Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Hollywood Hotel (Warner Bros./First National, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles the videotape of the 1938 (release date; actually it was filmed in 1937) film Hollywood Hotel. It was Busby Berkeley’s last big-budget musical at Warner Brothers (after that he ran out his contract doing “B” movies, including a surprising number of non-musicals, then moved on to MGM, taking a cut in his own salary in hopes of once again getting major budgets to work with), and on that score it’s a disappointment — there is not one single great big production extravaganza, despite the fact that some of Johnny Mercer’s song lyrics seem to cry out for the full-scale treatment. One could only imagine what Berkeley, given the front-office O.K. and the money, could have done with the song “Let That Be a Lesson to You,” with its repeated line about being “behind the eight-ball.” At the end of the number as it stands (one of the kinds of things that would become much more common in musicals in the next decade, when, as Arlene Croce put it, “the song-and-dance impulse seemed to become pandemic,” when Dick Powell sings the song as a waiter at a drive-in restaurant and hundreds of customers come in, enthralled by the sound of his voice, and join in), a giant eight-ball rolls in and covers the face of one of the actors — and I couldn’t help but think, “This is how a Busby Berkeley number should start.

Benny Goodman and his orchestra are in it — which led Goodman discographers Warren Hicks and Russell Connor to call this the greatest swing movie ever made — which it isn’t. It might have been if they’d given the Goodman Gang more to do (and this was his most famous band, with Harry James and Gene Krupa both prominently featured before they went on to become bandleaders themselves), but all we get from them is a brief appearance in the opening number, “Hooray for Hollywood,” and a rehearsal sequence later in the film where they do part of the famous “Sing, Sing, Sing” arrangement (from the “Christopher Columbus” interpolation to the end, which at least gives us a chance to see the marvelous part of the song in which Goodman goes back to his klezmer roots during a long solo passage in which he’s backed only by Krupa’s drums) and the quartet plays a bit of an almost unrecognizable song called “I’ve Got a Heartful of Music.” With the opening theme statement left on the cutting-room floor, it’s difficult to tell what song the quartet is playing — but at least Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton got to show their African-American faces on the same screen as Goodman and Krupa, and this is almost certainly the first Hollywood musical that showed a racially mixed band. But it’s difficult to call this the greatest swing movie ever made when Goodman’s numbers are truncated while we get every damned suffocating, infuriating note of a Raymond Paige concert arrangement of “Dark Eyes” (a.k.a. “Otchichorniya” — at least that’s the transliteration in Clive Hirschhorn’s book The Hollywood Musical) that makes Paul Whiteman sound like Count Basie by comparison.

Hollywood Hotel is a movie that isn’t altogether bad — in fact, it’s quite entertaining; it’s just such a bundle of frustratingly missed opportunities that in the end it’s only moderately good. The screenplay by Jerry Wald (later a producer and supposedly the real-life model for Sammy Glick in Budd Schulberg’s novel What Makes Sammy Run?), Maurice Leo and Richard Macaulay is actually genuinely witty, and Lola Lane and Alan Mowbray are quite amusing as impossibly hammy and ludicrously pampered and spoiled Hollywood stars (Lane’s real-life sister Rosemary is her much nicer stunt double and the female lead), while Glenda Farrell turns in one of her no-nonsense performances as Lola Lane’s much put-upon secretary. We also get a glimpse (quite a few glimpses, actually) of Louella Parsons, hosting the “Hollywood Hotel” radio program on which virtually every star name in Hollywood was compelled to appear for free, with the threat of being savaged in Parsons’ subsequent columns if they dared to say no. It’s the sort of movie that’s nice the way it is but could have been a lot better with some more elaborate production numbers (the almost surrealistic lyric of the Mercer/Richard Whiting song “I’m Like a Fish Out of Water,” which Dick Powell sings to Rosemary Lane to woo her the night he’s taken her, posing as the glamorous star, to a premiere — ending with a surprisingly suggestive scene for 1937 in which they dunk themselves in the hotel’s fountain, come up with each other’s shoes on their feet, then kick the shoes away just before the fadeout, seems to invite a grand old-fashioned Berkeley extravaganza) and with more Benny Goodman. — 1/31/98


