Copyright 1984 by Miles Kreuger. Reproduced with permission.


A Hollywood Venture

by Miles Kreuger

Ever since the turn of the century, major operatic singers had appeared in audible short subjects, both in America and Europe. At first, the sound for these brief films was recorded on wax cylinders and discs by the acoustic recording horn. Starting with the De Forest Phonofilms and other systems in the early l920's, electrically recorded films were made and therefore predated in most cases the commercially produced electric phonograph records by such artists.

The big boon to operatic singing on film occured with the 1926 advent of Warners Vitaphone, a sound-on-disc process invented by Western E1ectric, which had purchased Lee De Forest's three-filament tube in 1913. The world premiere of Vitaphone took place at the Warners Theatre, Friday evening, August 6, 1926, with the silent feature Don Juan, accompanied by the New York Philharmonic and a program of audible shorts that included Giovanni Martinelli, Anna Case, and Marion Talley, all of the Metropolitan Opera, among the featured artists.

No operatic singer had, however, been featured in a full-length sound film, until Winfield Sheehan, vice president of production for William Fox, decided that John McCormack's worldwide fame, casual charm, and ability to speak English without a "foreign" accent made him the ideal candidate for such priority.

On May 7, 1929, in New York City, McCormack signed a contract with Fox to star in a yet- untitled feature for the sum of $500,000, twenty percent of which was payable upon signing the contract, and ten percent at the end of each of the eight weeks "following the cornmencement of the term of employment." The film was to begin production "on or about November 1, 1929, when the Artist shall arrive at the studio of the Producer at Los Angeles, California."

"The Artist agrees that in the production of the said motion picture he will sing not less than six nor more than eight songs or vocal select.ions, including one theme song, so designated by the Artist, in English, the exact number to be determined by the Producer, and in addition thereto three songs in French and/or German and/or Italian; the selection of all of said songs to be rendered in each of said languages to be in the Artist's discretion.

"Should the Artist request that any of the scenes or work in the said motion picture production be taken or made in Ireland, and the Producer consents thereto, the Producer agrees to send a director and author to Ireland at a date prior to November 1, 1929, to be agreed upon, to collaborate and work with the said Artist, but the time so spent in Ireland shall not be considered a part of the eight weeks' employment referred to in this contract, nor shall the Artist be entitled to additional compensation therefor."

Further, Fox agreed to "furnish the Artist with and pay the reasonable compensation of an accompanist of the Artist's selection at a salary not to exceed three hundred dollars per week during the period of the contract," and "furnish to the Artist first-class drawing room transportation and accommodations for himself, his family and assistants not exceeding eight in number from New York to Los Angeles, California, and return." "It is contemplated that the Artist is not to sing for recording purposes at any time before 1 P.M. of any day during the term of employment hereunder, but such limitation shall not apply to the Artist's acting or his singing in rehearsal."

Sheehan assigned one his top directors, Frank Borzage, who had revealed in Seventh Heaven and Street Angel that he could tell a delicate human fable in a most sensitive and visually striking manner. Tom Barry concocted a simple story of a smalltown Irishman whose glistening voice results in his triumphant acclaim during a concert in New York. Sonya Levien, a staff Fox writer, developed the final scenario.

In addition to a conventional 35m film version, Fox decided to shoot the McCormack vehicle also in its new 7Omm wide-screen process, Fox Grandeur, which, in addition to an image double the usual width, also featured the superior reproduction of a soundtrack more than triple the usual width (7mm wide, in contrast to the 2mm width of conventional 35mm film). Grandeur, developed in 1928 by E.I. Sponable, technical director of the Fox studios, had its world premiere September 17, 1929, with a showing of the William Fox Movietone Follies of 1929. Happy Days and The Big Trail were also released in both 35mm and Grandeur formats.

It must be remembered that films released both ways had two entirely separate camera crews and were filmed and recorded twice. Thus, the 35mm version of Song o' My Heart was filmed by Chester Lyons, while J. 0. Taylor handled the Grandeur photography. And, of course, McCormack had to sing the entire score twice!

Before regular production began in Hollywood, Borzage, his crews, and the McCormacks journeyed in August to Ireland to shoot atmospheric scenes and discover native talent. Borzage signed youthful Maureen 0'Sullivan, whom he noticed at a Dublin party, and Tommy Clifford, both of whom portray the children of McCormack's childhood sweetheart, played by Alice Joyce. As Lily McCormack describes in her biography, Borzage "was so taken by the scenery around Moore Abbey that he had a tiny cabin built at the edge of the river which runs through the grounds, and gathered a lot of small Irish children around John," as he sang "A Fairy Story by the Fire."

