We were surfing YouTube the other night (yes, yes, we know, we should have been writing), when we came across, quite by accident, the following clip from a 1936 Sonja Henie film, One In A Million. Just watch:
What did you think? For our part, we were, to quote Dickens’ Mr. Jarndyce, floored. We hadn’t seen or heard anything like it, and now we can’t get enough. Sure, it’s just guys playing harmonicas. That’s not an instrument that’ll get you to Carnegie Hall. Like the trombone or the kazoo, it lacks—elegance. But look at, and listen to what the players do. They get a whole slapstick routine going. As with the great silent comics, it works in terms of musical rhythm, but here you get the music, too. The players surge across space like a wave, in dips and clusters; they reach the punch (in more ways than one) a second before the beat does, the way a great dancer moves to music. And the gags are done to music, such as the harmonica player whose pumping knee keeps tapping the end section of the little person. Or the conductor who points to one player and ‘draws’ the music out, the hands snapping in air like a cat unspooling thread. The beckoned player responds with a one-two-three, bang-bang-bang rhythm; the other players join in, and the sound rises, it growls, drones, buzzes, like bees massing before an attack.
But then all at once the guys settle down and start playing for real; they swing into the title song, and the music pours out in a sweet, buzzy hum; and everything just snaps together, like a Rubik’s Cube suddenly solved. And we were hooked, just absolutely hooked. Line, sinker, and all.
That gang of musicians is Borrah Minevitch and his Harmonica Rascals. Until we stumbled on this video, we had literally never heard–or heard of—this group. Good lord, what we’ve been missing. Maybe that serves us right for avoiding Sonja Henie movies all these years. (It’s true, everything in life does have a purpose. Even ice-skating flicks.)
We think of harmonica playing as down-and-out hoboes riding freight; we never thought of it an art form. But listen above to the Rascals’ rendition of “Limehouse Blues.” We wish we had the language to describe it. They make the song sound sweet, jazzy, and a little melancholy all at once, and its rhythm grabs at you; it pulses like the wheels of a train. The Rascals can inject subtle colors into their music—light and flippant, dark and smoky, or a deep, throaty purr. They can rumble like an organ, wah-wah like a trumpet, or trill like a flute. And look at their variety of harmonicas. There are the small mouth pieces we’re familiar with; but there’s one about a foot long, the player (Johnny Puleo) sliding it up and down his mouth like a well-greased corncob. Then there are the big bass harmonicas, wide and clunky and several layers thick; the players look like they’re munching on typewriters.
The Rascals don’t just play music; they themselves play. Their comedy is aggressive, like boys roughhousing on the playground. The slaps and kicks can look violent (though it’s clear that punches are always pulled), but they’re gracefully done—it’s choreographed mayhem. We’re Three Stooges and Coyote-and-Roadrunner fans; we found it laugh-out-loud funny. Much of the comedy revolves around the little person (Puleo) caught between the taller players. He’s the bratty little brother elbowing a path in and around larger siblings to get attention (and he always gives as good as he gets). When the big boys get too rough, the small fellow runs and throws his arms around the daddy figure, the one trying to impress order onto the chaos.
That happens to be Borrah Minevitch himself, the axis round which the other players converge. He has one of those pleasingly homely faces that could have come straight out of silent comedy (he looks a bit like Harry Langdon). It’s a face a child would trust. All the features curve up, mouth, cheeks, eyes, like the Mask of Comedy, and he uses them to punctuate the gags. And he moves like a silent comic, with a stylized, poignant grace. Watch him offer a posy to Henie, with a shy tip of his hat, then bob the topper up and down on his forehead (apparently with his eyebrows). But he’s also an artist, responding to the music right from his gut. He obviously loves what he’s doing. He’ll sway, dreamily, eyes half-shut, a teenager who’s fallen in love for the first time and can’t believe how blissful it feels. Or he’ll bounce his shoulders while flashing us a big fat grin, like a small boy mightily pleased with himself (and assuming you feel the same). And when he conducts, he’s a dancer. He’ll float his hands as if caressing the air, or dart them like a cat snatching at a toy. Then he’ll spread his arms out and gently ripple them, from shoulder to wrist, like Makarova in Swan Lake. He’s terrific, both funny and beautiful to watch.
