Friday, December 9, 2016

Beggars of Life recording sessions, details around the music

In the previous Louise Brooks Society blog, I referenced the Discography of American Historical Recordings (DAHR), an online database which contains details of recordings from the first decades of the 20th century. I have looked at this database in the past, but was reminded of its existence while reading Michael Hammond's essay, "Cowboys, Beggars and the ‘Deep Ellum Blues’: Playing Authentic to Silent Films," in Today's Sounds for Yesterday's Films: Making Music for Silent Cinema, edited by K.J. Donnelly and Ann-Kristin Wallengren.

What can be found there related to Louise Brooks and Beggars of Life?

Let's start with the familiar theme song by Karl Hajos (composer) and J. Keirn Brennan (lyricist). It was released as a 78 rpm on the Victor label. Click on the video to listen to a recording played on a 1927 Orthophonic Victrola, model 8-30.


The DAHR page tells us a lot about this recording, and even when it was recorded. This version, an instrumental with vocal refrain, is by The Troubadours, and was recorded in New York City on September 13, 1928, about a week before the film's official release and almost two weeks after the silent version of the film began showing in the United States. [A prior recording session, held on August 30th, didn't seem to work out, with two of its three takes being destroyed.] We can safely assume this commercial recording was not featured on the film's soundtrack, though its label indicates it was the "Theme Song of the Motion Picture Production Beggars of Life."



The Troubadours were a studio group directed by the well known Nathaniel Shilkret; the instrumentation on this recording was listed as 4 violins, cello, bass, 4 saxophones, 2 cornets, 2 trombones, tuba, banjo, 2 pianos, and 2 traps. The vocal quartet was composed of Wilfred Glenn (bass), Jack Parker (tenor), Phil Dewey (tenor), and Frank Luther (tenor).

"Beggars of Life" proved popular. At least two different pieces of sheet music were issued (pictured below), along with at least three other 78 rpm recordings by other artists like the Bar Harbor Society Orchestra (with Irving Kaufman), Seger Ellis, Scrappy Lambert, and others. I recently purchased a rare platter of the Bar Harbor Society Orchestra 78 rpm.



The song was also issued for player piano. Here is an image of just such a recording, which I also purchased some years ago..

 

This is fascinating stuff, to be sure. But here is where the DAHR database really gets interesting.

Because it is considered lost, there has been a lot of speculation about what the original soundtrack for Beggars of Life might have sounded like. (The film was released in two versions, one was silent for those theaters not yet equipped to handle sound films--then a new thing, and one was with an accompanying soundtrack recording featuring music, sound effects, and a song reportedly sung by Wallace Beery. Those theaters that received a silent version likely would have also received or would have purchased from their local exchange a cue sheet for use by their local musician so they could provide their own music.)



Clues to what the sound version of the film sounded like can be found in the DAHR database, as it includes details for each of the recording sessions for the soundtrack for Beggars of Life! Each of the Beggars of Life sessions were recorded by the Motion Picture Orchestra (a group of otherwise anonymous studio musicians) under the direction of Emmanuel Baer and others. At each session, various takes were recorded for each reel of this 9 reel film. Here are pertinent details.

Reel 1 was recorded on 8/20/1928 in the Camden, New Jersey studio with an orchestra of 27 men, with Emmanuel Baer (director) and Irvin Talbot (assistant director).

Reel 2 was recorded on 8/20/1928 in the Camden, New Jersey studio with an orchestra of 34 men, with Emmanuel Baer (director) and Irvin Talbot (assistant director).

Reel 3 was recorded on 8/21/1928 in the Camden, New Jersey studio with an orchestra of 34 men, with Emmanuel Baer (director) and Nathaniel Finston (assistant director), as well as a male vocal quartet used on take 4. Max Terr was choral director for the male vocal quartet, which was composed of Donald Wells, William Cleary, R. Moody, and A. Ray. Train sound effects were also recorded on the first two takes, but not on the last two.

