Can You Hear Me Now?

Some tropes and plot twists are eternal in movies, but there are other once-familiar devices that have somehow faded away.

When was the last time, for example, that you saw a character in a movie of recent vintage place a handkerchief over the mouthpiece of a phone to disguise his or her voice?

If you’re young enough and aren’t an avid movie buff, you may never have seen such a scene.

But as any fan of motion pictures from the Golden Age of Hollywood can attest, it’s a device that was used over and over, in thriller after film noir after mystery film.

And yet, we’ve never heard anyone question the validity of this practice. Since childhood, we’ve scratched our head over this one, and we have long wondered if we were alone in questioning it.

What mystical property could a pocket handkerchief possess that allows it to magically alter a voice until it is unrecognizable?

For those who really don’t have a recollection of seeing such a scene, we’re offering a snippet of a 1953 film noir, The Blue Gardenia. In this film, Anne Baxter is the subject of a police dragnet on suspicion of murder (though they’ve not yet identified who she is, exactly). In this scene, she calls a newspaper columnist (Richard Conte), who has made an offer via his column to help the “Blue Gardenia” (as the papers have dubbed the unidentified suspect) to tell her side of the story, to exonerate herself of the crime.

And when Baxter calls, she uses—you guessed it—a handkerchief to disguise her voice.

When we watched The Blue Gardenia recently (for what must have been our fifth or sixth viewing), we decided it was time to put the handkerchief method to the test, once and for all. And we’ve done just that below.

1. Without the handkerchief 


2. With the handkerchief 


The first audio file was recorded without a handkerchief. We simply spoke a few lines of movie dialogue (ones that you will very likely recognize) directly into our iPhone 8.

The second audio file was recorded exactly the same way, only we placed a cotton men’s handkerchief over the phone’s mouthpiece. You can judge for yourself by listening to the two audio files, but for our money, the two files sound remarkably similar. If anything, the second one sounds better, clearer. Not exactly the effect the characters in all those movies were looking for.

So many old movies, so many handkerchief-over-the-mouthpiece scenes. So many lies!

This Cladrite Classic was first published on March 16, 2011.

A Drive Up Fifth Avenue, ca. 1937

You know how, when you’re watching an old movie and there’s a scene in the interior of a car, and through the rear window, you can see rear-projected footage of the city streets the car is supposedly traveling on? If the movie you’re watching is set in NYC, there’s a chance that this is the footage you’re seeing.

This trip back in time begins at 60th Street and Fifth, just a block up from the Plaza Hotel, and continues north for 3.5 minutes or so, and then other angles are shot for the remaining time.

Googling Bygone Beaneries, Tough Guys and Rich Gals

We love old movies on their own merits, but we watch them in a way that’s very different from the way we watch modern films. For us (and we’re confident we’re not alone in this), old movies are like time travel. We listen closely to the dialogue for slang we might not have heard before, we examine all the actors from head to toe to take in their vintage clothing, we watch for period billboards and advertisements to discover long-forgotten products and businesses, and when we do uncover something new, we quickly turn to our good friend Ms. Google to see what knowledge she has to share.

Recently, we were watching Undertow, a film noir from 1949. It stars Scott Brady (he was Lawrence Tierney‘s brother, you know) and an actress we weren’t sure we recognized named Peggy Dow.

We looked up Dow on IMDb.com and learned that, after just a handful of pictures, she gave up Hollywood to marry a guy named Walter Helmerich, who was just getting started in the family business, which just happened to be oil drilling. The Helmeriches resided in Tulsa, Oklahoma (our native state), raised five sons and must have done pretty well for themselves, because the theatre department at the University of Oklahoma is now named the Peggy Dow Helmerich School of Drama (we figure they must have kicked in with a pretty sizable donation to earn that honor).

We graduated from that very school (though it hadn’t yet been named after Ms. Helmerich at the time) with a BFA in Theatre, so we feel a certain connection to her now. If we hadn’t watched Undertow and been inspired to do a little digging, we’d have never known.

By the way, as of this writing, Ms. Helmerich is still with us. And not only is OU’s drama school named after her, so is the auditorium at Northwestern’s Annie May Swift Hall (her alma mater). And since 1985, the Tulsa Library Trust has annually presented the Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award to a deserving writer.

Now, back to the movie: At one point in the picture, Brady returns to his hometown of Chicago and there are some nice shots of South Wabash Avenue as he tries to ditch a cop who’s tailing him. How do we know it’s Wabash Avenue? Well, a restaurant called Lander’s caught our eye as Brady strolled past it (In Chicago, It’s Lander’s was the eatery’s slogan).

It had an appealing vintage look to it, glass bricks and all, so we turned again to Ms. Google with fingers crossed to see if it had somehow managed to survive to the present day.Read More »

A Journey Back to Old New York

A couple of years back, The Museum of Modern Art performed a digital restoration on some travelogue footage of New York City that was shot in 1911. They did a great job with it, and the video was widely disseminated—you may have seen it at the time or in the months since.

Now, a Swedish company called Svenska Biografteatern has done even more work on the footage, giving it a higher frame rate and resolution (4K) and a subtle color tinting.

For anyone who loves New York (or dreams of time travel), it makes for a magical eight-minute journey into the past.

A Headline for the Ages

Today marks the 84th anniversary of the appearance of the greatest newspaper headline ever—or, at the very least, the greatest headline ever to appear in a trade publication.

It was on this day in 1935 that the front page of Variety blared the following:

Photo of aforementioned Variety headline

We’d always understood that the point of the headline (and the story it touted) was that, contrary to the common wisdom of the day, rural moviegoers weren’t showing an interest in motion pictures that took place in rural and small-town settings; they wanted depictions of big-city life.

But that’s not the whole story. In fact, now that we’ve read the article at Variety.com, we’re not really sure this headline is a particularly good fit, as the bit about small-town movie patrons enjoying city-themed movies makes up but a tiny percentage of the story.

Still, over the years, that aggregation of words has brought us great joy; it makes us profoundly happy. We’re not certain who penned the headline—some say it was written by Lyn Bonner; others insist it was the work of Abel Green—but we tip our hat to whomever was responsible.

The headline was also featured in the classic 1942 musical Yankee Doodle Dandy, in which George M. Cohan (played by James Cagney) translates it for a couple of teens.

This post first appeared in this space in slightly different form on July 17, 2012.