Old Bill's Christmas

At the premiere of Old Bill’s Christmas on Tuesday, 26th November 1929, a packed house at the Globe Theatre, New York, applauded for a full two minutes. Unfortunately their appreciation, which lasted through the opening titles of the film, wasn’t for the new talking short based on a story by BB, but for Rudy Vallee—the star of the main feature—also receiving it’s premiere that night——who appeared on stage before the first screening of Vagabond Lover.

Today, seventy-eight years later, Rudy Vallee fans can applaud their idol from their armchairs. Vagabond Lover has survived the passing of time and is now available on DVD and video. As for Old Bill’s Christmas, no copy of the film exists, and very little evidence of it’s production can be found. Despite this, the Editor of The Old Bill Newsletter has researched this subject at great length, and this article tells the story of this important film - the first in which an actor playing Old Bill was seen and heard on screen.

In October 1928, Radio Corporation of America orchestrated the merger of the Keith-Albee-Orpheum theatre chain and the FBO studio owned by Joseph P. Kennedy (father of future U.S. President John F. Kennedy), to enable the company to utilise the sound-on-film technology, known as RCA Photophone, which they had developed, and establish themselves in the sound motion picture field.

Early in 1929 RCA’s production and distribution arm was incorporated as Radio Pictures. The new company announced they would only make all-talking pictures, their first release being the melodramatic musical Syncopation, which premiered on 3rd March 1929.In late summer of 1929, in the midst of all this development in the motion picture industry, Bruce Bairnsfather was busy working on a new project of his own—the outline for a new play about Old Bill.

BB called his new play Stand To! He reverted to the theme he was most associated with—the First World War—and set his story around the memorable events of the 1914 Christmas Truce.

Under a contract dated 10th September 1929, BB sold the worldwide motion picture rights to Stand To! to the fledgling film production company RCA Photophone Inc for the sum of US$2,000 (around £400 in 1929 or the equivalent of approx £17,000 today). The contract gave the film company the right to change any part of the story and its title at their discretion, for the purposes of any motion picture they made. In any event, they were bound by the agreement to acknowledge BB as author of the story, in the films credits. The story appears to have remained as Bairnsfather wrote it, but in an astute move RCA Photophone retitled it Old Bill’s Christmas.

Filming began at the RCA Gramercy Studios in Astoria, New York, on 25th September 1929. A cross-section of an early war trench was constructed on the main stage of the studio, based on sketches provided by Bairnsfather, who was “always about the set to see that details in costumes and settings are as they were in 1914 and also to help with the dialogue.” The replica trench was even flooded, to make it “more realistic.”

The story unfolds thus: Old Bill, Bert and Alf are spending Christmas in the

trenches, and in the midst of their general discussion they notice how quiet it is. They then overhear singing coming from the German trenches. Their officer arrives and tells them a group of their men and some German soldiers are fraternising, nearby. Suddenly a voice calls out and a German appears on the parapet. They invite him to join them in their trench, and share a cigarette and some rum with him. He introduces himself as Hans Muller, and tells them he lived in England for a while before the war. Tomorrow he will go home on leave, to visit his mother. The officer reappears, and recognises the German as the waiter who used to serve him at the Savoy Grill in London! As the conversation turns to the football game being played in No-Man’s land, the officer orders the men to break things up, and tells Muller he must return to his own trenches. They say their goodbyes, firing recommences, and as he climbs back over the parapet, Muller is shot down by bullets coming from the Germans. His body falls back into the British trench, and, opening his tunic to check for a heartbeat (there is none) Bill finds a letter from Muller’s mother. The scene ends with the officer ordering Stand To, and Old Bill, Bert and Alf going over the top.

The film was directed by James Leo Meehan, who had come to New York from Hollywood in March 1929 to spend six months working on talkies for RCA Photophone. Prior to his arrival in New York he had directed a string of movies, including several dramas based on the novels of his late mother-in-law, the well-known author Gene Stratton-Porter. Meehan was committed to the development of talking pictures; interviewed on taking up his position with RCA Photophone, he said he believed silent motion pictures would be virtually out of existence within two years.