Another thing you gradually notice about the Rascals is that it’s an integrated group. One of the players (Ernie Morris) is black, and there’s no fuss about this. He’s an accepted part of the ensemble; he joins in the gags but he’s not the butt of the jokes, as was so lamentably frequent in the treatment of African-American performers in classic-era Hollywood. Borrah seems to have judged his players on ability alone. Maybe that’s why they merge so beautifully. It looks like it must have been a happy group. At the YouTube page where the above video is posted, you can see from the comments that viewers love the Rascals. Their amazement at what they’re listening to and seeing, and their delight in it, jumps from their words.
After seeing this clip, we wasted no time in looking for more Minevitch. He and his Rascals must have been popular in their day; they were in a number of films in the 1930s and 1940s. According to Wikipedia, Minevitch was born in Belarus in 1902 and came to the U.S. in 1906. He was a musician, actor, clown, and businessman. We don’t know how he learned any of his skills; maybe, like Isadora Duncan claimed of herself, he danced in his mother’s womb. You can see, you can feel by how he moves that his sense of rhythm is inborn; it’s not something that can be taught. Borrah retired from active performing in 1947 and moved to France where, among other things, he opened a jazz club and became friends with, and distributed the films of Jacques Tati. Deep’s calling to deep there: two poets of humor, motion, and music, in collaboration. What else he might have done can never be known; he died at the absurdly young age of 52. But at least we have his films and a record of what he could do—and he seems, in his time, to have been able to do everything.
Some other films we’ve discovered in which he and the Rascals appeared:
The above clip is from Hit Parade of 1941. Minevitch is the frazzled overseer of a bunch of rowdy schoolboys; Puleo’s again the brat shoving his way to the front (he mime-socks a taller player to the floor and gleefully stomps on the fellow’s rear-end). We get a sense here of how Borrah conceived of the Rascals. They’re like Harpo Marx, inhabiting a strange middle ground between silent and sound film. Borah speaks when he faces the audience/us (to introduce the number), but with his players he’s a mime and a dancer. He and Puleo ‘converse’ by waggling their eyebrows and twitching their noses and lips at each other. (You need a great mug to do that, and these guys had a great pair of mugs.) When Puleo sneaks back the harmonica that Borrah had confiscated from him, he tilts his head and cocks an eyebrow, like a flirty girl; he’s so quick and subtle, you might almost miss it. It’s the kid outsmarting the adult, the Little Guy triumphing over the Big World. It’s also one pro telling another that they’ve successfully executed a gag.
We like this clip from a short, Boxcar Rhapsody (1942). It gives us the classic harmonica-playing scene of tramps hitching a ride. But these vagrants aren’t down-and-outers, they’re wandering minstrels. The tune they’re playing is “Procession of the Sardar” from “Caucasian Sketches.” The Rascals’ repertoire encompassed a variety of genres, from popular songs to blues to jazz to the light classics (in the Hit Parade clip they play a von Suppé overture; and in the clip from One In A Million, they toss a bit of “Bolero” into their mix). Then there’s that salami-chomping fellow who joins in the merry-making, performing a slo-mo dance while he tosses knives with his mouth. (That’s what was so great about the old Hollywood studio system: If the talent was out there, a studio would find it.) You also get a close-up of Borrah’s own harmonica technique. We’re no experts, but what he’s doing—one hand flicking in and out, like a hummingbird at a feeder—looks pretty-whiz-bang to us.
This clip is apparently from a 1942 short called Borrah Minevitch and his Harmonica School, with a student body that now includes several women. Harmonica-playing seems something of a male-focused pastime, so it’s nice to see the ladies taking a turn here (a glance at YouTube harmonica videos shows many women who do play). The music heard at the beginning sounds like the “Bugle Call Rag.” It’s a terrific piece of music-making. The rhythm zips along; it really does call you to join in. And you hear the range of harmonic sounds, from pennywhistles to bear growls. Borrah as usual is conducting with every range he’s got, bobbing his head like a pigeon or shimmying his shoulders like a stripper. He also wears a top hat here, and a jacket that looks as if it came straight off a Pearly King.
We haven’t seen the film this clip is from, Always in My Heart (1942). Per TCM, Walter Huston plays a a newly released ex-con, separated from his family, who goes to live in a small fishing village. From this clip, it’s clearly a working-class community. Its streets are lined by small, weathered-looking shops and houses, and the inhabitants are dressed in caps and jeans and shapeless dresses. They’re rough-looking and unglamorous, and they work at unglamorous occupations (window-washers, fishermen, a street painter). But, in true Hollywood fashion, they’re the salt of the earth. It’s the kind of rural setting where you just might see harmonica playing—lots of harmonica playing. As you eventually see in the sequence, everyone’s got one. The harmonica may be the most democratic of all the musical instruments. Once any kid could buy one in a five-and-dime (when five-and-dimes still existed) and play. Life’s pleasures were once so simple.
