Monday, May 19, 2008

Some of the second-best

Unfortunately, I don't look at TCM's on-line schedule often enough, and so I have a tendency to miss out on which shorts are coming up. Imagine my dismay, then, when I tuned in to watch Gang War this morning at 6:15, and found that TCM were showing the last few minutes of MGM's 25th anniversary featurette, Some of the Best. It's a fairly standard tribute, narrated by Lionel Barrymore. Barrymore introduces us to snippets of one MGM picture from each of MGM's first 25 years of movie making, followed by some scenes from upcoming MGM movies in 1949, and ending with the highlight, scenes from the birthday banquet. There's a long pan of almost the entire stable of MGM's stars, and much of the fun of watching Some of the Best is in trying to identify all of the stars. (The other interesting thing is spotting which ones came straight from the sound stages, as they're still in their costumes.) The bad news is that Some of the Best has not yet made it onto DVD as a bonus feature to anything. It really does deserve wider recognition.

Although MGM's 25th anniversary party isn't on DVD yet, Warner Brothers' is: the 1930 short pretentiously titled An Intimate Dinner in Celebration of Warner Brothers' Silver Jubilee; it's listed as being part of the three-disc 80th anniversary release of Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer. Warner Brothers was not as prestigious a studio as MGM, and it shows in the making of WB's 25th annivesary party.

While MGM had Lionel Barrymore narrate their feature, Warner Bros. hired actors to play hosts "Mr. and Mrs. Warner", and decided to salute their still-new Vitaphone technology by having much of the festivities announced by an irritating child actress playing "Little Miss Vitaphone". Now, Warner Bros. hadn't actually been making movies for 25 years at the time this short was made; indeed, in later years Warners have celebrated different anniversary that imply the business was not founded in 1905 but several years later. Instead of a montage of classic WB movies, we only get the montage of stars, most of them sitting at the banquet table. A few of the big Warner Bros. stars of the day, notably Richard Barthelmess, George Arliss and John Barrymore, were on location shooting movies and unable to make it to the banquet, and this is where WB's short-sightedness is at its most obvious: they consciously made a decision to showcase the Vitaphone technology, and should have used it to have the absent stars deliver recorded addresses congratulating the studio on its anniversary. Instead, Warners stuck to the tried-and-true silent technique of displaying the actors' photos, and telegrams of congratulations, leaving the telegrams on screen long enough for the audience to read.

The sound is used more for an opportunity to showcase a few of the songs in upcoming WB movies, although it should be remembered that musicals weren't that good back in 1930. The plus side, though, is that they showed the songwriters. Richard Rodgers had not yet teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein; he was still in his partnership with Lorenz Hart, so it's Rodgers and Hart who are seated together. Hammerstein is instead seated next to Sigmund Romberg. The other plus is being able to put names to faces; unlike MGM's Some of the Best, Little Miss Vitaphone gives us the courtesy of naming the actors and actresses at the banquet.

For the most part, Warner Bros. Silver Jubilee is a museum piece. But it's a valuable one, and I'm glad it's on DVD.

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