Reel 4 was recorded on 8/21/1928 in the Camden, New Jersey studio with an orchestra of 27 men, with Emmanuel Baer (director) and Nathaniel Finston (assistant director), as well as a solo male vocalist, Donald Wells.

Reel 5 was recorded on 8/22/1928 in the Camden, New Jersey studio with an orchestra of 27 men, with Emmanuel Baer (director) and Nathaniel Finston (assistant director). Studio ledgers note Max Terr was present.


Reel 6 was recorded on 8/22/1928 in the Camden, New Jersey studio with an orchestra of 27 men, with Emmanuel Baer (director) and Nathaniel Finston (assistant director). Studio ledgers note Max Terr was present.

Reel 7 was recorded on 8/23/1928 in the Camden, New Jersey studio with an orchestra of 27 men, with Emmanuel Baer (director) and Max Terr (assistant director).

Reel 8 was recorded on 8/23/1928 in the Camden, New Jersey studio with an orchestra of 27 men, with Emmanuel Baer (director) and Max Terr (assistant director).  

Reel 9 was recorded on 8/24/1928 in the Camden, New Jersey studio with an orchestra of 27 men, with Emmanuel Baer (director) and Max Terr (assistant director), as well as a male vocal quartet composed of William Cleary, Donald Wells, A. Ray, and R. Moody.

But wait, there's more! There were also recording sessions for a prologue and an epilogue to the film, something I was not previously aware of.

Prologue session #1 was recorded on 8/23/1928 in the Camden, New Jersey studio with an orchestra of 27 men, with Emmanuel Baer (director) and Max Terr (assistant director), along with a male vocal quartet composed of William Cleary, Donald Wells, A. Ray, and R. Moody, and a recitation by Harrison Brockbank! [In my 20-plus years of researching this film, I have never come across a reference to a recitation in any of the hundreds of reviews I have collected. It's possible it wasn't used after all. And before you ask, I have no idea what the recitation entailed. Perhaps it was the lyrics to "Beggars of Life," or perhaps it was some passage from Jim Tully's book? Or perhaps it was something wholly unrelated and in all likelihood sentimental.]

Prologue session #2 was recorded on 8/24/1928 in the Camden, New Jersey studio with an orchestra of 27 men, with Emmanuel Baer (director) and Max Terr (assistant director), along with a male vocal quartet composed of William Cleary, Donald Wells, A. Ray, and R. Moody,

Epilogue session was recorded on 8/24/1928 in the Camden, New Jersey studio with an orchestra of 27 men, with Emmanuel Baer (director) and Max Terr (assistant director), along with a male vocal quartet composed of William Cleary, Donald Wells, A. Ray, and R. Moody.

After all these sessions, and after the film had opened in a small number of markets (Indianapolis, Indiana and Salt Lake City, Utah on September 1, and in Battle Creek, Michigan on September 2),  most everyone went back to the studio to rerecord new tracks. The Victor records note:

Reel 3 was rerecorded on 9/4/1928 and 9/10/29 in the Camden, New Jersey studio with an orchestra  (takes 1A-3A) and an orchestra of 29 men (takes 4-6A), with Emmanuel Baer (director) and and Max Terr (assistant director). Notably, the sound effects were dropped, as was Nathaniel Finston (the original assistant director).

Reel 4 was rerecorded on 9/4/1928 in the Camden, New Jersey studio with an orchestra of 27 men, with Emmanuel Baer (director) and Max Terr (assistant director). Notably, the male vocalist was dropped, as was Nathaniel Finston (the original assistant director).

Reel 9 was rerecorded on 9/4/1928 in the Camden, New Jersey studio with an orchestra of 27 men, with Emmanuel Baer (director) and Max Terr (assistant director). Notably, the male vocal quartet was dropped.

This image from 1925 shows a recording session from the time.

