Saturday, September 27, 2008

CHILDREN OF DREAMS

Okay, a real treat this time around. CHILDREN OF DREAMS (1931), by no less than Oscar Hammerstein II and Sigmund Romberg, is anything but a high school musical, but it's such a curiosity that I had to post something about it here.

I found the listing on eBay and thought, "Hmm, how cool. It's a stage version of an old movie musical." Well, no. Not at all. First off, it's a Vitaphone picture from Warner Brothers, one of three that Hammerstein and Romberg wrote together. Even though it's listed as a property now owned by Fox, no copies are known to exist.

But here's the deal: it's a screenplay coupled with the full score -- musical numbers, dance sequences, underscoring, the whole shot: a veritable cookbook for making your own movie, should you choose. It dictates pan shots and close ups and every fade in and every fade out. This wasnt something done for inhouse use at Warners: it was a commercially-available publication, which sold for the then-outrageous price of six dollars. I've never seen anything like this before. An acquaintance of mine runs a blog called Vitaphone Varieties (which can be read at http://vitaphone.blogspot.com/). He's seen three or four copies of this at various libraries in Brooklyn, and he too is just as puzzled by its publication as I am.

So what's this mystery piece about? Migrant farm workers -- and not the ones you think of today. Remember: this is 1931, when kids from college would spend the summer picking apples to make a few bucks and folks caught flat-footed by the Depression would drive from one farm to another to eke out a meager living. So our story revolves around two couples: Tommy and Molly and Gus and Gertie. The latter are down-to-earth folk, the kind that you know will get married and raise a bucketload of kids and be happy about it all despite everything. Tommy dreams of a life on the open road with his girl, but things change when Molly is offered the opportunity to go to New York to become an opera singer. Tommy is all noble about it, but you know inside that he feels like a whipped dog, because Molly just happens to be leaving on what he had hoped would be their wedding day. Nevertheless, he sends her on with his best wishes, even as the ensemble is watching Gus and Gertie getting married instead.

After a brief scene with a singing teacher in Rome, suddenly we're in the Metropolitan Opera, where Molly is making her debut as the title character in "Antonia", which, from what I can tell, is a riff on Norma: medieval England, lots of nobility getting into sword fights. Tommy has come to see her perform and winds up at the party afterwards, thrown by the mother-and-son team that took her to New York. The son, Jerry, is obviously smitten with her, for all the good it does him: this woman is now obsessed with her career. But she still remembers what a good voice her boyfriend had, so she convinces Tommy to sing a little something for this crowd of Fifth Avenue swells. Needless to say, it doesnt go well: Tommy might have been the Troubador of the Orchards, but in the big city, he's just another American Idol wannabe. Awkwardness ensues. He goes back to the orchards. She stays in New York.

Two years pass, and now she's making a concert stop in San Francisco. All of society is abuzz about her upcoming marriage to Jerry. Without telling anyone in her entourage, she heads out to the orchards for old times' sake and re-connects with Gertie and Gus, who now have three kids and are deliriously happy. Jerry finds her in the orchard and says, "Look, I know this place means a lot, so why dont we get married here? Right now?" Without bothering to ask if she'd like to do it, he dashes off to find a justice of the peace, while she reminisces about her carefree life as an apple picker -- and, of course, Tommy.

Well, guess who she runs into and who's been pining for her for two solid years and who's willing to pick things up where they left off way back when. For her part, she's more than willing to do so as well, and they head off for parts unknown in his truck as her fiancé and her manager are told by the farm doctor that she's lost her voice and will never sing again... except for maybe a lullaby. We see Tommy happily singing to his girl as she drives the truck into the sunset. Fade out.

A few facts about the film itself: it starred Margaret Schilling and Paul Gregory. Charles Winniger was the kindly old doctor that allows them to make their escape, and John Rutherford played the rich kid that wanted to marry her. I'm not that much into movies, so I cant tell you about the rest of the cast. The film was directed by Alan Crosland, who directed over sixty films, including the original Jazz Singer. Romberg and Hammerstein also worked together on New Moon and Red Shadow, two bodice-ripping historical operettas. From there, the two went their separate ways, with Hammerstein providing the screenplay to the you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it Golden Dawn and Romberg a film version of Puccini's Girl of the Golden West. Both men realized that Hollywood was an intruiging idea and little more, and both left to return to work for the stage, with Hammerstein of course becoming half of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

It's not that CHILDREN OF DREAMS is a bad movie (well, as much as you tell from reading the screenplay, of course) but an eminently predictable one. Granted, since it was made in 1931, moviegoers probably still sat on the edge of their seats wondering if Molly and Tommy would indeed get back together (unhappy endings were still a possibility for romances back then), but it's still formulaic writing. The lyrics are, granted, early Hammerstein, sounding more like bad college poetry than anything else and certainly light years from the brilliance we'd see later in Carousel or South Pacific. As an example, her big aria in "Antonia":

Leave me not alone, leave me not alone,
Take not all I love, the only love I've ever known.
If you smile no more, then no more smile I.
No more does the moon arise
To see the day of summer die.

Do these eyes no longer see?
Can these hands no longer feel?
Arms that were so strong no longer crush me.
You die so drops the run from the breast of the sky.
So go, go I.
Goodbye, my love, good bye.

Oooo-kay... I dont think Bioto or Ghislanzoni had much to worry about.

And Romberg's work, as lush as it appears on the surface, is downright pedestrian, nowhere near the melodic beauty of Desert Song. The opera-within-a-movie (which apparently employed every major singer then at the Met to ensure authenticity of sound) is remarkably hackneyed, saved only by some choral work that hides the essential thinness of what's being performed. It's contract work from both of them and little more.

Still, we have this perplexing mystery of the score publication itself. I dont know if this was an experiment on the part of Warners to see if there would be interest in what really amounts to an overpriced souvenir or what, but it's the only one of its kind I've ever seen. I'd be curious to know if there are any similar items like this out there.

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