By 1930, when Warner Bros. subsidiary Vitaphone Corp. finally stopped recording audio for the first talkies directly, and exclusively, onto phonograph discs, thousands of short films had used a technique whereby, as images were captured on film, the soundtrack was recorded separately onto shellac. Projectionists had to be careful, prior to screening the films, that they had perfectly synchronized the turntable and projector speeds; otherwise the sound would drift and be all but impossible to correct.
If much of what the UCLA Film and Television Archive will screen this Friday (as part of its monthlong Festival of Preservation) is notable primarily for the glimpses it affords us into a bygone era — the fashions, popular tunes and ornate singing styles of the late ’20s — there are also some real gems among the featured talent. With the sudden popularity of these early sound movies, the film industry, in desperate need of content, had turned to vaudeville, to the multitalented music-hall singers, comedians, dancers and musicians of the day, many of them household names.
If the final 30 seconds of the film strip featuring ”Unique Comedian“ Chaz Chase — not to be confused with the contemporary porn star of the same name, or with Chaplin rival Charlie Chase — have deteriorated, the punch line, at least, has survived on shellac. What we end up with is an inspired unfurling of comic business — the eating of lit matches, cigars and cigarettes; hilariously rubbery dancing inside a hugely oversize and disheveled suit. In ”The Cowboy and the Girl,“ starring novelty pianist Ray Mayer and singer Edith Evans and featuring a set of songs with titles like ”Our Cow Wouldn‘t Give Milk, So We Sold Him“ and ”Men Get Pearls From Oysters, but Women Get Diamonds From Nuts,“ Mayer delivers a winking send-up of his own performance. Armed with a deranged smile and a knowing look in his eye, he lampoons the corniness of his shtick even as he peddles it, calling to mind — for better or worse — the ironic detachment of Saturday Night Live or MAD-TV.
In one of the highlights of Friday’s Vitaphone medley, comedian Jack Osterman, clad in Cagneyesque gangster threads, offers a song before settling into a surprisingly contemporary stretch of standup in which he quips about a recent engagement, ”There were 75 chorus girls and 25 chorus boys, which makes 100 chorus girls altogether.“ Having shattered the illusions of innocence and sexual cluelessness with which we continue — despite mounting evidence to the contrary — to invest the past, he proceeds to allow his own mannerisms to become increasingly fey as the routine unfolds. By the time he‘s winding down, Osterman is a dead ringer — both physically and audibly — for queer comedian Mario Cantone, best known as the abrasively queeny fag to Charlotte’s hapless hag on HBO‘s Sex and the City. It’s a shaded, nimble unfolding of character that‘s both subtle and hilarious — and it makes you long to see more of Osterman’s work.
The Vitaphone disc continued to be used until as late as 1935 to accommodate theaters that didn‘t yet have the technology to show sound-on-film movies. Then the shorts, and their soundtracks, all but vanished. Film buffs and record collectors became de facto preservationists, archiving and carefully storing the soundless reels and the imageless discs on their own, until 1991, when the Vitaphone Project was formed in New York City and environs to coordinate efforts to reunite the celluloid shorts (many of which were in storage at UCLA, the British Film Institute and various studio warehouses, as well as in private collections) with their soundtracks. As a result, long-forgotten performances have been reborn in all their glory, trumping time and cinematic trends.
Vitaphone shorts screen Saturday, August 3, 7:30 p.m., at UCLA’s Melnitz Hall; for further information, call (310) 206-FILM or visit www.cinema.ucla.edu.