Category Archives: Film

Cryin’ for the Carolines: the first music video ever?

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‘Cryin’ For The Carolines’, illustrated by Würth (Publications Francis-Day, Paris, 1930)

For the cover of the American song Cryin’ For The Carolines, the French illustrator Würth designed an imaginary art-deco tropical landscape of the Caroline Islands. Complete with palm tree, bird-of-paradise and Pacific Ocean it echoes the weariness with city life expressed in the lyrics:

     Big town you lured me,
     Big town you cured me,
     Tho’ others hate to say goodbye to you
     I’m leavin’ but I’ll never sigh for you.
     Big town you robbed me of ev’ry joy I knew.

and also conveys the longing for a wild, unspoiled nature:

     How can I smile mile after mile,
     There’s not a bit of green here.
     Birdies all stay far far away,
     They’re seldom ever seen here.

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Left, the American sheet music cover (Remick Music Corp., 1930). Right, composer Harry Warren (the first major American songwriter to write primarily for film) at the piano.

Harry Warren, the prolific film music composer, created Cryin’ For The Carolines in 1930. It was the theme song out of the eight or so songs in the now-forgotten film Spring is here. The cover of the American sheet music shows a movie still, revealing that it is a passionate love story. We spare you the plot!
In the film, the song Cryin’ For The Carolines was performed by the Brox Sisters. They were an a capella girl group enjoying their greatest popularity in the 1920s and early 1930s. They are often considered as the forerunners of The Andrew Sisters.

Both sheet music covers explicitly announce the film Spring is here as a First National and Vitaphone production. Now, Vitaphone was a sound film system which was successfully used by Warner Brothers and its sister studio First National from 1926 to 1931. The soundtrack was not printed on the film itself, but issued separately on phonograph records, resulting in a much better audio quality. The 33 ½ rpm discs would be played on a turntable physically coupled to the projector motor while the film was being projected.

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An engineer demonstrates Vitaphone sound film in 1926. He holds a soundtrack disc, ready to put it on the turntable with a massive tripod base.

Warner Brothers also used the Vitaphone sound system between 1930 and 1931 to distribute their Spooney Melodies. These were a series of five musical short films, which are now considered as the first musical videos ever: the short films had no other aim than to promote the publisher’s music and turn them into world-wide hits. And… now is the moment to clap hands: it seems that our song Cryin’ For The Carolines is the only Spooney Melody to have survived! And it is publicly available.

Milton Charles and Wurlitzer
Organ player and singer Milton Charles, 1897-1991 (source: http://vitaphone.blogspot.fr). On the right, the keyboard of the 1929 ‘Mighty Wurlitzer‘ (photo: Andreas Praefcke).

We concede that the first two minutes (of the six) in the following film are somewhat boring, and yet another demonstration of the primitive card-board animation techniques at that time. But when the live-action, featuring the Singing Organist Milton Charles at his Wurlitzer, is mixed with the moving dark decors, one gets the full homesickness of the song. And from the strange slow images (a blend of Eisenstein, Bauhaus, DaDa and Andreas Feininger’s visual experiments) one feels the message: you cannot but cry for the Carolines…

Warner Brothers abandoned the Spooney Melodies in favour of the Merrie Melodies which still were built around songs but featured recognizable characters and settings. Their first effort was the 1931’s cartoon Lady, Play Your Mandolin. The lady definitely is a rip-off of Mickey Mouse. Hardly a surprise as the animators responsible for the cartoon – Rudolf Ising and Hugh Harman – had previously worked at Walt Disney’s studio.

The soundtrack for the cartoon Lady, Play Your Mandolin was composed by Oscar Levant. The beautiful cover for his theme song is illustrated by the American illustrators and airbrush artists Ben and Georgette Harris, signing their work as Jorj.

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‘Lady, Play Your Mandolin’, illustrated by Jorj (Harms, New York, 1931).

If you can’t get enough of historical links in this story: Nick Lucas who is posing as guitarist on the above cover, once co-starred in Warner Brothers’ Technicolor musical Gold Diggers of Broadway, which was…  a Vitaphone production! Hehe.

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Poster for Gold Diggers of Broadway (source: El blog de Manuel Cerdà)

The vendor of pleasures

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Postcard of a ‘Marchand de plaisirs’, late 19th or early 20th century

‘Marchands de plaisirs’ were cookie vendors in France. They announced their arrival into villages and markets by rattling a metal handle on a wooden board: clac-clac!  They carried and protected their cookies in a large cylindrical container. On the lid of the drum was a roulette wheel. Children, but also elder customers, paid a few coins to spin the wheel that would tell them how many cookies they won.

