Monday, January 13, 2014

The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (MGM, 1929)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

When I went to see Charles I took along the tape I’d made years ago of the film Hollywood Revue of 1929, a movie that’s basically an historical curiosity today though it’s got some moments that hold up vividly — notably an outrageous acrobatic dance by Buster Keaton in drag as “Neptune’s Daughter” and good song-and-dance numbers by Joan Crawford and Marion Davies. The main problem with it is the horribly uncreative nature of the photography; every ensemble production number is shot from straight-on, with the camera shooting into a proscenium set and (except for a couple of surprising overhead shots) giving us no more than what we could have seen from a good orchestra seat in a live show. One can readily imagine why audiences had grown so tired of musicals that by 1931 Hollywood had virtually stopped making them until the spectacular success of 42nd Street in 1933 brought them back — as Arlene Croce wrote in The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book, “A dull, static musical is no more escapist than a documentary on breadlines.” The Hollywood Revue of 1929 had some moments of genuine charm, though the technical crudity had to be seen to be believed. At one point we see a totally out-of-focus shot of a chorus line — and only later, when Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards steps out to sing a song in front of them and he is in focus, do we see why. Joan Crawford’s “Got a Feeling for You” is a good hot-cha number of the period, but it’s undone by the unfamiliarity of the pre-recording process; in MGM’s previous musical, The Broadway Melody, pre-recording had been inadvertently introduced in the number “The Wedding of the Painted Doll” (production head Irving Thalberg wanted a retake of the number and his brother-in-law Douglas Shearer, who headed MGM’s newly organized sound department, suggested that to save money on the retake instead of recording the whole number over again, they use the same soundtrack record and just redo the visual part), and Hollywood Revue was mostly pre-recorded, but Crawford apparently wasn’t told that she was supposed to move her lips to the recording in order to make it look like she was singing. She got the idea in the first chorus — in which she was just leaning into the curve of a grand piano and singing — but in the second chorus, in which she was supposed to be singing and dancing at the same time, she frequently forgot to move her lips when she was supposed to be singing. (When Fred Astaire came to Hollywood he insisted that he would not be shown singing and dancing at the same time; he would sing the song and then he would dance to it, as he would on stage — he realized that no one would believe he could possibly sing and dance simultaneously without running out of breath.) And there are all too many instances where we see members of a chorus line clapping their hands in time to a song but we don’t hear them doing so!

What survives about this film is some good gag sequences — notably the Keaton number, Laurel and Hardy’s bungled magic act and a charming sequence in which the film’s host, a then-unknown comedian named Jack Benny, whom Thalberg pulled out of a nightclub gig, gets his clothes torn off by William Haines (when Haines joked that Benny’s clothes were totally out of fashion, Charles joked, “Listen to him. He’s Gay. He knows about these things”) — and the two sequences in two-strip Technicolor (not the best-preserved two-strip I’ve ever seen, but among the better surviving examples). One is a sequence in which John Gilbert and Norma Shearer perform the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, first come scritto and then in 1920’s youth slang — surprisingly, given their later reputations, it is Gilbert who comes off better in this scene, looking natural and speaking with a somewhat stilted but still appealing voice, while Shearer gestures with majestic phoniness and speaks her lines as if she hasn’t a clue as to what they meant. The other is the musical number “Orange Blossom Time” (shot as primitively as all the other big numbers in the film, but given a major lift by being in color — in the original release of this film some theatres actually wafted orange-blossom perfume through their interiors when this film was shown, and audience members with hay fever complained they were allergic to the movie!) and a final reprise of the song “Singin’ in the Rain” (this was the film for which it was originally written!) which featured all the cast members standing and waving to us in front of a painted backdrop ostensibly representing Noah’s ark. (The brief shot of Joan Crawford in this finale was the only color footage of her until 1953, when she made her first color film, Torch Song.[1]) Earlier this great song was performed by Ukulele Ike and the Brox Sisters in front of a really simple stage set, with rain pelting them from all angles — a far cry from the engaging performance of Gene Kelly in the Singin’ in the Rain movie made 23 years later at the same studio! — 7/6/98