Charles and I had a nice long evening of movie-watching last night in which we got in a feature and two shorts. The feature was Hollywood Hotel, filmed in July 1937 at Warner Bros., released in January 1938 and featured in the Warner Home Video Busby Berkeley Collection, Volume 2 which I bought to get the last two Gold Diggers movies (Gold Diggers of 1937 and Gold Diggers in Paris) and also the 15 minutes’ worth of extant footage from the first Gold Diggers movie, Gold Diggers of Broadway from 1929, included as a bonus track with Gold Diggers of 1937. Hollywood Hotel was a movie Charles and I first watched in the late 1990’s (when he still lived in a studio apartment on Centre Street in Hillcrest) and one I’d been interested in because the Benny Goodman bio-discography B.G. On the Record by D. Russell Connor and Warren W. Hicks enthused about it, calling it “the band’s — and any band’s — best film.” After seeing it with that encomium in my mind I was very disappointed; not only isn’t it Goodman’s best film, it’s not even his best collaboration with Busby Berkeley: their other movie together, The Gang’s All Here (20th Century-Fox, 1943), is far more spectacular, benefiting from Technicolor, Carmen Miranda (the marriage of her talents and Berkeley’s was made in heaven!) and — most importantly — a bigger budget for Berkeley’s spectacular production numbers.

By the time of Hollywood Hotel the market for Berkeley’s extravaganzae was diminishing — audiences were realizing that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers could “say” more on a dance floor with just each other than all Berkeley’s platoons of hot-looking short-skirted or hot-pantsed chorines moving their legs to form kaleidoscope patterns — and Jack Warner responded by cutting Berkeley’s budgets and in particular the size of his personnel. Hollywood Hotel has spectacular sets rivaling anything in Berkeley’s previous Warner Bros. films — the lobby of the titular hostelry looks gigantic enough he could have staged a production number in it, and the “Orchid Room” where the Hollywood Hotel radio program was broadcast (hosted by Louella Parsons, who plays herself in the movie and who managed to blackmail all the major stars into doing her radio show without pay by threatening to write nasty items about them in her widely read column about Hollywood if they didn’t) is dominated by huge plaster orchids and it looks like the Hindenburg could have landed inside it, while the Hollywood Hotel house orchestra led by Raymond Paige is itself so large it could have successfully defended Pearl Harbor if it had been armed with guns instead of instruments. What Berkeley didn’t get to do is fill those big sets with chorus girls and maneuver them; his direction is capable enough (just before he left Warner Bros. he’d prove with the quite good thriller They Made Me a Criminal that he could make an entertaining movie that wasn’t a musical at all) and he keeps the action moving — this is one film in which he directed the whole movie and not just the numbers — but all too often the numbers seem to stop just when they’re getting interesting: when the song “Let That Be a Lesson to You” ends with a giant eight-ball rolling itself in front of Edgar Kennedy’s face, we can’t help but think, “This is how a Busby Berkeley number should begin.”

Ironically, I liked Hollywood Hotel a lot more this time around, more for the script than for either Berkeley or Goodman— who gets to do about half of “Sing, Sing, Sing” and whose racially integrated quartet, consisting of white musicians Goodman on clarinet and Gene Krupa on drums with African-Americans Teddy Wilson on piano and Lionel Hampton on vibes, was the first mixed band ever shown on film. They do a song called “I’ve Got a Heartful of Music” and the number is abruptly cut into during a rehearsal sequence in the Orchid Room (the same scene in which “Sing, Sing, Sing” is performed), obviously so it could be deleted in prints shown in the American South. Other than that the Goodman band is simply spackled into scenes otherwise featuring the Warner Bros. studio orchestra and Johnnie “Scat” Davis, a white singer-mugger-trumpet player who, like Louis Prima, obviously worked out this act because he thought “white Louis Armstrong” would be a potentially successful market niche. He sings the opening song, “Hooray for Hollywood,” with the backing alternating between the studio orchestra and Goodman’s band, which then plays “California, Here I Come” as part of the sendoff they’re giving saxophonist Ronnie Bowers (Dick Powell, top-billed), who’s won a 10-week contract with the fictitious “All-Star Pictures” studio. Later the song “Let That Be a Lesson to You” starts out as part of the Hollywood Hotel broadcast with Goodman’s band playing it and Johnnie “Scat” Davis singing it, only to dissolve into a sequence at Callahan’s Diner, where Ronnie has taken a job after his career as an All-Star contractee lasted only one day. After the Orchid Room rehearsal sequence that’s the only really extended look we get at Goodman all movie, the band and Benny are invisible until they make a cameo appearance in the final mix of “Hooray for Hollywood” with which the film ends. Two other songs, a lovely ballad called “Can’t Teach My Old Heart New Tricks” and a hot instrumental, “House Hop,” which the Goodman band had recorded before the film was made, were filmed but not used in the final cut.

