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Going Hollywood (DVD Review)

26 Aug, 2013 By: Mike Clark

Available through online retailers via Warner Archive
Not rated.
Stars Marion Davies, Bing Crosby, Fifi D’Orsay.

Unless it were applied with sassier irony than today’s movies usually display, I don’t imagine that Bret Easton Ellis or Paul Schrader would ever have considered slapping the title of this William Randolph Hearst special (courtesy of his Cosmopolitan Pictures) on The Canyons, a chilly movie-industry potboiler I somehow, yet rewardingly, managed to watch immediately after finishing this marginally loopier take on screen actors and producers almost exactly 80 years earlier. (Talk about perspective.) Hollywood is arguably no less of a bent curiosity, if only because it’s tough to imagine anyone contriving to put Canyons lead Lindsay Lohan into blackface, as happens to lead Marion Davies here. Though with LiLo, you never know.

It’s an old story but worth repeating: Newspaper giant Hearst genuinely loved mistress Davies, who was much more talented than her Citizen Kane opera singer equivalent, but deep-down preferred to bankroll her in “prestige” vehicles instead of the lighter fare in which she excelled. Still, Davies’ best movie was probably director King Vidor’s 1928 Show People, so it probably made sense to build another comedy about the movie industry around her, albeit one with a male co-star who likely seems more unexpected now than then. This was, in just his second year of features, Paramount headliner Bing Crosby, seen here in his only MGM release until 1956, when he, Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong briefly showed rock ‘n’ roll a thing or two in High Society. The story I’ve always heard is that the two studios pulled off a trade so that MGM king Clark Gable could make 1932’s No Man of Her Own over at Paramount opposite Carole Lombard (their only screen pairing and long before they became a famous real-life item).

An on-screen side issue here, before the script “goes Hollywood” itself, is an acknowledgment of what radio crooners did to young women of the day. Buried as a French teacher in one of those awful Eastern female boarding schools devoted to turning out future old prunes, Davies’ character develops an instant crush on a singer named Bill Williams (Bing), who is on his way to Los Angeles to make a movie. Davies finds a way to accost and follow him after bolting academia, and, in one of those twists that we see only in certain kinds of screen confections, she effortlessly steps in after the film’s intended co-star (Fifi D’Orsay) begins throwing the kinds of temperamental fits associated with Jean Hagen’s shrewish Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain. Ah, Fifi D’Orsay: I remember her well as a reference point from one of Johnny Carson’s immortal "Tea Time Movie" skits on which host Art Fern would barely sandwich an archaic feature between commercials for all kinds of bogus remedies and watch-your-wallet businesses.

Speaking of Rain, Crosby’s first number here is the Nacio Herb Brown-Arthur Freed “Beautiful Girl,” which much later showed up as part of a montage in that Gene Kelly all-timer. Bing is in much better voice here than, say, the Donald Ogden Stewart script is — which is to say that this is a movie of moments (and better art deco moments) instead of a musical that can go toe-to-toe with the Astaire-Rogers or Busby Berkeley pics of the same era. Actually, the Crosby vehicles didn’t start to get good, or at least consistently good, until the ’40s, though it was a rare one that didn’t have musical standouts and often more than one. The big moment here comes right near the end when Crosby delivers an impassioned version of “Temptation,” which became a big seller for him, a 1945 hit for Perry Como and a hillbilly parody for Jo Stafford (under a pseudonym) that went to No. 1 in 1947.

Around the time of the rendition here, Crosby’s character goes on a bender, a kind of unintended in-the-know reference to Bing’s problems with the sauce in his early career before cleaning up his act. Director Raoul Walsh shoots “Temptation” in an almost hallucinatory style, which seems appropriate — and, in fact, it’s the high point of the picture. And yes, that’s right, this is a Raoul Walsh musical, of which there are more than you might think, but the result is no less of a curio for that. There’s even a specialty act whose satirical targets include Ross Colombo, who was Crosby’s chief crooning rival early in his career until the former’s death in a freak shooting accident cleared the field for another decade.

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