A Show Girl in Hollywood (1930)

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.

  • Samuel Wilson spoke:
    11th/08/2011 to 6:47 pm

    My impression was that audiences were already getting sick of both musicals and Technicolor sequences, which were actually fairly common as of 1930, by the time this came out. Jaded viewers probably didn’t experience an Oz-like sense of wonder at Show Girl in Hollywood in its original form — though movie lovers nowadays do get that feeling whenever we can salvage a complete relic from the early-talkie era.

  • Greg Ferrara spoke:
    11th/08/2011 to 9:04 pm

    Did you ever see The Hollywood Revue of 1929? Oddly, I’ve seen it probably five or six times. It’s fascinating! I mean, it’s not good but it’s fascinating. It’s, as the title suggests, a revue. Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, John Gilbert, Lionel Barrymore and the great Ukelele Ike (Cliff Edwards), all performing songs and skits and dances. Anyway, the whole reason I bring it up is because it was in 1929, very early sound but also, at the very end, is a technicolor sequence. The whole cast sings “Singin’ in the Rain” in bright yellow raincoats. It must have been something back then, as you say, seeing a sequence in technicolor for the grand finale.

    This one I’ve never seen but I absolutely have to now. Oh, how I wish it had that final technicolor sequence intact, though.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    11th/08/2011 to 10:33 pm

    Samuel – I wonder. I have a book on Hollywood musicals, and while there were certainly more than a few in 1930, it didn’t appear to me that there was a glut of them. I was, of course, trying to help the modern viewer imagine what it might have looked like. And yes, Greg, how I hope that someone has that last reel somewhere. Aside from Alice White’s abysmal performance, this really is a good film.

  • James Russell spoke:
    11th/08/2011 to 10:51 pm

    I think Samuel’s impression is not far off the mark. Apparently there were over 100 musicals released in 1930, then something like 14 in 1931. And some films shot as musicals wound up being released with most or even all of their songs cut out. Maybe it was a case not so much of too much of a good thing as too much of a mediocre thing? I don’t know. The remarkable thing, of course, is that after lying fallow for a couple of years the genre would resurge in 1933 and then last for decades…

  • Marilyn spoke:
    11th/08/2011 to 10:59 pm

    Interesting, James. I guess my reference book only hit the highlights. I did note that A Show Girl in Hollywood only had three songs, and repeated one of them. Not bad songs as they went, and I’m a sucker for that jazzy style of the time, but I could see how the rush to sound would have had producers scraping the sides of dish for material. The Buelow character is, in fact, a poacher of ideas from Broadway.

  • Greg Ferrara spoke:
    12th/08/2011 to 7:43 am

    Maybe the last reel’s in New Zealand. Every other lost film seems to be there. Someone call Brian Meacham, ASAP!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/08/2011 to 9:10 am

    Stranger things have happened, Greg. Did you read that they found a very early Hitchcock in the N.Z. archive this year. This was not among the 75 films that were listed on first inspection.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    12th/08/2011 to 12:30 pm

    “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.”

    This is indeed the aspect of this yet-unseen film that would interest me the most. Last night I completed the successful navigation of a 50 film pre-code festival in Manhattan where I saw ever single film over 28 days, including two by Mervyn LeRoy. (THREE ON A MATCH and GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933) Of course the director is famous for a few others that weren’t part of this early film retrospective (LITTLE CAESAR, FIVE STAR FINALE, I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG, TWO SECONDS) and his pivotal role in the decision to make THE WIZARD OF OZ. I must say I was fascinated to read about the Western Electric and Vitaphone sound systems, especially since these logos have appeared on virtually every early film during this era and underline their creation.

    You have once again blessed the film community with an essential rarity in your usual effusive spirit of film conservation.

    P.S. I also was thrilled to hear about that New Zealandic discovery last week!

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    12th/08/2011 to 2:28 pm

    As an addition my my previous comment Marilyn, I’d like to mention that it was recently brought to my attention that this DVD release is most worthwhile:

    http://www.amazon.com/Glorifying-the-American-Girl/dp/B000W929LC/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1313177107&sr=8-1

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/08/2011 to 5:08 pm

    Sam – As I said over at your place, I don’t know how you find the energy to work, raise a large family, AND take in every cultural event in NYC. Are you sure you don’t have mystical powers?

    Glorifying the American Girl certainly looks very interesting! If I can’t get my library to buy it, I’ll make the investment myself – I’m a big Helen Morgan fan.

  • Greg Ferrara spoke:
    14th/08/2011 to 7:50 pm

    Yeah, seriously, Sam, are you independently wealthy because you see movies a LOT! And write about them extensively!

    Anyway, if you are independently wealthy, let me know and I’ll send you my address for that seven-figure check you’re going to send me.

    And yes, Marilyn, I did hear that news, which was what I referring to when I joked everything else seems to be there. As Brian explained at the showing of Upstream (and in the interview for the blogathon) NZ was the last stop for most prints of the studios. At that point it was the studio’s choice to pay for it to be shipped back or just tell the NZ distributors to keep it. Since the print would by that point have scratches and tears and since the film’s run would be officially over, the studios almost always told them to keep it.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    15th/08/2011 to 1:42 pm

    “Yeah, seriously, Sam, are you independently wealthy because you see movies a LOT! And write about them extensively.”

    Ha Greg!!! I will pay the price in the foreseeable future when the ball starts rolling on college for my five kids. (The oldest is 15 now in fact) Then my irresponsible ways will be seen for what they are. Ugh.

  • Greg Ferrara spoke:
    15th/08/2011 to 9:59 pm

    Sam, we’ve got the first in college now (her sophomore year) and the second going in next year (Fall 2012). Ugh is right.

  • Lynn Starner spoke:
    27th/01/2012 to 2:05 pm

    Show Girl in Hollywood was not Alice White’s second talkie. It was her sixth. First : Hot Stuff (1929, a part-talkie), Second : Broadway Babies (1929), Third : The Girl from Woolworth’s (1929), Fourth : The Show of Shows (1929), Fifth : Playing Around (1930), and her sixth : Show Girl in Hollywood (1930).

    While I agree that Alice White was not the best actress around, she is nowhere as hopeless as you make her out to be. Your opinion, which you are entitled to, is clearly biased and can be very misleading to someone who is not familiar with Alice White. I happen to like Alice White and her films even though I would never call her a good actress.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/01/2012 to 2:36 pm

    Lynn – Clearly you know more about Alice White than I do, so I bow to your knowledge of her filmography. I’m sorry you think I’ve made her sound like a no-talent. She definitely works for silent films, but even she was aware of her deficiencies for the talking picture era. It wasn’t an easy transition for her, and she never really made it back.

  • Jim spoke:
    3rd/07/2014 to 4:29 am

    Hi, I just wanted to comment on Alice White’s acting abilities. I just saw her movie “Playing Around” (1930) on Turner Classic Movies, and I was really impressed by her acting. Her personality really comes out. She sings in the movie too, and I thought she was a decent singer.

    I’ve never seen another movie by her. If she was bad in “A Show Girl in Hollywood,” it’s possible she just didn’t get the character.

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