Once again, I remind everyone that my entries contain spoilers! TCM will be airing “Hollywood Hotel” on July 2nd at 8:00 PM Eastern, and the film is also included in a new Busby Berkeley box set due out September 19th. Don’t read any further if you don’t want to be spoiled!
“Hollywood Hotel” is a Busby Berkeley comedy musical that, oddly enough, doesn’t contain a single Berkeley-standard geometric dance extravaganza. There’s lots of singing but very little dancing, and the film is uneven in spots, but when it’s good, boy is it good!
The opening strains of “Hooray for Hollywood” greet us as we see a series of signs warning the big stars of the screen to watch out, because Ronnie Bowers is coming to town. Ronnie (Dick Powell) is a sax player for a St. Louis band headed by Benny Goodman, and he’s off to Hollywood with a 10-week contract to the All-Star Studio. Benny and band drive to the St. Louis airport in jeeps, standing and playing all the way to cheer their friend on. “Hooray for Hollywood” starts up in earnest as Johnnie ‘Scat’ Davis sings the now-classic tune, accompanied by Frances Langford.
Ronnie flies to Hollywood as “California Here I Come” plays brightly during a montage of the town that includes the Brown Derby, the Cocoanut Grove, and other famous locales. Thankfully they didn’t use really old stock footage like many 1930s films did, or if they did it wasn’t very noticeable. Nothing throws my suspension of disbelief off faster than watching footage shot in 1925 used in a 1937 film.
When Ronnie steps off the plane he is greeted by All-Star PR man Bernie Walton (Allyn Joslyn) and photographer (Eddie Acuff). Meanwhile Fuzzy (Ted Healy), an independent photographer, shows up to also get photos of Ronnie. Bernie and Fuzzy don’t like each other much, and a few zingers are exchanged. During this entire sequence of leaving and arriving in Hollywood, everyone has terrific dialogue. It’s funny and hip and even though most of those we see on screen aren’t good actors, you cannot help but enjoy yourself. All that said, one of the funniest moments occurs between Joslyn and Acuff as they wait for the new star to get off the plane:
CAMERAMAN: They’re not gonna make a picture star outta him?
BERNIE: Why not? They made one out of Rin Tin Tin.
CAMERAMAN: Yeah, but he could bark.
Most of Acuff’s lines are said without emphasis and much too quickly, but his delivery of this punchline is spot-on solid.
Bernie is clearly unimpressed with Ronnie and drops him off at the famed Hollywood Hotel with the instructions to stay put until he’s called. Ronnie checks in and is starstruck by the excitement in the lobby, which is in an uproar because of their most famous guest, Mona Marshall. He’s distracted by the hotel’s famous Orchid Room, where he’s heard many radio broadcasts, but is brought back to the check-in desk by the porter. The manager and employees are initially impressed with their new All-Star actor guest, but when Ronnie tells the hotel manager that he’s a saxophone player, the manager changes Ronnie’s room and the porter scowls at him. Powell is quite good at playing the Hollywood newbie without overplaying the role. His Ronnie is excited about his new life but isn’t overzealous, and he shows his inexperienced goofiness but avoids becoming irritating.
While this is going on, Mona’s father Chester Marshall (Hugh Herbert, last mentioned on SBBN here) is being paged. He is found but confused, doing his standard mutter-and-act-goofy-while-woo-wooing shtick, but it provides an adequate segue away from Ronnie and to Chester’s daughter Mona, a big Hollywood film star.
Mona Marshall is fussing and swooning and generally acting like a drama queen in her dazzling hotel room, surrounded by a large entourage. Mona (Lola Lane, one of the Lane Sisters) is having a dress fitted and she and the designer seem intent on out-doing each other in histrionics. The designer, Butch — played as a real “Don’t mind me dear!” caricature by Curt Bois — is beside himself. Butch is also subject to a few questions regarding his sexuality by Mona’s competent assistant Miss Jones (Glenda Farrell). Mona is being interviewed by Louella Parsons (played by herself) as she temperamentally rants about ridiculous things. Not only is she difficult and rude, she’s also quite dim. She ends her over-the-top performance by photogenically grasping each side of her neck and moaning, “Oh, my thyroids!”
