great deal of time. “Carolina In the Morning” and “Doctor Jazz” were part of the band’s book. The up-tempo jazz number that backs the dance routine in “Jail House Blue” was also probably something that the band played in public. On the other hand, it is possible that “You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby” was a new chart for the band, although Woody and crew play it in a thoroughly professional and relaxed manner. Although the chart may have been brought to the session by Wiley, or by a member of the Warner Bros. staff, I think that it is equally possible that it was a part of the band’s book, unrecorded but played regularly in public.
As mentioned above, one musical performance, the tune that backs the “Two Little Girls in One” novelty dance routine, is probably a piece of pre-recorded music pulled from their Warner Bros. studio library. In any case the tune “Holiday” (best known to me via the 1934 Bill Dodge and his Orchestra transcription date with Bunny Berigan and Benny Goodman) is clearly not by the Herman band, and is the least interesting piece of music in the short.
The band then left the studio, planning to return at a later date for the sideline (photography) session. At that time, probably within a week or two, they once again traveled to the Warners studio in Brooklyn, instruments still in hand, but without any music since they would now merely mime to their pre-recorded soundtrack.
Upon arriving at the Brooklyn studio Woody and the band would have met the short’s director, if they had not encountered him at the recording session. Directing this short was a veteran of literally dozens of Vitaphone short subjects, the ubiquitous Roy Mack. A former hoofer and occasional choreographer, Mack became one of the most prolific directors of Vitaphone short subjects. To the extent that Vitaphone shorts may be discussed in terms of a “director’s style,” it should be noted that Mack was more often than not assigned to shorts that featured black bands. The somewhat bland nature of this particular short, at least from a cinematic and directorial point of view, is unusual for Mack. As will be discussed later, this short has the appearance of a patchwork quilt, rather than a fully developed short subject, and it is possible that Mack was as much an “assembler” as “director” for this ten-minute film. By means of illustration, “That’s The Spirit” (Noble Sissle and his Orchestra) (1933), “Smash Your Baggage” (Elmer Snowden and his Orchestra) (1933), “The Black Network” (The Nicholas Brothers) (1936) and “By Request” (Claude Hopkins and his Orchestra) (1936), each directed by Mack, present musical performances within the context of a framing story. “Woody Herman and his Orchestra,” by contrast, is merely a stage presentation, with cutaways to an applauding audience which seems not only too old and staid for music like Woody’s, but also dressed in a manner that suggests that this stock footage was perhaps filmed a few years earlier. Thus, while Roy Mack has a number of fascinating short subject and soundie films to his credit, this is not one of them, and it is up to the Herman band to pull the short off. This it does in a surprisingly successful manner.
Roy Mack of course did not work alone, and in an fairness to the time, energy and expertise that went into these films it is important to mention production executive Sam Sax, and Ray Foster, who photographed a large number of Warner Bros. short subjects. The remaining members of the production team are unfortunately unknown.
The orchestra that we see in this short is Woody Herman’s regular band of the period, and for once there appears to be few surprises in terms of band personnel. In fact, the band was relatively stable during the first few years of its existence, and what we see on screen is not far from the band that Woody created upon leaving Isham Jones. The on-screen personnel is as follows:
- Trumpets, left-to-right: Jerry Neary or Kermit Simmons, Clarence Willard, Joe Bishop (double on flugelhorn)
- Trombones: Neil Reid
- Reeds, left-to-right: Maynard “Saxie” Mansfield, tenor sax; Joe Estren, alto sax; Pete Johns, tenor sax; Ray Hopfner, tenor sax, baritone sax and violin
- Piano: Tommy Linehan
- Guitar: Hy White
- String bass: Walt Yoder
- Drums: Frankie Carlson
- The Supporting Performers
Unfortunately, not a lot can be said about the supporting artists in this film. For the moment we can only assume that the two female twins who perform the “Two Little Girls In One” dance routine might be Reed Brown, Jr. and Marie Hartman. I have been unable to locate anything about Hartman, and have traced Brown only to a 1932 dramatic radio series titled Roses and Drums. Indeed, their performance seems so out of context in terms of the short’s content that one is tempted to suggest that their act was filmed earlier, and inserted into the short to take up two to three minutes of screen time. One the other hand, it is entirely possible that Reed and Hartman are missing from the extant print, and are casualties of the same fate met by Lee Wiley, and discussed in some detail below.
