3/19/08

HOLLYWOOD PARTY; AN MGM ANOMALY

hpartyposter

anom·a·ly
Pronunciation:
\ə-ˈnä-mə-lē\
Function:
noun
Inflected Form(s):
plural anom·a·lies
Date:
1603
1 : the angular distance of a planet from its perihelion as seen from the sun
2 : deviation from the common rule : irregularity
3 : something anomalous : something different, abnormal, peculiar, or not easily classified

"Hollywood Party", a 1934 MGM "all-star" anomaly, features a large number of MGM's comedic roster of the period--most prominently Lupe Velez, Laurel and Hardy, Jack Pearl (radio's "Baron Munchausen"--and if that doesn't ring any bells for you sorry, you'll have to look into it on your own as Pearl and his at one time insanely famous creation are as dead as Greek and I can't begin to explain their one time popularity to myself much less to you) and even the Three Stooges--still yoked to Ted Healy.. Mickey Mouse somehow gets involved as well--though I don't understand what Walt Disney had to do with MGM--in this pastiche centering around Jimmy Durante and his efforts to throw a major shindig (he's a lion tamer or somesuch). Actually the frame work of the film is that Durante is Durante and he falls asleep and dreams the whole mess while his wife is getting dressed (played, post-modernistically, by Durante's real wife, Jeanne Olsen).


lupestanandollie "Hollywood Party" was directed by at least six different men--among them Richard Boelslawski, Sam Wood, Allan Dwan, Edmund Goulding and George Stevens (I assume that Stevens did the Laurel and Hardy sequence since he'd worked with them at Hal Roach Studios since the late twenties--Stevens was originally a cameraman). I saw the film years ago--or more accurately snoozed through it. Like so many of these hodge-podge all-star fizzles, it promises much more than it delivers. Even the somewhat famous Laurel and Hardy sequence with Valez, in which they engage in an egg war, was done better in other L&H movies of the time. (Nonetheless, I've posted it second below. Why not? Even mediocre L&H is better than no L&H). "Hollywood Party" isn't a "revue" film, nor is there any real story. The pace lurches uncomfortably along (the result of six or more chefs in the kitchen?) and the overall effect is somewhat surreal and unsettling. Indeed, Allan Dwan--one of the film's many uncredited co-directors--describes his uncomfortable involvement in his long and indispensable interview with Peter Bogdanovich which can be found in PB's long and indispensable "Who The Devil Made It?". I'll quote a bit of it.



"Every star on the MGM lot was in this picture and every director on the lot had done a piece of it, but when they finally tried to put it together, it just wouldn't jell--it was nothing. So I was invited by (MGM executive) Eddie Mannix to look at it and see if I could do anything with it...finally it ended and they hadn't even turned the lights up when somebody beside me--who turned out to be Mannix--said "Well, what do you think of it?" And I said, "It's a nightmare." And from behind a pair of arms were thrown around my shoulders and a voice said, "A genius! At last, we've got a genius! Now we've got something." The lights went up and it was Louis B. Mayer..."That's just what it is--it's a nightmare--we make it a nightmare." He looked at me. "How are you going to do it?"

Naturally, being a man committed to only the highest aesthetic principals of cinema (as well as wishing to be led to the "elysian fields of popular entertainment"--Albert Lewin (("Picture Of Dorian Grey")) co-opting the Greek phrase for "final resting place of the Gods" in a pithy letter to Preston Sturges about "Remember The Night" ((Stanwyck, MacMurray, Mitchell Leisen, 1939)) as quoted by Brian Henderson in the notes on "The Lady Eve" ((Stanwyck, Sturges, Fonda, 1941)) in the long-winded Preston Sturges Scripts Series--Christ, STOP ME!)--Dwan figured out how to make the whole thing Durante's nightmare. Oy. Are you still reading this? What are you, stuck at an airport somewhere?


