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Warner Archive releases early musicals

CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD

'Rio Rita,' 'On With the Show!' and 'It's a Great Life' are some of the first in the groundbreaking movie genre getting a DVD release.

December 02, 2009
  • The Duncan Sisters star in the 1929 film "It's a Great Life," one of the first musicals shown in movie theaters.
The Duncan Sisters star in the 1929 film "It's a Great Life,"… (Warner Bros. )

The silence was broken on Oct. 6, 1927, when Warner Bros. premiered "The Jazz Singer" in New York City.

Though there were numerous silent scenes in the melodrama starring Broadway giant Al Jolson, audiences couldn't believe their ears when he burst into song performing his standards, including "Mammy," "Toot, Toot Tootsie!" and "Blue Skies." Jolson even managed to get in a few words of dialogue between tunes, telling the crowd: "Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothin' yet!"

And audiences wanted to hear more, so studios scrambled to produce musicals.

Some of these early musicals were actually terrific, including Rouben Mamoulian's dark 1929 "Applause" and Ernst Lubitsch's witty 1929 "The Love Parade." MGM's 1929 "The Broadway Melody" about a sister act, won the second best picture Oscar.

"Remember, a lot of people had never seen a professionally done musical, so this was their introduction," says film musical historian Richard Barrios, author of "A Song in the Dark," which has just been published in a new edition. "The musical was the only genre of film that had not been possible before sound, so all of a sudden this new type of film came overnight."

But more often than not, the films were retreads of the same backstage story or an all-star revue. The camera work was static, and the performances were less than stellar. Years later, Hollywood spoofed these creaky musicals in the 1952 classic "Singin' in the Rain."

"They were under so much pressure to get these things out fast and beat the competitors that a lot of times you see an actor [forgetting a line] or while dancing drop a cane," Barrios says.

By early 1931, audiences grew tired of these movies. It wasn't until Busby Berkeley reenergized the genre with his surreal, exotic dance routines in 1933's "42nd Street" that audiences began lining up again.

Despite their flaws, these early musicals are an astonishing time capsule of a bygone era.

"You see Hollywood kind of figuring it out as they go along," Barrios says. "You are at the birth of something new."

This week Warner Archive released 10 of these vintage films with another wave due in the spring. Among the titles are 1929's "Rio Rita," "On With the Show!," "Sally" and "It's a Great Life" and 1930's "Golden Dawn."

Several of these films were shot in two-strip Technicolor with "On With the Show!" being the first all-color musical. However, the color prints of most of these movies don't exist.

"The reason why most of the films don't survive in color is the two-color Technicolor process became unprintable when they phased out of the process," says George Feltenstein, senior vice president of theatrical catalog for Warner Home Video. "There weren't machines that could print them anymore. As a result, they threw out the negatives, but Warner Bros. kept black-and-white for references."

Still, there are color sequences in several of the movies released this week, including the finale of "Rio Rita," RKO's biggest box office hit until 1933's "King Kong."

These movies also let audiences see some of Broadway and vaudeville's heralded performers of the time, including Marilyn Miller ("Sally," "Sunny"), Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey ("Rio Rita"), the Duncan Sisters ("It's a Great Life"), Vivienne Segal ("Golden Dawn") and Ethel Waters ("On With the Show!").

Though some performers' magic didn't translate to the screen, Waters is a breath of fresh air in "On With the Show!" when she introduces "Am I Blue?," and Miller shines in "Sally."

"Marilyn Miller was the biggest female star on Broadway," Barrios says. "They found one scene of color from 'Sally,' and it's the best number, called 'Wild Rose.' There you see exactly who she was and what she was. She was famous for her dancing, and it's not really what you call skill dancing. She wasn't a very good singer, but you see the charisma. It was a huge hit."

In a class by itself, though, is "Golden Dawn," which is shocking in its political incorrectness -- even by the racist standards of the time.

Based on an operetta, the film stars Segal as a white young woman who had grown up in an African tribe, selected to be a virgin priestess for the tribe's god, a portly wooden statue. The white actor Noah Beery appears in total blackface as Shep, the henchman who sings the appropriately titled "The Whip Song."

"Apart from the subject matter, it almost makes 'Birth of a Nation' look like 'Precious,' " Barrios says.

"The thing is that they don't do it halfway, they are going for broke and with such appalling material. . . . It's terrible, but it's a very particular kind of terrible. You can say Noah Beery is horrible, but in one way he's really good because he's going for the blood and thunder melodrama. But the nature of what he's doing at the same time is hideous."

"It's one of those movies that truly fits into the 'so bad it's good' format," Feltenstein says. "It's wildly funny and always weird."

susan.king@latimes.com.

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