Ironically, the best element in Hollywood Hotel is neither Berkeley’s direction nor Goodman’s contribution but the wisecracking script by Jerry Wald (later a major producer), Richard Macaulay (spelled “Macauley” on the credits even though, under his correct spelling, he was one of Warners’ most prolific writers) and Maurice Leo, full of animadversions about diva-ism and the whole appalling mess stardom makes of one’s life — though the funniest wisecrack in the movie is about Ronnie Bowers when he arrives at the Hollywood airport and a publicity photographer asks if they’re really going to make a movie star out of someone that homely. “Don’t forget — they made a star of Rin Tin Tin!,” says Ronnie’s buddy, comic-relief sidekick and (eventually) manager Fuzzy (Ted Healy, making his next-to-last movie before his sudden death — Healy was the man who put together the Three Stooges as just that, the stooges in his vaudeville act, only in 1934 MGM kept Healy under contract but dropped the Stooges; the Stooges signed with Columbia and made shorts there for 23 years, while Healy went on to an interesting and varied career as a character actor, including a serious role in the 1935 horror film Mad Love, until his sudden death in 1937 shortly after this film was premiered) — to which the onlooker says, “Yeah, but at least he could bark.” (That’s a double in-joke, since Rin Tin Tin was a Warners star and his films’ profits helped the studio stay in business in its difficult early years — but those were silent movies, meaning the audiences may have seen him bark but they didn’t hear him!) The plot has All-Star’s mega-star, Mona Marshall (Lola Lane), scheduled to go to the premiere of her new movie, Glamour Girl, with Alexander “Alex” Dupray (Alan Mowbray), her fiancé and frequent co-star — only Mona has a diva hissy-fit and flees to Santa Barbara. Having advertised that Mona Marshall would appear at her career, studio head R. L. Paulkin (Grant Mitchell) hits on the idea of passing off Mona’s stunt double, Virginia Stanton (Rosemary Lane, Lola’s real-life sister) — whose own hopes for a picture career have gone nowhere since she so closely resembles Mona (a plot gimmick Warners used again in the 1943 film Thank Your Lucky Stars with Eddie Cantor in both roles) — as Mona at the premiere and having Ronnie Bowers, on his first day in Hollywood, escort her, since Alex would have recognized immediately that Virginia was not Mona.

Naturally, Ronnie likes honest, down-to-earth Virginia a lot better than he would have stuck-up prima donna Mona, and the two fall in love even though, once Mona and Alex learn of the deception, they demand that Ronnie be fired and he ends up working at Callahan’s drive-in diner for the typically irascible Edgar Kennedy, who gets to do some nice slow burns and ends up smashing most of his own dishes even though one can’t help but wish Harpo Marx would come along and wade through his lemonade again. Fired at Callahan’s, Ronnie and Fuzzy (who’d hired on as a dishwasher and run up a tab — every time something broke Callahan would say, “That comes out of your salary!” — approaching the size of the U.S. budget deficit now) are so desperately broke they have to walk to All Star Studio’s when a director there offers Ronnie a part — though it’s not an on-screen one: it’s just to record three songs as Alexander Dupray’s voice double in the Civil War-themed musical Love and Glory, his and Mona’s next film. The movie is a hit at its premiere and the stars are invited to appear on Louella Parsons’ Hollywood Hotel radio program — where Dupray, who can’t sing a note, is going to be expected to sing his big songs from the new film. A panicky Paulkin tries to locate Ronnie to get him to do the Phantom Broadcast number and sing Dupray’s songs off-stage while Dupray lip-synchs — only Ronnie refuses to sing on a broadcast except in full view of the audience, and when he finally does agree it’s at a fee of $1,000 per song. Then Virginia, disguising herself as Mona again, lures Dupray into a car and drives him to a deserted country road and lets him out again so he misses the broadcast, Ronnie gets to show his face as he sings the big songs, and when Mona comes on to him he rejects her in favor of Virginia, he gets a big All Star contract and everyone lives happily.

