Friday, December 19, 2008

Movie: It Happened In Hollywood (1937)

Since making my way through most of The Whistler movies, I’ve become a fan of the stolid charms of actor Richard Dix. So when TCM aired this obscure movie, aka Once A Hero, a few weeks ago, I recorded it. Little did I realize that bonuses were in store.

Bonus #1: It’s the second writing credit for the great Samuel Fuller.

Bonus #2: It features an extended sequence that earns it a small place in Hollywood history.

Bonus #3: It’s awful, but in a way that fascinates.

Dix, in an echo of his own career, plays a star of silent movie westerns devoted to his young fans. Then talkies come in. After one session with a diction coach (Franklin Pangborn in the Franklin Pangborn role), it’s clear that Dix ain’t cut out for Coward. As his best girl Fay Wray moves on to success, he loses his money. He gets a second chance when he’s offered a role as a tough guy in a gangster film, but Dix refuses to be a bad example to the kids by gunning down a cop in cold blood. He decides to leave Tinseltown and return to life on the range, where based on his duds he was a midnight cowboy. That’s when Billy, one of the kids he doesn’t want to disappoint, turns up on his doorstep. He won’t go back to the welfare home until Dix introduces him to some movie stars, a plot development that makes zero sense considering Billy’s stated contempt for every film that isn’t a western.

Bringing us to bonus #2 above. Dix throws a party for Billy at the ranch he’s already lost to the bank, and invites the stand-ins for the biggest names in the business. All of whom are played by the actual studio doubles for those stars, in the only on-screen appearances many of them had. You see facsimiles of Clark Gable, Mae West, James Cagney, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. Arthur McLaglen turns up as his brother Victor. Sisters Betty and Carol Dietrich appear as Greta Garbo and Marlene (no relation) Dietrich. Bing Crosby’s doppelganger lip syncs to one of Bing’s records. It’s an amazing bit of movie history.

Normally I don’t give away endings, but It Happened in Hollywood goes so off the rails in the closing minutes that I have no choice. Consider yourselves warned.

Billy has one of those movie accidents. Dix needs money to save the kid’s life. So he returns to the bank he was supposed to rob in the gangster film, this time to knock it over for real. Only before he can do so, it’s held up by actual thieves. After one of them shoots a cop, Dix draws his six-gun and saves the day. By this point the studios have figured out how to record sound outdoors, so westerns are back in vogue. And Dix returns to the silver screen, a bigger star than ever. The end.

It Happened in Hollywood is four different movies jammed together, often in the same scene, and none of them good. I’d call it a comedy because it’s impossible to take seriously, not because it’s funny. But in holding up a funhouse mirror to show business, it was years ahead of its time. And in my book, you get points for being early.