The song Where’s that Rainbow wasoriginally written in 1928. Much later it was sung in the film Words and Music, a fictionalized story about the songwriting duo Rodgers and Lorenz. In this clip of the 1948 film, it is not the song but the rainbow-coloured petticoats that steal my attention!
Chasing rainbows in our collection, I found these two similarly inventive illustrations. The right one is by Würth for There’s a Rainbow round my Shoulder (1928). He may have been inspired by André de TaKacs‘ drawing of 1918 for the song I Found the End of the Rainbow.
Another imaginative cover places the woman in a less glamorous role, although she seems content to knit her own fantasy.1
All these rainbow images are but a preamble to share with you a gem of a short film by Len Lye.
In 1936 Lye, born in New Zealand, made an experimental film in England promoting a Post Office Savings Bank. It was called Rainbow Dance and ended with the words: “The Post Office Savings Bank puts a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for you. No deposit too small for the Post Office Savings Bank.” The film is an experiment with colour and rhythm. In it Lye uses abstract backgrounds, collage effects, live footage and direct-to-film animation effects. The psychedelic film starts with purple rain avant la lettre. Then we see a city dweller morphing into coloured asterisks, a musician, a hiker and a tennis player. When the tennis player makes a leap, he leaves behind a trace of colourful silhouettes like a futuristic painting.
Be patient please, we’ ll show the film at the end. But first this.
The silhouetted dancer in Lye’s Rainbow Dance is Rupert Doone, a one-time lover of Jean Cocteau. While Doone whirled his moves before a white screen, a gramophone played Tony’s Wife, a wonderful rumba by Burton Lane. Lane would later compose the score for the musical Finian’s Rainbow: a story about an Irishman who has stolen a leprechaun’s pot of gold.
I’ll let you decide what to think of Francis Ford Coppola’s attempt to turn the musical into a film. In the clip Tommy Steele plays an obnoxious leprechaun and Barbara Hancock a dancing nymph. It was filmed in 1968, but even then must have looked outdated.
And now the long-promised Rainbow Dance, the phantasmagorical 1936 film by Len Lye. Feast your eyes !
Actually the lady is knitting with celanese, a combination of ‘cellulose acetate’ and ‘ease of care’, referring to the easy wear of acetate fabrics, as promoted by the chemical company Celanese.
Asta Nielsen is the first actress who became an international star. It’s true. The Deutsches Filminstitut hosted the 2011 conference Importing Asta Nielsen – Cinema-going and the Making of the Star System in the Early 1910s, at the Film Museum in Frankfurt. A result of this international gathering is the Importing Asta Nielsen Database accessible for cultural researchers all over the world.
According to this database ‘Asta Nielsen was the first international film star who made her name a brand, nearly unrivalled in many countries in the years 1911 and 1912’.
The sheet music cover we started with (Oh! Asta!) is from 1917. It tells, no it sings about a young man who –in the darkness of a cinema– falls for the wild charms of Asta. And who wouldn’t? Look at how charming and natural Asta is in the 30-seconds opening scene of the 1910 silent film The Abyss (Afgrunden in Danish) filmed by Urban Gad, who she would marry two years later.
Nielsen was born in 1881 in Copenhagen. At eighteen she followed classes at the Royal Danish Theatre and… got pregnant. She gave birth to a daughter, Jesta, who would in the 1960’s, when her mother was already 83 years old, commit suicide. Asta Nielsen never revealed the identity of the father. She graduated when she was twenty-two, and became a stage actress in Denmark, Norway and Sweden. In 1909 she started her film career with ‘Afgrunden’, in which she wisely adapted her acting to the demands of the film media: she performed naturally and avoided theatrical dramatization.
But above all her undisguised and shameless sexuality must have propelled her films and her career. Oh my! She’s really hot in what must have been the first ‘Gaucho Dance’ in cinematography (it heralds the craze of the Argentine tango that would offend Europe right before WWI). Look how she wriggles in her tightly stretched dress. See her wiggling her hips and pushing her bottom against that poor cowboy. Please, stop the torture!
