Hooray for Hooray for Hollywood. Also, Boo.

Hollywood has long been in love with itself.  It has also loathed itself in equal share.  It’s the all-time Hollywood love/hate relationship and it’s with itself.  They even make movies in Hollywood about how great Hollywood is and movies about how bad it is, too.  The movies about how bad it is tend to win fewer Oscars than the ones about how good it is but they’re usually a lot more fun.  In fact, from A Star is Born to Singin’ in the Rain, golden era Hollywood seemed to actually enjoy showing the dark underbelly of  movie-making, as long as it didn’t get too dark.  The truly dark stuff (The Day of the Locust, The Player) would have to wait until studio influence had waned to get made.  But somewhere in the thirties, 1937 to be exact, Hollywood produced one of the most anti-Hollywood films of them all in a small mess of a film called Hollywood Hotel, directed by Busby Berkeley.

Hollywood Hotel 001

Hollywood Hotel has multiple songs in its hour and forty-nine minute running time but not one of them is a big, geometrically astonishing number of the kind Berkeley made famous.  Instead they’re small numbers, like Dick Powell and Rosemary Lane singing “Fish Out of Water” while walking in a fountain, that don’t require much choreography or expensive setups.  The biggest number, “Let that be a Lesson to You,” is sung in the parking lot of a drive-in diner with not a single group forming a tessellation even once. Aside from the music numbers performed by the leads, there are also multiple pieces performed by Benny Goodman’s swing band as well as Raymond Paige and his Orchestra.   Musically, it’s a joy throughout and as a screwball comedy it has its moments.  As a Hollywood satire, however, it hits both its highest and lowest marks and, curiously, outlines much of the plot of Singin’ in the Rain from 14 years distance.

The story begins with saxophonist Ronnie Bowers (Dick Powell) leaving Benny Goodman and his band in St. Louis for the greener pastures of Hollywood.  He’s just been signed on as a singer by one of the fictional studios in the story and his friends send him off with a song, “Hooray for Hollywood.”  It’s the best song in the movie and one of the best and most biting songs ever written about Hollywood.  Of course, there’s nothing at all in the song celebrating Hollywood, its filled with only derision.

Hooray for Hollywood, that screwy ballyhooey Hollywood

Where any office boy or young mechanic, can be a panic, with just a good looking pan.

That is, talent matters not.  Look good enough and you’re a star.  The next verse:

And any shop girl can be a top girl

If she pleases the tired businessman

No explanation necessary.  And that’s the brilliance of the opening number (and a good clue as to why it was emphatically not nominated for Best Song that year) in a movie about Hollywood:  It lays out for you in its lyrics that Hollywood is a shallow, demeaning, self-defeating place for the soul while everyone singing it has a smile on their face and, despite the lyric’s own warnings, are only too happy to see their friend Ronnie picked to go there.

Hollywood Hotel 002

When Ronnie arrives, he’s quickly escorted to Hollywood Hotel and the story shifts to spoiled star Mona Marshall (Lola Lane, she and Rosemary being two of the three famous Lane sisters – Priscilla being the third but not appearing in the film).  Mona is seen in all her faux glory, yelling at everyone about how difficult the life of a star is and treating only Louella Parsons (playing herself) kindly since she needs her publicity for her public image.  She’s a selfish, awful person and when the studio gives a part she wanted to someone else, she refuse to show up to the premiere of her latest movie, Glamour Girl.  This puts the studio in a bind so they turn to a waitress, Virginia (played by Rosemary), who looks just like Mona to impersonate her at the premiere.  Since they don’t want Mona’s costar, Alexander Duprey (Alan Mowbray), to notice the difference, they send Virginia to the premiere with Ronnie instead and the two hit it off (Ronald Reagan is the emcee of the premiere, by the way, in an unbilled appearance.).

The next morning, the real Mona is furious and demands both Virginia and Ronnie be cut from the payroll, which they are, and Ronnie and his new manager, Fuzzy (played by Ted Healy who steals every scene he’s in), find work at a drive in diner as a waiter and dishwasher, respectively.  It’s then, through his singing at the diner being noticed by a director, that Ronnie comes to dub the singing voice of Duprey in his next movie.

