Motion Picture Soundtrack Recordings in the DAHR

The Institute of the American Musical, directed by Miles Kreuger, very kindly provided DAHR editors with access to several Victor company documents in the institute's collections. Among them are two recording books, or ledgers, that describe the creation of thousands of early motion picture soundtrack recordings made by Victor Records in Camden and in Culver City, California.

More than 5,000 of the master recordings made in 1929 and 1930 are now documented in DAHR. Upon learning of our work with the ledgers, music scholar, bandleader, and friend of DAHR Vince Giordano was anxious to hear what information the ledgers provide about the names of the musicians who contributed to these early soundtracks. Alas, the ledgers are disappointing in this regard. For example, the ledgers and DAHR cannot contribute to solving the mystery of the identity of the dance band members heard on so many Laurel and Hardy shorts recorded by RCA Victor, a particular interest of Vince.

Few musicians are listed in the Institute of the American Musical ledgers. DAHR entries derived from the ledgers occasionally reveal the name of a Victor house band member, or a Victor artist who contributed to a motion picture soundtrack. (For instance, Billy Murray is responsible for some sound effects to the film The Kat's Meow.) Also, some might believe that the content of the motion picture ledgers is disappointing because so many of the masters are straight film-to-disc transfers, presumably the creation of Vitaphone-type master records for theaters that had yet to switch to sound-on-film systems.

We find several aspects of the motion picture recordings fascinating, however. They provide a new resource for the study of the early sound era of the movies. Many of the masters were created as special "censored" versions, marked as made to comply with entertainment decency guidelines of specific U.S. states. Technical information is included for some of the early sound-on-film recordings made by Victor, and familiar names do indeed turn up in the ledgers. One of our favorites is "Siegfried Rumann," named often in the ledgers as one of the speakers on German-language soundtracks of American films that Victor recorded. No doubt this is character actor Sig Ruman, well known for his role as Groucho Marx's nemesis, "Mr. Gottlieb," in A Night at the Opera.

This article is the second in a series of articles on the new features of the Discography of American Historical Recordings.