One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on an innovation in short films:
The Universal Film Manufacturing Company has hit upon a decided novelty in picture production. It is nothing more nor less than putting popular songs into picture form. Thus not only will the lover of “Poor Butterfly,” for instance, be able to hear his favorite popular song, but he will also see the story, as suggested by the number, unrolled on the film before his eyes.
These films were part of a series called Song Hits in Photoplay, and they were halfway between older sing-along song slides and music videos. The plan was to hire a local soloist to sing while the film was shown, and invite the audience to join in the chorus, which was helpfully printed on the film. Just like MTV, the aim was to sell new songs to the public.
The first song was Irving Berlin’s latest, “The Road that Leads to Happiness” (he later changed the title to “The Road that Leads to Love”) which was released on May 8th. Blossom Seeley, a vaudeville performer, and Ted Snyder, a music publisher, starred in the 5 minute long film. No description of it is available, but Moving Picture Weekly recapped the second in the series, George W. Meyers’ and Edgar Leslie’s “Let’s All Be Americans Now:”
Mr. Myers and Mr. Leslie are seated in their office discussing the compulsory draft, and each one decides that he has some disability which will prevent the government from utilizing his services. They decide to write a song, and the process is shown in the film. After more changes, due to the necessity of more martial vigor and ‘pep,’ they finish the song, and then the question is “Who shall sing it?’ At this moment in walks [Broadway and vaudeville star] Emma Carus, looking for a patriotic song. ‘We have it,’ said Leslie. ‘Just wrote it this minute. Sit down and sing it.’ Miss Carus, who looks as though she had been preparing for the draft herself complies, and in a jiffy the whole office is buzzing with “Let’s All Be Americans Now.”
It was released at the end of May. Two more songs, “For Me and My Gal” and “Indiana,” came out, then they took a break and rethought the idea. In January 1918 Universal announced that Song Hits in Photoplay would be back as a series of twelve films starring Universal actors; for example, one film would feature Franklyn Farnum leading “Over There” and “Homeward Bound.”
The idea for Song Hits came from an enterprising song seller, Harry Cohn, whose brother Jack worked for Universal. Harry Cohn also directed them. While neither series seems to have been a success, they did help him move from the music publishing business to film. In 1918 he became Universal’s head Carl Laemmle’s secretary, then in 1919 he co-founded a production company with his brother and Joe Brandt, CBC Film Sales, which in 1924 was incorporated as Columbia Pictures. He became its president in 1932. The competition for most unpleasant Golden Age movie mogul is stiff, but the quote “I don’t have ulcers, I give them” was attributed to him. You can find a biography of Cohn by Marc Wanamaker at Sony Pictures Museum site.
The films haven’t survived, but the UCSB Cylinder Project has versions of the first four songs, all recorded in 1917.
- Manual Romain, “The Road that Leads to Love”
- Arthur Hall, “Let’s All Be Americans Now”
- Billy Murray, “For Me and My Gal”
- Homestead Trio, “Indiana”
This was a good week to go to live theater, not the pictures, according to Kingsley. The best she could say of the five-reel-long crime drama The Flashlight Girl was “not once will you look at your watch while viewing” (though the outdoor scenery was beautiful), and the comedy Happiness had “striking” inter titles (though Enid Bennett gave a fine performance). However, The Snow Queen was so good that Hans Christian Andersen himself “couldn’t have brought to life his tale more entrancingly than did the big cast at the Majestic last night.” The Snow Queen is an extraordinarily durable property; it’s most recent version was Disney’s Frozen (2013), and the live theater version of that is set to debut on Broadway in Spring, 2018.
Sources for Song Hits:
“Song Hits in Photoplay,” Moving Picture Weekly, April 14, 1917, 15.
“Let’s All Be Americans Now,” Moving Picture Weekly, June 2, 1917, 26.
“Animated Songs Feature Universal Stars,” Moving Picture World, January 26, 1918, 544.