And this is where things get a little screwy.  Already, we’ve got the seeds of Singin’ in the Rain, planted fourteen years earlier but with more of a twist: the selfish, spoiled actress is impersonated in body, by Virginia, while the selfish, spoiled actor is impersonated in voice, by Ronnie.  Singin’ in the Rain simply removed the actor and body impersonation, kept the actress and made it about her voice alone.  Now, this and the musical numbers would have been all that was needed for this Hollywood satire but, unfortunately, they also decided that screwy side characters were needed and the plot goes off into tangents not only unnecessary to the plot but damaging as well.

One such tangent involves Mona’s family, specifically her screwy sister (Mabel Todd) and crazy father (Hugh Herbert), always embarrassing her in front of people, especially Louella Parsons.  Dear old dad’s embarrassments are simply not funny, with Herbert’s trademark style here used as awkwardly and seemingly out of place as possible.  It’s not the talented Herbert’s fault, of course, that his character is a poorly written tack-on to make the movie more screwball than it is, but things get really bad on the set of a Civil War movie they’re making (Duprey’s character is named “Cutler,” clearly a take on “Rhett Butler” from the book but not yet made movie) when Herbert is put into black face.  He’s found hiding among the black actors at which point, upon discovery, he begins talking in an insulting beyond-belief stereotypical cadence that is simply infuriating to watch.  Fellow Morlock Kimberly Lindbergs wrote about racial stereotypes in Hollywood in a great piece here back in 2011 (Racist Images in Classic Films: A Conversation) and I’d like to add Hollywood Hotel to that discussion.  Time and time again, when I see a scene like this, I ask, “Why?”  Why did they have to put it in?  Why did they have to throw in a joke pointing out someone’s race and do it in such an offensive manner?  Why?  It’s not integral to the movie at all.  And the look on the faces of the black actors watching Herbert says it all.  Everyone else is either laughing at his antics or completely flustered but the black actors just stare at him, blankly, and God only knows what they were thinking.   It’s the lowest point in the movie and, honestly, even though it’s only a minute or so in length, it’s offensive enough that it would keep me from recommending the movie to anyone.

Hollywood Hotel 003

In the end the movie is just too scattershot, and not in a good screwball kind of a way but, rather, in a “we’re not quite sure where this is going” kind of a way.  There’s comedy, and music, but they don’t blend together well.  Powell’s first song doesn’t come until almost half way through the movie and then we get several band pieces that get thrown in for no other reason than to have a band piece (“Where’s Benny?”  “In rehearsal.”  And then we see the rehearsal.).  And that’s fine but the movie’s not a revue and they’re trying to make it one.  All of this has the odd result of making the movie feel a bit stifled as if it’s never free to fully cut loose.  For me, the opening number is the thing to see and can be from various sources.  The rest of it has its up and downs (Ted Healy and Glenda Farrell as Mona’s secretary, Jonesy, being two of the biggest ups and Hugh Herbert and that blackface sequence definitely being the lowest down) while most of it is neither up nor down, just kind of there.  But that opening song is terrific and should have been nominated for, if not won, Best Song of the Year (the winner, by the way, was “Sweet Leilani” from Waikiki Wedding).  Of course, it probably contained too much truth to ever stand a chance.  Boo on you, Hollywood.

24 Responses Hooray for Hooray for Hollywood. Also, Boo.
Posted By AL : March 24, 2013 5:20 pm

THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL

Posted By AL : March 24, 2013 5:20 pm

THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL

Posted By jennifromrollamo : March 24, 2013 7:25 pm

I know that Berkely had an alchohol problem. I wonder if his desire to direct a film was too much for him and then hitting the bottle could be a reason why a film that started out with a strong song got bogged down with side plots by annoying characters, losing its way as to what kind of movie it was supposed to originally be. This is just pure speculation on my part.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : March 24, 2013 7:25 pm

I know that Berkely had an alchohol problem. I wonder if his desire to direct a film was too much for him and then hitting the bottle could be a reason why a film that started out with a strong song got bogged down with side plots by annoying characters, losing its way as to what kind of movie it was supposed to originally be. This is just pure speculation on my part.

Posted By B Piper : March 24, 2013 9:03 pm

Yeah, BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL is the best movie about Studio era Hollywood ever. At the other end of the spectrum is strongly recommend Mario Van Peebles BAADASSSSS!

Posted By B Piper : March 24, 2013 9:03 pm

Yeah, BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL is the best movie about Studio era Hollywood ever. At the other end of the spectrum is strongly recommend Mario Van Peebles BAADASSSSS!

