Monday, April 4, 2016

Pre-Code Parade: HOLLYWOOD PARTY (1934)

Bring along your girl.
Go home with someone else's.
What about your girl?
She'll make out all right.

The title song promises a climactic Pre-Code picture, but Hollywood Party, a film without an official director but in which many hands participated, is one of those dead-end musical comedies in which stars are reduced virtually to human cartoons. This is so literally true in this case that Jimmy Durante gets into a fight with Mickey Mouse. In a way, I suppose Party is the climax of that particular sub-genre, which could be seen as Pre-Code's answer to the superhero film. I had better explain that. Talkies brought a lot of Broadway and vaudeville talent to Hollywood, many of whom were "nut" comics of some sort, and the advent of commercial radio around the same time popularized even more outlandish personalities. If cinema's challenge now is to animate the dynamism of superhero art and incorporate the aesthetics of video games, the challenge then was to visualize the imagined absurdity of radio while incorporating the burlesque unreality of nut comedy. The result was cartoonish, incoherent musicals like this one, Party having an especial contempt for continuity and other conventions owing to its haphazard construction. As a Pre-Code picture it's less a scandal than a seizure. M-G-M rarely got closer to utter chaos than with this film.

I don't know if this was M-G-M publicity art or a local newspaper artist's still more insane interpretation of the already unstable Hollywood Party.

It has a plot. Durante plays himself, the star of the Schnarzan series of jungle adventures. Somewhere in the picture, during a patter routine about reincarnation -- he was both Adam and Paul Revere's horse -- Durante will tell the old tale of dreaming he was a butterfly, then wondering afterward whether he was a butterfly dreaming he was a man. So it is with Durante as Schnarzan. An actor named Jimmy Durante plays a character named Schnarzan -- bulked up with animal hair, he looks like a refugee from the Island of Lost Souls -- and while his public in the picture knows that Schnarzan is portrayed by Jimmy Durante, many of them refer to him simply as Schnarzan. This is arguably sort of relevant later, or it's as relevant as anything is here. The Schnarzan pictures co-star Lupe Velez, also playing herself, but she and Durante/Schnarzan are feuding, so he doesn't invite her to his epic Hollywood party, the purpose of which is to impress the visiting Baron Munchhausen (Jack Pearl) and thus secure the purchase of his lion collection, Schnarzan's studio being convinced that the films are fading because the animals are old and tired. A rival studio has a rival jungle lord, Liondora (George Givot), who hopes to raise the money to outbid the Schnarzan studio for the lions by seducing the Clemp family of Oklahoma oil millionaires (Charles Butterworth, Polly Moran, etc.). Lupe crashes the party but ends up preoccupied by two more party-crashers, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, who were the original owners of the lions and demand them back after no bank or store will cash the check the Baron made out in his native currency, the tiddlywink. Outside the soiree, the Three Stooges seek autographs (while Ted Healy shoots photos) and are accosted by a group of anthropologists, unlikely invitees presumably hoping to meet the Baron, who dispute whether Curly is a Neanderthal or an Androgyne. Inside, Mickey Mouse is yet another party crasher, frightening showgirls and partygoers into standing on chairs and drawing up their skirts. Compelled to perform for the gathering, he provides the piano accompaniment for a Technicolor nightmare, "Hot Choc'late Soldiers," portraying the cataclysmic war between those heroes and the Gingerbread Men. The title army triumphs after using the classic Trojan Pigeon stratagem, but at what cost? They return home maimed, some of them headless, only to be melted into an undifferentiated brown river by the chuckling sun. Don't let it be said that Walt Disney didn't rise to the occasion. Finally, a disgruntled, egg-riddled Stan and Ollie unleash their prize lion on the party, but Schnarzan is up to the challenge -- except that everything, even the Berkeleyesque fantasy of switchboard showgirls and the romantic subplot involving juveniles June Clyde and Eddie Quillan -- was the dream of Jimmy Durante the M-G-M comic, inspired by his reading of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan the Untamed. Roused by his wife Jane (!), Durante now must hastily prepare for his friend Lupe Velez's party, but takes fright at the sight of a lion sculpture to close the picture.

You can tell something is wrong with the picture -- apart from all that's mentally wrong, that is -- when Baron Munchhausen gets a huge buildup, enters in the arms of a gorilla ("He's the son of King Kong!") and is introduced with a Captain Spaulding style musical number, and then does virtually nothing for the rest of the picture. This is easily explained, however. As Baron Munchhausen, Jack Pearl had suddenly become a radio superstar. Attempting to exploit this, M-G-M starred Pearl in Meet the Baron (also featuring Durante and the Stooges), which proved that Pearl had nothing to offer in visual media. In Hollywood Party he offers less than nothing, leaving us to wonder why, exactly, the Baron is drinking from a woman's shoe the next time we see him, without really caring to learn the answer. By comparison, Durante, for me the most obnoxious feature of Pre-Code cinema, is actually somewhat entertaining, because here at last he found an environment as unreal as he was. At least I can take him better as a meta-character than as his typical self. Durante knows better, however, than to try sharing the screen with Laurel & Hardy, who are rightly top-billed despite arriving late. They are masterful, first in their battle with doorman Tom Kennedy and later in one of their classic ritual duels with Velez, this one involving a bowl of raw eggs. The future Mexican Spitfire gets right into the rhythm of it and may be one of the team's most aggressive antagonists, hitting Ollie with multiple egg attacks before he and Stan can resume the offensive. My favorite bit of the fight is when, after Lupe hits Ollie with her shoe, an indignant Stan tears off one of his shoes and has to be restrained by ever-chivalrous Ollie from clobbering her. These three, at least, (and George Stevens, who reportedly directed their scene) seem to know what they're doing, which probably could not be said for most of the other participants behind or in front of the camera. There are inspired moments in Hollywood Party but the film really represents a dead-end for Pre-Code Hollywood's attempt to amalgamate the absurdities of stage and radio comedy. Ironically enough, it was "screwball" comedy that imposed coherence on the genre, leaving Hollywood Party to stand as an almost instantly obsolete monument of primitive surrealism -- and maybe all the more surreal for that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think it probably would be more interesting with Lupe Fuentes rather than Lupe Velez. But that's just a personal preference.