Thank God for the Benny Goodman Quartet
Somewhere, there is probably a record of why Busby Berkeley, king of the Hollywood production number, directed Hollywood Hotel with lots and lots of music, but not a dime’s worth of dancing. But, in an hour’s worth of looking, I haven’t been able to find it. Hollywood Hotel is an odd film, with a number of jerks and twists, a film that, at times, threatens to turn itself into a diamond in the rough but never follows through. Despite a few real gems, 90 percent of the film is solid zircon.
HH starts with a blast, 98 percent of the noise coming from Johnnie “Scat” Davis (right), delivering an outrageously over-the-top rendition of “Hooray for Hollywood,” whose over-the-top tune and over-the-top lyrics still linger as a symbol of cheesy, in-your-face showbiz kitsch. Johnnie gets some help from Benny Goodman and his band, as well as thirties songbird Frances Langford, but scarcely needs it, bellowing out Johnny Mercer’s snappy lyrics with an exuberance that makes Al Jolson sound like Noel Coward: “If you want to be an actor, see Mr. Factor, he’ll make your kisser look good! Hooray for Hollywood!”
Once Johnnie’s done, the decibel level, and the energy, of the film drop dangerously low. Dick Powell, whose tepid, boy-next-door voice and manner somehow made him one of Hollywood’s biggest musical comedy stars, plays sax for Benny, but he’s decided to try to make it in Hollywood as an actor, even though, modest fellow that is, he doesn’t really think he stands a chance out there.1
Once Dick hits La La land, there are numerous confusions and contusions.2 He runs into an army of second-rate, forgotten farceurs, and we embark on a laborious, unfunny parody of Hollywood make-believe, complete with temperamental stars (Lola Lane as “Mona Marshall”), faggy dress designers (Curt Bois as “Butch”), wacky press agents (Ted Healy as “Fuzzy”), and wisecracking kid sisters (Mabel Todd as “Dot Marshall”). More impressive than the script or the performances is the Hollywood Hotel set, so glamorous that we keep expecting Fred and Ginger to show up, but, sadly, they never do.
There’s plenty of music to follow, but unfortunately Mercer3 and composer Richard Whiting never come close to matching the opening number. Fortunately, we don’t have to rely on them for all the music, because Benny (right) and the band have made it to Hollywood too, and we can catch their act in the Orchid Room.
We get a rushed version of that Swing epic “Sing, Sing, Sing,” which could run for twelve minutes when the Goodman band performed it live, but here’s it’s cut down to less than four.4 Fortunately, there’s more, a beautiful performance of “House Hop” by the Benny Goodman Quartet, the first continuing integrated group in jazz, featuring vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and pianist Teddy Wilson along with Benny and drummer Gene Krupa.
Lionel Hampton had so much charisma that it’s impossible to keep the camera off him, but Teddy Wilson, utterly restrained, is another matter. The camera doesn’t show much of his face, but does give us close-up after close-up of his wonderfully dexterous fingers. It’s surely one of the first times that Hollywood presented a black man as an artist rather than an entertainer.5
From Teddy Wilson to Ronald Reagan, well, it’s a bit of a bump, but Ronnie is in there, in his second screen role. The suits didn’t want to push Ronnie too hard, so they gave him a bit part as a radio announcer, which just happened to be his day job. Reagan is supposed to be interviewing Dick Powell, but he doesn’t come off too well. Ronnie doesn’t quite seem to be in character — he seems to be resentful of Powell — “damn it, I’m younger, taller, and prettier. I should be the star! He should be interviewing me!”
After both Ronnie and Benny split, well, frankly, I wasn’t paying much attention. For students of life on the D List circa 1937, there’s plenty of material, including Louella Parsons, once the most famous gossip columnist in Hollywood, along with some totally forgotten radio personalities. Dick eventually gets a job with Miracle Pictures6 and somehow gets involved with a parody of Gone with the Wind, already a huge bestseller but not destined to hit the screen until 1939 — a parody which, if I remember correctly, wasn’t entirely unfunny. We also see the Raymond Paige orchestra, a truly mammoth musical combo, which must have outweighed the Goodman band by at least three tons, performing “Ochi Tchornya,” aka “Dark Eyes,” a traditional Russian folk tune (well, pretty much) that was very popular back in the thirties.7 And, at some point, I’m pretty sure, Dick Powell does become a star.
If you want a blow-by-blow discussion of Hollywood Hotel, check out the “Comments” page at the Internet Movie Database, filed by dudes who weren’t sippin’ the Scotch when they were watching this flick. I’ve also “borrowed” from the “Movie Mirrors” site here.
Busby Berkeley included Benny in his famous/infamous extravaganza The Gang’s All Here, now available on DVD, which featured Carmen Miranda and the famous/infamous “dancing banana” routine, rated “gay” or “very gay” by most observers. Benny also turns up in the Howard Hawks/Danny Kaye extravaganza A Song Is Born, also on DVD, which has lots of kitsch but a surprising amount of jazz as well. The documentary Benny Goodman: Adventures in the Kingdom of Swing gives a reasonable overview of his career.
The following YouTube clip, unfortunately quite fuzzy, shows the Goodman band in action at the “Orchid Room” set of Hollywood Hotel.
- To give his exit some pizzazz, Dick is taking a plane to Hollywood, something not many people did back in those days. [↩]
- Ha ha. Well, someone does get hit in the eye. [↩]
- Johnnie seemed to save his best lyrics for Harold Arlen, teaming up with him for such flamboyant classics as “The Blues in the Night” and “One for My Baby.” [↩]
- Sing, Sing, Sing” was written by professional wild man Louis Prima (gag from Playboy, back in the seventies — “his demeanor fell somewhere between a wounded water buffalo and Louis Prima’s act”). There’s an excellent, full-length performance of “Sing, Sing, Sing” on the DVD Swing, Swing, Swing: The Gene Krupa Story reviewed here. I recently caught an orchestral version of “Sing, Sing, Sing” via the Harrisburg (Pa.) Symphony, and both the tune and the band sounded great. [↩]
- “While he was working with Benny, Teddy Wilson was the leader on the classic small-band sessions that featured Billie Holiday, some of the greatest records in all of jazz. [↩]
- Their motto: “If it’s a good picture it’s a Miracle!” Get it? I saw that gag recycled on TV a week ago, but I can’t remember where. Is anyone on Desperate Housewives making movies these days?. [↩]
- “Ochi Tchornya” became sort of an all-purpose catch phrase in the thirties, capable of conveying anything from enthusiasm to scorn. [↩]