We have added the music of the great Martha Argerich playing the Danza Del Gaucho Matrero by the Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera. For the unedited, 37-minute silent movie Abgrunden, click here. While researching we found a different iconographic representation of the Gaucho dance, somewhat less erotic, uh…
The dancing Argentine cowboys and girls conquered the covers of many European sheet music. Here are two examples from our collection.
Asta Nielsen developed most of her film career in Germany until the mid-Thirties, when sound took over the silent era. The success of what was known as ‘Asta Nielsen films’ was immense, from Russia to the United States, where her films were heavily censored. Called the first international movie star, Nielsen earned a staggering salary. In 1925 she co-starred in the Pabst film Die freudlose Gasse with the next Scandinavian diva, Greta Garbo. Nielsen was portrayed on many film posters by artists (such as Ernst Deutsch-Dryden and Robert Leonard) who we also know as designers of sheet music covers.
In 1935 Nielsen returned to Denmark where she continued acting on stage, wrote her biography, had a creative hand in visual arts, and travelled a lot with her third husband. She died in 1972.
Voici le style moderne: the Katanga Fox Trot! The forthright and powerful cover made by Alfred Bernier has the typical Art Deco marks. A purified theme, rendered with honest lines and shapes. The natural forms are geometrically stylised, they become streamlined. Repeated elements create a rhythmic tableau of colours, shapes and letters for the song about a man longing both for the faraway land and the woman who lives there.
We know next to nothing about Bernier. Having studied at the Académie de Bruxelles, he was active as an illustrator for Belgian music publishers during the end of the Twenties. He was born near Buenos Aires in 1888. We have two other covers in our collection, one of which is the black and white ‘Volga!’. This is thousand miles away from Katanga, but also a delicious Art Deco cover. The stark composition expresses the strength of the workmen and the violent wind. Again, repeated elements create a dynamic scene, frozen in time.
The song by Charles Tutelier was probably inspired by the 1926 epic silent movie of Cecil B. DeMille, The Volga Boatman.
This big-scaled romantic melodrama, set in the 1917 Russian Revolution, was a shift from the usual anti-Bolshevik films, in that it also focussed on the oppression and the cruelty of the Czar’s regime and did not portray all the revolutionaries as just dumb and violent agitators. On the contrary, our hero is even susceptible to romantic entanglement. See for yourself in this short montage we made from the 2-hour classic of the silent screen.
The film gets an unintentional Dadaistic twist when the social order is being ‘revolutionised’ by the Reds.
The film was an international success and generated sheet music covers in many countries.
One can wonder why in 1917 the title character had to work as a boatman on the Volga. For at least a few decades there hadn’t been any boatmen (Burlaks or barge haulers) working on the Volga. Cecil B. DeMille called this tampering with ‘details’ from the past, telescoping history. His reason was probably very Hollywoodesque: if the American audience knew one Russian song, then it undoubtedly was The Song of the Volga Boatman. Let’s take a minute to hear and see a poignant and primal rendition of the song by the Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff.
‘Ey, ukhnem!’ is the Russian title of the well-known traditional folk song. In 1866 it was published for the first time, with only one (disconcerting Boy Scoutish) verse:
The firm stance of Christoff calls to my mind the posture of the gentleman singer drawn by Jules David for the song ‘Ténors et Basses’.
In 1873 Ilya Repin finished his iconic (almost 3m wide!) painting of burlaks along the longest river of Europe, in Tsarist Russia. It both condemns inhumane and harsh working conditions, while also saluting the dignity and long-suffering of the exhausted working class.
It was not only in Russia that ships were pulled by manpower along a tow path. Wherever it was impractical to sail, human force was used to drag the vessels. In the second half of the 19th century it apparently was a favourite theme for painters.
We found unsettling photographs of this human labour.
Later vehicles and beasts of burden replaced the human pullers, before the work became obsolete when ships were fitted with engines. Towing paths now offer pleasant walks and tourist rides.
One more thing. Volga also was the name of a car manufactured by GAZ in the USSR from 1956 on. The Soviet nomenklatura chose the Volga as their favourite car to commute between the Kremlin and their dacha. For many Russian generations the brand became the symbol of style and success. The first model was the GAZ-M-21. But then, that’s a completely different hobby…