Posted By B Piper : March 24, 2013 9:03 pm

I gotta proof these things before I hit send.

Posted By B Piper : March 24, 2013 9:03 pm

I gotta proof these things before I hit send.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 24, 2013 10:20 pm

Jenni, I think Berkeley did as good a job as he could with weak material. It’s just not particularly well written. Singin’ in the Rain covers a lot of the same ground and does a much, much better job with it.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 24, 2013 10:20 pm

Jenni, I think Berkeley did as good a job as he could with weak material. It’s just not particularly well written. Singin’ in the Rain covers a lot of the same ground and does a much, much better job with it.

Posted By abejessamy : March 24, 2013 11:30 pm

I watched this Hollywood Hotel once occasionally. I would like a review of this classic movie, the anti-Hollywood film as you said.

Posted By abejessamy : March 24, 2013 11:30 pm

I watched this Hollywood Hotel once occasionally. I would like a review of this classic movie, the anti-Hollywood film as you said.

Posted By Jennifer : March 24, 2013 11:44 pm

It’s always amazed me that people in my lifetime think “Hooray for Hollywood” is pro-Hollyood. I think it’s probably because they think the lyrics are “Hooray for Hollywood, da da da da da da da Hollywood…”

Posted By Jennifer : March 24, 2013 11:44 pm

It’s always amazed me that people in my lifetime think “Hooray for Hollywood” is pro-Hollyood. I think it’s probably because they think the lyrics are “Hooray for Hollywood, da da da da da da da Hollywood…”

Posted By Richard B : March 25, 2013 12:52 am

Robert Altman figured it out, I suspect.

Posted By Richard B : March 25, 2013 12:52 am

Robert Altman figured it out, I suspect.

Posted By Dou : March 25, 2013 2:32 am

During last year’s Joan Blondell tribute they played “Stand-In” starring her with Leslie Howard. It impressed me with it’s rather dark view of movie studio producers/stars. The bad guys in charge(including a studio’s biggest female star) were trying to bankrupt a studio so that they could pick it up cheap.
Howard was the New York financial whiz whom they thought they could fool. Instead, he won the day with help from Joan Blondell’s savvy Lester Plum.
Another dark Hollywood film which I am embarrassed to admit comes to mind is “The Lonely Lady” starring Pia Zadora. Ray Liotta’s first film. Pretty sure that it doesn’t have any conventions like Star Trek with wookie cosplayers.

Posted By Dou : March 25, 2013 2:32 am

During last year’s Joan Blondell tribute they played “Stand-In” starring her with Leslie Howard. It impressed me with it’s rather dark view of movie studio producers/stars. The bad guys in charge(including a studio’s biggest female star) were trying to bankrupt a studio so that they could pick it up cheap.
Howard was the New York financial whiz whom they thought they could fool. Instead, he won the day with help from Joan Blondell’s savvy Lester Plum.
Another dark Hollywood film which I am embarrassed to admit comes to mind is “The Lonely Lady” starring Pia Zadora. Ray Liotta’s first film. Pretty sure that it doesn’t have any conventions like Star Trek with wookie cosplayers.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 25, 2013 9:30 am

Richard B, good call. The Long Goodbye is one of my all time favorite films.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 25, 2013 9:30 am

Richard B, good call. The Long Goodbye is one of my all time favorite films.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 25, 2013 9:31 am

I never saw Stand-In so I should really give it a look. Sounds very interesting and I love seeing movies about movies.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 25, 2013 9:31 am

I never saw Stand-In so I should really give it a look. Sounds very interesting and I love seeing movies about movies.

Posted By swac44 : March 27, 2013 9:23 am

Stand-In also has Bogie in it, so there’s that going for it too.

I’ve never enjoyed Ted Healy in anything, so it’s good to know that he was of some value in something. I haven’t seen Hollywood Hotel, but I’ll give it a look ASAP. I recently just sat through a painful feature starring the proto-Amos & Andy, Mack & Moran, so a minute of Herbert in blackface doesn’t scare me none.

Posted By swac44 : March 27, 2013 9:23 am

Stand-In also has Bogie in it, so there’s that going for it too.

I’ve never enjoyed Ted Healy in anything, so it’s good to know that he was of some value in something. I haven’t seen Hollywood Hotel, but I’ll give it a look ASAP. I recently just sat through a painful feature starring the proto-Amos & Andy, Mack & Moran, so a minute of Herbert in blackface doesn’t scare me none.

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