Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Warner Archive Grab Bag - WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD? and SHOW BOAT (1936) ""

Monday, March 17, 2014

Warner Archive Grab Bag - WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD? and SHOW BOAT (1936)

WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD? (1932; George Cukor)
This is one of those long awaited DVD titles that folks have been clamoring for for years now. It had only had a VHS (and laserdisc) release prior to this. Its reputation is quite a good and it has a great director so I had high expectations for it. Can I just take a moment to say how much I miss the way studios used to to opening credits for their films? I miss it dearly. There's something so special about the classic credit sequence done in book form and I've always loved that. In this case, the credits are done as murals on the side of what is ostensibly a film studio and the camera pans across them. It's just a lovely way to start a movie. Anyway, so a waitress (Constance Bennett) at The Brown Derby gets discovered by a great (if pleasantly boozy) Hollywood director (Lowell Sherman) when he takes a liking to her and decides to have her accompany him to the opening of his latest film. I've always been a fan of this kind of plot wherein a typically less-than well-to-do person is 'rescued' from a somewhat shabby existence and brought into the lives of rich people. It has this sense of winning the lottery about it that is fun. The whole idea of 'anyone can make it in Hollywood' is sort of encapsulated here. But as is often the case with such stories, this one is a bit of a cautionary tale (but not necessarily in the way you'd expect). Bennett falls for millionaire playboy and polo player Neil Hamilton (in an odd switcheroo from his Commissioner Gordon role on the old Batman TV show). Of course the marriage is put on the rocks by Bennett's career and her affection for the director that discovered her. For those familiar with the plot to A STAR IS BORN, this plot will seem familiar (many say this was this inspiration for that story). Constance Bennett is an absolute bright shining light in this picture. Just a gorgeous lady and a great performance.
Two rare sights seen in this picture include the old Grauman's Chinese Theater looking lovely at a movie premiere and the RKO/Pathe logo with a rooster instead of the traditional radio tower (see below).

The rarely seen RKO Pathe rooster logo that plays at the front of WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD?

SHOW BOAT (1936; James Whale)
"This the boat where they have the play-actin?"
Another "long awaited" release, this one from renowned director James Whale. The only previous version of this film I've ever owned is the deluxe Laserdisc set from Criterion (which I still have). It has a neat commentary on it by musical theater expert Miles Krueger (who actually used to frequent the video store where I worked when I first moved to Los Angeles), but this will likely never see the light of day in any other format which is unfortunate. Many of the old Criterion Laserdisc commentary tracks are gone forever it seems which is why I've hung on to a few of those big old classic bits of home video history. But I digress. As mentioned on the Warner Archive Podcast, Warner Brothers Home Video may still have a grand deluxe SHOW BOAT Blu-ray set of their own possibly in the works (one that will potentially include this version of SHOW BOAT and two others), but WAC wanted to get out a disc of this much beloved version after a healthy remastering as there is not real telling when or if the Blu-ray set will materialize. Despite having owned that Criterion LD set for a while, I'd never sat down to watch the film (as ridiculous as that is) until now. SHOW BOAT opens with a wonderful credit sequence in the form of a crane shot down to a parade of cutouts of people as they march toward the camera whilst holding gigantic, ornate banners declaring the cast and filmmakers names. It really is quite charming and unique and does give a sense of the spectacle that's to come. And it truly is a spectacle. As the Show Boat arrives at the beginning of the film, the townspeople (and farm animals) rush giddily to the shoreline to welcome them. Once docked, the Show Boat folk put on a parade for the town. It's like a circus and a fancy party (with lovely costumes) and a good old-fashioned musical revue rolled together. Interestingly directed by Universal Horror hero James Whale. The "Old Man River" musical number showed the first signs of a different approach as Whale chooses to use cutaway flashbacks to demonstrate parts of the song on the character singing it. It's almost like the first music video or the roots of it at least. 
I have to be honest, as much as the spectacle of the film is quite grand, I find myself always having trouble with this era of the south depicted on film. The whole "hard working but happy" African Americans is just tough for me to watch. Especially when juxtaposed with well-to-do white folks. In this movie, one of the plot details hangs delicately on the question of race - specifically mixed race and marriage. It is a sobering testament to the time in which the story takes place and it is very very sad. While I appreciate a film that addresses such social issues as they stood at the time in question, it makes them no less pleasant and certainly puts a damper on the light, celebratory nature of the musical numbers. It is an interesting juxtaposition not lost on me, but nonetheless tough to watch. At least the film's attitude about all of it seems relatively progressive for the time.
One thing that did amuse me though was Irene Dunne's first dance number. It is the strangest dance I've seen in a film this old. Looks like something that'd be more at home in a New Wave club in the mid Eighties. Pretty great. And Irene Dunne herself is always charming and lovely. She has a wonderful aura about her and has always been able to deliver dialogue quickly and with great energy. Plus she's cute as all heck (even in her Blackface scene which was a bit uncomfortable to watch).

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