While in Ireland, McCormack sang "Just for Today" in an old church. Although the practice of prerecording musical numbers in film became standard a few years later, every selection in Song o' My Heart was recorded while being filmed. Therefore, these two selections, each filmed twice for separate film formats, must be regarded as excellent examples of early "field" recording, directed by sound engineer George Costello.

At the brand-new Fox Movietone Studios near Beverly Hills, the company built an Irish-style thatched cottage as the singer's dressing room, complete with piano for accompanist Edwin Schneider. Photography on the film began November 25, 1929, and lasted for fifty-three days. Including postproduction, the movie was finished on February 1, 1930, with 240,587 feet of negative exposed, 406,214 feet of positive exposed, coming to a total of 646,801 feet of film used. This was edited down to 7,887 feet for a rough scratch print.

During the silent era, virtually identical versions of a film could be released worldwide with the simple translation of its intertitles. With the advent of spoken dialogue, the studios faced a quandry in those days prior to modern subtitles. Fox solved the problem quite simply by wiping out the spoken dialogue altogether in its foreign release prints, adding a continuous musical score assembled and recorded expressly for each film, and using old-fashioned intertitles as in the silent era. In the case of musicals, like Song o' My Heart, the endless droning of this scoring was interrupted for songs retained from the original English-language versions. The studio referred to this nondialogue variant as a "synchronized version." The standard 35m dialogue version of Song o' My Heart was shipped from the laboratories on February 20, 1930; the synchronized version went out on April 17.

The Fox press sheets claimed of McCormack's Grandeur performance of "I Hear You Calling Me" that "his singing of this number on Fox Grandeur emphasizes this marvellous invention for it actually ENHANCES the McCormack voice." However, the long-awaited Grandeur version, shipped from the laboratories on March 17, was never released and may no longer survive.

In the standard version, McCormack sings twelve songs: "Then You'll Remember Me," "A Fairy Story by the Fire," "Just for Today" (by California composer Blanche Seaver), "I Feel You Near Me" (another American original by Joseph McCarthy and James Hanley), "Kitty My Love, Will You Marry Me?", "The Magpie's Nest" (a quick, unaccompanied throwaway), "The Rose of Tralee" (sung twice), and four selections performed during a New York concert, actually filmed in Philharmonic Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles.

With Schneider at the piano and the singer's little black prompt book in his hand, the sequence offers a vivid documentation of an actual McCormack concert. During this sequence, he performs "Luoghi Sereni e Cari," "Little Boy Blue," "Ireland, Mother Ireland," and "I Hear You Calling Me." Two alternate numbers, "Plaisir d'Amour," sung in French, and "All' Mein Gedanken," sung in German, were intended to be used in the synchronized versions issued in those respective countries. The film's charming finale number, "A Pair of Blue Eyes," was composed by gifted studio staffer William Kernell. It is the only McCormack vocal not accompanied by Schneider, but rather by the Fox orchestra, almost certainly conducted by Arthur Kay, the house musical director. Yet another song, "O Mary Dear," was filmed and recorded but cut from all versions.

Song o' My Heart opened to considerable critical acclaim on Tuesday, March 11, 1930, in New York, not at a conventional movie house, but in a prestigious engagement at Broadway's 44th Street Theatre. Far from a commercial success, the film played out its worldwide engagements and then disappeared for decades. Believed lost, it was discovered by this writer in the Fox vaults in its variant synchronized version: this was shown at New York's Museum of Modern Art, Friday, July 16, 1971, as part of a summerlong retrospective of early film musicals. Rights were leased from Fox by the John McCormack Association of Greater Kansas City, which in turn issued a soundtrack album that erroneously refers to the film as a 1929 picture. This is the first of a fusillade of errors and myths that in little more than a decade have arisen about this lovely picture. On Saturday, October 19, 1974, the complete, uncut dialogue version was shown by the John McCormack Society of America at New York's Town Hall.

Miles Kreuger,

The Institute of the American Musical, Inc.
121 North Detroit Street
Los Angeles, California 90036-2915

October 9, 1984

Copyright 1984 by Miles Kreuger

In addition to expressing my thanks for his permission to reproduce this article,I would like to acknowledge the assistance and advice offered by Mr. Kreuger concerning the history and background of this film and other matters during the preparation of John McCormack - A Comprehensive Discography in 1985.

Paul W. Worth

Back to Articles Index Page

Back to McCormack Home Page