Dancers Hal and Honey Abbott perform what is known as a Shag dance. Dance historian Peter Loggins describes the Shag as “an East Coast dance routine with many variations. The steps seen in the first part of the dance is known as Collegiate Shag.” Typically danced to fast tempos, and somewhat similar to the Charleston (although more side-to-side oriented than the traditional Charleston) the dance “is based on movement that is largely kept to the lower body, with the upper body held stiff and in place.”
While the Shag originated in the South (quite possible somewhere in the Carolinas), and has its roots in African-American rhythms and movement, this dance, according to Loggins, is “primarily a white redefinition of some older African-American dance steps. You do see some steps worked into the routine which are Black in origin, including some breakaways and Peckin.’”
In assessing this dance performance Loggins notes, “It is my opinion that Hal Abbott was probably a Warner Bros. studio tap dancer, and was learning the popular “jitterbug” around this time, and was injecting it into his performance…. For this film he obviously needed a partner and therefore added Honey. It doesn’t look as they had done a lot of work together to this point in time, although I may be wrong …. they are indeed billed as a couple, Hal and Honey Abbott. As Shag dancers the two are not that good. However on their own merits they are in fact fine dancers, especially Hal, who is much better than Honey.”
1. Carolina In the Morning Woody Herman and his Orchestra (soloists: Woody Herman, clarinet and vocal; Joe Bishop, flugelhorn).
This is a well-performed version of this standard, with special attention paid to Bishop’s creative flugelhorn, and Herman’s in tune vocal and Shaw-inspired clarinet. Special kudos to the rhythm section (and Carlson and White in particular) for the swing generated throughout.
2. Holiday (not performed by Woody Herman and his Orchestra; this is “canned music,” or possibly music recorded for this short by the Warner Bros. studio orchestra – “Two Little Girls In One”) – This is a dance routine performed by two apparent twins, who dance in a manner that suggests one of the two is dancing in front of a mirror. A period piece at best.
3. You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby (partial) – Woody Herman and his Orchestra (Woody Herman, vocal) – This song has an abrupt beginning and truncated ending. Obviously Lee Wiley’s performance is missing, and it is possible that Reed Brown, Jr. and Marie Hartman also had a part in this sequence. What remains is one vocal chorus by Woody, with strong and prominent rhythmic support by guitarist Hy White.
4. unidentified title (announced as “Jail House Blues”) – Woody Herman and his Orchestra (band off screen) (soloists: Woody Herman, clarinet; “Saxie’ Mansfield, tenor sax; Tommy Linehan, piano) – Hal and Honey Abbott perform their dance routine to anuptempo riff composition performed by the Herman band. Woody is heard in solo, as are tenor man “Saxie” Mansfield and pianist Tommy Linehan. Of some interest is the presence of a woman (possibly Hartman … I don’t think it is Wiley) who exitsjust as the number begin. Obviously something is missing, the subject of the section that follows.
5. Doctor Jazz (Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton, composer) – Woody Herman and his Orchestra (Woody Herman and members of the band, vocal) This is a fine and spirited reading of the Morton standard, which includes Woody singing both the verse and refrain. While parts of the vocal remind us of Woody minstrel origins,the band backs Woody in fine form, with our attention once again drawn to the superior rhythm section and some fine drum breaks from the underrated Frankie Carlson.
