When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand
Deus ex Doohickey

When Hollywood (as Gloria Swanson rapturously proclaimed in SUNSET BOULEVARD) “had the eyes of the world,” it also had the power as a Culture Industry to discriminate in representing other forms of American popular entertainment that competed with filmdom’s market share.

For example, Putt-Putt Golf was a hugely popular entertainment during the Great Depression, drawing as many customers on an average night as a movie bill.  Costing about the same as a movie ticket (ten cents in most cities) and giving an equal number of diversionary hours, miniature golf was a craze that seriously cut into the film industry’s popularity.  The sport was such a threat that movie producers forbade scripts with scenes occurring in miniature golf courses.  No mention of the runaway golfing craze was allowed in dialog.  Publicity photos of contract players (in which they were lensed in activities as diverse as skiing, bar-b-q’ing and setting off fireworks) were forbidden to be shot in a Putt-Putt lot.  In golfing photos, putters could not be seen in actors’ hands.  If you were to gauge popular culture by Hollywood’s representation of the times, the conclusion would be that this gigantically popular phenomenon never existed.

Television’s intrusion into the entertainment industry was a double-edged sword for Hollywood — and its representation reflected this peculiar love/hate relationship.  In the days before the blurring of commerce between the two media empires, TV was used by the movies as a plot device, as a source of parody, and as a way to hyperinflate the worship of media in general.  The news aspect of TV was rapidly adapted in movies as an au courant replacement for the shopworn tropes of spinning newspaper headlines and “special news bulletin” radio broadcasts (such as inserting the live on-air news flash of a UFO landing in D.C., reported by real-life Washington journalist Drew Pearson in THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL).  Yet Hollywood quickly picked up on both TV’s trite commercialism and habit-forming entertainment value, employing them in plot lines for films such as Claude Binyon’s DREAMBOAT at Fox, and M-G-M’s out-with-a-bang musical, IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER.

Charles Collins talks via jukebox to a Swing Hostess in the PRC musical of the same name.

Curiously, one gizmo-fad with feeble staying power made strong, quirky inroads to the Hollywood reality of the 1940s.  Telephone Music was a two-way jukebox system, relayed by phone, where juke customers spoke their requests to female DJs at a remote central library.  When introduced in 1940, the fad’s prospects looked bright:  H. L. Menken’s American Mercury magazine touted that Phone Music would give juke-listeners choices from a library of thousands of recordings instead of a “measly dozen or two” found on the usual machine.  Introduced and then unceremoniously sacked over the span of the 1940s, Phone Music’s existence might now be unknown except for its use as plot devices in films made over sixty years ago. 

In Mike Curtiz’s semi-noir 1949 musical MY DREAM IS YOURS (Scorsese cited it in American Film magazine as one of the influences for his NEW YORK, NEW YORK), Phone Music launches the movie into action.  The plot takes off when Doris Day’s character, a phone music operator, purposefully sings along with a record while a talent agent is in earshot of the jukebox, leading to discovery and an offer of a contract.  (I call the film ‘semi-noir’ because director Michael Curtiz had Day under personal contract, and drew upon dark elements from his protogée’s early life, such as a physically abusive marriage and her difficulties working on the road as a girl singer while also being a single mom, in several garishly bouncy musicals built around her, including this one.) 

MARTHA TILTON (Photo:  WikiCommons)

Martha Tilton, renowned singer from the early days of Benny Goodman’s band, had a similar gig in the ultra low budget SWING HOSTESS from the tawdriest of the tawdry Poverty Row studios:  PRC.  A likable screen personality with a sweet and lowdown voice (she was Barbara Stanwyck’s singing voice in Howard Hawks’ BALL OF FIRE), Tilton had previously been calculatingly misused in Hollywood by British producer / director Herbert Wilcox in IRENE and SUNNY, musical vehicles tailored by Wilcox for his Trilby, Anna Neagle, at RKO.  Brought into these productions to generate more box office appeal among swing fans, Tilton was given brief screentime and was cast and costumed in unflattering roles to avoid eclipsing Neagle’s star power. 

SWING HOSTESS was directed (like approximately 90% of PRC’s output) by Sam Newfield, whose body of over 200 nearly-nil budget programmers including several of the barely watchable (yet still perversely enjoyable) Bela Lugosi horror films the studio cranked out.  (Lugosi’s PRC paychecks helped support his drug habit through the 1940s.)

