With the Warner Bros. Archive Collection release of “Classic Musical Shorts from the Dream Factory” on DVD it is now possible to see and hear the result of a fascinating collaboration between composer Dimitri Tiomkin and choreographer Albertina Rasch. The four-disc set includes two previously unavailable Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Colortone novelties, Devil’s Cabaret and Crazy House. When they were first released in the early 1930s, each film contained a single ballet sequence choreographed by Rasch with music by Tiomkin.
From 1925 to around 1930, Tiomkin’s career was considerably intertwined with Rasch’s. Beginning in New York in 1925, the composer accompanied a vaudeville ballet troupe headed by the Austrian-born ballerina turned choreographer whom Tiomkin married the following year. By 1927, Tiomkin was serving as music director and arranger for “Albertina Rasch and her American Ballet.” That same year he began writing original music for his wife to choreograph. One of the first such works was “Creole Blues,” completed in November 1927. When the couple turned to Hollywood as an outlet for their work, MGM signed contracts with both.
The ballet in Devil’s Cabaret is historically significant since the accompanying music is among Tiomkin’s earliest symphonic works. This excerpt from the composer’s pre-existing ballet work would not survive in recorded form had it not been for it’s use in film. Following the convoluted history of the filmed ballet sequence to Devil’s Cabaret is not easy. (Perhaps equally challenging is how Warner Home Video acquired certain distribution rights to some MGM films. Think back to 1986 and Ted Turner.) The Creole ballet was shot and recorded some time prior to March 1930 for Naughty Marietta, a film based on the Victor Herbert operetta and to star Grace Moore. One source claims the footage was then placed in Marianne, starring Marion Davies in her first sound film, then cut after the film’s preview. Now dubbed the “Devil Dance,” it was to be included in March of Time, until that film was shelved in August 1930. At least a year after it was filmed, the ballet finally found a home in Devil’s Cabaret.
Here the ballet works, even though it is clearly not an organic part of the film in which Satan wants to convince people on Earth that life is literally a cabaret in hell. Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Susan King points out, “in the middle of the shenanigans, is a ballet sequence in which the music is supplied by a young Dimitri Tiomkin.” The inserted ballet does bring the film’s narrative to a halt. Giant smoke puffs with crossfades bookend the two minute and forty-five second ballet that features twenty-four Rasch dancers. Production documentation from MGM indicates that 192 feet of film was inserted into Devil’s Cabaret. The ballet footage is particularly exciting as it documents Rasch’s earliest film work. (A visual record of her pre-Hollywood choreography for ballet and the stage is virtually non-existent.)
The main titles for both Devil’s Cabaret and Crazy House credit Albertina Rasch and Dimitri Tiomkin. Unfortunately, the Rasch-Tiomkin “Mars” ballet that found its way into Crazy House in 1931 (having been filmed for March of Time) is not to be found in the print that was selected for this compilation.
The Warner Archive Collection features made-to-order DVDs. A state-of-the-art manufacturing on demand system creates the DVD, places it in a plastic case with custom artwork, and shrink-wraps it for shipment to the customer. Titles can also be purchased as digital downloads. Many titles long out of circulation are now becoming available.
Coming up: A feature article on Tiomkin’s ballet music that will sort out the origins of the music and subsequent use in early sound films.
- “DVD Review: You’ll Want to Tap Your Toes,” by Susan King, Los Angeles Times, May 26, 2010.
- “Albertina Rasch: The Hollywood Career,” by Frank W. D. Ries, Dance Chronicle (1984)
- A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film by Richard Barrios (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.)