Thursday, July 3, 2008

Hooray for Hollywood

There are two reasons why I decided to settle in last night and watch Hollywood Hotel (1937) on TCM. Numero uno is this first-rate review by Stacia at She Blogged by Night—but I must warn you that if you haven’t seen the movie, Stacia provides a thorough analysis that will no doubt contain a spoiler or two. The other is that as an old-time radio fan, I’m always interested in seeing the film versions of radio shows; Hotel being loosely based on the popular variety hour heard over CBS Radio between 1934 and 1938…and starring the queen of the gossip mavens, Louella Parsons.

If Hotel is entitled to any footnote in radio history, it will surely earn one as the first major network show to be broadcast from the West Coast. Hollywood in the early 1930s housed a rich vein of celebrity gold just waiting to be tapped for radio, but this wasn’t always economically feasible because of a phone company policy that would charge the networks exorbitant rates (sometimes up to $1,000) to broadcast from west to east (the norm being east to west, which is why New York and Chicago were the major radio centers in radio’s early days). The absurdity of it all was that under this rule, it was cheaper for a producer to finance the cost of a five-day train trip to the East Coast for a movie star rather than have said star lounge around his or her pool, microphone at the ready.

The shrewd Parsons found a way to work around this handicap by simply (drum roll, please) not paying the talent! Louella could put together a glittering lineup of Hollywood’s big-name talent by getting them to appear gratis, and because of the influence she had in the film colony, very few people refused her edicts to appear on the program. (Among the fearless who told La Parsons to take a hike: Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo.) The film community, naturally, resented the sway that Louella had over their careers: but in retrospect, the exposure on the program was enough to boost B.O. for both established performers and up-and-comers…and all they had to do was show up for an hour’s work Friday nights at 9:00pm. Still, I find it amusing that the situation for big-name guests on Hotel was like a Bizarro version of The Lux Radio Theatre; here, members of the troupe of radio players (Hotel regularly presented a twenty-minute adaptation of a current film release every week…selected by Louella, natch) received the big pay day while the stars got stiffed. (True, the radio players received only a scale union fee of twenty bucks—but they were still way ahead of the game compared to the big stars, who left the show with nothing but a congratulatory embrace from Parsons...and a case of Campbell Soup.)

The master of ceremonies on Hollywood Hotel was apple-cheeked Dick Powell, who at that point in his career was still in chorus boy-mode in Warner Brothers’ musicals. Still, it was good exposure for Powell: his first major radio gig which allowed him to croon a tune every week. Powell left the program in 1937, and was replaced by a long line of fill-ins that included Fred MacMurray and Ken Murray (no “Mac”). Parsons herself left not long afterward when the Radio Guild decided to take a stand against “free broadcasting” (Parsons continued to coerce the talent to appear gratis even after the phone company dropped their fee policy in 1935) and William Powell took over as host for a brief period before the show left the airwaves in December of 1938. Love her or hate her, Parsons can certainly take credit for pioneering the West (Coast) for broadcasting; not long after Hotel’s premiere, other shows made the trek to Hollywood, including Lux, Bing Crosby’s Kraft Music Hall and Al Jolson’s Shell Chateau.

Both Parsons and Powell appear in the 1937 movie version: Louella plays a considerably glammed-up version of herself (and at the risk of sounding bitchy, it doesn’t help much) while Dick is Ronnie Bowers, a hayseed saxophonist with Benny Goodman’s band (a musical aggregation which also features Hotel vocalist Frances Langford and musicians Johnnie “Scat” Davis, Lionel Hampton, Harry James, Gene Krupa and Teddy Wilson). (I don’t know what the heck Benny is wearing on his head in the Hooray for Hollywood number but it looks as if he’s late for a meeting at Fred and Barney’s lodge.) Ronnie has jetted out to Hollywood because he’s wangled a ten-week contract with All-Star Pictures; once off the plane he meets up with PR flack Bernie Walton (Allyn Joslyn) and the tragically unfunny Ted Healy, playing an annoying photographer named Fuzzy.

As this scenario unfolds, temperamental star Mona Marshall (Lola Lane) is throwing a hissy after she learns she’s lost the lead role in a prestigious picture to be filmed at the studio. She refuses to attend the premiere of her latest picture, and when faced with the prospect of the studio’s bread-and-butter being a no-show, Walton and company president B.L. Faulkin (Grant Mitchell) hit upon the idea of using look-alike Virginia Stanton (Lola’s look-alike sister Rosemary) to impersonate Mona…and dragooning Bowers into being her escort. The real Mona soon learns of this chicanery, and…well, to quote the TDOY mantra: let the wacky complications ensue!

After watching Hotel, I have to honestly admit that although I didn’t dislike the movie I was a bit disappointed overall, mostly because the finished product could have used some trimming (it runs 109 minutes, with a plot so thin it only has one side). The comedy relief, usually an asset in the Warner musicals, is out to lunch in this film: both Healy and Hugh Herbert are cinematic toothaches, though Glenda Farrell (channeling her inner Eve Arden) and Edgar Kennedy have their moments. As for the musical numbers, there’s nary a sign of director Busby Berkeley’s trademark flamboyance (it’s almost like he phoned this one in)—but I did enjoy Let That Be a Lesson to You, one of several songs (along with the now-classic Hooray) written by the great Johnny Mercer (and if course, the mere mention of his name requires Savannah residents by law to genuflect).

I came back to TCM less than two hours later to catch Reveille with Beverly, a 1943 Columbia WW2 propaganda effort that was also based on a radio show—in this case, the popular AFRS program hosted by Jean Ruth Hay. Ann Miller plays the titular character; a radio station switchboard operator who aspires to be a disk jockey. She manages to convince snooty Franklin Pangborn (whose early morning show specializes in playing “longhair” music) to take a vacation, whereupon she fills in with some swing and jumpin’ jive courtesy of appearances from the Mills Brothers (Cielito Lindo, Sweet Lucy Brown), Count Basie (One O’clock Jump), Duke Ellington (Take the “A” Train), Bob Crosby (Big Noise from Winnetka) and Frank Sinatra (Night and Day). The music is the whole show here, since Reveille’s plot has the nutritional value of a deep-fried Twinkie; William Wright and Dick “Captain America” Purcell are a society swell and his ex-chauffeur newly drafted into the Army and in competition for Miller’s attentions, and Larry Parks is her brother…also a G.I. (Tim and Irene Ryan are also on hand as the radio station manager and his ditzy secretary.) The only major drawback to this movie is that you have to wait till the end to see the incomparable Ann tap-dance up a storm, but Reveille also contains a funny performance from the Radio Rogues, a comedy team (its members were Jimmy Hollywood, Eddie Bartell, Sydney Chatton) that specialized in impersonating radio stars like Amos ‘n’ Andy, Lum & Abner and Kate Smith…and who had a very short-lived series of two-reelers at Columbia in the 1930s. (One of them does a dead-on impression of John Nesbitt, known for his Passing Parade shorts at M-G-M.) It’s short-and-sweet at 78 minutes and definitely worth the price of admission…except I had difficulty figuring out how someone like Wally Vernon got into the service back then.

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