Sunday, August 3, 2014

Hollywood Cavalcade (1939)

Director: Irving Cummings                              Writer: Ernest Pascal
Film Score: Cyril J. Mockridge                        Cinematography: Ernest Palmer
Starring: Alice Faye, Don Ameche, J. Edward Bromberg and Buster Keaton

One of Hollywood’s favorite subjects has always been Hollywood. This melodramatic Fox film is mostly notable today for the appearance of Buster Keaton, who not only starred in one of the sequences but also directed the film-within-a-film representing the silent comedy era. Never mind the fact that almost everything about the sequence is a falsehood, it’s the great Buster Keaton. Though Hollywood Cavalcade is not a musical it is still something of a precursor to Singin’ in the Rain in its dealing with the silent era changing over to sound, combined with A Star is Born in the relationship between the two main characters. In this case it uses as much of the real Hollywood as it can rather than a fictional version. This was one of Darryl Zanuck’s pet projects and he was on the set most days overseeing the production. Director Irving Cummings had a prolific career in the silent era and is best known for Fox’s Shirley Temple films from the mid thirties.

The film begins with Don Ameche and J. Edward Bromberg discovering Alice Faye as an understudy in a Broadway review. They convince her to sign a contract to appear in Ameche’s films and head to Hollywood. It’s only then that she finds out he’s a lowly prop man. But with Faye signed to a personal service contract, Ameche has studio head Donald Meek over a barrel and demands that he be able to direct his new star. The film then has him discovering pie throwing when Buster Keaton goes off script and hurls one that accidentally hits Faye and gets big laughs from the crew. But Ameche still struggles for respect and when he quits Meek’s studio he can’t find another job. Meanwhile, Faye obviously likes Ameche but he can’t see it because he’s so focused on his work. Then Bromberg’s uncle dies and with the money agrees to finance Ameche in building his own studio. But when Faye finally gets tired of waiting around for Ameche she marries her leading man, Alan Curtis. Ameche fires her out of jealousy, though he has never paid her the slightest bit of romantic attention, and his career never recovers. Still, the connection between them remains.

The film is unique for a lush, Technicolor production featuring Alice Faye in the fact that there are no musical numbers at all. In the context of the story about the silent movie era, however, it makes perfect sense. In addition, Faye herself was tiring of musical vehicles and eager to get into more dramatic roles. This film is still something of a hybrid, a costume picture that emphasizes the dramatic aspects of the characters. The two leads were loosely based on Mack Sennett and Mable Normand, and Sennett even appears as himself toward the end of the film. The highlights, however, are the two shorts that were put together by Buster Keaton. Despite the fact that they rely on gags he never would have used, he still manages to bring his own touches in and they are actually very funny. The film was also the first to combine black and white film footage with color in the sequences where audiences and screening room attendees are watching Ameche’s finished product. Another incredibly unique aspect of the film is watching Al Jolson recreate a scene from The Jazz Singer.

Alice Faye does a pretty good job, but she seems terribly miscast. Still, she manages to stay within herself and deliver a convincing performance. The same cannot be said for Don Ameche. His overeager performance is too broad and too frantic to be believed. Unlike the restrained eagerness that Frederick March delivers in A Star is Born, Ameche’s performance seems almost amateurish by comparison. The role itself is also unappealing. The driven director who is blind to everything but his own career is not easy to watch, and not easy to forgive. J. Edward Bromberg, whose best-remembered role is probably that of Professor Lazlo in Son of Dracula, does a solid job here as Ameche’s only friend and business partner. And Donald Meek has a small but memorable role as an early studio owner, as does later studio head Russell Hicks. Other silent stars appear in the film, most notably Ben Turpin, and there is a well-deserved honoring of Fatty Arbuckle. Hollywood Cavalcade is not a great picture at all. However, it does have some things to recommend it, primarily Buster Keaton and its nostalgic look at Hollywood’s past.

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