Pre Code Confidential #5: HOLLYWOOD PARTY (MGM 1934)

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One of the most bizarre films of the Pre-Code (or any) era is HOLLYWOOD PARTY. This practically plotless hodgepodge stars Jimmy Durante as jungle movie hero Schnarzan, whose films are tanking at the box office. The public has grown tired of his battles with “moth-eaten, toothless lions”, so his producer decides to buy new ones from the adventurer Baron Munchausen (radio star Jack Pearl doing his schtick). Schnarzan throws a big Hollywood party for the Baron, hoping to win his favor, but screen rival Liondola (dialect comic Georges Givot), disguising himself as the Grand Royal Duke of Peloponnesia, crashes the bash and tries to buy the lions for himself with the help of Oklahoma oil baron Harvey Crump (the perpetually perplexed  Charles Butterworth).

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All this is just an excuse for a series of unrelated comic bits featuring some of the era’s top funnymen. Durante, as the nominal star, gets the bulk of the material. He’s a roar in a “Schnarzan” trailer with his half-naked costar, the fiery and funny Lupe Velez. A reincarnation skit features Jimmy as Adam at the Garden of Eden and Paul Revere’s horse! He even gets to clown around with the one and only Mickey Mouse (voiced by Walt Disney), which segues into a color Disney cartoon, “Hot Chocolate Soldiers”.

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Ted Healy and his Three Stooges show up, with Moe, Larry, and Curly as autograph hounds at the door and do a bit about Neanderthal craniums with three eminent professors. Mack Sennett veteran Polly Moran is Butterworth’s social-climbing wife, who gets involved in some amorous (and racy!) situations with Durante and Givot. Young lovers Eddie Quillan and June Clyde pitch woo and sing the comical “I’ve Had My Moments”.

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But it’s Laurel & Hardy who manage to steal the film, showing up in the last half as a pair of ragamuffins who sold the lions to Baron Munchausen. Seems the Baron gave them a check for fifty thousand tiddy-winks, and they want their lions back! After some shenanigans at the front door with butler Tom Kennedy, they crash the party and meet Lupe Velez at the bar. This turns into a classic “tit for tat” bit involving Stan, Ollie, Lupe, and a bowl of raw eggs (which the team later reprised in THE BULLFIGHTERS). Stan and Ollie let one of the lions loose, and Schnarzan engages in a fierce battle, only to awaken from what’s been a dream Durante had after reading a Tarzan book!

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HOLLYWOOD PARTY features tons of scantily clad women in musical sequences singing and dancing to some pretty forgettable songs. It was released about a month before the Code went into effect, and edited upon rerelease by the censors. What survives is still funny, and of interest to fans of early 30’s comedy. Also in the cast are Leonid Kinskey, Edwin Maxwell, Jed Prouty, Arthur Treacher (as a butler, of course), Robert Young (doing a bit as a radio announcer), and the ubiquitous Bess Flowers (if you look close, you’ll spot her!).

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Richard Boleslavsky usually gets the director’s credit, but research has shown the film had multiple hands working on different sequences. George Stevens handled the Laurel & Hardy scenes, and Allan Dwan, Edmund Goulding, Russell Mack, Charles Reisner, Roy Rowland, and Sam Wood all took turns in the director’s chair, but who did what is up for speculation. This gives HOLLYWOOD PARTY a disconnected feeling, like a series of two-reelers slapped together, but somehow it works. It’s a zany look at Hollywood Bacchanalia before the code went into effect, and film buff’s delight. If you’re a fan of any of the comedians I’ve mentioned, it’s definately worth checking out.

More PRE-CODE CONFIDENTIAL:

Karma’s a Bitch: THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME (RKO 1947)

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1947 was a peak year for film noir. There was BRUTE FORCE BORN TO KILL , DARK PASSAGE, KISS OF DEATH, THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, OUT OF THE PAST, and NIGHTMARE ALLEY , to name but a few. THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME doesn’t get the notoriety of those I just mentioned, but it can hold its own with them all. This unheralded dark gem from the RKO noir factory boasts an outstanding cast, and a taut, twisted screenplay from hardboiled pulp writer Jonathan Latimer.

