Friday, May 24, 2013

Show Girl in Hollywood (1930)

SHOW GIRL IN HOLLYWOOD is an interesting transitional talkie, perhaps most notable today for its glimpses behind the scenes of Warner Bros. studio in the early days of sound, but also as an example of the kinds of films about Hollywood that tell the tale about the high price to be paid for stardom.

The plot finds James Doyle (Jack Mulhall) backstage at the closing night of his first play, "Rainbow Girl", which has been a total flop. Jimmy's girlfriend, show girl Dixie Dugan (Alice White) joins him at a nightclub to drown their sorrows, but she catches the eye of visiting Hollywood director Frank Beulow (John Miljan), a sleazy womanizer who promises Dixie the moon if only she'll come out to Hollywood and let him make her a star. Against Jimmy's wishes, she takes Beulow up on his offer. Once she arrives in Tinseltown, however, she finds that Beulow is full of hot air and has pulled this stunt with lots of naive showgirls with dreams of making it big. The studio chief, Mr. Otis (Ford Sterling), goes so far as to fire Beulow for his reckless false promises.

Then Dixie meets Donny Harris, aka Mrs. Frank Beulow (played by Griffith star Blanche Sweet in a moving performance). Donny is washed up and over-the-hill at age 32 (!) and lives in a mansion with 20 rooms, most of which, she confesses, she's had sealed off as she can no longer even afford to have them dusted.

Dixie, meanwhile, struggles to find work, and is ready to call it quits, when Mr. Otis decides to make "Rainbow Girl" as the studio's next project, and calls Jimmy in New York to secure the motion picture rights to his story. Jimmy comes West to consult on the production and to push for Dixie to have the lead role, which she understudied for on Broadway. Everything comes together as planned. Dixie has the lead, and she gets Donny Harris a strong supporting part that will serve as her comeback role.

Then Frank Beulow re-enters the picture, and in an effort to sabotage his former employer's production, convinces Dixie, with more empty promises, to quit the production to make more prestigious pictures for him. Dixie's star tantrums and erratic behavior bring the production to a halt, causing her, Jimmy and Donny to all be fired. Dixie and Jimmy plan to return to New York, but Donny is in despair over her lack of opportunities. She attempts to take her own life, but is rescued by Dixie at the last minute, who now realizes the full implications that her selfish and delusional behavior have had on those around her.

This is the stuff of pure Tinseltown legend, and the film never takes itself too seriously except, interestingly, in the subplot dealing with Blanche Sweet's character. We never really fear that things won't work out for Dixie and Jimmy, or that Frank Beulow won't get his comeuppance. But there is a moment, near the end, where it appears that Donny may very well not live to see the film's joyous conclusion.

The "girl goes to Hollywood to be a star" trope had been around at least since the early '20s, and even earlier if you account for A GIRL'S FOLLY (1917), which was set in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Early films such as SOULS FOR SALE (1923) dealt with the overwhelming effect Hollywood has on those who make the trek to the West coast to break into movies, while others, such as THE EXTRA GIRL, ELLA CINDERS and SHOW PEOPLE, played mostly for laughs, still hinted at the enormous struggle and sacrifice behind every star. Similarly, during the 30s, such stories alternated between the darker, cynical type like WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD? and A STAR IS BORN, and comedies such as BOMBSHELL, but at the heart of these stories was the emotional toll paid for the price of stardom.

SHOW GIRL IN HOLLYWOOD is the first such film from the talkie period, and unlike in some such films, the stakes are never quite as high for Dixie Dugan as they might otherwise have been. In A STAR IS BORN, we know that if Esther Blodgett gives up and returns home to her midwestern farm, she will never be the same. With Dixie Dugan, on the other hand, we can imagine her returning to life in New York and continuing to work as before on the Broadway stage.

Director Mervyn LeRoy also lavishes much attention on the process of film-making. Most interesting is the "I've Got My Eye on You" number, which shows the filming of a musical number exactly as it was done in 1930, complete with the orchestra playing off-camera, and tantalizing glimpses inside the camera and sound booths (inside the latter, we see the soundtrack being cut on a giant wax disc). Apparently, this sequence was originally shot in 2-color Technicolor, but only survives in black and white. There are also various glimpses at the sound stages and backlot of the Warner Bros. studio which should be of special interest to film buffs.

Alice White makes an appealing lead, but she seems to lack the dramatic range necessary for getting the most out of her character. She handles the cute, perky qualities just fine, but seems rather out of her league during some of the big dramatic moments. Her temper tantrum, in which she trashes her dressing room, rings false, and doesn't seem to be consistent with the character we've been watching up to that point. The awkwardness of her emotional qualities in some ways works to her advantage during the scene in which Donny Harris has tried to take her own life, and Dixie pours out her apologies for her selfish behavior. There's a real sense of vulnerability and weakness that comes through in this moment, contrasted with the older, wiser Sweet's sense of calm acceptance.

Silent film actor Jack Mulhall turns in a good performance as Dixie's playwright boyfriend, combining the right touches of sympathy and earnestness. And John Miljan seems to have fun with his part as the slimy director, delivering his performance in a slightly over-the-top manner and relishing the sleazy qualities of his character. Silent comedy veteran Ford Sterling provides some good comic relief in the sympathetic role of studio chief Otis, proving that he was quite adept at handling dialogue, and is even allowed a few cutaway reaction shots that contain a much more toned-down version of his frantic mugging from the Keystone days. Cameo appearances include Al Jolson and Ruby Keeler, Loretta Young, Noah Beery, and Noah Beery Jr. (plus an early appearance by Walter Pidgeon as the emcee at the film premiere).

The real stand-out , however, is Blanche Sweet, whose performance of the strong, proud and yet ultimately fragile former star is incredibly moving, especially considering that Sweet was herself already an industry veteran of more than 15 years by the time this film was made. She even sings a song, "There's a Tear for Every Smile in Hollywood", which is about the incredible odds and high price to pay for becoming a star, but also brings to mind all the former stars who had since burnt out among changing fads, fashions, and technology. It's hard not to watch Sweet sing this song without feeling the melancholy in her voice.

SHOW GIRL IN HOLLYWOOD is an interesting time capsule of Hollywood at that transitional moment when the medium had to re-invent itself and new stars like Dixie Dugan were born, paying the same price as Donny Harris had years earlier.