Film Title: The Hollywood Review of 1929
Studio: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)
Silent or Talkie: Talkie
- Conrad Nagel
- Jack Benny
- Joan Crawford
- Marion Davies
- Anita Page
- Marie Dressler
- William Haines
- Buster Keaton
- Gus Edwards
The ripples created in the motion picture industry with the New York premiere of The Jazz Singer on October 6, 1927 took a while to sink in with Irving Thalberg, head of production at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios. He had other things on his mind: he had just married Norma Shearer, Louis B. Mayer was often gone stumping for Herbert Hoover as president, there had been a dramatic but aborted attempt by Fox Film to buy MGM, and his 1928 income taxes were being audited. And while legend has it that silent films became obsolete overnight with the coming of The Jazz Singer, the reality was somewhat different. Although The Jazz Singer was doing good business in New York, the silent films Don Juan, Seventh Heaven, and MGM’s own Love were doing better. But by January 1929 Thalberg, seeing MGM take third place in box office grosses behind Paramount and Warner Brothers, who had both jumped on the sound bandwagon sooner, could not ignore the fact that talking pictures were here to stay, and that the heyday of silent film was nearly at an end. Thalberg rushed a cheaply made musical The Broadway Melody into production to test the waters, and it was not only a smash hit, it won the Academy Award as Best Picture of 1929. In the spring of 1929, the studio embarked on The Hollywood Review. As the title suggests it would be a review “like a stage review” with comedy sketches and musical numbers but with no plot. Virtually every star on the lot (except Ramon Navarro, Greta Garbo and Lon Chaney) and many of the studio contract players would make their “talkie” debut in this extravaganza.
Stage performer Jack Benny (in his motion picture debut) serves as Master of Ceremonies, while Conrad Nagel is the film’s Interlocutor (I had to look it up: one who takes part in dialogue or conversation) “to introduce to you at various times some of the prominent favorites from the screen and the stage”. First up is Cliff Edwards aka “Ukulele Ike” (and later the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Disney’s Pinocchio). Then Conrad Nagel introduces Joan Crawford “the personification of Youth, Beauty, Joy and Happiness” who sings, “Got a Feeling For You” and does a rather clumsy dance routine. Joan would not go on to be a musical star. Charles King warbles “Your Mother and Mine” before challenging Nagel by saying, “just because you’re a lovebird doesn’t mean you’re a canary.” Nagel sings, “You Were Meant For Me” to Anita Page and they end up in a great big kiss. Take that Charlie King! Cliff Edwards reappears and sings “Nobody But You”. Jack Benny reprises “Your Mother and Mine” on his violin before being interrupted by Dane and Arthur (Karl Dane and George K. Arthur). Once he gets rid of them he is accosted by William Haines who proceeds to destroy Benny’s suit. Bessie Love then appears out of Jack Benny’s pocket (I am not kidding), and sings “I Never Knew I Could Do a Thing Like That” and then gets tossed around by some chorus boys, but she’s a good sport about it. Marie Dressler and Polly Moran do a comedy sketch with Jack Benny. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy do a sketch playing magicians. You just gotta see it coming when a banana peel and a big cake are both introduced in the same sketch. Chorus boys also toss around Marion Davies after she sings “Tommy Atkins on Parade”.
Then there’s an Entr’acte. Really. The studio orchestra plays a medley of songs from the first half of the film for about five minutes.