Two nights ago Charles and I watched a film we’d recorded from the first night of Turner Classic Movies’ “Star of the Month” tribute to Joan Crawford, the musical The Hollywood Revue of 1929. It was part of an odd cycle of films made in the early days of sound, in which virtually every major studio tried a plotless “revue” movie — “revue,” so spelled, was the name in the 1920’s (and later) for a Broadway show that didn’t have a plot but was simply a succession of musical numbers and comedy scenes alternating with each other. Fox made the Fox Movietone Follies of 1929, Warners made The Show of Shows, Paramount made Paramount on Parade (a film generally considered wittier than the rest of them but one partially lost because the sequences originally shot in two-strip Technicolor no longer exist in any form, either the color originals or black-and-white print-downs), Universal made The King of Jazz — which at least had the unifying element of Paul Whiteman and his orchestra in some of the most dazzling production number ever filmed (it was directed, stunningly, by John Murray Anderson, who as director of most of the Ziegfeld Follies was intimately familiar with the revue format) — and MGM made this one. The Hollywood Revue of 1929 has some other distinguishing features; for the comedy MC (there was also a “straight” MC, actor Conrad Nagel, who as the first important male star who proved he had a recordable voice ended up in so many movies in the early days of sound he once complained that he and his wife could no longer go to the movies for their own entertainment since they couldn’t find a film playing anywhere that he wasn’t in) MGM production chief Irving Thalberg discovered a young nightclub comedian named Jack Benny. The result was an oddly refracted performance in which Benny’s later radio character can be glimpsed in embryo, before his radio writers fused its elements — his cheapness, his self-denigration, his ego, his terrible violin playing (though off-stage, off-screen and off-air Benny was a capable pop violinist — he jammed with jazz great Joe Venuti and Venuti said he had to work hard to keep up with him) — into the devastating and hilarious character that ensured his popularity on radio and TV for decades. The Hollywood Revue of 1929 was also the first musical ever made in which all the songs were pre-recorded before filming; pre-recording had been invented accidentally on MGM’s previous big musical, The Broadway Melody, when Thalberg had decided the number “The Wedding of the Painted Doll” wasn’t good enough and ordered it reshot. Douglas Shearer, head of MGM’s sound department (and, not coincidentally, Thalberg’s brother-in-law), said there was nothing wrong with the soundtrack, so to save money on the retake he suggested they use the same recording and just redo the visual part. (There wasn’t a synchronization problem since the number was simply a dance; there was a singer, but he was off-screen.) So Thalberg ordered all the numbers in The Hollywood Revue of 1929 to be pre-recorded — which threw some of the performers, particularly Joan Crawford. Having established herself as a major star the previous year with the film Our Dancing Daughters, Crawford was quite naturally assigned a number, “Gotta Feelin’ for You,” in which she would both sing and dance. For the first chorus she just sang — and she remembered to move her lips in synch to her pre-recording — but for the second chorus, when she was supposed to be shown singing and dancing, she was concentrating so hard on her dance she forgot to move her lips as she “sang” on the soundtrack.

Like a lot of early musicals, Hollywood Revue is a rather lumbering, uneven piece of entertainment, sometimes spectacular, sometimes almost grueling to watch, and in general the numbers are more fun than the comedy routines. One begins to wonder if the comedy scenes in stage revues were really this dull and produced so few laughs — and then one remembers that among the people who shot to stardom in revues were W. C. Fields, Eddie Cantor and Bert Williams. Alas, aside from Benny (and he, as noted above, hadn’t really created his character yet), no one in this cast was as talented a laugh-maker — except Buster Keaton, and his routine is a wordless dance sequence in which he’s supposed to be playing the beautiful princess, daughter of Poseidon, who emerges from an oyster shell and does a wild dance, supposedly underwater, with a string of sausages (representing a sea serpent). It’s one of the most delightful scenes in the movie! Laurel and Hardy are also in it, doing an incompetent attempt at a magic act — it was interesting to watch this a day after seeing Lost in a Harem, made by the same director (Charles F. Riesner) 15 years later, and showing Abbott and Costello as similarly incompetent stage magicians. One problem with Hollywood Revue is the form in which it’s survived; as late as 1962 Laurel and Hardy’s biographer, John McCabe, reported that all the extant prints had the sound on Vitaphone discs and the film couldn’t be shown until MGM transferred its soundtrack to film. Sometime in the early 1960’s someone did just that — and did as wretched a job with it as Warner Bros. had done with some of their Vitaphone films. The problem was that a film soundtrack took over the left one-ninth of the picture area, and rather than re-center the image or (better yet) letterbox it, whoever slapped a film soundtrack on this simply stuck it over the left one-ninth of the screen, turning what Riesner and cinematographers John Arnold, Maximilian Fabian, Irving Reis and John M. Nickolaus clearly intended as symmetrical compositions into annoyingly off-center ones. What stands out in Hollywood Revue are the Keaton and Laurel and Hardy sequences, the meeting between Jack Benny and Lon Chaney (actually, according to one “trivia” poster, Gus Edwards — famous vaudevillian who toured with a children’s act for years and wrote the song “School Days” to introduce it ­— stood in for Chaney in this scene because Chaney refused to do the movie unless he was paid his full star salary) in which Benny shakes “Chaney’s” hand and ends up holding his disembodied arm, and at least some of the musical numbers.

