Saturday, December 10, 2016

Pre-Code Parade: SHOW GIRL IN HOLLYWOOD (1930)

Mervyn LeRoy's film is a sequel to Show Girl, a silent film that only recently was rediscovered and restored, in which Alice White plays aspiring actress Dixie Dugan. Both films are based on novels by J. P. McEvoy, who later turned his character into the protagonist of a long-running comic strip. While the first film reportedly closed with Dixie destined for Broadway stardom, the sequel finds her and boyfriend writer Jimmy (Jack Mulhall) reeling from the flop of Jimmy's latest show, which both blame on a lovesick producer casting his girlfriend in the lead role while reducing Dixie to an understudy. She shows off what she could have done with one of the songs in an impromptu nightclub performance that impresses horndog Hollywood producer Frank Buelow (John Miljan). On his promise of a studio contract, Dixie goes to Hollywood, only to learn from Buelow's boss Sam Otis (Ford Sterling) that Buelow makes the same promise to dozens of girls wherever he goes. There's a waiting room full of them even as Dixie arrives. Discouraged Dixie has a chance encounter with her childhood idol, Donny Harris (Blanche Sweet), who's just been thrown off the lot by Buelow. Like every tourist, Dixie's awestruck by Donny's mansion, but the big house is little more than a facade. At age 32, Donny is finished in Hollywood. Only pride prevents her from selling the place. This being a musical, Donny abruptly sings some life advice to her admirer, but there's one thing she neglects to tell Dixie. We learn it a little later when she tries to ring up Frank Buelow. Donny is, in fact, Mrs. Buelow.

Buelow soon gets fired, but Otis presses on to produce a story Buelow had drafted. He soon learns that Buelow plagiarized the story from Dixie and Jimmy's flop show, but Otis and his yes men think they can do something with it just the same. Not knowing Dixie's tie to the show, Otis offers her a role in the movie because he feels sorry for her and sees some spirit in her. Meanwhile, he brings Jimmy to Hollywood and is stunned that the young man was dumb enough to take his first offer. It looks like a farce will break out when Otis insists on casting his starlet in the lead, while Jimmy insists on his girl, neither mentioning the name that would resolve the dispute, but fortunately Dixie herself appears in the office to abort that subplot. Remembering those who helped her, Dixie uses her newfound clout to get Donny a part in the picture, but the clout soon goes to her head. Impatient with retakes, she succumbs once more to Buelow's charms as he promises her better roles at his own independent production company. It's all a big lie intended to sabotage the production and spite Sam Otis, but it works almost too well. Dixie's prima-donna antics get her fired and do shut down the production, and that drives Donny, her comeback thwarted, to take poison. She makes a point of making a farewell call to Dixie, and that saves her life while scaring Dixie straight. Somehow Sam Otis resumes the production -- it probably has to do with Jimmy learning of Buelow's scheming and beating him up -- and the film closes with the triumphant Hollywood premiere of Rainbow Girl.

It would perhaps have been more triumphant had the Technicolor elements of the final reel survived. Color might have lent some visual interest to the inert goings on in the film-within-a-film that are only too representative of the dire state of movie musicals by 1930. The only interesting thing about it as it exists is one of those bizarre early-musical sets that has White emerging from the grinning mouth of some Moloch-like idol. Much more imaginative is LeRoy's filming of the filming of an earlier scene. The scene itself is stodgy, literally shot on a stage while the director sits in a front-row seat, but LeRoy turns the number into a montage, shooting from above as well as in front and cutting to the viewpoints of various technicians. It's the liveliest scene in a picture that awkwardly juxtaposes satire and a rather grim view of the film industry. Movies, it seems, never backed away from acknowledging how the industry devours its own. Donny Harris's story, though it has a happy ending, is an early example of this, as well as a prophecy of Blanche Sweet's own decline. My hunch is that Hollywood understood that these horror stories of falling or fallen stars only enriched the mythos and pathos of moviedom. Gods that can die might be worshiped all the more passionately. In a way Frank Buelow and Donny Harris are the spiritual parents of Norman Maine or Max Carey, the tragic protagonists of the A Star is Born/ What Price Hollywood? story, the perfected archetype combining the disreputable qualities of Buelow and the sympathetic qualities of Donny in one person. At the same time, Dixie Dugan is a less sympathetic version of the Vicki Lester archetype, less intelligent and less naive but more egotistical. Alice White has never gotten much love from critics and is savaged by Richard Barrios in his definitive early-musicals history A Song in the Dark, but while her limits are apparent I found her entertaining because her negatives complemented those of her character. White found her level eventually as a dumb-blonde type in the Warner Bros. stock company, which is what you might have guessed from watching Show Girl in Hollywood. I wouldn't call it a great or even good musical, but it's definitely one of the more interesting early musicals for reasons having little to do with music.

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