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Tuesday, 2 December 2008

It Happened in Hollywood (1937)

Here's an interesting concept: a film about the transition of Hollywood from silent films to the sound era, made only a decade after Al Jolson told us that 'You ain't heard nothing yet'. We open in 1928, as cowboy star Tim Bart is touring hospitals and orphanages to meet some of his biggest fans, children, and he's pretty believable in the form of cowboy star Richard Dix (of whom I'm no big fan but he's excellent here). However he's called back to Perfect Pictures because the first talkie has been a success and the studios are panicked about how their silent icons are going to cope. The news for Bart isn't good.

His delightful co-star Gloria Gay, played by Dix's delightful co-star Fay Wray, is panicked herself because she thinks she'll be out of a job in no time flat. However she's a sensation and it's Bart that finds himself obsolete, firmly stuck in the previous era with the parts he played. Horses don't do well in front rooms and the microphones don't move. Bart is a great silent cowboy hero but he's terrible at dialogue and hardly believable in any role that takes him out of the saddle. The only thing he has going for him now is the fact that people like him, not least Gloria who has clout and wants him working.

This is a fascinating film, watching a man spiralling downward through no fault of his own. One minute he's a huge star with his name above the title and a 19 room ranch almost paid off, the next he's out of work without much hope of anything. It must be a devastating experience, even without a sick kid getting well just so he can come out to see Bart and lay on the guilt so he won't send him back. Bart doesn't have the clout he had so he throws a party at his old ranch house, which is on the market, with a cast of Hollywood doubles. This film is versatile to play as a comedy and a tragedy and a drama all in one and there's certainly plenty of each.

It's not a great film, with more ups and downs than a rollercoaster, but it's a fascinating one because of what it says and when it said it. Only ten years after Jolson, eight after the first huge Hollywood year of sound, seven after the silents were effectively dead and gone, here's a film about that massive paradigm shift in the movies that made many actors into huge stars and threw just as many out on the sidewalk. It may not seem it today, seventy years on, but this was made at a time when many silent stars had became nobodies, maybe bit players if they were lucky, often unemployed, some driven to desperate measures as Tim Bart is here, some even more so to the point of suicide.

After all this was only a year after John Gilbert died of a heart attack following overuse of alcohol. Garbo had only three pictures left, Ramon Novarro managed a few more but his stardom was over, and these are only three of the legends. Lesser names to today's eyes disappeared even quicker, especially those with accents that were either extreme or just not what the fans expected: Lili Damita, Nils Asther, Dolores Costello. Tim Bart's character may be sympathetically written and played but it's a safely tragic version of a fate that befell many who would often have been suffering or dreaming back at the past in 1937.

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