9 February 2009 | wmorrow59
Ladies & gentlemen, the one and only B. A. Rolfe! (Who?)
The star of this wacky Vitaphone short is possibly the unlikeliest movie star this side of Marie Dressler. Off the Record features a short, bald, portly gent in his mid-50s named B. A. Rolfe. This genial-looking fellow was involved in show business as early as the 1880s, touring Europe as a 10 year-old cornet soloist. He later conducted his own orchestra, but eventually moved behind the scenes as a producer of vaudeville shows and early silent films. In the 1920s Rolfe left the movie business and returned to music as leader of a dance band, one that recorded many songs and became popular on radio.
Off the Record was made as a salute to Rolfe on his 50th anniversary in show business. It would have been easy enough for the folks at the Vitaphone studio to produce a typical orchestra short consisting of a few pleasant musical numbers, but instead they decided to go the extra mile and do something imaginative. Did I say "imaginative"? It's positively off the wall! The film opens at a celebratory banquet, as Rolfe and his orchestra conclude a swinging rendition of "Happy Days Are Here Again." A toast is proposed to the guest of honor, and then, despite his protests, a photographer shows up to take his picture. Unfortunately, the popping flashbulb sends the poor man reeling into unconsciousness. Worse still, it seems to actually kill him! The music turns chaotic, stars and planets whirl crazily across the screen, and the next thing you know, Rolfe is standing before St. Peter at the Gates of Heaven. Peter says he'll need to examine Rolfe's record, so Rolfe obligingly produces it, i.e. his latest recording. St. Peter's angelic secretary pops the disc onto a heavenly turntable, and Rolfe's band appears (in miniature) to play for the assembled host.
St. Peter, apparently a jazz fan, is in favor of allowing Rolfe into Paradise, but first needs to question him about a romantic indiscretion committed in his youth. Flashback to a saloon in the 1890s, where most of the rest of the short takes place. (Rolfe looks just the same young as he looks middle-aged, only with the addition of a highly unconvincing toupee.) The Gay '90s setting is a good enough excuse for various dancers and singers to perform period tunes in a deliberately hokey fashion. The film wraps up with a couple of casual, what-the- heck gags and a reprise of the opening number.
Based on the evidence presented here I do hope St. Peter eventually allowed B. A. Rolfe past the Pearly Gates. On the strength of this entertaining little short alone, I'd say the guy earned his passage.