Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Jackass Music

This is the infamous (if somewhat misnamed) "Jackass Music." Although Louis Reeves Harrison does attack "Lilly Limpwrist" and her ragtime piano, he hurls more invective in the direction of "Percy Peashaker," the drummer who won't shut up. (He also takes aim at Freddy Fuzzlehead, the vaudeville pianist, though his attack here seems to me less trenchant.) In any case, the piece is highly entertaining, and the accompanying illustrations by H. F. Hoffman may be more damning than the article itself.

Civilization is not a crab, but theatrical managers walk sideways if not backwards when they allow their musicians to play the wrong accompaniment to the right composition whether of song or picture. O, what a noise when the lights are turned low and Lily Limpwrist takes her place at the usual instrument of torture! With a self-conscious smirk she gives a poke to her back switch, dabs her side teasers with both patties, rolls up her sleeves and tears off "That Yiddisher Rag." She bestows a clam smile on the box-of-candy young man in the first row, but the presentation on the screen fails to divert her "I-seen-you" glances any more than if it was the point of a joke.

The chorus-girl who attempts to pose as a prima-donna with little more equipment than a tuft of bleached hair, a pair of high-heeled slippers and a cigarette voice can be tolerated, we often endure the howling and screeching of a Tommy trying to sing "Come into the garden Maud," but when Lily Limpwrist assails our unprotected organs of hearing with her loony repertoire it seems a shame to throw away ten cents on such a performance, to say nothing of the time wasted. We sit patiently through the act of an imported star, who commends to our attention the interesting intelligence "Me Rag, Moy Bess usedter droive em cryzy at the Croiterion," we submit to the inanities of the chin-whiskered, pillow-paunched Dutch comedian, who says: "Vot it is, is it? Ask me," and we even tolerate the Irish comedian, shaved yesterday, who looks like an undertaker out-of-a-job when he wails in a hold-over voice: "Where thuh dear-ol Sha-hamrock gurrows," but there is a limit.

Lily is all right at home, when her mother importunes her to "play something and don't wait to be teased," or still better as a summer-eve girl on a Coney-Island boat, but no man will ever marry a girl who plays a dance while the pictured man is in a death struggle; she would probably be at one when the real one was in trouble. The girl of sympathy will play music in accord with the pictured story, the girl of ambition will try to improve the quality of her work, the girl of sense will try to improve the quality of the performance, draw patronage instead of driving it away, benefit the management, and show to others who are looking for pianists that she is not a fat-wit but a woman of ideas and good taste.

The performance of Lily Limpwrist is a poetic dream compared to the diabolical dipso-mania Freddy Fuzzlehead and Percy Peashaker when they cut loose between the "vodeveal" acts. Gee! Non compos mentis and le diable au corps for theirs and and a free pass to Matteawan for what they have done to kill the box-office receipts at moving-picture shows. Percy is really a wonder. When there is water in the picture it goes to Percy's cerebrum. If there is a lake shown on the screen, no matter if it is a mile away, calm or stormy, he shakes his box of peas so that we may know that it is principally made of water. Realism becomes intense when a vessel appears and Percy blows a whistle "Oo-Oo" to enforce the fact that it is a steamer and not a full-rigged ship. "Bow-wow" indicates that we are looking at a dog and not a door-mat, "Honk-honk" gives one a thrilling remembrance of crossing Broadway after the theatre with fifty cow-boy taxis in full pursuit, and he is a master of such startling effects as clapping two blocks of wood together when an old nag candidate for the glue factory trots along a country road. But Percy's star act, the one that gets a laugh, is his imitation of a baby crying, no matter whether the one on the screen is nursing or merely dying. Percy is a comparatively new type of ego-maniac, but whether we must humor him or put him in a padded cell must be left to the alienists.

If you were to ask a large proportion of the audience what should be done to Freddy Fuzzlehead they would vote to shoot him, but I am in favor of slow torture, making the punishment fit the crime, put him in a room where there is another of his kind playing with the piano and let him die a lingering death. Ten thousand dollars a day is spent to amuse people with the moving pictures, good, bad and indifferent, but all are bad or indifferent when Fuzzlehead does his long-eared stunt. Ten millions of people pay their nickles and dimes to see the moving pictures, and these shock-headed kleptopianoacs steal their pleasure away in order to practice the accompaniment for the song-and-dance comedians, those who come on the sage [sic] and say "I will now sing you a little ballad entitled 'Show you are a clod-hopper by keeping time with your feet.'" The same comedian who gets no applause from the long-suffering audience and asks if they are hand-cuffed, or says to the piano man, sotto voce, "Did y'ever s-see sucha lotta dubs?" The hallroom lobster on the stage is "great" to Fuzzlehead, the

[125] boob action exactly suits the boob at the piano, the moving pictures are rot, he could do better himself if he had time, but he would say the same thing if he was shown the treasures of the Louvre or the Palace of Luxembourg. Ten thousand dollars a day is spent to produce the moving pictures, and it would be impossible to say how much more to keep going the ten thousand motion-picture theatres throughout the country. These pictures are not all masterpieces, many of them are very crude, but the whole art is in a primitive state, is constantly improving, and the exhibitions are kept alive by their production. People go every day to see the pictures, once in a while for the variety entertainment, and it is not only asinine but unbusiness-like to lower the grade of musical accompaniment when the lights are turned down. Inappropriate music may "do" for an unintelligent part of the audience, but what is the use of driving away the intelligent portion? All other parts of the theatrical working force move in harmony, like the wheels of a clock, but these fatheads against the stage apron are like the clock alarm that goes off when you don't need it and never when you do. Attention of managers to the comfort of patrons would help matters some, and little higher salaries would help a great deal to get suitable music. Better music means better patronage and more of it, and superior patronage means a demand for superior photoplays. Suitable music is an essential. If the drummer can not be taught to subordinate his morbid craving for attention to the general effect, cut him out altogether and pay more for a pianist who can improvise softly during the scenes of pathos or utilize opera selections for the dramatic effects.

Bangity-bang-bang. Bing-bang-bang.

Desperate Desmond has got Claude Eclaire in a tight place, but no mater, the "rag" is on, "hit it up."

Bangity-bang-bang! Bing-bang-bang!

There is a tender-hearted mother dying in the little play the world around her is subdued and silent, her face is pale, her frame attenuated, her respiration is heavy with sighs of sorrow and unsatisfied desire to have her children properly cred for. Tears are falling like her life illusions, she is overcome with her double burden of pain and sorrow, her eyes, inflamed by the fever of unattained hopes, turn beseechingly to the infinite power above, a last faint sigh, the eyes close foreer:

Bangity-bang-bang! Bing-bang-bang!

Source: Louis Reeves Harrison, "Jackass Music," Moving Picture World 21 January 1911, 124-25.

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