Thursday, August 20, 2015

Hollywood Cavalcade (20th Century-Fox, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature” was Hollywood Cavalcade, an entry in the second 20th Century-Fox boxed set of The Films of Alice Faye, and while I could hope for a third box in the series devoted to her pre-20th Century Fox films (including the quite fascinating 1935 musical Music Is Magic, which I watched while the Woody Allen-Mia Farrow-Soon-Yi Previn scandal was in full swing and seemed like an eerie anticipation of it in its tale of a young man infatuated with an old-time musical star, played by Bebe Daniels, and steers her to a comeback but also falls for her daughter, played by Alice Faye), this one is quite compelling and has a number of her most important movies. Hollywood Cavalcade was one of the first attempts by a major movie studio to deal at least somewhat honestly with the medium’s history, and in particular the era of silent films and the contentious period in which they were suddenly (within two years) replaced by talkies. The story opens in New York in 1913, in which aspiring actress Molly Adair (Alice Faye) suddenly gets her big break when the star of a (real) play called The Man Who Came Back takes sick in the middle of a performance and Molly, her understudy, goes on in her place. She’s scouted by Michael Linnett Connors (Don Ameche sans his trademark moustache, though he grows it later in the film and looks more like himself), who when he isn’t covering theatre for the New York Evening Record works as a prop boy and general factotum for the Globe movie studio in Edendale, California. (Edendale was the original location for Mack Sennett’s Keystone studio; this is one of the many references to Sennett’s career in which the script — written by the usual committee: Lou Breslow, “original idea”; Hillary Lynn and Brown Holmes, “story”; Ernest Pascal, “screenplay”; and uncredited contributions by James Edward Grant and silent-film director Malcolm St. Clair, who’s also listed on as uncredited director for the silent-movie sequences — abounds.)

Connors signs Molly to a personal contract and gets Globe to pay her the then-handsome sum of $100 per week — double what she was getting on stage — and plans to star her in a big dramatic feature. Only her screen test (with Buster Keaton, of all people, as her leading man — and he’s also listed on as an uncredited co-director of the sequences reproducing silent comedy) is being shot on the same stage as a comedy scene by one of Globe’s other units, and unable to react convincingly as a dramatic actor when a stock roué villain puts the make on his girlfriend, Keaton instead goes into a comedy routine that ends up with him throwing a pie at the bad guy, missing and hitting Molly instead. Connors realizes he’s onto something and sends one of his staffers to buy 500 custard pies a day from a local baker (the real pies in Sennett’s films were usually fakes made with shaving cream, but in this film the pies are actually edible). Molly becomes an instant star and Connors walks out of Globe and sets up his own company to make first comedies, then dramatic features, with her. He also hires an actor named Nicky Hayden (Alan Curtis) to be her romantic leading man, only their relationship gets too romantic for Connors’ taste; the three of them are scheduled to take a vacation, only Connors remains behind working out ideas for new pictures, and while they’re alone together, proximity works its magic and Molly and Nicky fall in love and get married for real. They’re willing to continue working for Connors, but he’s so pissed off at Molly for hooking up with Nicky instead of him that he fires them both, making the famous-last-words speech of just about every fictional movie producer in a movie that if he can make one pair of stars, he can make another. Only, while Nicky and Molly rise up the Hollywood food chain to a contract with Metro and then a berth at United Artists, Connors loses all his money on a big-budget epic called Queen of the Nile (two decades before 20th-Century Fox would take a real-life financial bath on the Liz Taylor Cleopatra), he walks out on two major-studio contracts over “creative interference,” and his house is foreclosed on and he’s written off by the business until Molly Adair tries to salvage the career of the man who discovered her by insisting on him as director of her new film, Common Clay.

They’re in the middle of producing this when Molly and Nicky are involved in a car accident while racing to get to the location on time; Nicky is killed (well, the writers had to do something to eliminate the extraneous character!) and Molly is laid up in the hospital for two to three months. While all this has been happening Warner Bros. has released The Jazz Singer, it’s been an enormous hit and Molly’s producer, worried that if they wait for her to recover and complete the movie it will seem hopelessly out of date as a silent, wants to shoot a quick final scene with a double for Molly and rush it out while there’s still a market for silent films. Only Connors steals the negative and refuses to give it back unless he’s allowed to come back and finish the movie his way, with Molly finishing her role and with the script rewritten to include sequences with sound so it won’t be written off as obsolete. This duly happens, and at the end, with a hit on their hands and Molly Adair having navigated the transition from silent to sound quite ably, she and Connors seem headed for a reunion off screen as well. Hollywood Cavalcade is often referred to as a film à clef about the real-life professional and personal relationship of Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand, and Sennett himself was involved in this production; he not only consulted on the silent comedy scenes (which don’t have quite the panache of the original but are still screamingly funny and among the best parts of the film) but actually appears as himself, speaking at a testimonial dinner to Molly Adair which a decidedly inebriated Connors crashes in a scene pretty obviously ripped off from the Academy Awards sequence of the 1937 A Star Is Born. It is and it isn’t; obviously the writers and director Irving Cummings (an efficient traffic cop, as usual) didn’t dare depict the real reason Sennett’s and Normand’s off-screen romance broke up (she caught him in flagrante delicto with another one of his actresses, Mae Busch), but the film is full of Sennettesque anecdotes and even the plot twist of a director stealing the negative of an uncompleted film and essentially using it to hold the studio hostage really happened to Sennett, though at the other end. In 1918 Sennett’s production Mickey, Mabel Normand’s first feature, had gone through four directors and the last one, F. Richard Jones, was having a major argument with Sennett over his salary. Unable to get the increase he wanted, Jones stole the negative of Mickey and refused to give it up until Sennett paid him the extra money; Sennett paid up, Mickey got finished, and upon release it was the third biggest hit of the entire silent era (topped only by The Birth of a Nation and The Big Parade). But Connors’ descent into dramatic spectacle, his financial failure, his troubled dealings with the major studios and his descent into alcoholism sound like the writers were tapping D. W. Griffith for their second act.  

Hollywood Cavalcade is quite an entertaining movie, a rare Alice Faye vehicle in which she doesn’t sing — and though they shot her performing a song, “Whispering,” which wasn’t used in the final cut, the film isn’t hurt much by her vocal silence even though she’s not much of an actress and gets by in the role on an appealing personality and a hauntingly beautiful face (including the blue eyes which look spectacular in three-strip Technicolor — it was Faye’s first color film — even though they would have bedeviled cameramen in the silent era since the films were too slow to reproduce blue — cinematographer James Wong Howe “made his bones” by figuring out how to photograph blue-eyed actress Mary Miles Minter without having her eyes go white: he hid himself and his camera behind a black curtain, “bounced” light off of it and thereby got a shadow on Minter’s eyes so they looked normal on screen). It’s nice for once to see a film made in 1939 that doesn’t regard the silent era as so hopelessly old-fashioned no one should bother watching its movies — though it’s revealing that the film reproduced silent comedy but didn’t try to do a scene from one of Molly’s dramatic films because silent drama, especially romantic drama, would have been considered risible to a 1939 audience — and though it’s hardly at the level of the first two A Star Is Borns or Singin’ in the Rain it is a quite estimable take from Hollywood on its own history