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Going Hollywood

Going Hollywood

1933. MGM. Directed by Raoul Walsh. With Bing Crosby, Marion Davies, Patsy Kelly, Fifi d'Orsay, Stuart Erwin, Ned Sparks

What did it mean to "go Hollywood?" Was this a piece of slang that people actually used? Or was it Hollywood-coined self-promotion: Not just a town, not just an industry, but a complete personal transformation!

What "goes Hollywood" in this 1933 movie isn't just an individual, but the whole culture. The lead character is a popular radio singer recruited by the movie industry. Much is made of his journey westward--there's a farewell at Grand Central Station that looks like a crowd scene from Metropolis--and enough time spent en route to give a sense of a continent crossed. The movie's underlying theme is movies supplanting radio, and Hollywood supplanting New York, at the center of American entertainment.

Trailing Bing to movieland is Marion Davies, a French teacher at a starchy girls' school who is inspired to seek love and adventure when she hears Bing croon on the radio (I forgot to note the names of the characters that Crosby, Davies and D'Orsay play, much less the names of the characters they play in the movie-within-the-movie, or the name of that movie; but I hope I can make it clear what I'm talking about). At first Bing is busy with what looks like a pretty carnal romance with his leading lady, played by Fifi d'Orsay, but eventually Marion replaces Fifi in both the movie that Bing's making, and in Bing's arms.

Both women seem to become movie stars just by virtue of being Bing's girlfriend. Fifi hangs around him in New York, before he even gets to Hollywood; they seem to have been cast as a package deal. Later, when Bing falls for Marion, she (through some arbitrary plot twist) takes over the movie role from Fifi. Apparently it would have been unacceptable for Bing to have one love interest in the outside story and another in the movie-within-the-movie. Or, to put it another way, Marion Davies could not be the heroine of Going Hollywood if she were not also the heroine of the movie-within-the-movie, worshipped by the public as well as by Bing. Going Hollywood shows us a unity between actors' lives and actors' roles that can't help but spill over into our understanding of Going Hollywood itself.

It's interesting to see Marion Davies, a legendary Hollywood character. (She was William Randolph Hearst's longtime girlfriend, and apparently he preferred her in noble roles; even here she spends a lot of time looking like Catherine the Great). She's not beautiful or graceful, but she seems quite likeable, especially in scenes where she banters with Bing. (I recall that she's very attractive in the silent Show People, where she also plays a young girl who breaks into the movies; I'll take another look at that soon.) Making this movie was apparently recreation for her; according to Bing Crosby, the filming took six months and was squeezed in between golf games, trips to the track, and long tipsy afternoons of conversation.

While Going Hollywood doesn't show actual movie stars interacting with our "real" characters (we see Marie Dressler and other MGM stars, but only in a sort of newsreel), it has a few nice movie-within-a-movie dissonances. The film crew heads off for some open-air shooting--we even see a sign reminding us that this is the "Independent Art Studio Location"--but the "location" is clearly an artificially-lit set full of potted plants. Is this a joke, or did they think people wouldn't notice?

There is also an interesting set-piece that reinforces the radio-to-movies subtext. Three guys (supposedly "electricians" fooling around on the set between takes) imitate popular radio personalities. That is, they stand before us and produce funny voices. Remember that up until a few years earlier, mass-media entertainers were either people you heard but didn't see (in radio), or saw but didn't hear (in movies). And now, with great fanfare, voice and likeness are reunited--and it's a lie! Kate's Smith's voice coming out of a tall skinny man! A bored-looking fellow delivering a feverish boxing commentary! This is a specifically talking-picture joke, and must been funny and sophisticated in 1933.



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein