Let’s Go Into A Picture Show: Reviews

“​This is an illuminating, well-produced hoot—26 original recordings from 1907-1922 featuring the best vocalists and musicians of the time. Piano work is wonderful, vocal arrangements are lighthearted.” –Alix Cohen
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Jersey Jazz Review by Joe Lang

Let’s Go Into A Picture Show is a fascinating and unique collection of early recordings.  This compilation of 26 songs, recorded between 1907 and 1922, are related to the pre-talkie films, either in subject matter or as music played in theaters during the screening of silent films.  These tracks were taken from vintage recordings, and while cleaned up as much as technically possible, the audio quality varies.  This is a historical collection with the objective of presenting an interesting sampling of the music inspired by the advent of the early film industry.  Most, if not all, of the material will be new to most listeners.  Some selections are laugh out loud funny, while others reflect various social influences resulting from the increasing popularity of film.  Few people today would recognize the names of the performers captured on these selections, with Billy Murray probably the singer who might be a familiar name to some.  There is even a humorous track “Cartoons in Tunes (Father Was Right) performed by Rube Goldberg, best known for creating cartoons depicting complicated mechanical devices.  This is definitely a collection of curiosities that will not appeal to everyone, but will grab the attention of those interested in music from the early part of the 20th Century.  It is a curiosity, but it is surprising how quickly you can find yourself drawn in by these recordings if you approach them with an open mind.  A lot of love and dedication went into preparing and producing this material, and visiting it can be rewarding indeed. 

“…a fascinating look at the mores of life and pop culture of the times. Wonderfully done.”

Cadence Magazine, Annual Print Edition, 2019

This non-leader issued CD presents 26 songs [79:54] connected to various movies from 1927-1922. Most of these songs of antiquity have lyrics sung in the stiff trembly voice that characterizes burlesque of the era prior to the talkies. The tunes are associated with movie stars of the period, Chaplin, Pickford, Fairbanks and so forth. It’s a fascinating look at the mores of life and pop culture of the times. The picture show promised many things; mostly a way to escape through entertainment and the songs are often suggestive of pending romance (pretty much the same as today). The last tune here is a 1922 recording of  “The Sheik Of Araby” performed by Charles Hart, Elliott and Everett Clark. A 32-page liner booklet with printed lyrics and wonderful photos are included. Thankfully jazz was soon to arrive. Wonderfully done.

May I suggest a worthwhile trip in a time machine? In this era when movies are readily accessible not just at multiplex cinemas, but can be streamed and downloaded to watch any old time, it may be difficult to think of motion pictures as a new-fangled wonder. At first silent, and in black and white, they were more of an Event to go out to see, not assumed to be available again. No wonder they inspired a bounty of songs, many celebrating the genre and its early stars. Harbinger Records/Musical Theater Project recordings have brought us many historic delights, but the charming and cheery package named after one of its many numbers, Let’s Go in to a Picture Show is an invitation tough to resist, even if we’re just listening and the movies are in our minds. Seems like a fair trade-off/turnaround, since the “flickers” were all about visuals, once without spoken or sung words. These are genuine songs of their day (a few on piano rolls, their lyrics not heard), culled from contemporaneous recordings, so it’s a time capsule of the real deal. The material is all within several years on either side of being 100 years old.

Quaint or even alien to modern ears and their earbuds, and 21st century sensibilities, what now arguably seems innocent can also be fascinating as a window to another way of life. Don’t worry—you’ll be pulled up to speed with perspective and explanations of ancient references and names faded from fame with the helpfully informative liner notes by Ron Magliozzi (curator of the Department of Film for New York City’s Museum of Modern Art) who co-produced with Eric D. Bernhoft, who did the sound restoration and pianola realizations. Yes, they are gallant and honest enough, if a bit melodramatic, to state that we are hereby “warned” that there will be the sounds of “age and wear” of the source material, some of which dates back to the days of cylinders, pre-records. A generous optimist may claim this adds necessary atmosphere and authenticity, but even the spoiled audiophile curmudgeon should begrudgingly admit that it’s not in the deal-breaking, ear-aching category. By and large, it’s all several notches above “more than acceptably listenable,” despite the understandable crackle or muffled tones here and there. The historical value is worth some struggle and strain to be carefully listening past the distractions evident on some of the big banquet of 26 tracks. The lyrics are all there in the booklet (except for the final and “newest” item—they’re arranged chronologically—one of those most likely to be somewhat familiar to the casual nostalgic music fan, “The Sheik of Araby”).