Meehan was ably assisted by cinematographer Dal Clawson, who had worked as senior cameraman on more than 50 films since 1914, and was one of the founding members of the American Society of Cinematographers, in January 1919.

Supervising the production was Richard C. (‘Dick’) Currier. In the film industry for many years, his more recent work had included working as Film Editor on many of the two-reeler comedies made by Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy for the Hal Roach Studios (an obligation which Currier continued to fulfil into the mid 1930’s). Other credits included Ernest Fegte (Art Director), Arthur F. Ellis (Editor) abd George Oschmann (Recordist).

The film had a solid and experienced production crew—but what of the cast? The script required actors to fill the roles of ten characters—Old Bill, Bert, Alf, Lieut Munro, Hans Muller, Postman (soldier), and four soldiers (three of these being non-speaking parts). Unfortunately, very little information has survived about ‘who played who’ in Old Bill’s Christmas. However It is known that the title role went to fifty-four year-old British actor Henry Wenman, whose stage career stretched back thirty years with roles in successful productions on both sides of the Atlantic. And this wasn’t the first time Wenman had played Bairnsfather’s famous character. Back in 1917 he had ‘deputised’ for Arthur Bourchier in The Better ‘Ole at the Oxford Theatre on a number of occasions, and had also played Old Bill in one of Cochran’s touring companies of The Better ‘Ole, from 1917-19. Cochran had later described him as a “very good” Old Bill.

Since March 1929, Wenman had been appearing as Second Lieutenant Trotter in James Whale’s production of R.C. Sherriff’s First World War play Journey’s End, at Henry Miller’s Theatre on Broadway. His previous experience playing Old Bill, and his current role in a play set in a dug-out in the trenches of 1918, made him the ideal actor for the lead role in James L. Meehan’s new talking short. He continued to appear in Journey’s End while making the film, working at the studios during the day and returning to the theatre for the evening shows.

Another British-born actor given a role in the film was Harry McNaughton, who had emigrated to America after the end of the First World War (in which he served with the Rifle Brigade, and was captured by the Germans in 1918), and taken up a career as an actor. Some sources state that it was McNaughton who played Old Bill in the 1929 short (although the Exhibitor’s Herald-World confirmed Henry Wenman in the lead role), but it is uncertain which character he actually portrayed. In reviewing the new film, Variety simply noted “cast members unknown, other than Harry McNaughton, capable but with nothing to do.”

Over in Hollywood, RKO had been filming their new sound feature, Vagabond Lover, starring Rudy Vallee in his first screen performance. The movie was a vehicle for the popular American singer (who was adored by female fans of all ages from coast to coast) and his band, the Connecticut Yankees, and although Vallee had no acting experience, RKO had high expectations for the films success.

The New York premiere of Vagabond Lover was set for 26th November 1929, at the Globe Theatre, where, it was announced, Rudy Vallee would make a personal appearance. The main feature would be preceded by premiere’s of two new sounds shorts made by RKO’s associate company RCA Photophone—Mickey’s Big Moment, the latest of the Mickey McGuire comedies starring a then nine-years-old Mickey Rooney—and (opening the evenings programme), James L. Meehan’s new production, Old Bill’s Christmas!

The Exhibitors Herald-World reported on the premiere in their issue dated 7th December 1929, describing Old Bill’s Christmas as “worthy of notice….Old Bill of The Better ’Ole now comes to the screen in a poignant and, in some respects amusing sketch of Christmas 1915, in the trenches,” adding that “great care was used at the Gramercy studio here, where the subject was made, to insure correctness of detail.”