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A more luxurious cookie container than the one photographed on the postcard above.

The cookies were called plaisirs, which is the French word for ‘pleasures’. These were simple very thin wafers rolled into a cylinder or cone.

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Wafer-thin rolled cookies, called ‘plaisirs’ (also known as ‘oublies’ or ‘oublis’).

Recently I saw a wooden variant of the container at The House of Alijn, a museum dedicated to everyday life. It thus appears that the game or treat was also popular in Belgium during the late 19th and early 20th century. But in the Flemish variant no wafers were involved: one could win roasted hazelnuts or almond-vanilla flavoured macaroons instead. The device though was cleverly rigged: the odds were higher to win nuts rather than the more prized macaroons.

Belgian container 'Makaronkast' at the House of Alijn museum
Belgian container ‘Makaronkast’ at the House of Alijn, Ghent (click on image to view the museum’s description).

Marchands de plaisirs or ‘pleasure vendors’ have been active in France since the Late Middle Ages. They were then called oublieurs or vendors of oublies, the original name for the cookies of which the origin is closely linked to the bread used in catholic liturgy. Their trade was to wander through the streets of Paris every night and to go into the bourgeois households after supper to offer their wafers as desert. However, under the pretext of an innocent cookie-lottery, many of them organised illegal high-stakes gambling and some of them even robbed their patrons. So oublieurs became known as rascals, crooks and thieves. Soon the police forbade these con men to enter the houses at night and imperceptibly the oublieurs vanished. They were succeeded by the marchands de plaisirs who sold their wafers in the public space.

'Le Marchand de Plaisirs', partition musicale illustrée par Poulbot
‘Le Marchand de Plaisirs’, waltz composed by Marcel Lattès and cover illustrated by Poulbot

The lifestyle of the vendor of pleasures inspired the imagination of songwriters and storytellers. Le Marchand de Plaisirs is a waltz composed in 1923 for a silent movie with the same name. The dashing actor Jaque Catelain, who also played the leading role of the vendor named Gosta, directed it. Gosta is a poor young man with an alcoholic father and a ragged mother. He falls in love with a beautiful and rich lady. When his father breaks into her home to steal, Gosta shoots him dead and returns the loot to the beautiful lady. She is thankful to Gosta but marries her rich fiancée –also played by Catelain- who is the spitting but nonetheless more sophisticated image of Gosta. In short, the perfect plot for delicious late night television.
The composer of the waltz is Marcel Lattès who was murdered in Auschwitz in 1943. The sheet music cover for Le Marchand de Plaisirs was illustrated by the Montmartre personality Francisque Poulbot who also designed the film poster.

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Jaque Catelain as illustrated by Poulbot for the movie ‘Le Marchand de Plaisirs’ (left) and a still of Jaque Catelain (right).

The cover for Gaston Maquis’ song about the female vendor of pleasures was created by one of our favourite illustrators: Léon Pousthomis. His sharp drawing makes it perfectly clear that her all-male clientele is not interested in buying cookies but in another kind of pleasure. Are they game enough to spin her wheel?

'La Marchande de Plaisirs', illustrated by Pousthomis
‘La Marchande de Plaisirs’, illustrated by Pousthomis (La Chanson Moderne, ca. 1905)

Zouzou

Haïti, illustrated by Ch. Roussel
Haïti, illustrated by Ch. Roussel

Last night I watched the movie Zouzou directed by Marc Allegret in 1934. Jean and Zouzou are two orphans adopted by a sideshow talker. He presents them in the circus as freaky twins because Jean is white and Zouzou is black. Very strange indeed.

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Josephine Baker as Zouzou and Jean Gabin as Jean.

As adults, Jean (Jean Gabin) becomes a sailor and Zouzou (Josephine Baker) a laundress. Zouzou has an unrequited love for Jean who is only able to love her as a sister. A few intrigues later Zouzou, who is a talented singer and dancer, starts to work in a music hall. And this leads us to the climax of the film when Josephine Baker sings Haïti. Scantily clad in some feathers she sits on a swing in a gilded bird cage like an exotic bird, ending the song with an elegant stage dive.

Bizarrely, for the cover of the sheet music the illustrator selected another scene from the film. Was the scene in the cage too risqué? You can judge for yourself or just enjoy the talented Miss Baker.