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Larry Ballantine’s on trial for the murder of his wife and his girlfriend. Larry’s a real cad, a lying and cheating weasel. He takes the stand and tells his side of the story, as the film goes into flashback to recount the sordid details. Larry’s stepping out on rich wife Greta with co-worker Janice, who gives him an ultimatum. She’s transferring to Montreal, and Larry is to leave his wife and go with her. Greta finds out, and pulls some strings…purse strings, that is. She buys a home in Palm Springs and a brokerage firm partnership there for her husband. The weak-willed, dead broke Larry follows the money, leaving Janice to Canada.

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Trenton & Ballantine comes with many perks, foremost among them Verna. The sexy, golddigging dame sets her cap for Larry, and the louse can’t resist her, though he doesn’t try very hard. The two engage in a hot’n’heavy affair until Janice comes to town and bumps into them. Jealous Janice rats her ex-playmate out to Greta, and wifey puts her foot down hard. She sells Larry’s interest in the firm and buys a ranch out by the lake, demanding Larry choose to be with her or Verna. Since he’s nothing without Greta’s dough, the spineless worm moves out to the isolated country, without even a phone to tempt him.

Greta thinks she’s finally got him by the gonads now, but Larry’s lust knows no bounds. Seizing on an opportunity to go to L.A. and meet with an architect, Larry desperately calls Verna at his first chance. He hatches a scheme to bilk their joint checking account of $25,000 and run off with Verna to Reno, where he can get a quickie divorce and marry her. Things turn ugly when they’re involved in an accident on the highway to Reno, as a truck blows a tire and smashes into them, injuring Larry and killing Verna. But at the hospital, Larry discovers the cops think the burned, unidentifiable corpse is Greta, and Larry begins to get ideas about ridding himself of his marriage for good.

The plot takes some twists and turns from here, and I won’t spoil things for those of you who haven’t seen this film. The cast is ably directed by Irving Pichel, as unheralded these days as the film itself. Pichel was an actor and director known to horror genre fans as the servant of DRACULA’S DAUGHTER (1936) and co-director of THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932) and SHE (1935). He also performed in the spicy Pre-Codes THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE and I’M NO ANGEL (with Mae West), and played Fagin in the 1933 version of OLIVER TWIST, and was narrator of two John Ford classics, HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY and SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON. His directing credits include the anti-Nazi films THE MAN I MARRIED, THE PIED PIPER, and O.S.S., the fantasy-comedies MR. PEABODY AND THE MERMAID and THE GREAT RUPERT, the early sci-fi entry DESTINATION MOON, and the excellent low-budget noir QUICKSAND (with Mickey Rooney and Peter Lorre). Pichel made the Randolph Scott Western SANTA FE before falling victim to the Hollywood blacklist, forcing him to move to Europe and ply his trade. After helming two religious pictures, MARTIN LUTHER and DAY OF TRIUMPH, Irving Pichel died in 1954. Many of the films he worked on were nominated for Academy Awards in various categories, and his career deserves a second look.

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All-American good guy Robert Young plays the rotten egg Larry, and he’s perfect in the part. Young’s long film career was winding down, and he was stretching his acting muscles at this juncture. A new career in television was just on the horizon, as he starred in not one but two long-running hits: the family comedy FATHER KNOWS BEST and the drama MARCUS WELBY, M.D. Sexy Susan Hayward (Verna) gets top billing, though she dies before the film’s conclusion. Hayward would receive her first Oscar nomination in 1947 for SMASH UP, THE STORY OF A WOMAN, the first of four she earned before taking the golden statue home for 1958’s I WANT TO LIVE! Jane Greer (Janice) co-starred in another ’47 noir, OUT OF THE PAST with Robert Mitchum… but you already knew that, right noir fans? Rita Johnson (Greta) isn’t as well-known as the other ladies, but she’s just right as the clinging wife. Some of her other films are HERE COMES MR. JORDAN, THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR, and MY FRIEND FLICKA. Let’s not leave out the Familiar Face Brigade: Don Beddoe , Anthony Caruso, Frank Ferguson, Byron Foulger, Milton Parsons, Tom Powers, and George Tyne all lend solid support.

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Producer Joan Harrison was a long time associate of Alfred Hitchcock, writing screenplays for JAMAICA INN , REBECCA, and FOREIGN CORRESPSONDENT. Harrison would later serve as producer of Hitchcock’s anthology TV series. The production values are high here, with a perfect score by Roy Webb and moody cinematography from Harry J. Wild ( MURDER MY SWEET ). THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME is a great example of 40’s noir filmmaking, and deserves to be included in any discussion of films made during noir’s greatest year, 1947.