The song “Singin’ in the Rain” was written for this film as a feature for Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards, the Brox Sisters and the Rounders (a male vocal group), but anyone who associates that song with Gene Kelly and his marvelous solo dance through a rain-drenched street is going to be disappointed by this sequence. It’s just a bunch of people clomping around on a relatively simple set, singing the song as a blatantly artificial downpour drenches them (the one in Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain routine was artificial, too, but it didn’t look it), and though Ukulele Ike actually swung within the limits of his rather silly act, the Brox Sisters are so dreadfully dull one can’t help this could have been filmed a couple of years later when the Boswell Sisters would have been available. “Singin’ in the Rain” is briefly reprised for a bizarre final shot in which the entire cast is posed in front of a painted backdrop representing Noah’s ark — and among the people visible in the group shot is Joan Crawford, filmed in color for the first time in what was the first of three films she made in which she was shown in color sequences (the other two, both from a decade after this one, were The Women and Ice Follies of 1939) well before her first all-color film, Torch Song (1953). Hollywood Revue contains two big scenes in two-strip Technicolor, including a sequence with Norma Shearer and John Gilbert doing the balcony scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, first come scritto and then, after director Lionel Barrymore (playing himself at a time when he was attempting a transition from acting to directing for real) receives a memo from the front office saying they want to rename the film The Neckers and update the dialogue, in up-to-date 1929 slang. Though an “trivia” poster names this as “one of the films cited as contributing to the collapse of John Gilbert’s career after audiences heard his high-pitched speaking voice,” Gilbert actually seems perfectly credible, throwing himself into Shakespeare’s dialogue with surprising gusto (especially since the problem with Gilbert’s subsequent talkies wasn’t that he had a high-pitched voice but he didn’t seem to get the whole concept of acting with one’s voice, of varying one’s inflections to convey emotions) and managing to make the 1920’s slang version (with lines like, “You’re the pansies in my garden, the cream in my mocha and java, the berries in my pie”) genuinely amusing. It suggests that Gilbert might have transitioned to sound just fine if Thalberg had done for him what Sam Goldwyn had done for Ronald Colman — shifted him out of heavy-breathing romantic drama and given him a modern-dress comedy-thriller instead. Certainly Gilbert is a lot better in the Romeo and Juliet sequence than Shearer, who’s even more stylized and more clueless about acting Shakespeare than she was when she filmed the whole role seven years later (also at MGM with her husband Thalberg producing) — she seems bent on gumming every one of the Bard’s lines to death — and spits out the “modern” dialogue as if she’s simply a straight person setting up Gilbert’s gags.

The other big Technicolor number is the film’s last major song, “Orange Blossom Time,” a pretentious song set in a garden but featuring the movie’s most spectacular choreography, including at least one overhead shot in which chorus girls arrange themselves in a kaleidoscope-like formation. This is usually associated with Busby Berkeley, but quite a few 1929 movies used this gimmick — including the original Rio Rita, The Cocoanuts (the Marx Brothers’ first film) and MGM’s next big musical, Lord Byron of Broadway — a year before Berkeley came out to Hollywood to do the numbers for Eddie Cantor’s Whoopee. “Orange Blossom Time” is also a precursor to the brief vogue for “smellies” three decades later — Michael Todd, Jr. introduced “Smell-O-Vision” in a film called Scent of Mystery in 1960 and a rival producer tried another scent process, “AromaRama,” in a documentary about China called Behind the Great Wall (it was introduced by newscaster Chet Huntley in a scene in which he was shown cutting open an orange, and orange scent was wafted through the theatre’s air-conditioning system) — some theatre owners wafted orange-blossom perfume through their houses during the “Orange Blossom Time” number and hoped it would add to the atmosphere. It added too much to the atmosphere for patrons with hay fever or sinus allergies, who complained that there was something about that movie that was making them allergic! The Hollywood Revue of 1929 was sufficiently well promoted that there were quite a few contemporary records of its songs — Paul Whiteman recorded “Orange Blossom Time” (with a vocal by Bing Crosby that’s considerably more pleasant than the one by Charles King in the film) and “Your Mother and Mine,” Frank Trumbauer and Leonard Joy both recorded “Gotta Feelin’ for You,” Trumbauer also recorded “Nobody but You” and Cliff Edwards recorded “Singin’ in the Rain” both when the movie came out and again in the 1950’s (the first time with a band behind him, the second time with only his vocal and ukulele). But the vogue for revue movies didn’t last, and when producer Harry Rapf decided to go to the well again with one called The March of Time in 1930, his superiors pulled the plug on it in mid-filming, leaving a brief clip that was used in Broadway to Hollywood (1933) and some elaborate musical numbers that got recycled as shorts like The Devil’s Cabaret (1934) and a “Lock-Step” number, a chorus line set in a prison, that eerily anticipates the title song in Elvis Presley’s 1957 musical Jailhouse Rock but wasn’t seen until That’s Entertainment III in the 1990’s. — 1/13/14

[1] — Not true: she’s also seen in color in two other part-color films, both made in 1939: Ice Follies of 1939 and The Women. (M.G.C., 3/12/07)