Director: Mervyn LeRoy
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Pity poor Alice White. With a face, a body, and a vivacious manner that make comparisons with Clara Bow easy and accurate, she was the ideal silent-film star. Sound destroyed all that. Suddenly, studios looking to duplicate the sensation generated by The Jazz Singer were filling their screens with musicals. White couldn’t sing and couldn’t dance. Even worse for her long-term prospects, she couldn’t act. She even took two years off to take acting lessons, but the ship had already sailed by the time she came back. Reduced by an industry that waits for no one and tarred by a sex scandal, White saw her screen credit sink to the bottom of the line and finally disappear altogether. So, while A Show Girl in Hollywood, White’s second talkie, predicts a happy ending for former silent stars, the more interesting and true story is watching White and company flail to the new demands of sound.
The film opens backstage at a New York theatre where the cast and crew of “Rainbow Girl” are lamenting the show’s closing after only two weeks. Jimmy Doyle (Jack Mulhall), the writer and producer of the show, comforts his girlfriend Dixie Dugan (White) by saying the show would have been a hit if she had been playing the lead. The pair goes to a nightclub where Dixie used to sing and dance to party their blues away. The nightclub owner prevails upon Dixie to sing, and she catches the eye of Hollywood director Frank Buelow (John Miljan). He offers her the lead in his next picture and lures her to Hollywood with promises of a studio contract.
Not only is there no contract waiting for her, but producer Sam Otis (Ford Sterling), tired of Buelow’s trips to New York to scavenge starlets (and, as it turns out, steal scripts), fires Buelow. A crestfallen Dixie sends a telegram to Jimmy to wire her money so she can return home, but Otis, feeling sorry for her, decides to cast her in the film Buelow was going to make: Rainbow Girl. When Otis learns that Doyle actually wrote the script, he buys the rights and brings Jimmy out to Hollywood to supervise the production. Jimmy and Dixie reunite, but a little more trouble with Buelow ensues—he gets Dixie to “go Hollywood” with script demands, thus fulfilling Buelow’s ulterior motive of having the film shut down, costing Otis a bundle of money. Dixie comes to her senses, the picture gets made, and she and Jimmy are destined for Hollywood success and matrimonial bliss.
It’s hard to get around the big lump of awful that is Alice White—the endless close-ups of her Kewpie-doll face in her odd cloche hats start to cloy as much as the very odd turns of phrase she uses—but there is actually quite a lot of great in A Show Girl in Hollywood. For starters, the rest of the cast is wonderful. For example, Ford Sterling makes the most of the snappy script, the delights of which I can barely scrape at here, and delivers large doses of perfectly timed comedy with a dash of realism. When Dixie storms Otis’s office to tell him she has come all the way from New York, he merely walks to a door and opens it, revealing a waiting room full of young women who have done exactly the same thing. When provoked, he very understatedly pulls out a piece of paper and pen to write the note informing Buelow, and then Dixie, that their services are no longer required (“it is as if you never existed”). Shortly thereafter, the only man (Billy Bletcher) whose job is assured at the studio—the man who paints on and removes employees’ names from their doors—comes by and makes the characteristic and humorous scraping noises that signal a change in the air.
The best performance by far is by Blanche Sweet as former movie star Donny Harris. Even as Buelow, an enormous heel who is revealed to be Donny’s husband, tells his assistant director (Herman Bing) to have her thrown out and kept out of the studio, Donny befriends Dixie, his latest object of desire. Dixie is a big fan of Donny’s and can’t fathom that the beautiful star has been tossed on the ash heap. Donny reveals the ugly side of Hollywood—she’s a has-been at the ripe old age of 32 and refuses to sell a mansion whose furniture she has sold bit by bit to pay her bills because that would really mean throwing in the towel. She sings “There’s a Tear for Every Smile in Hollywood” rather well and with a meaningful pathos, winning not only Dixie’s loyalty and friendship, but also ours.
Where this film is of particular interest to those with an interest in film history is in its depiction of the mechanics of filmmaking at the dawn of sound. A Show Girl in Hollywood was made using a Western Electric imbedded sound track, but it depicts the making of a film using the Vitaphone record-synching system (see the interview conducted by the Northwest Chicago Film Society, which arranged the screening of A Show Girl in Hollywood I attended), and since Vitaphone was a coproducer of this film, their product is advertised prominently. In one scene, Dixie stands in front of an early soundstage door that warns people not to go in when the red lights are on because they indicate that “Vitaphoning” is taking place. The Vitaphone process is further advertised on the theatre marquee at the premiere of Rainbow Girl with a shortened version of the famous “All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!” line that heralded MGM’s 1929 talkie The Broadway Melody to the world, and it is mentioned by the radio announcer interviewing the stars making their way into the theatre. (Fun cameos of Loretta Young, Al Jolson, Ruby Keeler, and Noah Beery Sr. and Jr. walking the red carpet are a bonus feature; also marvel at the sight of a very young Walter Pidgeon introducing Dixie for a curtain speech after the film.)
We also go inside the recording and filming booths during the filming of the wacky “I’ve Got My Eye on You” production number of Rainbow Girl and see the protective booths used on set to muffle the sound of the cameras and an operator watching the recording disks to ensure there are no skips. It seems fairly clear to me that tap dancing got a boost because it was needed to further drown out the sound of the multiple cameras used in these early musicals. The musical number itself is pretty interesting, as some dance characteristics that seem patented by Busby Berkeley, such as formation dancing and the use of three half-moon walkways seen to best effect in the “Remember My Forgotten Man” number in Gold Diggers of 1933, were commonly used by other choreographers, in this case, Jack Haskell. And while White’s difficulties can be seen on her unsmiling, concentrated face as she blunders her way through the choreography, her jazzy singing is rather enjoyable.
Sadly, the big splash LeRoy and company planned for the final reel—two-strip Technicolor for the “Hang onto a Rainbow” production number—is lost, though it’s not hard to imagine the impact it must have had on audiences of the time. Just think about the change from black and white to color in The Wizard of Oz, and the flowering of the new age of sound married with color, nicely mirrored by Dixie’s announcement of her impending marriage and two-week honeymoon (“Make it one week!” bellows Otis), becomes a wonder to behold.