So why drag this particular movie out of the mothballs in which it currently resides? Well, click on the first clip posted below and find out. The movies theme song, by Rodgers and Hart, is sung by Miss Frances Williams (she was usually billed with that faux-uppity "Miss" in front of her otherwise ordinary monicker--done, I imagine, for ironic effect) who you might have seen in my previous post singing "Doing The Uptown Lowdown" (from "Broadway Through A Keyhole"). There she was garbed sapphically in white tie and tails. Here she's all Broadway brass--and showing more than a bit of leg--in what amounts to one of the era's best conceived, most inventively filmed nutty musical montage sequences. Every frame of the below number is suffused with sex and sexual symbols--one wonders why the recently installed Production Code let it slide--and the energy and inventiveness of the filmmaking is still a real pleasure to watch. I don't know who was truly behind its creation, but I don't think it's one of the non-credited directors; my guess is that it's the work of the highly inventive and generally completely overlooked choreographer Seymour Felix--who's one of several choreographers credited on the film and who often had a good deal more to do with his dance sequences than just staging the steps--check out his credits and some of his other work, which happily resides on youtube.


Who was Frances Williams? She was a singer and performer who, in the twenties, appeared in several editions of George White's Scandals and apparently co-starred with the Marx Brothers on Broadway in "The Cocoanuts" (in what role? Did she replace Mary Eaton? Or did she do the part Kay Francis does in the movie?) Beyone those now faded credits, though, I would say that Frances Williams was nothing more or less than the Leonard Zelig of Dame Broadway. For she Zelig-ishly introduced no less than two of the most momentous cultural events of the jazz age--without getting any credit whatsoever for having done so. First was the "Charleston", which she was apparently the first to perform on Broadway in one of the early editions of the "Scandals". Then, in 1932, she appeared in a show called "Everybody's Welcome", where she was the first to sing Herman Hupfeld's "As Time Goes By"--I don't need to tell you that it took another decade until that song became the anthem that it now is. Although she only made a handful of film appearences and recording sessions during the thirties, each one is a perfect gem--though none were truly hits or even all that noticed. By the mid-thirties the big band era had arrived and Miss Williams was not a band vocalist--she belonged to a style of songstress that evolved from the twenties Helen Morgan era and would be revived in the forties in the "intimate" clubs in which Mabel Mercer and her ilk performed. By then, though, Williams was finished--too old (and who knows what other problems there may have been) and never to be truly credited with having been a pioneer in this more personable, smart and intellecutally "inside" style of nightclub performing. (Typically, her appearance in "Hollywood Party" is kept a secret--she is unbilled.) I got turned on to Miss Williams as a result of contributing a pittance to the ever-worthy Vitaphone Project--if you contribute just a wee bit they'll send you some of the best home-grown CD's of period jazz-age music that you could ever hope to own, one of which is a "complete works" of Miss Williams. Here's a list of Miss Williams Broadway credits--her stage career stumbled along into the forties before expiring from lack of oxygen.


I know far too little about Frances Williams and would love to have my knowledge enhanced. According to the above Wikipedia entry she was married a five times-once to a man named Baron Miguel de Sousa, (a role that could only be portrayed by Akim Tamiroff) and apparently later to the actor Frank Lovejoy (who appears to have been a decade her junior). There are rumored television appearences from the fifties as well, though none as yet posted on youtube. After a long bout with cancer, she died in 1959, age fifty-eight, pretty much forgotten in spite of having introduced a song and a dance that everyone--whether or not interested in the twenties and thirties--to this day has probably heard of.


Nothing about "Hollywood Party" truly makes sense--not the plot, the mixture of stars, the way it was made. Its residual value as a cultural artifact may, indeed, reside solely in the below two clips. Or perhaps in the fact that, in the IMDB listing under "plot keywords", the categories named are "revue", "part-animated" and "inanimate object in cast credits". Who are they referring to with that last category? My best guess is Walt Disney, who is credited as the voice of Mickey Mouse. And who may indeed, in 1934, have already frozen himself...






2 comments:

  1. YOU'VE BECOME THE PHIL SCHAAP OF CLASSIC MOVIE BLOGGERS!!!! GOD!!!!!

    ReplyDelete
  2. On behalf of Phil, I'll take that as a compliment.

    ReplyDelete