Little Wilson and Big God

Source: Anthony Burgess, Little Wilson and Big God (London: Heinemann, 1987), pp. 103-106

Text: But, in 1929, the fascination with radio was nothing to the great innovation in the cinema. ‘Have you heard The Singing Fool yet?’ Eric Williams asked me. That heard was operative; we took for granted that we could see. My nearest talking cinema was the Claremont, and my father, aware of the importance of the new phenomenon, took me to see and hear Al Jolson. After an eternity of titles in the old style, though with a canned score moaning and bitching underneath, Jolson spoke: ‘You ain’t heard nothin’ yet, folks’ (this, rightly, has got into the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations). And then, to the night club pianist, ‘This is a ballad.’ – ‘You can’t sing a ballad’ (which I took to refer to the form, not the singer’s competence) and the revelation of throaty American-Jewish melody: ‘I can be humble, I can be proud, / I can be just the man in the crowd:/It all depends on you.’ And, towards the end, the tinned orchestra pointed Johnson’s Pagliacci situation – going onstage blacked up though Sonny Boy was dead – with Vesti la guibba. Finally, ‘Friends may forsake me,/ Let them all forsake me – / I still have you, Sonny Boy.’ It was a great experience, but it had its sinister aspects. The pit orchestra had disappeared; musicians were joining the industrial unemployed. Under the screen were pot plants on soap boxes.

Our local cinemas, the Princess and the Palace, were sullen and kept to silence. Rewiring and installing the new equipment cost dear, and the depression was on. The Princess showed a silent version of The Jazz Singer, with amplified gramophone records of Al Jolson’s voice, very imperfectly synchronised. And then it showed silent films with its own canned accompaniments: the coming of the talkies seemed primarily a chance to fire the orchestra. Jakie Innerfield did not fire his. He even brought in the dance band as an intervallar treat. The band leader put a cap and muffler on and sang ‘My wife is on a diet,/ And since she’s on a diet, / Home isn’t home any more.’ Innerfield, despite his shrinking audiences, wanted to believe the innovation would not last. ‘Never Mind the Talkies,’ shouted his posters. ‘We Will Make You Talk.’

Yet, like most cinema owners, Innerfield had difficulty with silent rentals. He brought in a larger number of German films, of a strong expressionist tendency, including the early Freudian Secrets of the Soul. There were heavy comedy films about Vienna, full of brilliant montage effects. I was watching, without knowing it, the twilight phase of the art of the Weimar Republic. Nowadays aesthetic historians would flock to such showings. I dimly saw their significance – they were more subtle and serious than the all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing extravaganzas we got at the Claremont – but I despised Jakie Innerfield’s parsimony, disguised as a reactionary conviction. It was not long before he yielded, as he had to, and his first talking film was Broadway, with Regis Toomey. I could hardly understand a word the characters were saying, or moaning, or nasaling: the Innerfield equipment was not good. Soon the Princess too succumbed to the talking age, and any Manchester cinema still silent was probably a locale for the fencing of stolen goods or the fixing of assignations.

The talking films gave us new heroes and heroines. One lad in Upper Three Alpha, MacKinnon, adored Maurice Chevalier in Innocents of Paris, dressed his hair in the Chevalier style, thrust out his lower lip, and spoke English with a French accent, though French with an English one. We loved Renate Muller in Sunshine Susie and worshipped Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel.


I have shameful total recall of all the theme songs of the time, no film, however, non-musical, being considered an authentic talkie without such an appurtenance. even The Doctor’s Secret, with Ruth Chatterton, had a song entitled ‘Half an Hour’ (after the J.M. Barrie one-acter on which the film was based). The Pagan, with Ramon Novarro, had ‘Pagan Love Song’; Weary River, with Richard Barthelmess, had ‘Weary River.’ But the great songs were from The King of Jazz (‘The Song of the Dawn’), Paramount on Parade (‘Painting the Clouds with Sunshine’) and the Fox Movietone Follies of 1929. I bought a record of songs from this last, and I wore it out on our portable gramophone. Madge, not yet confined, or recovered, took down the words of ‘Breakaway’ on shorthand. I sang ‘Walking with Susie’:

She leads me, she feeds me
Beauty and charm.
I’m goosey when Susie
Touches my arm.

(‘Goosey’ seems to have disappeared from Anglo-American demotic. There was a song that went ‘How do you feel/ When you’ve married your ideal?/ ever so goosey, goosey, goosey, goosey.’ The death of a usage is another nail in the coffin of the past.)

Very few of these early talking films seem to have survived, even in the ever open cinematic museum which is American television. We never see Gold Diggers of Broadway, which had ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’, or Syncopation, with Morton Downey, or even Broadway Melody, with Charles King and Bessie Love and Anita Page and ‘You Were Meant for Me’. Probably the Vitaphone process, sound-on-disc, was too primitive to be compatible with electronic techniques. Probably we would be appalled to revisit old delights. We all, young as we were, recognised that sound pushed back the art of film to the infantile. We missed the old biblical epics – The Ten Commandments, Noah’s Ark (Cecil B. De Mille, like his master D.W. Griffith, knew the appeal, before James Joyce, of a compound of myth and contemporaneity) – and such apocrypha as Moon of Israel, Ben-Hur and Quo Vadis?. Some of these came back with talk and high colour, but speech killed the magic by over-localising. Gore Vidal has only to camp up Ann Bancroft saying, with flapping hands of dismissal, ‘Oh, Moses, Moses,’ for us to hear the impossibility of a talking Bible. And I have always taken the impossibility of a talking Metropolis for granted.

Comments: Anthony Burgess (1917-1993) was a British novelist and literary critic, whose book A Clockwork Orange was filmed in 1971 by Stanley Kubrick. His childhood was spent in Manchester. His 1986 novel The Pianoplayers features a pianist who plays for silent films, based on Burgess’ father who played the piano in pubs and cinemas. Madge was his step-sister. Al Jolson’s words ‘You ain’t heard nothin’ yet’ come from The Jazz Singer (USA 1927), not the Singing Fool. The films referred to are The Singing Fool (USA 1928), Geheimnisse einer Seele [Secrets of a Soul] (Germany 1926), Broadway (USA 1929), Innocents of Paris (USA 1929), Sunshine Susie (GB 1931), Der blaue Engel [The Blue Angel] (Germany 1930), The Doctor’s Secret (USA 1929), The Pagan (USA 1929), Weary River (USA 1929), King of Jazz (USA 1930), Paramount on Parade (USA 1930), Fox Movietone Follies of 1929 (USA 1929), Gold Diggers of Broadway (USA 1929), Syncopation (USA 1929), Broadway Melody (USA 1929), The Ten Commandments (USA 1923), Noah’s Ark (USA 1928 – directed by Michael Curtiz, not Cecil B. De Mille), Die Sklavenkönigin [Moon of Israel] (Austria 1924), Ben-Hur (USA 1925), Quo Vadis? (presumably Italy 1923) and Metropolis (Germany 1927). Syncopation is considered to be a lost film; Broadway Melody survives, as does Gold Diggers of Broadway in an incomplete form.


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