That Hollywood always fashioned itself as a palatial fantasy mill – a conveyor belt of shimmery product whose pulleys and rollers were lined with gold – is evident from its earliest years, from the barrage of publicity it both manufactured and deliberately attracted from the word ‘go.’ Even the black-box of production, the whole technical backend of movie-making, is magical and exciting, so the publicity cooed, pushing the idea that hoisting cameras, clipping microphones, and signing contracts is as extravagant as the finished product whose escapism was supposed to rid the audience of any awareness of the means of its creation. And so whenever classical Hollywood churned out “a movie about the movies,” it was as if a window into the industry’s self-image had been left open for all to peer in at. The most satirical of such movies offered something like a self-diagnosis – Victor Fleming’s BOMBSHELL (’33) is a touchstone, with its spitball excoriation of the star-maker machinery – but the best, satirical or no, played on the audience’s soaring perceptions of the industry, and induced a profound anxiety. Will the audience surrogate, the dreamer of Hollywood’s marketed dreams, fly too close to that tinsel sun, only to nosedive into an abyss of disillusionment?
These are lofty terms to employ when speaking of GOING HOLLYWOOD (’33) a schizoid 78-minute programmer with Marion Davies and Bing Crosby sparring all the way from some American nowheresville (or is it supposed to be New York? And is there a soul alive who knows for sure?) to the eponymous land of life and love as translated by an army of technicians into the glamorous language of the movies. But simply examine the credits. Here is Walter Wanger, one of the most creative and personally fascinating of Hollywood’s producer class, just a few years away from bucking the studios in a bid for independence. Here is Donald Ogden Stiers as screenwriter, before HOLIDAY (’38) and THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (’40) enshrined his mastery of light existentialism as wrought within society’s upper echelons. And Raoul Walsh, the most vibrant of the first wave of Old Hollywood auteurs, spending the Pre-Code years bouncing from one studio to the next (a few years before he would achieve a total symbiosis with Warner Brothers). A young Arthur Freed contributed the lyrics and petitioned for Bing Crosby’s casting, and William Randolph Hearst hovered in the background, pulling whatever strings he could to make Davies’ waning star reignite. This smorgasbord of screen talent is so far from the standard unit production model of the era (particularly at MGM, with Irving Thalberg as the omnipresent head of production) that it all but implodes the usual notions of house style. This lively work of vigorous unpredictability is not an MGM picture in the same way that BOMBEHSLL, for all its countervailing pleasures, is an MGM picture. Walsh and Crosby are even said to have been banned from the lot.
The film begins with Davies’ Sylvia Bruce teaching at an all-girls school, where mirthless pedagogy reigns, enforced by all manner of repressive rules. Davies knows she is not fit for the job – by night she listens to the crooning of Bill Williamson (Bing Crosby, more himself than in his wholesome GOING MY WAY phase), and it all but whisks her away on the downy cloudscapes of her lovelorn imagination. Davies is a marvel, so dazed and dreamy that her wittiest repartee softens even as it stings (her fellow schoolteachers act offended but are unable to sustain their ire). Her voice comes out in a caramel whisper, a mellifluous transmission from a far-off realm where different rules apply. Part of the joy of Going Hollywood, and of early Hollywood in general, is in experiencing well-worn clichés before they have calcified. Such is the case for Davies’ quiet midnight reverie, a sequence of such languorous beauty that it utterly bypasses the cynicism with which the showbiz itch is usually catalyzed in movies. So what if there is a fundamental naiveté baked into such aspirations? Naiveté makes the world go round.
This is not to say that Walsh and co. have not a knack for cynicism, nor an eye for Hollywood’s tackier enticements. After the opening scene, the movie becomes a vertiginous musical tract on artifice and artificiality. Crosby’s bored playboy, underneath that heavenly voice, is phoniness incarnate, a peddler of counterfeit dreams for the world’s love-struck loners to feed on. When Sylvia sets her sights on Bill with an aim toward real-world romance (he’s got a picture to make in Hollywood, she’s going to follow him there), the frisson between the one’s earnest infatuation and other’s beer-soaked diffidence becomes the film’s central conflict, to be resolved one of two ways: the dreamer to grow as disenchanted as her wary conquest, or the popular artist to fall in love with that rare member of the masses who can put the magic of the whole enterprise back into gleaming perspective. You may guess which will win out in the end, but the tug-of-war along the way, especially as Sylvia becomes a star in her own right, is irresistible.
Because the film’s vision of Hollywood is a manic flurry of backstage drama revved with sketch-comedy panache, all the stardust romance of the film’s opening minutes truly seems to have dissipated once things get really moving, replaced by a cawing Ned Sparks, a fever for “putting on a show” redolent of contemporary Warner Brothers fare, and a regrettable bout of blackface. This is Raoul Walsh in the whirlwind mode of THE ROARING TWENTIES (’39) or THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON (’41), plunging through the story in a cavalier leapfrog, with such amplitude of incident, such profusion of action, such vitality of character, and such overall looseness of narrative logic as to suggest a Hollywood that is all but brimming over with itself. And in the final analysis, we find that the love and languor of a radio ballad or a movie melodrama – and the ecstasy with which we experience them – cannot be extricated from the crazed means of their production, from all that backstage frenzy and professional disaffection. Any number of relevant clichés apply – that the dream factory contains multitudes, or that we can have our cake and eat it too. My humble takeaway: nothing is fake that is felt. Here’s to the Sylvia Bruces of the world.