Variety was also present at the Globe premiere, but was no kinder to Old Bill’s Christmas—”Inadequate as an appeal for peace and as entertainment...a bit maudlin in treatment and not sufficient comedy to make it stand up for interest. Meaningless before $2 audiences. Program audiences also apt to become impatient” - than they were to Vagabond Lover—”It’s certainly no great shakes as a picture. For Marshall Nolan, who directed, it unwinds as just a passing fancy. He could have phoned this one in from the golf course. “

The Motion Picture News reviewed Old Bill’s Christmas in it’s issue dated 14th December 1929, saying “It offers some of the fine humour built around this character, and some effective ‘seasonal’ sentiment. It has, too, some piercing thrusts at war. The characters are nicely drawn and there is fine atmosphere developed in the backgrounds.” They concluded that the movie was “a picture to be used in connection with some very actionful feature comedy.

Of all the reviewers, Variety’s comment that “audiences also apt to become impatient” was perhaps a little unfair to the two reeler. Old Bill’s Christmas was after all the opening short at a premiere screening of a major new talkie featuring an extremely popular singer (Variety conceded that “to what extent New York femininity goes for this boy was evidenced in the applause which ran through the main titles and from the girls of from 12 to 60 in the audience and lobby”) and all the audience really wanted to do was see and hear Rudy Vallee. In view of this, it was inevitable they would become impatient, having to sit through two shorts, before the main feature began!

Whatever the rights and wrongs of releasing Old Bill’s Christmas on the same bill as Vagabond Lover, the new short based on BB’s famous character had made it’s debut and RKO Distributing were soon receiving bookings from all over America.

Hopeful of drawing the crowds with the seasonal theme, several movie theatres opened their 25th December programme with Old Bill’s Christmas. In Lowell, Massachusetts it supported Tanned Legs starring Ann Pennington, and in Capital, Wisconsin it was billed as a “Special Christmas Talking Comedy” ahead of Hell’s Heroes—a “dramatic thunderbolt” of a picture!

The festive season came and went, and Old Bill’s Christmas continued to receive bookings. It was labelled an “All Laff Comedy” and in some theatres was shown alongside Vagabond Lover, the feature with which it had shared its opening night.

On 27th January 1930, two months after its first screening, Old Bill’s Christmas was copyrighted by RKO Productions Inc. By May 1930 it was still in demand, and, according to Jerry Safron, General Manager of Short Subject Sales at RKO, was one of the many shorts made at the RCA Gramercy Studio, which, “stamped with the individuality and effects made possible solely by the audible film, left an immediate and definite impression on the box office.”

It is interesting to note that shortly after production on Old Bill’s Christmas began, BB was interviewed by the New York Times, where it was reported that “the screen story that Captain Bairnsfather has written will shortly be played on the vaudeville stage.” He certainly retained the stage rights to Stand To! - but no record of any theatrical production based on the story has been found.

There is no record of what BB thought of the first sound film featuring Old Bill. In Wide Canvas, published in 1939, he does not mention the film by name, and only makes a fleeting reference, thus: “I had recently written the scenario for a talking short, and been paid two thousand dollars for it.”

In an attempt to discover what became of Old Bill’s Christmas the Editor of The Old Bill Newsletter has contacted every major film archive, and every library and organisation specialising in resources relating to the history of the motion picture industry in America, with little success. In addition, surviving descendants of the films Director James Leo Meehan have been traced, but enquiries with his family have not produced any new information. But despite all this, it is possible to reveal the first on-screen words ever spoken by Old Bill:

“’Ere Bert, ‘ow do yer spell ‘Terrible’ - one ‘r’ or two?”

And this is where the story of Old Bill’s Christmas ends. While RCA’s film production arm prospered (as RKO Productions, responsible for classics such as the original 1933 version of King Kong), this early sound short—one of many made at their Gramercy Studios in New York—disappeared without trace. The only evidence of its existence today is a few newspaper advertisements and reviews in trade journals, and a copy of the sixteen-page script, deposited for copyright purposes.

(Originally published in The Old Bill Newsletter Vol 9 No. 3 November/December 2007)