Monday, August 3, 2009

The Opry House (Vitaphone/Warner Brothers, 1929)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The other short was a Vitaphone number from 1929 called The Opry House (an interesting anticipation of the Grand Ole Opry’s nomenclature by about eight years or so; there was also another short called The Opry House from 1929, a Mickey Mouse cartoon from the nascent Disney studio) in which the manager of a rural vaudeville theatre (Lew Hearn) announces that his name act from out-of-town won’t be able to perform, so in their stead he’s going to put on local talent. “It’s the policy of this here opry house not to make refunds,” he says, “so sit back and enjoy the show the best you can.” What follows is mostly a performance by the pioneering jazz novelty act the Mound City Blue Blowers — Red McKenzie, vocals and a variety of kazoos (including one made out of a tin can); Jack Bland, banjo (incidentally he plays a solo by tapping on the strings along the fretboard — 60 years later Stanley Jordan would be considered a major innovator when he did that); Carl Kress, guitar (not Eddie Lang, who usually played with the band but was also a much in-demand session musician and might have had another, better-paying gig that afternoon; Lang died in 1933 but did get to be in a film, The Big Broadcast, as Bing Crosby’s accompanist); and Frank “Josh” Billings, playing an upturned suitcase with whiskbrooms in lieu of a drum set. (They got their name from McKenzie’s home town, St. Louis, which at the time dumped its trash in giant garbage piles on the outskirts of the city and then covered them with dirt in a vain attempt at making them sanitary; the residents thought they looked like mounds and so “Mound City” became a nickname for St. Louis.) They play hot versions of “I Ain’t Got Nobody” and “Tiger Rag,” with McKenzie proving (as Louis Armstrong was also doing at the time) that if you understood the nature of jazz and could phrase like an instrumentalist, you could record great jazz vocals even if you didn’t have much of a voice per se. The only letdown in the film is the middle number, a dull version of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” by singer Emma Perkins, whose childlike mannerisms and cutesy voice make her seem like Shirley Temple’s older sister.