The Missing Footage
“Woody Herman and his Orchestra” is perhaps alone in the canon of Vitaphone shorts where the extant print is an edited version of the original release. While George Feltenstein (Turner Broadcasting) notes that a great of deal footage —primarily one line comments and sight gags— were often edited from the marvelous Leon Schlesinger cartoons released by Warners, this seems not to be the case with live action shorts. As anyone who has seen the film will confirm, however, the Lee Wiley footage is missing, as is possibly the performance of Marie Hartman and Reed Brown, Jr. What happened to this missing footage? Why are we lacking what might s be the only screen appearance of singer Lee Wiley. There are at least three distinct possibilities, and I would invite any thoughts on what follows.
As noted earlier, the structure of the film suggests an “assemblage” as much as a film directed from a pre-developed script. While this is common enough in early theatrical shorts, it is rarer where Vitaphone band shorts are concerned. Almost all of the numbers in the short are full performances; they begin with an musical introduction, develop as much as the time constraints of a short subject allow, and then conclude is a reasonable manner. Not so, however, with “You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby,” the number that pianist Tommy Linehan recalls rehearsing with Lee Wiley. This title lacks an introduction and starts abruptly with Woody’s vocal; and it ends just as abruptly, cutting harshly to the applauding audience. Something is clearly missing in this number, both at the beginning and the end. Unless (or until) production documents can be located, we must assume that on one end of the film we might have seen Marie Hartman and Reed Brown, Jr., and on the other Lee Wiley. While it was once suggested that Wiley’s presence could explained by the fact that she was in fact a beautiful woman ….. that she appeared only as a sideline artist playing the part of the “beautiful baby” ….. Linehan’s statement proves the contrary, that Lee Wiley sang on track. So we must return to the question, what happened to the missing footage?
Theory #1: nitrate decomposition
While the entire body of Warner Bros. shorts was not reissued carte blanc during the 1940s, the Woody Herman band only grew in importance, popularity, influence and value during the decade, and it is probable that the short was reissued prior to its television release in the 1950s. With the coming of television Warner Bros. signed a contract with PRM, Inc. (later merged into AAP and Dominant Pictures) which took over the responsibility of commercial reissue: theatrical distribution, release to television, and the actual sale of 16mm prints to home movie collectors through a “life-of-the-print” contract.
The first and earliest of explanations comes to us via film collector Robert De Flores. De Flores reports that he was told by both Jack Baker and Dave Chertok that at one point the film’s negative was pulled for the production of reissue prints; when this would have taken place is not known, but probably in the 1950s. DeFlores further reports that it was discovered that nitrate decomposition has set in, and that the footage surrounding the Woody Herman vocal, and including Hartman, Brown and Wiley, was damaged and had to be removed and destroyed. And while nitrate decomposition usually occurs at the beginning or end of a reel of film (and not often in a negative that is less than 15 years old), Columbia Pictures reissue expert Michael Schlesinger asserts that, “it may be unlikely, but you know, it could have happened that way. It has before. We have seen it here at Columbia, so you can’t discount this theory.” Assuming the above to be accurate, one has to ask why Warner Bros. didn’t turn to a positive release print, of which there must have been a number in their possession, to retrieve and preserve the lost footage.
Theory #2: production or release problems
Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any contemporary review of the short, nor has anyone who saw the short in 1938 stepped forward. Original production file material may exist, although I have not been able to locate and examine it to this point in time. The possibility remains, however, that something happened during the recording or sideline session that made the footage unusable. Or perhaps something in the performance was unacceptable to one of the studio executives, and he/she ordered it cut. Perhaps some comments at a preview led to the footage being edited from the print at the time of its original release. While any of the above scenarios is possible, the edit would have to have been made after the opening titles were photographed since Wiley, Hartman and Brown’s names are in the prints we see today.
