Thursday, August 25, 2011

Stand-In (Walter Wanger Productions/United Artists, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

“What story?” asks a fictional preview customer in his response card for the Colossal Studios production, “Sex and Satan,” in the 1937 movie Stand-In, which I ran this morning. It not only inspired one of the catch-phrases I remember from my childhood — “Attaboy, Atterbury!” (spoken by insufferably phony press agent Jack Carson to Leslie Howard, who plays a banker named Atterbury Dodd, hired to take over a failing movie studio) — it also holds up as a surprisingly literate and irreverent comedy about Hollywood and its pretensions, engagingly off-cast: Joan Blondell as a former child star turned stand-in for an insufferably phony and pretentious leading lady, Humphrey Bogart as a studio production head and Alan Mowbray, with phony Russian accent, as a Von Stroheim-like director who wants to delay production on a film until real edelweiss arrives from Switzerland for a ski scene at St. Moritz, to replace the paper edelweiss concocted by the prop department.

I found this movie as good as it’s ever been, largely due to the performers, high-spirited direction by Tay Garnett and a solid (and wisecrack-filled) script by Gene Towne and Graham Baker which manages to put a fresh spin on some of the hoariest of Hollywood clichés: the stuffy young banker and the down-to-earth woman who humanizes him; the drunken producer who redeems himself at the last by weaning himself off the bottle long enough to finish the production (a perfectly ghastly and “artistic” movie redeemed in the cutting room by making the gorilla the star); the aged bank owner (Tully Marshall) who wants to unload the studio and the corrupt arbitrageur who wants to buy it (this part of the story seemed relevant to today!); and the mismatched relationship at the center of the story (Blondell is especially good in her role, looking luminous in powerful close-ups that showcase her offbeat appearance and manage to make her appealing in a down-to-earth sort of way). — 1/8/95

I ran Charles the 1937 movie Stand-In. It was on my old tape from December 1994 right after The Goldwyn Follies, and it’s one old movie that Charles actually saw before we started dating. He remembered the obnoxious press agent played by Jack Carson and the way the film’s heroes — Leslie Howard as an efficiency expert sent by an Eastern bank (headed by von Stroheim stalwart Tully Marshall) to evaluate whether or not to sell a fading movie studio, Colossal Pictures; and Humphrey Bogart as the alcoholic studio head — figure out how to salvage Colossal’s latest production, Sex and Satan, by cutting out its (human) star, Thelma Cheri, and making a gorilla the center of the film.

It remains a delightful comedy, indifferently directed by Tay Garnett but blessed with a witty and well-constructed script by Gene Towne and Graham Baker (they were the house writers for Walter Wanger’s setup at United Artists and the same year wrote Frank Borzage’s romantic melodrama History Is Made at Night — the film I’ve cited as the key antecedent for the current version of Titanic — and Fritz Lang’s gritty crime drama You Only Live Once) and impeccable acting by Howard (his milquetoast style is much more suited for a comic film like this than a serious drama), Joan Blondell (playing, as usual for her, the voice of sanity in the hurly-burly of showbiz — this time she’s the title character, a child actress turned stand-in for the temperamental Ms. Cheri) and Alan Mowbray as a Stroheim-esque director named Koslowski who (in a scene I’d mentioned to Charles before) announces he is willing to hold up production until the paper edelweiss on the set of a Swiss snow scene is replaced with real edelweiss. “We’ll have to send to Switzerland!” says a production assistant — to which Our Director replies by sitting down and saying, “I’ll vait.” (I wonder what Tully Marshall, who’d made The Merry Widow and Queen Kelly with the real von Stroheim, thought of this scene.) — 4/1/98


Stand-In is a movie that has a peculiar link to my childhood — the leading character, played by Leslie Howard, is called Atterbury Dodd, a representative of a bank that holds a mortgage on a failing movie studio who’s sent to Hollywood to see if the bank should accept the offer of a bottom-feeding financier, Ivor Nassau (C. Henry Gordon at his repulsive best), to take it off their hands for $5 million, about half what the property is really worth. Tom Potts (Jack Carson), the studio’s repulsive publicity man, immediately grabs hold of his first name and starts calling him “Attaboy, Atterbury!,” which of course irritates him no end. For some reason my mother and stepfather remembered the call “Attaboy, Atterbury!” and continually used it during my childhood — so I grew up hearing that phrase without having any idea where it was from until I went out of my way to catch this movie on TV in the 1970’s, at the height of my fascination with all things Bogart (Humphrey Bogart wangled a loan-out from Warners to Walter Wanger Productions — as did Joan Blondell, the female lead — and while Blondell was playing pretty much the level-headed voice of reason she generally portrayed at her home studio, Bogart played alcoholic studio head Douglas Quintain and relished the chance to get away from the gangster roles he said were so much alike he could write all his lines on 3” x 5” cards because he said the same things in every movie and all that varied was the order in which he had to speak the clichéd gangster lines) and instantly was flashed back to my childhood when I heard Jack Carson screaming, “Attaboy, Atterbury!” throughout the film.