Over the years, many well known jazz and classical musicians recorded at Victor's Camden, New Jersey studio. Caruso’s later recordings, including his last recording in 1920, were done there, as were the first recordings by Arturo Toscanini and the visiting La Scala Orchestra, also in 1920. A few years later, in 1927, Vladimir Horowitz’s first recordings were recorded at the Camden Church Studios. Among the many popular artists who recorded there were Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington and the Carter Family.

In addition to electrical phonograph record recording, the Camden Church Studio also did some early motion picture sound recording.  Beginning in 1927, equipment for recording motion picture sound tracks on disks synchronized with film was added to the studio. Reportedly, one of the first sessions was for the William Wellman-directed Wings, starring Clara Bow, Richard Arlen and Buddy Rogers. Additionally, Rodgers recorded his popular song "(I'd like to be) A bee in your boudor" at the Camden Church Studio in 1930. (That song, as well as Beggars of Life, can be heard on RadioLulu.)

In 1935, the city of Camden decided to extend its subway system below the church location. At first the construction and later the subway noise ended the church building as a recording location. Most recording was moved to New York or other locations. 

Back to Beggars of Life. Newspaper articles and advertisements of the time tell us a little about the nature of the sound version of Beggars of Life. Commenting on its New York City premiere at the Paramount Theater, Women's Wear Daily noted "All of these stars outdo themselves in this picture. Wallace Beery talks in this picture, sings a hobo song and ends with an observation about jungle rats in general." The New Yorker also commented on "the synchronized accompaniment of sentimental music."


Elsewhere, the New Orleans Item observed, "Vitaphone helps the story along with music that is fitting and well arranged. The 'Hallelujah I'm a Bum' rhythm helps the story's speed." Peggy Patton of the Wisconsin News wrote "Wallace Beery, Richard Arlen (also playing in Wings) and Louise Brooks play the featured roles. All do praiseworthy work. By the way it is a sound picture and Wallace Beery speaks a few lines and sings a song. His speaking voice is splendid." Frank Aston of the Cincinnati Post penned, "The direction is admirable. Vitaphonic sounds lend some extra force. Beery is heard singing." The San Diego Union added, "Accompanied by a synchronized musical score of more than average excellence, the picture provides an hour and a half of film entertainment radically out of line with the general run of cinema drama. It is pungent, powerful, appealing, masterfully directed and superbly acted."

Where the sound version of the film played, newspaper advertisements often proclaimed something along the lines of “Come hear Wallace Beery sing!” But what that song was is uncertain. The stout, gravel-voiced actor was not known as a crooner. Reliable sources, including the director's son, site one of two similar titles, “Hark the Bells” or “Don’t You Hear Them Bells?” While at least two newspaper advertisements for the film, including the NYC advertisement pictured above, mention the songs "I Wonder Where She Sits at Night" and "Beggars of Life."
"Completely synchronized with sound"


Some years ago, I obtained censorship records for Beggars of Life from the State of New York. Among the documents was a cover letter dated October 22, 1928 which stated that attached was a copy of the dialogue for the sound print of the film. That dialogue was contained on a single page, and was titled "Song Sung by Wallace Beery in Beggars of Life." Provided these records are complete (I have the records for each of Brooks' films, and some are obviously incomplete, with documents having been removed over the years), here is the "spoken dialogue" to Beggars of Life.



I mentioned earlier that the soundtrack to Beggars of Life is considered lost. It's likely that there were 9 large sound soundtrack platters which accompanied the film, one for each reel. However, I know with certainty that at least one of those platters still exists in the hands of a private collector. I have been told that it is the first platter, which may or may not contain the mysterious recitation. I can't say anymore, as I don't know anymore than this.

Maybe, someday.


The lyrics to "Beggars of Life" read:

"Beggars of life, beggars of life;
Gypsy hearts that are sighing
For skies of blue, sunlight and dew,
Out where swallows are flying.
Each one longing to be led
To a happy homestead,
Where love will cry,
'Don't pass me by!'
Beggars of life, come home!"

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