3/11/13

HOLLYWOOD PARTY: AN MGM "ANOMALY"--AND A FRANCES WILLIAMS MOMENT



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 Latin and I can't begin to explain their distant popularity to myself much less to you) and even the Three Stooges--still yoked to Ted Healy (who was soon to be murdered by Wallace Beery...but we'll save that for another post). 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 Hollywood 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). But we'll get to that part of the story in just a moment...

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 as 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 (I've posted it below--perversely in a dubbed German version). "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?" Take it away, Dwannie:

"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, Dwan figured out how to make the whole thing Durante's nightmare. Oy. 

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, perhaps, 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 Seymour Felix--who is 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. Dig (and then read on, for Godsake):


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 Kay Francis part?) Beyond 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 simply 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.)  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 two clips I've posted. Or perhaps in the fact that, in the IMDB listing under "plot keywords", the categories named are "revue", "part-animated" and--get this-- "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...




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3 comments:

  1. Can you tell me where you found the image of the Hollywood Party poster? I have been looking for it everywhere and would love to have it in full resolution.

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  2. I believe the HOLLYWOOD PARTY poster is in fact the opening title frame from the actual film. I'm guessing the advertising posters were more likely to have featured Jimmy Durante, Lupe Velez and Laurel & Hardy, all well-known stars with an established fan base in 1934.

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  3. The color poster looks like the MGM 1934 original; I referenced the wrong image in the above comment. Sorry for any misunderstanding.

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