Monday, August 20, 2007
Occasionally a piece of film turns up that stands at the intersection of every single one of my peculiar set of obsessions--old showbiz history, New York City in the twenties and thirties, filmmaking, old music, nightclubs, dancing girls, etc. Such a piece of film is posted below.
The film is a short, shot in early 1929. Titled "A Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic " it stars Eddie Cantor and is, essentially, a filmed recording of what it was like to be sitting in a nightclub, all ginned-up on bootleg hooch, one long-forgotten evening in the 1920's. (The Ziegfield Midnight Frolics were, essentially, an "a-list" bonus event--after a Ziegfeld show, the celebrities of the day and the public who could pay the frieght were invited upstairs to a special cabaret atop Ziegfeld's theater to see an "intimate" nightclub revue. A very inside New York happening and one that this film preserves for us.)
In it, Cantor performs in blackface--for no apparent reason--a handful of songs and tells jokes. One of them is a fascinating reference to Henry Ford's anti-semitism, proving that topical humor existed in 1929--and not just about the Florida landboom. Though the opening shot crudely captures the actual New Amsterdam Theater on West 42nd street off of Broadway--where Cantor was starring at the time in Ziegfeld's production of "Whoppee"-- the rest of the film is set in a nightclub on top of the theater--though clearly it was photographed at Paramounts Astoria Studios in Queens. (The director is Joseph Santley, who co-directed the Marx Brothers "Cocoanuts" at the same time at Astoria. Even Oscar Shaw and Mary Eaton, the boring co-stars of "The Cocanuts"--turn up in this film. It has the feeling of everybody being on the lot and running back and forth between soundstages...)
In the last year or two of the 1920's, Broadway's biggest stars were doing Vaudeville at the Palace, performing in their own Broadway vehicles at night (and twice a week matinees) and being raced across the bridge to record their material in front of the new sound movie equipment that was, suddenly, invading the culture--internet-ishly--and changing everything for ever. (How the hell did they keep the schedules they kept? Answer: gin, cigarettes, coffee and "pep" pills. Also, nobody ate anything) The great thing about most of these early films is that they aren't really films as we think of them--they are recordings of stage acts. Whole features of Broadway shows (The Marx Brothers "The Cocoanuts" , Cantor's "Whopee") were "recorded"--and while they fail as conventional filmmaking, they succede in another, more ghostly and revealing way; they are genuinely voyeuristic journey's into the past. The uninflected filmmaking--the flat visuals, the stodgy pacing, the obvious groping in the dark that was going on technically--serve to keep the performances locked in the period, frozen in their time.
The film's in two parts and is courtesy (I guess-I didn't ask his permish) of someone who calls himself perfectjazz78 and posts some of the most interesting videos on youtube that you'll find.
Posted by Raymond De Felitta at 7:10 PM