Sunday, November 29, 2009

Film Review: Hollywood Revue of 1929

"Hollywood Revue of 1929" *** (out of ****)

Well November is coming to an end and with it comes an end to my month long celebration of the movie musical. I have discussed a lot of great films in the past month and hopefully introduced readers to movies they hadn't seen before and mentioned movie stars you never heard of. That's the whole point of this blog. To try to inform readers of the great films from Hollywood's past. Back in the days when movies were actually entertaining and not the waste of time modern cinema so often is.

For those of you that like good old fashion entertainment "Hollywood Revue of 1929" (1929) is going to turn out to be a true treat. The film actually has no story, it is literally a revue. There is lots of singing and dancing and humor. The film is just a collection of sketches spotlighting a major MGM star. It is believed every major star under contract with MGM appears in this movie with the exception of Greta Garbo and Lon Chaney. Though Chaney is mentioned. The stars we do see are; Laurel & Hardy, Buster Keaton, Joan Crawford, Jack Benny, Conrad Nagel, Lionel Barrymore, Norma Shearer, John Gilbert, Charles King, Cliff Edwards and Marion Davies among others. It is an all-star cast.

The appeal of the movie will rest on how many of those names you know. If you aren't familiar with these movie stars, you're probably not going to enjoy this, unless, of course, you are anxious to learn about great cinema. If you are familiar with these stars then "Hollywood Revue of 1929" becomes movie Heaven. A terrific treat for any true movie buff.

In the film Jack Benny (making his screen debut) and Conrad Nagel are both Master of Ceremonies for the revue we are watching. Everyone performs on a stage, which is where the entire film takes place. The camera usually keeps a distance so it can keep the stage and the performers in frame. Giving us a theatre experience.

There are a few innovative techniques on display. There is some trick photography but by today's standards they seem rather primitive. However, in 1929 I'm willing to bet the film impressed audiences. "Hollywood Revue of 1929" was in some ways a follow-up to MGM's first all talking picture, the Best Picture Oscar winner, "The Broadway Melody of 1929" (1929), which I have included in my Masterpiece Film Series. The actors even directly mention that movie as the three leading stars appear in this movie as well; Charles King, Bessie Love and Anita Page.

Because this is one of the first talkies, the movie has some fun with sound and the invention of the new genre; the musical. One humorous skit deals with King making fun of Nagel, telling him actors like him are finished now that King is around and the musical a big hit. King informs Nagel that acting is not enough. The romantic lead now has to be able to sing and woo the female with his voice. Nagel tells King he should watch what he says as he calls Anita Page onto the stage and sings to her the same song King sang to her in "Broadway Melody", "You Were Meant For Me". To King's surprise Nagel does a great job.

Other humors moments come from Benny, going over his routines between acts and when introducing them. While other comics like Buster Keaton and Laurel & Hardy are able to perform. "The boys" play a couple of magicians who manage to screw up their act in various ways. One trick will involve Oliver making an egg appear out of nowhere, but when he grows frustrated with Stan, he kicks him from behind, thus cracking the egg in Stan's back pocket. They also managed to ruin their trick to make a cake disappear.

Keaton on the other hand does his skit in drag, pretending to be a princess of the sea who is released from a pearl. He attempts to do a seductive dance.

And finally Norma Shearer and John Gilbert are on a movie set filming an adaptation of Romeo & Juliet with Lionel Barrymore directing. However the movie studio demands the language be updated since people have a hard time understanding Shakespeare's words. So Gilbert and Shearer do the famous balcony scene in 1920s slang. It is a clever idea.

Some of the memorable musical numbers involve Cliff Edwards, who gets a lot of screen time. He is sadly forgotten now, but, he appeared in several comedies, including some of Keaton's early talking comedies. He might be best know as the voice of Jiminy Cricket. He was a very good singer. Here he sings "Singin' in the Rain" and "Nobody But You". The "Singin' in the Rain" number is an absolute highlight and to me, remains the definitive version of the song and that includes Gene Kelly's rendition. It is one of my all time favorite musical numbers.

Joan Crawford shows off her singing and dancing skills in an opening number, "Gotta Feelin' For You". While Charles King sings "Your Mother and Mine" and "You Were Meant For Me".

But these are the highlights of the movie. Sadly not every routine is memorable. Many could have been completely eliminated. As much as I love Marion Davies her dance number is a complete waste of time. It isn't fun to watch and doesn't show off Davies great comedic skills. Marie Dressler was never really a favorite of mine. She does her usually shtick, which I can take or leave. A bizarre musical number involves Lon Chaney (who does not make an appearance) called "Lon Chaney Is Gonna Get You". It makes no sense at all. It is one of the low points of the movie.

But for every low point there are enough high points to make the film well worth watching. Film buffs should take great delight in being able to see all these stars in one movie together. Where else could you see such talent together? And imagine how much better the movie might have been if it had a story. Still, you cannot deny the great charm the movie has.

The movie was directed by Charles Reisner. I have reviewed one of his movies already, "Chasing Rainbows" (1930), which was his follow-up film, which also starred Jack Benny, Charles King and Bessie Love. Reisner also directed the Abbott & Costello comedy "Lost in Harlem" (1944). He is not very well remembered today and nothing in any of his movies really suggest a major directing force like Clarence Brown or King Vidor.

The movie was nominated for one Oscar, "Best Picture". I don't think this is a great movie but it does have certain pleasure which audiences should take delight in. I love a lot of the comedy sequences. It is great seeing Laurel & Hardy and Jack Benny and I love hearing Cliff Edwards sing.

I don't know if many of today's younger movie fans are going to enjoy this but for some classic movie buffs "Hollywood Revue of 1929" is a real winner and puts on one entertaining show.