Showgirl in Hollywood – 1930
"I'm 32, and in this business when you're over 32, you're older than those hills out there."
Alice White plays a young understudy in a theater play in New York City that is in the progress of closing down as a flop. A sleazy film director (John Miljan as "Frank Buelow") is in the city on a scouting trip from the film studio he works for and promises Dixie a film contract, and though Showgirl in Hollywood completely avoids telling us there is a quid pro quo going on here, an "exchange" is implied in other ways. When White's character reaches Hollywood only to discover the promise of a film contract is null and void, the reaction of the studio executive in charge (Mr. Otis played by Ford Sterling) is that this isn't the only time Director Buelow has run this scam on young women and abused his position (and, implied, the young women).
This 1930 film featuring Alice White (as "Dixie Dugan") starts off pretty rocky with all of the crudities of production that marked the early "talky" films. Monotone line deliveries matched against over-enunciated dialogue doesn't allow for smooth pacing, and often the characters seemed trapped in front of the cameras, likely because of how hard it was to "mike" for sound in those days, so the actors don't move much or even show expression except to flash cliché grimaces at the end of a sentence to signal that we've just heard a "clever" piece of snappy dialogue or a to mark a punch line of a joke.
Like a piece of film history happening before our eyes, though, as Showgirl in Hollywood progresses, the stiffness of what we're watching begins to get smoother, as if everyone was learning a better way to put the tale across and use the new filming techniques now married to sound-recording equipment. What began with actors inside rooms talking at each other begins to change with people moving about and the stage-bound atmosphere beginning to loosen up. Even the scale of the movie increases as production numbers for musical sequences of the film-within-a-film that Dixie Dugan is hired to star in ("Rainbow Girls") expands onto large sound stages. (The film originally included a final ten-minute reel that was shot in Technicolor. This innovative section is now considered lost, only black-and-white versions survive).
More importantly, as the movie develops, star Alice White's song delivery (there are a lot of tunes here) also improves dramatically, as if all she needed was more space to move around in to get the air into her lungs. At this point Showgirl in Hollywood has raised a couple of notches in quality and begins to shed that "beginner" feel many original "talkies" had.
Since this movie's story is giving us a back-stage look at Hollywood (and the downside of stardom, especially for women), we get to see the detritus of a production facility: Vitaphone technicians inside soundproof booths, their cables and microphones hanging from the sound stage ceilings, cameras and crew people standing about, and all of the other gear and equipment that makes a production possible (in this way Showgirl in Hollywood is like the slightly later film Make Me A Star, or the 1932 The Death Kiss). We are even given a ride (vicariously) when a tour bus travels around the city pointing out the famous landmarks of Hollywood (much of which is shown via a not particularly convincing series of process shots, but there is also nice location footage of classic Hollywood locales).
As an insight into film production in 1930, Showgirl in Hollywood is rich in visual detail, though the bittersweet lament inside the story is about the casual superficiality of the industry and how it handles actors, especially female, in what can be called a very cavalier fashion, along with the inflation of ego that hits a young star unprepared for the power they suddenly can wield and then proceed to self-destruct, and in this way the tale is "immortal," as they say in Hollywood about anything that lasts past a decade.
As a contrast, Mr. Otis, our high-up film executive, is shown humorously surrounded by "yes men" (who literally answer "yes" at times) but otherwise he is a sage leader within the studio with a paternalistic sense of responsiblity for the wayward actors who have a hard time listening to his mature advice (which reminds me of the much later studio head Eddie Mannix played by Josh Brolin in the 2016 Hail, Caesar!)
The humor in the writing for Showgirl in Hollywood is a grab-bag of very early-30's patter and other bits that are truly hilarious, such as the simple visual gag of a roaming Dixie Dugan wandering about on an active sound stage: a gangster murder scene is being shot by a fevered film director and two battling actors portraying a gangster about to hurl a resisting victim from a skyscraper office window. We appear to be twenty floors up, or higher, the scene outside the window showing us the gleaming surface of other nearby skyscrapers. And then Dixie Dugan comes wandering into the frame just outside those windows, innocently looking in on the action, floating on air for a moment until we realize her presence has completely crushed the illusion, we're simply on an enclosed movie set in California and there's nothing outside those windows except painted matte-boards.
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From former screen legends who have faded into obscurity to new revelations about the biggest movie stars, Valderrama unearths the most fascinating little-known tales from the birth of Hollywood through its Golden Age.
Winner of the 2020 Peter C. Rollins Book Award
Longlisted for the 2020 Moving Image Book Award by the Kraszna-Krausz Foundation
Named a 2019 Richard Wall Memorial Award Finalist by the Theatre Library Association
Original page October 14, 2021