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In the rush to bring sound to the silver screen, Warner Bros./First National led the pack. A year before their landmark film The Jazz Singer (1927) allowed Al Jolson to speak, sing and whistle on screen, the studio was already providing pre-recorded music and sound effects scores for films such as Don Juan (1926). The motivation behind the Vitaphone sound system was not a need to hear dialogue; the silence of actors was not looked upon as a handicap at all. The system was really invented as a cost-cutting tool, allowing movie theatres (many of them owned by the studios) to save money by firing all the musicians who were paid to provide musical accompaniment to every screening. Dialogue came later, almost as an afterthought.
Because audible speech was considered a novel (and not essential) ingredient, many films were released as part-talkies, with a mixture of synchronized dialogue and silent-style intertitles, films such as Michael Curtiz's Noah's Ark (1929) and William Wyler's The Love Trap (1929). This blending of sound and silence was not disconcerting to viewers of 1929. In fact, a reviewer in Variety actually welcomed the silent passages of the 1929 film Weary River. "Director Frank Lloyd proves, too, that the 50-50 method of sandwiching talk between periods of silent relaxation is the best way of circumventing the nervous exhaustion which some of the all-talkers have occasioned."
Credit is due Lloyd for not being intimidated by the microphone. His talkie scenes are handled with confidence and energy, with the dialogue comfortably paced and naturally delivered. This is in contrast to the typical staging of early talkie scenes, in which cameras and actors all seemed to stiffen in terror at the sight of the sound apparatus -- a problem painfully evident in the first all-talking picture, Bryan Foy's Lights of New York (1928). It was for his brisk handling of Weary River and two other films that year (Drag and The Divine Lady, 1929) that Lloyd was given the Academy Award for Best Director.
Weary River is loosely based upon the experiences of Harry Snodgrass, who became a popular vaudeville pianist after one of his performances was broadcast from a Missouri prison. In the fictionalized adaptation, Richard Barthelmess stars as Jerry Larrabee, a high-rolling Prohibition-era gangster who savors the speakeasy nightlife with his blond moll Alice (Betty Compson). After being arrested and imprisoned, Larrabee is lectured by the paternal warden (character actor William Holden, not related to the William Holden), who warns him that this may be his only chance for moral regeneration. Larrabee heeds the warden's advice and adopts a new hobby, music, which proves to be his salvation. When Alice comes to visit Larrabee, the warden delivers a similar plea, and she sacrifices her love for the convict in order to help him adhere to the path of righteousness.
In the film's most inventive sequence, Larrabee's prison band broadcasts a concert, while Alice and Larrabee's speakeasy pals tune in with a large radio set. The camera moves into the radio's speaker and materializes within the broadcasting studio, a clever abridgement of space that must have intrigued viewers of the day, for whom radio was still something of a novelty. Upon his release from prison, Larrabee embarks on a musical career, but cannot shake the stigma of being an ex-con, and soon rejoins his criminal confreres. One night, Larrabee, his nemesis (Louis Natheaux) and the warden converge on a small cafe, where a midnight gun battle settles the ultimate fate of the "Master of Melody."
Many critics of 1929 praised the pictorial impact of the sequences in which Larrabee is initiated into prison life, filmed with a gritty naturalism that even today feels very contemporary. The grim realism of the prison scenes is perhaps due to the influence of writer Courtney Ryley Cooper, upon whose story the film is based. In addition to being a writer of adventure stories, Cooper was an expert on criminal science, authoring several books that offered frank and uncensored looks into the criminal underworld (Ten Thousand Public Enemies, 1935, and Here's To Crime, 1937) and the vice rackets (Designs in Scarlet, 1939). The documentary-like realism of Weary River would provide the stylistic template for such films as The Big House (1930) and 20,000 Year in Sing Sing (1932).
During the last decade of the silent era, Barthelmess was the embodiment of the hearty American underdog. Most iconically represented in Henry King's rural melodrama Tol'able David (1921), Barthelmess's chiseled good looks and determined gaze spawned several imitators, including Chester Morris and Lew Ayres. During the Great Depression, he became the idealized "Forgotten Man," struggling for a chance to escape the breadlines in such films as William Wellman's Heroes for Sale (1933) and G.W. Pabst's A Modern Hero (1934). Barthelmess left Hollywood suddenly in 1942 in order to join the war effort in the Naval Reserve, and never returned to filmmaking.
When it came time for Barthelmess to sing the title song of Weary River (not once but four times in the course of the film), the Vitaphone technicians performed a bit of audio-visual sleight-of-hand. While Barthelmess moves his lips, the voice we hear is that of Johnny Murray. A Photoplay article of July 1929 reported that Murray had also been retained to provide Barthelmess's voice in the future, in the event that he starred in any other musicals.
In the Vitaphone system, the sound was not printed on the edge of the film (as would become standard) but recorded on discs that were played on specially-designed turntables attached to the projectors. For years Weary River existed in an incomplete form, as all copies of the soundtrack were believed to be lost. As a result, the film was very rarely seen for almost 70 years. Recently, however, the sound discs were rediscovered, and in 1997 the UCLA Film and Television Archive completed a stunning restoration of the film.
Director: Frank Lloyd
Screenplay: Bradley King and Thomas J. Geraghty
Based on a story by Courtney Ryley Cooper
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Production Design: John Hughes
Music: Grant Clarke and Louis Silvers
Cast: Richard Barthelmess (Jerry Larrabee), Betty Compson (Alice), William Holden (warden), Louis Natheaux (Spadoni), George E. Stone (Blackie), Gladden James (theatrical manager), Ray Turner (elevator operator).
by Bret Wood