Theory #3: problems with Lee Wiley
George Feltenstein, Turner executive but also an unofficial historian and recognized expert on early Warner Bros. production and films, thinks that the first scenario is highly unlikely. He points to the fact that “film collector lore is often unreliable. In addition, it is unlikely that the nitrate film would have had deteriorated in the middle of a film less than 20 years old ….. especially when the rest of the negative was perfect.” Feltenstein identified at least two nitrate prints that exist of the film. One is held by the Library of Congress, the other by MGM/UA. He notes, “I produced a laser disk set which contained the short several years ago, and was very disturbed to find that our [Turner’s] only usable version was missing Lee Wiley….” Larry Appelbaum of the Library of Congress recently evaluated their print for me and also reports that the Lee Wiley performance was missing.
Both Feltenstein and I agree that there would not have been problems with music rights. “The short was a work for hire owned by Warner Bros.,” Feltenstein points out, “and like most of the songs in their shorts would not have been subject to a reuse fee of any kind.”
At first Mr. Feltenstein suggested that Wiley’s contract might have had restrictions as to reuse, although I questioned this particular line of reasoning. As mentioned earlier, Wiley was not that well known in 1938, and was certainly not in any position to dictate terms to Warner Bros. My position —and I think Feltenstein agrees— is that if Wiley had tried to impose any “restrictions” on reuse the Warner Bros. brass would have responded in the following manner: “Listen, Lee, we honestly don’t need this type of trouble. We’d love to use you. But think about the large number of female vocalists available on the New York scene. Just sign the contract ‘as is’ or we’re going to call Mildred Bailey or Martha Tilton or Nann Wynn or Bea Wain ….. they’re all in town and will work for us without any of this ‘restriction nonsense.’”
What appears possible, according to Feltenstein, is that the short was reissued sometime in the 1940s. For one reason or other it was decided that the film had to be shortened. But if so, why not excise the “Two Little Girls In One” routine, which was dated even at the time of initial release. Assuming this scenario to be accurate, however, one must infer that the two remaining nitrate prints of the film were struck from the edited negative, with the removed footage being lost or discarded.
Unfortunately only questions and possible answers remain, and again informed thoughts and opinions are invited:
- Was the Wiley performance present in the print that was released in late 1938? Answer: probably so, since Wiley’s name is in the credits.
- When was the footage removed? Answer: probably prior to 1952, since the existing 35mm prints of the film are nitrate, which was being phased out in the early 1950s.
- Why was the footage removed? Answer: That, my friends, is anyone’s guess. However, consider that many shorts with racist, stereotyped, offensive or dated material do survive to the present. This makes the missing footage even more mysterious, and the deteriorated nitrate theory more attractive.
- Does the footage exist somewhere: Answer: Warner Bros. would have struck dozens of prints at the time of original release. If one could be located here or abroad it might contain the Wiley footage. There is also the possibility that an early negative of the film exists in a vault somewhere. Thus, there is the ray of hope at the end of this discussion!
Considering the number of superior Vitaphone shorts to be discussed, this film may seem a quirky place to begin. It can hardly be considered the finest of the Warner Bros. one reel shorts, nor the best example of Woody Herman’s orchestra on film. Still, it provides a nine minute glimpse into to the formative years of one of the greatest orchestras jazz would ever see or hear. Woody’s vocals are far better than what we hear on record, and we get a chance to hear short solos by both Joe Bishop and Saxie Mansfield. And although it has been said a number of times above, the rhythm section of the band was impressive, and is well recorded on the film soundtrack. This film is not easy to screen, although the laser disk set on which it was included turns up every once and a while on ebay. It is well worth the effort to locate.
Lee Wiley – A Bio-Discography – Len Selk and Gus Kuhlman
The Speed of Sound – Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution: 1926-1930 (Simon and Schuster, 1926)
Woody Herman – Chronicles of the Herd (William D Clancy with Audree Coke Kenton) (Schirmer Books, 1995)
The Billboard [Magazine] (December 31, 1938)
Tommy Linehan (band pianist)
Frankie Carlson (band drummer)
Hy White (band guitarist)
Peter Loggins (dance historian)
Robert DeFlores (film historian)
Michael Schlesinger (Columbia Pictures)
George Feltinstein (Turner Broadcasting)