Before motion pictures learned to talk– they sang.
Vitaphone, the champions of sound technology, had been producing short musical films as early as 1926 (others existed before then), and it is hardly a coincidence that the first major studio talking picture, The Jazz Singer, was more singing than actual talking. And as the early talkies struggled desperately to learn how to speak properly, early musicals faced the same sort of challenge.
Early sound equipment, bulky, creaky, crude, was certainly not ideal for the required movement and rhythm of musical staging. If early talkies feel static, early musicals suffer likewise. Ernst Lubitsch’s first talkie was indeed a musical, The Love Parade (1929) and he introduced a number of innovations to produce the relatively smooth results. Director Rouben Mamoulian, who hailed from Broadway, brought his musical theater aesthetics with him and his 1932 breakthrough musical Love Me Tonight is, in hindsight, a film that really gave musical film a new arena to play in: not just the grace of movement, but creative, imaginative staging coupled with audio and visual effects. But the following year, 1933, is what really became a benchmark in the history of Hollywood musicals. Choreographer Busby Berkeley had been in Hollywood since the late 20s, but in 1933 Berkeley completely blew Hollywood away with a string of Warner Bros films that revolutionized the concept of what musical film could be: the musical drama 42nd Street, the frisky comedy Gold Diggers of 1933, and the playfully sexy Footlight Parade. What a trifecta. Still boggling in their intricate, imaginative staging even to the 21st century audience, these musicals were exciting, escapist dreamworlds—in many ways, the very definition of Hollywood magic.
Which brings us to a musical film hidden within that magical year of 1933: Raoul Walsh’s Going Hollywood from MGM, which has just enjoyed a DVD release by the Warner Archives. The film represents a highly interesting anomaly in film history. While MGM would go on to become the undisputed kings of musical film, in 1933 that crown rested most comfortably atop the grinning brothers Warner. And if any film shows that clunky transitional period for MGM musicals, it’s this film. For film history enthusiasts, Going Hollywood is really a film that deserves to be examined within context of its time and place. For the casual viewer, it will most certainly come across as a curiously mixed bag.
On paper, it’s a home run. One of the most ambitious directors in Hollywood (the under-appreciated maverick Raoul Walsh), a popular silent star who’d made a successful transition to sound (the underrated comedienne Marion Davies), and the most popular crooner in the world (the magnificent Bing Crosby). On film it’s an enjoyable, lavish effort from MGM … it’s also completely off its rocker.
Moral of the story? Serial stalking ain’t so bad after all.
Sylvia (Marion Davies) is a French teacher at a conservatory and it’s quite obvious that the tenacious blonde is ill suited for her matronly, bespectacled colleagues. How do you solve a problem like Marion? Well, she solves it herself, realizing that her calling is not as an Academic but as the future Mrs. Bing Crosby.
Stay with me here, folks.
Crosby is a hugely popular radio star (not much acting required there, obviously), and Davies is madly in love with his dulcet tones that warble in over the radio each night. And, come on, who can blame the gal?
Bing has an agent that just got him a contract out in Hollywood. It’s public knowledge that the singing superstar is making his way out West by rail, and crowds converge at Grand Central Station to bid him farewell with a huge musical number. “Going Hollywood,” the film’s titular song, for all of its awkward hokeyness, is an impressive one in sheer scale. MGM decided to simply rebuild the famous terminus on their lot, and it is flawless down to the tiniest detail—even the magical, celestial ceiling of the main concourse gets a faithful reproduction. (History nerd alert: The famous terminal ceiling, with its glittering constellations, was covered over only a few years after this film was made and would remain obscured until the late 1990s.) It climaxes with Crosby waving to his fans from the car: “Out where they say, ‘let us be gay,’ I’m going Hollywood!”
So is Davies. Appearing to suffer from a complete disconnect from all sense of reality, she follows Crosby onto his train. He is rightly alarmed by this fan that confronts him out of nowhere, confessing her undying love for him, and throws the ball in his court by telling him, “Well? What are we going to do about it?” (I’d have called security, but, you know, Bing’s cool about psychotically obsessed fangirls.) Well, as it happens, Bing is bangin’ his French costar (Fifi D’Orsay) in their upcoming film in Hollywood. D’Orsay is a tempestuous grade-A bitch, and is irate that she’s not been provided a personal maid to attend to her on the long trip—Davies sees her chance to see Bing all the way to Hollywood by offering her services.