Just like the Doris Day vehicle, Tilton plays a gal with great-yet-undiscovered pipes in search of a big band gig.  There’s a tad more largesse in the SWING HOSTESS budget than in their usual studio output (more sets, larger cast, higher shot count), similar to PRC’s other rare ventures into musicals such as its Oscar-nominated MINSTREL MAN

(Here’s a phenomenon I could never explain about the psychology of Hollywood Producers from the studio era:  Why did they loosen the purse strings and splurge on even the most micro-budgeted Musical, while making a Horror Movie always brought out the skinflint in a producer, choosing instead to cut costs to the bone??)

As a Phone Music operator, Tilton has a SHOP AROUND THE CORNER-type adversarial relationship over the wires with a guy who, unknown to her, is the band leader for whom she dreams of auditioning.  As her savvy sidekick, the greatest wisecracking blonde of the movies Iris Adrian (who also appears in MY DREAM IS YOURS) gives Tilton no-nonsense support until the predictable career break pays out for her.

SWING HOSTESS has a lot of charm for a take-the-money-and-run Poverty Row programmer, and is perhaps the most enlightening film of Phone Music’s inner workings, including a pretty cool montage of Tilton at work in the music library.  (Being a Swing Hostess is her day gig throughout the movie, after all.)  Yet probably a bigger bonus is the opportunity to understand the subtle performance aesthetics of Martha Tilton, who dialed down and polished the punch of barrelhouse blues and gave it the lilt and sass that paved the way for artists such as Peggy Lee and Dinah Shore. 

Tilton and company sing and live it up on a joyride through a rear-projected NYC, while the trees and buildings show a pronounced and disturbingly queasy list to starboard.  This is one reason why Industry workers and theater-owners said PRC Pictures stood for Pretty Rotten Crap.

In Phil Karlson’s taut Charlie Chan programmer, THE SHANGHAI COBRA (released in 1945, one year after SWING HOSTESS), the Phone Music box is also a TV camera, spying on customers at a diner owned and operated by the endemic, Everyman character actor George Chandler.  Probably the best of the final, whimpering entries to the Chan series after Monogram Studios cast Sidney Toler to replace the original Chan actor, Warner Oland, THE SHANGHAI COBRA starts off with a good noir-ish feel of rainy, urban nights and a covert greasy-spoon rendezvous. (Phil Karlson was the only director of the Monogram / Toler Charlie Chan series whose career went on to bigger things and whose work received serious recognition.)

Mantan Moreland, Benson Fong, Sidney Toler and George Chandler are caught in the TV lens of a Phone Music jukebox, while a Swing Hostess gives them a hot clue of something she had witnessed through the camera, in a moment so confusing that you start to wonder why the heck this film is called THE SHANGHAI COBRA.

Among the far-fetched conceits such as a single Phone Music girl who watches the goings on of a small-time downtown diner through a TV camera lens and a flashback to a bandaged man in a deathly battle on the pre-war Shanghai waterfront, Karlson (in his first film under his nom-de-cinema — his first three features were credited to his birth name of Phil Karlstein) created some great shots and sequences, including what could be the Money Shot for this entire article:  a majestically worshipful slow dolly-in to the jukebox as George Chandler’s off-screen voice describes the machine’s function and raison d’être.

So Phone Music (which I first thought was a made-up invention to push a plot along when I saw MY DREAM IS YOURS years ago) revealed itself, due to repeated sightings in other films from the ‘forties, to be an actual medium of popular entertainment many decades ago.  Despite its selective reality, Hollywood could passively document the peripheral culture of its time.

Or as the philosophic film junkie said in Bertolucci’s BEFORE THE REVOLUTION, “You know what I love about the movies? What else gives you the sense of what 1946 was about like Howard Hawk’s THE BIG SLEEP!!”

Doug / PoMo Joan

(*)  In the bizarre counter-logic of Tinseltown, I somehow felt I had ‘made it’ in the Industry when I was standing in line with Adrian at the Hollywood Unemployment Office in the late 1970s.  I was in the same room and engaged in a similar activity with an actress who had worked with directors such as Curtiz and Wellman, and who was also the veteran of a Busby Berkeley musical, a Hope / Crosby ROAD picture, and a Marx Brothers film. — DB

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