Saturday, November 16, 2013

Rambling ’Round Radio Row #5 (Warner Bros./Vitaphone, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Just before Stage Struck TCM had shown a nine-minute vest-pocket musical short from the Warner Bros./Vitaphone Corporation (Warners kept the Vitaphone name and trademark for their musical and vaudeville shorts in the 1930’s even though they abandoned the Vitaphone sound-on-disc recording process at the end of 1930 and went to shooting sound-on-film like everybody else) series Rambling ’Round Radio Row. This was a succession of shorts (at least 11 were made) that spiced up film programs and gave audiences a chance to see what some of their favorite radio performers actually looked like. This was called Rambling ’Round Radio Row #5 and featured the incredibly queeny Harry Rose as host, introducing a succession of musical acts, most of them surprisingly interesting. The one that opens the show is probably the best of them, The Three Keys: three African-American performers who sing tenor, baritone and bass (respectively); one of them also plays guitar, another one plays piano (though only a bass part) and they scat like the Mills Brothers on the great Maceo Pinkard song “Them There Eyes” (previously recorded by Louis Armstrong and later, memorably, sung by Billie Holiday). It’s a tribute to the enormous popularity of the Mills Brothers that the airwaves and the film studios were clogged with so many Mills Brothers wanna-bes at the time — though these guys are among the very best of them; like their prototypes, they have an infectious sense of rhythm, a beautiful vocal blend, and they swing. (Apparently one of the Three Keys was George “Bon Bon” Tunnell, who would later become the Black male singer with Jan Savitt’s white swing band.)

The other performers are Leo Conrad and his (definitely non-swinging) orchestra, with Conrad himself on vocal, performing “Let’s Put Out the Lights and Go to Sleep,” the second most famous song ever written by Herman Hupfeld. (His most famous song, of course, was “As Time Goes By,” though it didn’t become famous until it was used in the film Casablanca over a decade after Hupfeld wrote it.) A woman singer named Harriet Lee — quite good, and at least attempting to swing, though the Boswell Sisters, Annette Hanshaw or Mildred Bailey she is not — goes through a song called “A Great Big Bunch of You” with a quite nice set of male backup singers harmonizing like the Rhythm Boys and leading me to joke that Harriet Lee seemed to be trying for “female Bing Crosby” as her market niche (much the way a number of white trumpet players in the 1930’s and 1940’s, notably Johnnie “Scat” Davis and Louis Prima, who sang in gravelly voices seemed to be trying for “white Louis Armstrong”). We also get a scene of performer Don Carney leading a group of kids in a sing-along of “And the Green Grass Grew All Around” —which he does very much faster than I’ve ever heard it anywhere else — and the repetitiveness of the song is merely underscored by an intertitle after the first few choruses that says, “One hour later … ” Of course, “one hour later” Carney and the kids are still at it. The last guest performer is Charles “Buddy” Rogers, who had reached the apex of his short-lived movie career in 1927, making the first Academy Award Best Picture winner, Wings, as well as My Best Girl with Mary Pickford, whom he would marry in 1935. Alas, though Rogers was something of a bandleader — he would do an act in which an assortment of brass instruments would lay on a table in front of him and he’d pick up each one in turn and play it (“each was worse than the last one,” said Gene Krupa, who played drums for him in the early 1930’s until Benny Goodman liberated him from horrible jobs like that) — he’s not shown playing or singing anything in this short. Still, this is an appealing mélange of the sorts of acts you could hear on radio in those days — and the Three Keys are wonderful.