(Again, the word you’re looking for is: STALKER. But maybe only beautiful women like Davies are allowed to get away with behavior like this.)
Once in Hollywood, Davies makes friends with a sassy chorus girl (the always marvelous Patsy Kelly) and bunks up with her at her bungalow court apartment. (Fresh émigrés to Hollywood often ended up in these communal dwellings, which by the way, still exist here in Hollywood to this day.) Davies’ declaration that she’s not in Hollywood to become a movie star, but rather to be close to Crosby, rightly strikes her roomie as strange. (It’s more than strange, Marion. I love you dearly, but you’ve got a serious problem, honey…) Davies fantasizes about life with Crosby with the delirious musical number “We’ll Make Hay” and MGM pulls out all the stops. Crosby and Davies stroll through a countryside, amongst daisies that sway in unison (also a team of rather frightening dancing scarecrows), a silvery nitrate dream, superimposed over a smiling, dreaming Davies’ face. “We’ll make hay in the sunshine,” he croons, “we’ll make love when it rains.”
But in order to pay rent, the fact that Davies has a sexy pair of gams lands her a job with Kelly in the chorus on Crosby’s picture. Her dancing gams and talent for mimicry sends D’Orsay into a serious tantrum on set, after Davies does a terrific satire of the French actress in front of the crew. It’s delightful to watch Davies here, as she is something of a forgotten master of mimicry. One of her finest moments on film is the four minute stretch in King Vidor’s The Patsy in which she totally lambasts Mae Murray, Lillian Gish, and Pola Negri with her impersonations. (Perhaps that’s one of the reasons her and Chaplin got along so very, very well…Sorry. That’s a whole other post.) D’Orsay is insulted, quits the show, and that suits the producer just fine, giving Davies the role. I need not tell you that ladies’ man Crosby notices Davies’ dancing gams and decides to give his new leading lady a shot. They see each other for a night where it seems Davies’ dreams, it seems, have come true.
But delusional Davies doesn’t understand that Crosby is a playboy, and D’Orsay is determined to bring Crosby down with her: the two disappear down to Mexico. Although hurt by Crosby two-timing her, she still follows him to Mexico to plead for him to return to the picture. This leads to the finest moment in the film. While on a helluva bender across the border with D’Orsay, he sizes up the French temptress, nursing a shimmering white cocktail, and belts out the haunting “Temptation” with chilling perfection, phrase after phrase after phrase. Stripped of splashy dance numbers, or quirky choreography, the moment is pure, raw, and mesmerizing.
Crosby is just 30 years old in this film, and looks younger even than that, and is at the peak of his prowess as a crooner. Before there was Frankie, you better buh-buh-buh-booh-believe there was Bing, and having “Temptation” forever preserved on film is in itself worth the existence of this film.
Back in Hollywood, Davies prepares to film a scene with Crosby’s new replacement. A spectacular set, obviously inspired by the Busby Berkeley brand of musical production, the number “Our Big Love Scene” lives up to its title as, halfway through, Crosby’s voice fills the sound stage. He’s made his choice and Davies runs into his arms.
End scene, fade to black.
Going Hollywood is, without question, a curious oddity. The outrageous storyline, and some unfortunate early 20th Century stereotyping (Davies dons blackface, Crosby and others use clipped “Chinese” accents for comedy), not to mention a strange lack of chemistry between Davies and Crosby (lets just say they’re no Keeler and Powell), keep Going Hollywood from being as memorable as its early ’30s counterparts. But when it works it works, and it works when MGM’s spared-no-expense productions are at full throttle (even as over the top as they are) and when Davies and Crosby are set free from melodramatic dialogue to do what they do best: sing (Bing) and comedy (Davies). It also provides an insightful glimpse at the Hollywood struggle between reality and fantasy that continues down to this very day–how to really know if something, or someone, is real or if it’s all just smoke and mirrors.
Crosby croons during the finale, “Our big love scene is real.”
Going Hollywood is available via manufacture on demand DVD (MOD) from Warner Archive.