Posted by gregferrara on March 24, 2013
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 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.
That is, talent matters not. Look good enough and you’re a star. The next verse:
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.
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.
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.
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