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DVD set of the Week: 'Vitaphone Varieties'

Posted by Ty Burr  May 12, 2011 03:31 PM

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quintette.JPGThe moment is transfixing in its goofy, high-minded absurdity: five women on a stage, dressed in frilly white. One's playing a violin, a second is singing a fake art-song called "Neapolitan Nights" in a fruity soprano, and the other three are playing harps. Simultaneously. The short is called "A Musicale Melange" -- mulligan stew might be more like it -- and it's one of the 60 short vaudeville acts restored and collected in Warner Archive's four-disc "Vitaphone Varieties" set, released today.

Warner's Vitaphone turned out to be a stopgap technology: The shellac discs on which the sound was recorded too often fell out of sync with the projected films, and the superior sound-on-film processes developed by Fox and RCA spelled its doom. (The story behind the recent restoration of the "Varieties" is itself pretty dramatic, with a group of collectors collecting the hard-to-find discs over the past two decades.) Still, these are some of the first sound films widely exhibited -- 10-minute shorts produced from 1926 to 1930 for audiences hungry to hear the movies talk and featuring music and comedy stars fresh off the country's still-thriving variety circuit. And they're weirdly fascinating, like peering through a telescope backwards into your great-grandpa's backyard.

The five lovely ladies mentioned above were the Kjerulf's Mayfair Quintette, completely forgotten now (although there is that one harpist with the Louise Brooks bob who looks out at the camera occasionally with a gentle smile, as if to say, "Remember me"). Likewise, many of the acts captured by the Vitaphone cameras and recording technology are mostly beyond the reach of Google: Jimmy Clemons doing a toff drunk act in "Dream Cafe" before going into an insane rubber-legged dance; the ambiguously gendered Eddie White -- half Pee-wee Herman, half "It's Pat" -- grinning through inspirational songs and Yiddish jokes; the sub-Wodehouse doubletalk of Val and Ernie Stanton, complete with ukelele solo.

Running in movie theaters before the main feature, these were the MTV videos of their day and, as such, they're often incomprehensible when seen from the 21st century, with gags and one-liners and a sense of comic timing that is now lost beneath countless subsequent waves of American pop culture.The future tough-guy character actor Jay C. Flippen sings and yowzas his way through off-color jokes as if he was just out of blackface, which he was. Charles C. Peterson, "Billiard Champion of Fancy Shots," inculcates us in the "scientific art of billiards" with the charisma of an extroverted accountant. "Vitaphone Varieties" also features countless wise-guy-and-smart-gal duos, perhaps the best of which is the husband-and-wife team of Jimmy Conlin (another future character face, mostly for Preston Sturges) and Myrtle Glass, whose freewheeling schtick is still paralyzing today.

They're the exception; most of these short films are curiosities in terms of entertainment. As time capsules of American show business history, though, they're compelling, important, even strangely moving. All these long-dead singers, dancers, comics, all of them working the ballyhoo because it's their one ticket to immortality, and here they are, back from the dead and more charmingly strange than ever. It makes you wonder how alien our own entertainers will look in 85 years.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.

Janice Page is movies editor for The Boston Globe.

Tom Russo is a regular correspondent for the Movies section and writes a weekly column on DVD releases.

Katie McLeod is Boston.com's features editor.

Rachel Raczka is a producer for Lifestyle and Arts & Entertainment at Boston.com.

Emily Wright is an Arts & Entertainment producer for Boston.com.

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