 Hollywood Hotel apparently aroused the ire of the real Hollywood Hotel as well as Campbell’s Soup, the sponsor of Louella Parsons’ broadcast, neither of whom had been asked for permission to use their names (though not only Parsons but virtually the whole announcing staff of the real-life show appeared in the film — and so does ace Warners makeup man Perc Westmore, who’s shown making Virginia up to look like Mona) — and Johnnie “Scat” Davis’s antics aroused the ire of Benny Goodman. Apparently Davis managed to persuade some of the “suits” at Warners that he should be included in the song “Sing, Sing, Sing,” either by playing a trumpet solo to be spliced into Goodman’s pre-recording or by synchronizing on-screen to the solo actually played by Harry James (his film debut). They were going to shoot this in the dead of night so Goodman wouldn’t find out about it until they finished the film, but Goodman did find out about it ahead of time and said that if Johnnie “Scat” Davis either got spliced into “Sing, Sing, Sing” or synched to Harry James’ solo, he would pull out of the film and take his whole band with him. Hollywood Hotel emerges as an interesting souvenir of Louella Parsons’ radio program (though because her show, not the Goodman band, was considered the main commercial attraction we get every ghastly note of Raymond Paige’s God-awful arrangement of “Otchi-Tchor-Ni-Ya,” a.k.a. “Dark Eyes,” and only a brutally cut-down version of Goodman’s deathless swing masterpiece “Sing, Sing, Sing”!) and it’s got some great gags (including Mona Marshall’s incredibly nelly queen-stereotype dress designer going by the nickname “Butch”!) and nice songs by Richard Whiting and Johnny Mercer (whose contribution deserves note for his dazzling, Cole Porter-ish “list” lyric for “I’m Just a Fish Out of Water,” with the deathless line, “Like Justice Van Devanter/Doing an Eddie Cantor” — Justice Willis Van Devanter was one of the Right-wing crazies on the U.S. Supreme Court that was throwing out President Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation), and though it’s disappointing as a Goodman showcase it’s still nice to see bits of Benny’s two most famous bands (the big band with Harry James and Gene Krupa, and the quartet with Krupa, Wilson and Hampton) captured at their very best.

Incidentally, Goodman and his band recorded four of the songs from the film (including one, “Can’t Teach My Old Heart New Tricks,” which wasn’t used in the final cut — according to one report, Harry James subbed for Krupa on drums on that one) with Goodman’s regular band singer, Martha Tilton, who sang them much more musically than either Johnnie “Scat” Davis or Dick Powell, and on the October 22, 1937 session the band not only recorded three songs from the movie but also did a fourth piece, “Popcorn Man,” which was slated for release March 14, 1938 and abruptly pulled from the market one week later. “All releases were recalled (most were still in the hands of distributors, not retailers),” Connor and Hicks wrote. “All labels were scrapped, and masters of the take issued and all alternate takes were destroyed.” Why, one wonders, did RCA Victor not only pull the record so abruptly but attempt with Stalinist efficiency to wipe out any trace of its existence? When “Popcorn Man” finally returned to print (courtesy of one of only about 10 copies that survived, and in inferior sound quality to the rest of the album because it was mastered from a commercial pressing rather than the lost original matrix) as part of a 1960 Goodman LP on RCA’s budget label, Camden, the liner notes hinted that there was something objectionable about the song that had led a Victor executive to order its suppression — and, given that I first acquired this LP in the late 1960’s in the middle of the sex, drugs & rock ’n’ roll hippie Zeitgeist, I immediately concluded that “popcorn man” must have been 1930’s slang for a drug dealer and someone at the company had caught on that that was what the song really meant. (Yet, according to Connor and Hicks, a Jimmy Dorsey record of “Popcorn Man” on Decca went out without any hitch.) — 10/9/12