Steve Walker's report on Elizalde soundtrack in Pola Negri film

Elizalde soundtrack confirmed.....

this page first published by John Wright, 25 June 2005
last update 21 July


Credit for early film research goes to David Gasten who saw on my website the film "The Woman He Scorned" (1929) listed as a lost film. He was very happy to write to me in April 2002 and tell me that it was NOT lost, and also that it had various names including ‘THE STREET OF LOST SOULS’ ! David had obtained a VHS copy of the film (courtesy of the BFI), and arranged with Grapevine Video in Phoenix, AZ, USA to prepare the film for DVD release, which was announced in Nov 2004.

David needed some assurance that Elizalde had indeed composed the soundtrack and sent me a VHS copy. Without identifying any of the tunes (other than those from the Debroy Somers record) I was still convinced the whole sound of the soundtrack was indeed Elizalde. Thankfully Steve Walker has come in with this very comprehensive report on the film soundtrack:

(starring Pola Negri with Warwick Ward and Hans Rehmann. Berlin, 1928, with post-synchronisation music by Fred Elizalde, London, 1929. Runtime 89 mins. approx.)

Through the kindness of John Wright, I have recently been able to sit through a complete screening of Pola Negri’s THE STREET OF LOST SOULS, which features a post-synchronisation soundtrack by Fred Elizalde; John has managed to track down a French print, which is undecided whether to call itself SON DERNIER TANGO or LA RUE DES ÂMES PERDUES (the film is also known as THE WOMAN HE SCORNED and STREET OF THE FALLEN, for reasons which will become evident in a moment).

The film was indeed made at the Imperial-Film studios in Berlin late in 1928; Pola Negri began her film career there, and though she was lured to Hollywood in 1922, her appeal to the Famous Players studio was decidedly on the wane by the spring of 1928, and she began to return ever more frequently to film in Berlin, where she was still a guaranteed box-office draw. It was made as a ‘ trans-continental’ silent, with typically cosmopolitan leads - Polish, English and German - so that it could be released simultaneously in London, Paris and Berlin by the simple expedient of cutting in dialogue cards in the appropriate language. But like a number of other very late feature-length silents, it was caught by the arrival of sound. There were two methods of ‘converting’ a silent to a talkie: the genuine one was to script a complete dialogue, and post-synchronise it to the already-finished film, but this was both time-consuming and expensive. Hitchcock’s BLACKMAIL, for example, was converted by this method (it exists in both silent and sound versions); sometimes (as in KITTY) it was necessary to ship the principals to New York for a week to use the Vitaphone sound-stage. The alternative ‘cheat’ method, both quicker and cheaper, was to leave the film as it was, complete with dialogue cards, and to record an orchestral underscore to accompany it. Even Vitaphone were not above using this method for budget productions, and it was this technique which was used on THE STREET OF LOST SOULS. The soundtrack on the copy I have viewed is rather fugitive and somewhat variable, having the characteristic of early sound-on-film, but this may be indicative of no more than a primitive, and more or less contemporary, transfer from discs.

We know from the contemporary press that Elizalde was working on the soundtrack in the spring of 1929, probably using most if not all of his Savoy Hotel Music for the recording, augmented by studio orchestral players. The underscore does indeed follow every single moment of the film with relentless determination, and there are many moments when one wishes that it wouldn’t, and that it would have the common sense to simply shut up for a few minutes. The writing itself reveals only too painfully the limitations of Elizalde’s ability at that juncture to undertake an extended score, recalling that he had yet to study under Ravel in Paris. Two tunes - subsequently recorded by Elizalde himself as piano soli under the titles I WOULD DO IT FOR YOU and SO TRUE - are int ended by their frequent appearance to be leitmotivs, but neither is strong enough to carry the weight of responsibility and nor does Elizalde have any idea of how to treat them as such. Too often a ‘tune’ burbles blithely along while the action proceeds regardless; and on the few occasions when he attempts a genuinely dramatic underscore (as in, for example, the villain’s unexpected appearance at Louise’s seaside cottage) the effect is frankly risible.

Some specific musical references now follow. Early on, two very short extracts from records are played to ‘ghost’ the portable gramophone in Louise’s bedroom - MISERY FARM and GROWN-UP BABY. Both are from Debroy Somers’ Columbia 5269, recorded February 21, 1929 and issued on the mid-March, 1929 supplement. The choice of numbers is not accidental; Elizalde himself was, of course, composer of GROWN-UP BABY, and it was rumoured that he had a hand in MISERY FARM, for it was a big success for the Cambridge Music Company, in which he had the controlling financial interest. In the scene in the ‘Paradis Bleue’ bar which follows, the version of I’M CRAZY OVER YOU is on the soundtrack, of course, not a record; if Adrian Rollini is indeed present in the orchestra as he seems to be, he is here using goofus in imitation of harmonica. Finally, in the cottage scene when Louise does the ironing, the wordless, unaccompanied soprano version of I WOULD DO IT FOR YOU is (obviously) not sung by Pola Negri herself.

Having said all which, it is nevertheless remarkable that such a film - long thought lost - could still survive, and on behalf of the collecting fraternity I tender my thanks to John Wright for his diligence in satisfying our curiosity.

These notes © 2005 Steve Walker

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