Mona’s sister Dot (Mabel Todd) arrives and proves that the whole family is comprised of fools. Mabel Todd may be the most irritating person ever put on screen, and I say that as someone who has seen several Adam Sandler movies. Let’s just say she’s shrill and leave it at that. As Louella asks Dot a few questions, Mona answers for her — even Mona knows Dot is as dumb as a bowl of mice — and Dot starts to pick her nose. Ugh.
Famous movie star Alexander ‘Alec’ Dupre (Alan Mowbray, last mentioned on SBBN here) arrives in Mona’s suite. Parsons asks if their romance is headed towards marriage, and they both remain coy on the subject. Mona tells Parsons that she and Alec will be in the upcoming sure-fire hit “Bitter Night”, but Alec informs Mona that’s not true. In fact, Parsons herself reported in that morning’s trade paper that other actors were chosen.
Mona goes a bit Norma Desmond from the disappointment and decides to not go to that night’s film premier, just to stick it to the studio that didn’t give her the “Bitter Night” role. This puts B.L, the head of All-Star Studios, in a jam. Mona is nowhere to be found and they need their star to show up to her own film premier. Bernie the PR guy comes up with an idea: find a look-alike for Mona and send her to the premier instead.
Bernie looks over a host of young starlets and finds Virginia (Rosemary Lane, sister of Lola Lane who plays Mona) and chooses her. Virginia is a waitress who can’t get any work in town because she looks too much like Mona, but when she shows she can convincingly act like Mona she’s hired for the premier. Bernie chooses Ronnie for Virginia’s date, because Ronnie is the only All-Star actor who hasn’t seen Mona in person, therefore he wouldn’t catch on to the scam and accidentally spill the beans.
Virginia is given a make-over by none other than Perc Westmore! Not only did I finally get to see Perc in action, but I finally got confirmation that his name is pronounced like “purse” and not “perk”, too. You can see him here dressed like a pharmacist, making Rosemary Lane in the chair look like Lola Lane in the photo. Perc’s abilities are undeniable, but you have to admit, this job isn’t too difficult since the actresses are sisters.
Ronnie arrives at Mona’s suite while Virginia is getting ready. Meanwhile Alec shows up, also unaware that Mona is gone and a look-alike is in her place. The maid is in on the scheme and worries about Alec’s arrival, so Ronnie helpfully tells Alec to go away. Alec refuses and causes a scene, and Ronnie decks him in response.
Ronnie and Virginia go to the premier, and Virginia fools everyone. They are both interviewed for the radio by none other than Ronald Reagan in his second film role; he had just signed a contract with Warner Brothers that year. Ronnie (Dick Powell, not Ronnie Reagan) gets flustered and starts to act like a doof, so Reagan quickly shoos him off the mic and into the premier.
Virgina and Ronnie head to the Orchid Room after the premier and enjoy a dance together, which turns into a lovely duet between them called “I’m Like a Fish Out of Water”, shot on a surprisingly tasteful fountain set. Virginia and Ronnie are hitting it off. Mona’s sister Dot and the photographer Fuzzy also do their own version of the song as Dot pursues an unwilling Fuzzy through the fountain.
The next morning Mona finds out that a look-alike was used for the premier and explodes in anger. She flies right back to the All-Star Studios and confronts B.L. and Bernie. When Ronnie arrives she slaps him, which he doesn’t understand because he thinks Mona and Virginia are the same person. While standing there stunned, Bernie tells him that Mona has insisted that Ronnie’s contract be bought out. Ronnie has been fired.
Ronnie hooks up with Fuzzy, who makes himself Ronnie’s new manager, but they run into Bernie almost immediately. Bernie insists they talk at a coffee shop in the Hollywood Hotel. The waitress arrives to take their order and it’s Virginia, who denies knowing Ronnie at first. Ronnie runs off and sees Mona in the lobby, which makes him even more confused. Bernie explains that Virginia is the one he went on a date with, and Mona is the real actress. Meanwhile Mona, her crazy father, her moron sister, and Miss Jones — you gotta feel sorry for Glenda Farrell in this scene — all lose control of the dogs they were walking through the lobby. Was a silly dogs-running-about scene necessary?
