Monday, January 12, 2015

It Happened in Hollywood (1937)

Director: Harry Lachman                                  Writers: Samuel Fuller & Ethel Hill
Music Dept: Morris Stoloff                                Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Starring: Richard Dix, Fay Wray, William B. Davidson and Victor Kilian

Before there was The Artist, and before there was Singin’ in the Rain, the idea of a silent film star failing in the talkies was undertaken by Columbia Pictures in It Happened in Hollywood. Based on the story “Once a Hero” by Myles Connolly, this film centers on a cowboy star, Richard Dix, a great casting choice considering that he starred in the first great western of the sound era, Cimarron, an Academy Award winning picture from RKO in which he was also nominated for an Oscar for best actor. This programmer, however, is a huge step down from that. Aside from Dix, the only real star in the film is Fay Wray, but both of them were really past their prime. The screenplay was co-written by Sam Fuller during his studio days, several years before he struck out on his own directing independent features. He was assisted by Ethel Hill, who wrote for Shirley Temple as well as westerns, and novelist Harvey Fergusson, and though the dialogue isn’t half bad, the story is pretty uninspiring.

The film begins in 1928, with Richard Dix at the height of his popularity, attending a special showing of his latest western for a children’s hospital as part of a cross-country publicity tour. The tour is cut short to begin working on a talking picture, but while there’s nothing wrong with his voice, he doesn’t see the point in all of the fancy talk he’s expected to memorize. The result is that his co-star, Fay Wray, is being groomed as the studio’s new star while Dix is unceremoniously let go, forced to move out of his new ranch. While Wray is infatuated with him and continues to try to get him work, Dix is still pleased at the few fan letters he gets from kids, and is not sorry for himself in any way. Seeing a fight Dix has with the real estate man who took his ranch, director William B. Davidson gets him a part in the gangster picture he’s filming with Wray. But Dix is reluctant to ruin his image with the kids when he’s asked to shoot a policeman, and walks off the picture. Eventually he decides to leave Hollywood, but a visit from one of the boys at the hospital, Bill Burrud, gives him an inspiration that nearly destroys him, though a happy ending is requisite for this kind of film.

The inspiration is a party, full of stars that he can introduce to Burrud. But, of course, Dix doesn’t know any stars and comes up with the idea of a giant party attended by celebrity look-alikes. Some of them are pretty good, the Chaplin in particular, and some aren’t, Mae West for example. In terms of actual character actors, the great Victor Kilian is on hand as Dix’s sidekick, Slim, the memorable Charles Williams has a small role as a photographer, and Franklin Pangborn has a brief cameo as an effeminate elocution coach from England. It’s a good role for Dix, a feature performance and he does a good job as the ethical cowboy who doesn’t want to do anything on film that goes against the image of him that his fans, especially the young children, cherished. Fay Wray’s part, as the heroine who is in love with her star but doesn’t know how to tell him, is fairly one-dimensional and is certainly not one of her essential pictures. The direction by Harry Lachman is solid if unexceptional. Probably the best part of the film is the behind-the-scenes aspect, watching the way that William B. Davidson sets up his scenes and shoots the footage for the gangster picture he’s making with Wray. As a low-budget film, It Happened in Hollywood isn’t the worst of its kind, and the stars do bring a certain cache, but ultimately it is what it is and expectations should be adjusted accordingly.

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