Then there’s a big sort of Ziegfeldesque tableau that turns into a faux-underwater sequence in which Buster Keaton emerges from a clam shell and does an Egyptian dance in drag. If you’ve ever wanted to see Buster in a diaphanous flowing skirt and a fake brassiere, I believe this is the only surviving footage. Gus Edwards (a songwriter who’s only film appearance this is as far as I could discover) sings the cautionary “Lon Chaney’s Gonna Get You If You Don’t Watch Out”, I guess to make up for Chaney not actually appearing in this picture. Then just to keep the throwing around women thing going, the Natova Company performs a spirited adagio. In a two-strip Technicolor sequence Norma Shearer and John Gilbert perform a truncated version of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet (Shearer would get another shot at this in the 1936 MGM adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, opposite Leslie Howard this time). Then, playing the director, Lionel Barrymore tells Gilbert and Shearer that the MGM brass wants to change the title to The Neckers, lose the iambic pentameter, but keep the plot. The duo has another go at the scene in “modern” slang, “Julie baby, I’m ga-ga over you!” Gilbert even delivers his last line in pig-Latin! Then Ukulele Ike (Cliff Edwards), the Brox Sisters, and the Rounders all have a go at “Singing in the Rain” making its motion picture debut in this film. Gus Edwards, Ukulele Ike, Charles King, Marie Dressler, Polly Moran, and Bessie Love all reappear in various combinations in a very long musical sequence, that’s saving grace is Polly Moran briefly belting out the Jolson hit, “Sonny Boy”. Two-strip Technicolor is back for the film’s final sequence: another Charles King song, a ballet, and then most of the whole cast reunites for a rousing version of “Singing in the Rain” (with a painted backdrop depicting Noah’s Arc aground on Mt. Ararat). As the camera pans the happy, singing participants, we notice that everybody is singing except Buster Keaton and Jack Benny.
Okay, there are also a number of other musical productions with lots of chorus “girls and boys” interspersed throughout the proceedings. One can glimpse an unbilled Ann Dvorak slapping Jack Benny’s face (a running gag) in one of the comedic interludes. I never could pick out Nils Asther, who actually does get billing. This is a hodge-podge of popular music of the day that’s function is to introduce audiences to the voices of most of MGM’s leading stars and contract players of 1929. As such, it succeeds. It was nominated for two Academy Awards at the second Academy Awards ceremony including Best Picture (it lost to MGM’s own The Broadway Melody). It was one of the first of these kinds of review films that were in vogue briefly at the beginning of the talkie era. Audiences soon tired of “All Singing! All Dancing!” and little else. The film is an amazing window into a world long gone, and a wonderful recording of popular culture of the day. Within five or so years John Gilbert, Bessie Love, Anita Page, Nils Asther, William Haines, Polly Moran, Charles King, Karl Dane, and George K. Arthur would be gone from Hollywood movie screens. Conversely, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Marie Dressler, and Lionel Barrymore would all go on to win Oscars. Jack Benny wouldn’t do too badly for himself either.
Laurel and Hardy have a nice bit. Buster Keaton doesn’t – a harbinger of things to come. His next talkie would be the disastrous Free and Easy, which would end his career as a leading star. Joan Crawford’s song, “Got a Feeling For You” (excerpted in 1974’s That’s Entertainment!) is pretty much a train-wreck, albeit a fascinating one. Gus Edwards’ rendition (he wrote it too) of “Lon Chaney’s Gonna Get You If You Don’t Watch Out” must be seen to be believed. The best sequence in the film is Gilbert and Shearer’s Romeo and Juliet balcony scene bit. Their straight rendition is awash with the theatricality of the day, but their modern version is a hoot. But it’s their adlibbing between the two, which shows both performers perfectly at ease before the microphone. It’s worth running it over a couple of times to catch what they say. And once and for all it should put to rest all those stories about Gilbert’s [insert “bad”, “effeminate”, “high-pitched” or “squeaky” here] voice. It should, but it won’t. There was absolutely nothing wrong with John Gilbert’s speaking voice, but this seems to be a myth that just won’t die. He made ten talking pictures after this!
The Hollywood Review of 1929 is available through the Warner Archives Collection. It was taken from a 35mm Turner Classic Movies library print that is in very-good to excellent condition. The left side and the bottom of the picture are slightly cropped. This, however, is not due to any inherent fault in the transfer. Originally the sound for this film was recorded on disc. When a synchronized sound-on-film soundtrack was added to the film itself, the picture was cropped to accommodate the soundtrack. The cropping was a little distracting at first, but I soon became accustomed to it.
If you are a Laurel & Hardy, Buster Keaton, Jack Benny, Joan Crawford, John Gilbert, Norma Shearer or anybody else appearing herein completist, then obviously you must see this. If you enjoy the era, then certainly you’ll enjoy this. But at nearly two hours it may be a long slog for anybody else.
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