I do think that this scene indicates the turning point in the film. From personal experience, it seems as though “Hollywood Hotel” is not very well liked. There are precious few reviews of the film, not much written about it, and what is out there is often quite convoluted; Mark Deming’s plot summary for “Hollywood Hotel” in the All Movie Guide is so completely wrong that it seems almost deliberate.
I think there are several reasons for the film’s lack of popularity. First, this is a Busby Berkeley movie without the fabulous geometric showgirls. Second, the film features a lot of unconnected musical moments tied together by the thinnest of plot threads. Musically, there are some amazing gems, like “Hooray for Hollywood” introduced by Johnnie Scat Davis, and Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa perform “Sing Sing Sing”, but the majority of musical numbers are forgettable. Also, the witty dialogue is primarily in the first few reels of the film, with the dialogue in the second half often calling back to jokes we already heard. This second half of the movie slows down as the music takes over, as well, by a rather tedious romance and some tepid “wacky hijinks”.
Ronnie and Virginia go on a date and end the evening at the Hollywood Bowl. In some of the previously-mentioned callback dialogue, Virginia recites the names of every famous landmark we saw in the opening montage, saying they had visited each place. Ronnie says he wants to see the Bowl, though, so Virginia shows him how to get in even when it’s closed. There she sings “Silhouetted in the Moonlight” rather weakly. Berkeley also inexplicably decides to put Powell in an obviously fake nighttime set with blinking lights on a black background. With every other set realistic, this cardboard-and-Christmas-lights design truly stands out.
The next day Ronnie and Fuzzy head out to find Ronnie a new studio. They hit Miracle Pictures first (“If it’s a good picture it’s a miracle” — that joke never gets old!) and continue on to a dozen studios, none are interested. Afterwards they step into a pawn shop to sell Ronnie’s sax for money. Why was that necessary? They’d bought a car with Ronnie’s money, but surely selling the car would get you more money than a sax. But selling the sax is a good segue into meeting old pals Benny Goodman, Johnnie Davis and Frances Langford in the street. The orchestra has gotten a gig at the Orchid Room. Ronnie is about to tell them he got fired when Fuzzy interrupts and says that Ronnie is on break from shooting a film at that moment.
In fact, Ronnie and Fuzzy get jobs at the local burger joint, a drive-in owned by Callaghan (Edgar Kennedy) and a mimic of the real-life “Carpenter’s” in Hollywood. While there Ronnie launches into a musical number that turns into a lengthy event with all the guests and employees joining in. Edgar Kennedy does his patented slow burn and fires both Ronnie and Fuzzy, who don’t care because a producer from All-Stars was at the drive-in and has offered Ronnie a job on his film. Virginia, however, is not happy about this, saying that she knows the ropes and Ronnie should keep his job until he knows he really has a role in the film. All-Stars screwed him over once and she thinks they may screw him over again. Ronnie disagrees. They fight and she leaves.
The next day Ronnie arrives on the set. It’s a movie set in the American South during the Civil War. Mona is in the lead as a Southern belle, with Alexander Dupre as her lover and soldier. They are filming a scene where Mona and Alec both act with ridiculous condescension to the black slaves, but that moment is ruined when Hugh Herbert shows up again. Mona’s father has donned blackface and joined a group of the slaves in the film. He jumps up and shouts in some stereotypical “slave” lingo, then calls himself “Uncle Tom”. The director angrily yells at Mona’s father, calls him a “monkey,” and I don’t remember what else happens because at that moment I became complete skeeved out.
Many people can view scenes like these in a detached manner, as a product of another time, but long-time readers of my blog know I cannot do this. Berkeley has a history of issues with people of color in film, most notably as the designer of the “watermelon” number in “Wonder Bar” (1934). The over-the-top racism in this film is jarring and unnecessary — I didn’t need to say it was unnecessary, did I? I hope not — and it’s frustrating to see a movie fall back on racist humor because it’s floundering. And that’s exactly how Herbert’s scene comes off.