The cornucopia is nicely varied and redundancy-resistant, so as not to pile up too many similar compositions on similar specific topics. However, the non-sufeited among the listeners (see me raise my hand) will likely have appetites whetted for more by the booklet’s casual title-teasing (naming non-included things that sound intriguing or amusing).

Since much of what’s here falls under the heading of “novelty songs” or “comedy numbers,” poking fun at human behavior and the fans’ fascination with film, titles indeed often tell you what to expect: how the family back home is now ignored “Since Mother Goes to Movie Shows”; a crush from afar on a star (“My Picture Girl”); the practical advice (?) about dark movie theatres, to “Take Your Girlies to the Movies” (“if you can’t make love at home”); the offhandedly chipper “Poor Pauline” (about the predicament-prone heroine of the series Perils of Pauline). An especially likeable piece tells about Dad committing robbery and bullfighting and more—all in a day’s work of scenes being filmed because he’s an actor and “He’s Working in the Movies Now.” Billy Murray has a sly storyteller’s way with a lyric here.

The instrumentals sprinkled throughout give respite in the big tunestack from the high-whimsy-quotient of story-songs. Jaded mindsets and changing times will make us hear things differently now: the guy with “His Cute Moving Picture Machine” filming the neighbors’ presumed private canoodling would now be brought up on charges of voyeurism. And souvenirs of sexism may chafe: in “Since Mother Goes to Movie Shows,” the hungry, crying baby wants someone to make dinner “But that’s not a job for males”; and what but suffer can you do if you’re a gal out for the too-long night on the town on a budget-watching, inattentive guy? Plead petulantly in a whiny character voice “If That’s Your Idea of a Wonderful Time (Take Me Home”). This last one is a 1914 character number by Irving Berlin and the unhappy female is voiced by Ada Jones, not unlike a cartoon character sound reminiscent of Olive Oyl or Betty Boop on a bad day (or, rather, bad date).

Besides Broadway legend Berlin, quite a few writers’ names will ring at least a distant bell to the aficionado of tunesmiths who contributed to musical theatre productions, such as Harry B. Smith, who wrote for Ziegfeld’s legendary extravaganzas, and active (if not we’ll remembered) craftsmen like Neil Moret and Albert Gumble, who wrote a show about a guy with the charming name of Mr. Moneypenny. In fact, out of curiosity, I looked up every songwriter’s name in the big index of musical theatre songs put together by a man also responsible for these Harbinger packages, Ken Bloom, and found more often than not that these folks contributed multiple times to what was heard on stages of yore.

Stylizations and sounds of yore are present galore: There are rolled r’s here, a pinched vocal sound there, arch characterization in the narration of a no-so-thickened plot, and, of course, language choices that date as poorly as the poor woman in the Irving Berlin song: references to spooning, calling females maids or girlies, terms like “raise the dickens” and “she’s a peach” (that’s a good thing, by the way). Call them aural snapshots of times gone by; if they sounded as if they were written yesterday, there would be little point in the excavation, right? It’s all an enlightening and often refreshing time warp provided by the real deal of significant samples. It’s the name-dropping that most specifically ties us to the era, as quite a few lyrics reference stars of the day: daydreaming dishwashing drudge subject of the song “Come Out of the Kitchen, Mary Ann” longs to be among the references Douglas Fairbanks, Theda Bara, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin. Pickford is serenaded directly in “Dear Daddy Long Legs,” published the same week her movie title referenced premiered and all four stars are also among the many mentioned as dancing “At the Moving Picture Ball,” a deliciously delivered version, again courtesy of Billy Murray. And the ubiquitous Little Tramp and his trademark shuffling gait are separately the object of affection in two other titles, which are among the highlights and quite accessible: “Those Charlie Chaplin Feet” and “They All Do the Charlie Chaplin Walk.” One of Chaplin’s own instrumental compositions is included for good measure, as a tip of the bowler hat: “The Peace Patrol,” a pleasant dalliance, performed by the Metropolitan Military Band.

The entertainingly eclectic package is complemented not just by the interesting tidbits about the times and titles, but several photos of old movie palaces (mostly in black and white, like the films celebrated). Note that this is mainly a collection of commentaries on films as a not-so-passing fad, the activity of going to them, and how they affected people, but there are samples of music actually played in releases of the day, or to promote them (such as the worshipful marketing of “Zudora,” well worth one’s hard-earned ten cents, you’d be convinced (“I dream of you/ And ev’ry time, dear/ I have a dime, dear,/I spend it for a glimpse of Zudora”). The collection was originally put together a dozen years ago this month for a silent film festival in Italy. Grazie to this record label’s chiefs, Ken Bloom and Bill Rudman, for not letting it be silent for the rest of us. Pass the popcorn.