Stand-In was made shortly after the 1937 A Star Is Born and also after the blockbuster success of Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, which was based on “Opera Hat,” a story by Clarence Budington Kelland, who also provided the source story for “Stand-In” as a serial in the Saturday Evening Post from February 13 through March 20, 1937. (This time, at least, the filmmakers used Kelland’s original title.) Atterbury Dodd (Leslie Howard) plays a banker’s representative who’s sent to Hollywood to try to convince his bank’s CEO, Fowler Pettypacker (a wheelchair-bound Tully Marshall — playing a standard-issue irascible old-man performance a far cry from his personification of sexual decadence and moral decay in his two films for Erich von Stroheim, The Merry Widow and Queen Kelly!), not to sell the Colossal Pictures studio to Nassau. Nassau is in league with Colossal star Thelma Cheri (Marla Shelton) and her director, Ivan Koslofski (Alan Mowbray), who have collaborated on a ludicrous would-be epic called Sex and Satan on which Colossal already spent $250,000 on 11 rewrites even before the cameras started rolling.

The idea is that by running the studio into the ground — Cheri’s contract, given to her by Quintain because he was in love with her, gave her approval of story, script, director and cast — they can help Nassau make a ton of money when Colossal is sold and Cheri and Koslofski will get contracts with whatever studio ultimately absorbs it. Dodd comes into this stew of events as the classic movie fish-out-of-water, so naïve and unknowledgeable he doesn’t even know who Shirley Temple and Clark Gable are, but fortunately he latches on to Lester Plum (Joan Blondell) — a girl named Lester? — who was a child star in the 1920’s but now that she’s grown has been reduced to Cheri’s stand-in. Dodd escapes the expensive and overdecorated suite Potts has arranged for him and moves in next door to Miss Plum at Mrs. Mack’s Boarding House, all of whose residents are either movie wanna-bes or movie has-beens (there’s a nice bit of pathos as a middle-aged woman is offered extra work in the remake of a film in which she starred 20 years before), including a trained seal and a penguin which, because they’re real or potential film performers, Mrs. Mack (Esther Howard) allows in spite of her usual no-pets policy.

Miss Plum talks herself into a job as Dodd’s secretary and also attempts to get him interested in her as a woman — usually Leslie Howard’s roles at this time were either the devastatingly romantic seducer (which he apparently was in real life as well — he was the sort of man whose long-suffering wife accepted his affairs because she knew he’d be back) or the masochistic sufferer he’d played in his films with Bette Davis, Of Human Bondage and The Petrified Forest (they’d make a third together, a backstage comedy called It’s Love I’m After which cast them as a feuding husband-and-wife stage acting team à la Lunt and Fontanne), so casting him as a comic milquetoast in a Clarence Budington Kelland story was as much as a departure as it had been for Gary Cooper in Mr. Deeds. He’s utterly oblivious to her charms — he finds her physically attractive but it’s a dispassionate fact-based analysis rather than any discernible attraction — and when she tries to get him to loosen up by teaching him to dance (he analyzes the rhythm of the song mathematically and fills the rug on his office floor with markings indicating where his feet should be on each beat), he announces that he will indeed go dancing that night … with Cheri, who’s invited him to a party at Koslofski’s home (which, he discovers, is furnished with props stolen from the studio) and who’s trying to vamp him as part of Nassau’s plot.

Eventually Sex and Satan finishes shooting and is previewed, first on the lot and then before an audience — a preview card comes back in which the writer has answered the question, “How did you like the story?,” with, “What story?” — and Dodd fires Quintain after a drunken binge, then has to rehire him when Miss Plum convinces him that he’s the only person who can save the picture and the studio along with it. Quintain proposes to salvage the film by cutting down Cheri’s part and turning it into a Tarzan-style jungle picture with the gorilla as the leading character — only because of Cheri’s contract, the only way he can do that is if Dodd can seduce her and involve her in a scandal, which will then give him the excuse he needs to fire her under her morals clause. Dodd takes her for a round of drinking at all Hollywood’s most prestigious, and some not-so-prestigious, nightclubs, until she passes out and he deliberately lies down on the barroom floor next to her — only, after the resulting photos make the papers in New York, Pettypacker decides to sell the studio after all. Dodd gets the idea from a radio broadcast of a sit-down strike: he’ll ask the workers to occupy the studio for two days, long enough to do the retakes on Sex and Satan, and in the end the studio is saved, the workers’ jobs are saved and Dodd, whose to-do list contains the notation, “Propose to Miss Plum,” does exactly that, bluntly telling her, “Miss Plum, will you marry me?” “What, no buildup?” she asks, then accepts.

Stand-In isn’t exactly laugh-a-minute comedy, and to the extent there’s a political subtext it’s as muddled as usual in Walter Wanger’s works (at one point Dodd is appealing to worker solidarity by claiming to be one of them, and just a few seconds later he’s making Mitt Romney-style arguments that the Colossal corporation is really a person because it’s owned by individual shareholders who will lose their investments if Nassau takes over and liquidates it), but it’s a nice movie, amusing and entertaining, as well as the second testament (after The Petrified Forest) to the friendship of Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart; Bogart never forgot that Howard, who had acted with him in The Petrified Forest on the Broadway stage, had lobbied with Warner Bros. to hire him to repeat his role for the film (though the Ann Sperber-Eric Lax biography of Bogart suggested denser studio politics as the reason Bogart got the role instead of the studio’s first choice, Edward G. Robinson: Jack Warner was still incensed that the first collaboration between Howard and Bette Davis, Of Human Bondage, had been made for another studio, RKO, and he wanted a Howard-Davis vehicle under the Warner Bros. banner — and he couldn’t co-star Howard and Davis in a film with Robinson because Robinson’s contract guaranteed him star billing), and even after Howard’s death Bogart memorialized him by naming his daughter Leslie after him. — 8/25/11