Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Hollywood Revue

As part of Marie Dressler's day in TCM's Summer Under the Stars, TCM are showing a remarkable early talkie: The Hollywood Revue of 1929, Monday at 6:15 AM ET. The title is accurate; this is little more than a revue and has no plot. The year 1929 was, of course, a little more than a year after The Jazz Singer became the first talking feature-length movie (although it wasn't completely talking, as sound was only used for several musical numbers); studios were worried about how to make the transition to sound pictures. As a result, MGM decided to give a substantial number of its stars a sort of screen test by putting them in an actual talking picture, but one which wouldn't be too taxing. Thus was The Hollywood Revue born.

Jack Benny and Conrad Nagel serve as the masters of ceremonies, introducing what was essentially a series of vaudeville-style acts mixed in between performances from the main MGM actors. Benny is quite good here, doing what was essentially the same material that would make him popular on radio, and then on television, for the next 30 years. Two notable scenes of his to watch for involve his attempt to play the violin, and a primitive special effects sequence in which he pulls actress Bessie Love out of his pocket. Other MGM stars include Joan Crawford hoofing it; Norma Shearer doing Romeo and Juliet with John Gilbert; Laurel and Hardy doing a comedy bit; and the aforementioned Marie Dressler amongst those who try to sing, some with more success than others. Amongst the few MGM stars not showing up is Greta Garbo, who was apparently still taking elocution lessons, and wouldn't talk on screen for another year, until Anna Christie. (Note that Marie Dressler is also in the cast of Anna Christie, which TCM are showing at 12:30 AM ET Tuesday.)

It would be unfair to judge the "serious" actors on their singing abilities; after all, one didn't need to be able to sing in order to act. However, there are also acts here that aren't very funny -- and frankly, I wonder whether the audiences of the late 1920s would have found them funny. One notable such act involves several women trying to play broken musical instruments.

The most interesting number comes at the end, however. There are two sequences in two-strip Technicolor that comprise the movie's finale; the first being the song "Orange Blossom Time", the second is the entire cast getting together and singing "Singin' In the Rain". The Hollywood Revue is the movie that premiered the song "Singin' In the Rain", and it actually shows up twice in the movie. The finale is more interesting, however, because of the Technicolor and because all of the cast shows up. They're all wearing yellow raincoats, and that's not a bad thing, as yellow is one of the colors two-strip Technicolor displayed reasonably well.

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