The film’s sentimental keynote is struck in Huston’s singing of the title ballad. He’s not a trained vocalist; his voice quavers and strains for the high notes, but’s it’s a perfect match for the song, getting at its core of quiet, halting yearning. The camera cuts to Borrah (wearing a peaked sailor’s cap instead of his usual round derby), who takes up the tune, amplifying its wistful mood; he gives it a verging-on-tears melancholy you hear in the music Chaplin composed for his own films. A small boy joins him and for a moment they play together, as equals. Then other people join in, dropping whatever they’re doing (literally, in the window-washer’s case) to grab a harmonica and play along. When Morris joins the group, the song changes; the players now swing the tune and the mood lightens. And more musicians, as well as listeners, join (there’s Puleo, scrambling to catch up). The music again shifts, it becomes a snappy march, with Borrah leading like a benign Pied Piper, those eloquent hands reaching out, coaxing the music from others; and then everyone joins in—running down from balconies or racing up from piers, parading, and dancing, in a grand sweep through the streets, actors, musicians, dancers, young and old, male and female, all caught up in the music’s rhythm and its sheer, uninhibited joy, until even such grumpy old curmudgeons as ourselves at Grand Old Movies wanted to join in—yes, even we got so that we found ourselves foot-tapping along, caught up and carried with the rhythm, surrendering to it, till we started thinking such crazily idealistic thoughts such as, Maybe music does bring people together! Maybe there is a universal language! Wow, maybe harmonica playing can save the world!
Well—it won’t, of course. (If there was any faint chance of that, we’d have the Rascals’ music piped into every embassy on earth.) But for a moment we could indulge such happy thoughts. Watching this sequence we could become, by extension, part of what was happening onscreen; and what was onscreen reflected how we felt. That was what the old Hollywood movies could do better than anyone or anything else—stage a sequence, especially a a musical number, where everyone feels invited to join in. The onscreen story becomes our story, too.
OK—maybe we overreact to what we were watching (we haven’t even gotten to that lovely part where the music becomes a waltz and Gloria Warren ‘matches’ the harmonicas in her singing; it’s reminded us of how sopranos in bel canto opera would match the flute solo). Sophisticated viewers will note that, after all, it’s only a movie. Well, yes. You can certainly arm yourself with such a stance (oh, so very post-modern!), but it’s one that’ll leave you out in the cold, unaffected and unchanged. Today TV commercials try to do something similar, filming throngs of people swept away by Muzak and beaming like lightbulbs, but it’s not the same. A commercial is a mere, manipulative pushing-of-our-emotional-buttons. But in the old movies, in this movie, the impulse is genuine. We think it springs out of the music we’re hearing—its expansive, giving rhythm echoing to a yearning in ourselves, for simple, uncomplicated joy. That’s the sense we get when we watch Borrah Minevitch. He radiates the energy, the happiness, the freedom, of someone who’s found his life’s work. He was lucky to have done so; and we’re lucky that he was recorded during a movie era that found in him a kindred subject. It’s why we love these old movies so much, and why we write about them. And it’s why we’re posting about Borrah Minevitch and his Harmonica Rascals right before the holidays, to share that love with readers, in hopes that you, too, might feel the same joy we do.
At the very least, it might inspire us to learn the harmonica. Merry Christmas.
BONUS CLIP ONE: Here’s the finalé from Always In My Heart, with Walter Huston at the piano and his co-star, the young soprano Gloria Warren, vocalizing to the Rascals’ swing harmonica-ization of Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C Sharp Minor.” Una O’Connor and Kay Francis can be glimpsed in the audience:
BONUS CLIP TWO: Johnny Puleo later formed his own harmonica-playing band, the Harmonica Gang, which performed in a comic style similar to Borrah’s. Here’s a clip of the Gang’s live performance at the Moulin Rouge in 1954 (warning: laugh-out-loud funny; NSFW):
Want morra Borrah? More YouTube clips of Minevitch and the Harmonica Rascals can be found here (where they imitate a train); here (a short called Where’s That Tiger?); here (playing “Begin the Beguine”); and here (a short called Finn and Caddie, taking place at a golf course).