The scene with Herbert was beyond unsettling, but for the most part, “Hollywood Hotel” is guilty of no more than every A-list film of the 1930s was: giving people of color roles only as servants, porters, or slaves in historical epics. Mona’s maid Cleo, played by Libby Taylor, has a decent-sized role and is not played for racist laughs, but you can’t help but forget that she never would have been given an opportunity to play anything but a maid. Taylor wasn’t credited in the film, either, despite appearing in several scenes. Taylor was Mae West’s own maid who appeared as Tira’s maid in “I’m No Angel”, and was the cook who helped Madge wine and dine Marvin in “Cabin in the Cotton”. She appeared in nearly 60 films over a 20-year career, and almost always played a maid.
All of Mona’s relatives are unnecessary characters. Dot was clearly created as a way to squeeze Mabel Todd into the film, just as Chester was created for Hugh Herbert. Their inclusion was as comedy relief, but in a film where Lola Lane, Ted Healy and Glenda Farrell are already providing substantial comedy, the addition of two people purely for wacky hijinks was pointless. Martin Rubin in his book Showstoppers felt that the movie had an overabundance of eccentric characters without enough everyday joes to balance it out. He also makes a good case in showing that Berkeley’s grandiose visual spectacles, even when somewhat subdued as in “Hollywood Hotel”, don’t always mesh well with screwball comedy. A “light touch” is needed, and Berkeley simply didn’t have it.
Ronnie discovers that the producer didn’t want him for an acting gig, he was hired to sing, specifically to dub in for Alec’s songs in the film. He won’t get credited but he will get paid. He reluctantly agrees and attends the premier (where you see the program spell Alec’s last name as “DuPrey”, although it is supposed to be “Dupre”). Ronnie decides enough is enough and he runs off into “hiding”, which just means going back to Callaghan’s with Fuzzy, but in this film it’s enough to make people issue an APB for him because he’s so well-hidden.
All-Stars is desperate to find Ronnie because Alec has promised to sing at the Orchid Room. Since he can’t sing, they want to use Ronnie to sing in another room and make it look as though Alec is singing. Sound familiar? This scenario is a rather important plot point in “Singin’ in the Rain”, a movie made 15 years later. “Singin’ in the Rain” isn’t much more than borrowed elements from early Hollywood musicals, with a dash of silent-film-hate thrown in. But I digress again. Moving on…
Fuzzy hears that All-Stars wants Ronnie back, so he contacts Virginia who shows up at Callaghan’s to talk Ronnie into returning. He refuses at first. However, Mona’s dad shows up for no logical reason and decides to concoct a plot using Virginia as a decoy, also for no logical reason.
Virginia makes herself up as Mona again and picks up Alec for his night at the Orchid Room. Alec figures the scheme out and demands to be let out of the car. He’s stranded on the side of the road and cannot arrive to the Orchid Room in time. Meanwhile Mona’s father keeps her occupied as well, just long enough for Ronnie to perform at the Orchid Room instead, to much acclaim. The set here is beautiful, with all the singers on stages made to look like giant orchids, and the winding railings throughout the room covered in large vines.
Mona eventually arrives and has another fit, turning into a martyr and saying she’ll step aside if the fans really want Virginia instead of her. Virginia takes her up on it and goes out to perform with Ronnie. Everyone’s happy and the film ends.
Although honestly, I don’t think Virginia got anything out of the deal, as the audience surely thought she was Mona and Mona would get all the credit.
Like many musicals of the 1930s, this film relies on the strength of the humor between each musical song or dance segment. It unfortunately runs out of steam; when it does, the audience discovers how important energy and charm are to films like “Hollywood Hotel”.
This is an enjoyable film, no question. Lola and Rosemary Lane are both quite good in the film, and the people playing themselves — Louella Parsons, Benny Goodman, Perc Westmore, etc. — are all reasonably competent at their roles. Dick Powell is so adorable I want to take him home and feed him a saucer of milk, and give him a little yarn toy and some catnip…
What? Don’t look at me like that.
As for the film’s problems, it’s probably selfish of me to want a movie to keep the high-energy pace throughout the entire film, and I feel a bit spoiled complaining about the last few reels of the film when the first half was so amazing. Plus, I know my taste in humor tends away from the silly characters with little importance in the film, and I know most people who love classic film really enjoy the wacky hijinks. If you get a chance to see this film, you should.
FURTHER READING & CREDITS:
Showstoppers: Busby Berkeley and the Tradition of Spectacle by Martin Rubin, pages 136-138
Thanks to amy_jeanne at LiveJournal for the publicity still