The Hollywood Revue of 1929

Holywood Revue of 1929

The Hollywood Revue of 1929. 118 minutes. Directed by Charles Reisner. Featuring performances by the Albertina Rasch Dancers, George K. Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, The Brox Sisters, Joan Crawford, Karl Dane, Marion Davies, Marie Dressler, Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards, Gus Edwards, John Gilbert, William Haines, Oliver Hardy, Buster Keaton, Charles King, Stan Laurel, Gwen Lee, Bessie Love, Polly Moran, Anita Page, and Norma Shearer. With Jack Benny and Conrad Nagel as masters of ceremonies.

The success of The Jazz Singer (1927) was the catalyst for the widespread use of synchronized sound in feature films, and as the studios began to manufacture sound productions en masse, they gravitated towards the format of the plotless musical revue. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s The Hollywood Revue of 1929 is a glitzy entry in the genre that, like its contemporaries King of Jazz (1930) and Elstree Calling (1930), offers plentiful sights and sounds to exhibit the new technology. A modern audience will likely take diminished pleasure in the early and somewhat cruder form of sound film on display and might rightly wonder why a vaudeville-style parade of musical acts in front of a stationary camera would have been considered cutting edge; but watching a cavalcade of silent-era stars in training for a new modality is likely to be just as intriguing today as it would have been in 1929, especially given the varying suitability of the performers to the emerging practice of talking, singing, and dancing on film. The public would tire of film revues by the very early 1930s, but The Hollywood Revue of 1929 remains a fascinating opportunity to view MGM’s anxiety and even vulnerability in what was for movies a thrilling but turbulent era. The fact that it offers the first filmed performance of the song “Singin’ in the Rain” is icing on the cake.

The main objective of The Hollywood Revue of 1929 is to impart a vision of an exciting, momentous, and nouveau Hollywood while positioning MGM as a leader within it. To achieve this, the film forgoes a story or plot and instead focuses on a series of unrelated song-and-dance acts, with sections of the program labeled through title cards presented by a group of young children, and MCs (Jack Benny and Conrad Nagel) who introduce each performance. The movie’s format, shared with other film revues of the time, was intended to showcase nascent sound technology in an enthusiastic and appealing way by focusing solely on sound spectacles rather than continuous narrative.

But while this format might be designed to maximize the sound experience, the theatrical component of disconnected stage acts, which draws from stage traditions established in an earlier era, might strike us as odd when we consider that this revue was marketed as thrilling filmmaking. So although The Hollywood Revue of 1929 may attempt to tantalize with then-current technology in terms of its soundtrack, the overall effect of its presentation style is to remind the 1929 audience and anyone viewing it today of conventions that both pre-date film and are devoid of its advances. As a result, The Hollywood Revue of 1929 would have seemed strangely both on trend and antique even in 1929.

This underwhelming aspect of The Hollywood Revue of 1929 is compounded by the fact that the technical aspects of the film can be rather crude, including its soundtrack. For example, it is exceedingly difficult to understand the lyrics to the songs “Charlie, Gus, and Ike” and “Marie, Polly, and Bess”; the three titular stars in each sequence step forward from curtained booths and take turns singing together in what is intended to be a musical comedy routine, but most of the jokes were lost on me due to deficiencies in the audio track.  While these two songs are a low point for sound in the film, nevertheless, they represent a wider issue with sound quality that is evident in other musical numbers as well.

Moreover, the revue’s camerawork might also surprise anyone who has seen late silent films such as Sunset: A Song of Two Humans (1927) and The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)—films that predate the revue by merely a year or two but that exhibit more innovative and experimental camera setups and movement. The simple and unremarkable cinematography of the revue is largely due to the way that early sound technology (and also the two-strip Technicolor technology used at three points during the revue) created restrictions on physical aspects of film production—this is presumably why the camera throughout The Hollywood Revue of 1929 is stationary. Positioning the camera solidly in the orchestra pit so that it is always pointed at the full stage renders the theatrical component of the film inescapable.

A modern audience will be especially aware of the film’s deficiencies in cinematography and sound, and a 1929 audience would have potentially registered these problems as well. However, due to its more limited exposure to sound feature films, the 1929 audience would have had an easier time focusing on the revue’s technological advances and would likely have perceived the less successful aspects of the film’s presentation as minor drawbacks.

Because The Hollywood Revue of 1929’s ostensible purpose is to position MGM as a leader in the new frontier of sound, we therefore might note with interest that it largely does not dip into the rich reserves of the recording world to offer us the all-singing talents of established vocal artists. Instead, the performances by the MGM stars in this film are a testimony to what mostly non-singing, non-dancing actors look like after being put through a musical boot camp at the parent studio and turned out onto a sound stage to sell themselves as the progeny of a new era. For the most part, the stars are not particularly good at any of this, but their performances make for delicious eye candy.

Perhaps one of the weirder sequences involves Joan Crawford singing and dancing to “Got a Feeling for You.” While wearing a fluttering dress that accentuates her gaunt form, she incorporates the Charleston into some ballet-like kicks and angular movements, and the combined effect is that she appears somewhat gawky. Crawford, a former Broadway chorus girl, would continue to sing and dance throughout the early 1930s and would eventually star in Dancing Lady in 1933 with Clark Gable, where the studio attempted to further push her towards a musical future. But her singing and dancing efforts always paled in comparison to her acting talents, which were remarkable—as evinced by her performances in many films, including her hilariously vampy turn in The Women (1939) and her moving performance as an entrepreneur in Mildred Pierce (1945). When I watch Crawford dancing, it is a reminder to me that even stars with theatrical backgrounds may have been at a disadvantage on camera. It follows that contemporaries of Crawford’s who had less musical training than she did were put in perhaps an even more undesirable position in the early sound era; they worked hard to live up to unreasonable expectations, given that they had achieved fame as actors while not uttering a single word that anyone could hear.

If you need any further evidence that stars from all corners of the industry participated in films such as The Hollywood Revue of 1929 in order to showcase their musical abilities, consider that Marion Davies appears here as a singer/dancer as well. Davies was the well-known silent actress and lover of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. She performs here in a military-themed piece, tapping out steps on a giant drum. Her voice is soft and somewhat minor; it is hard to understand what she sings, but she looks cute in her military outfit and cap, and while the choreography for her performance is, much like the rest of the choreography in the film, not particularly inventive, nevertheless her diminutive form radiates a certain amount of charm. Davies would retire from films in the late 1930s after starring in numerous successful sound features, but here at the beginning of the sound period she makes a case for her continuing appeal through her appearance in the revue, suggesting that even those with powerful connections demonstrated a need to make themselves relevant and viable, both to the audience and to the studio, during the transition to sound.

The Hollywood Revue of 1929 therefore has a related agenda that is palpable throughout its 118 minutes: not just to showcase the singing and dancing abilities of its many stars, but to justify the continued employment of silent actors in the sound era—and it displays a certain amount of anxiety relating to this subtext. If you are not familiar with the silent era, you will still recognize some of the talking stars in this movie, which is to say that MGM was successful in its mission to transition many of them into sound film roles; but low-key worry is expressed explicitly and implicitly throughout the film as silent stars are repeatedly showcased in contexts that nervously poke fun at their silent fame and their possible inability to relate to a new era.

Survival in the new epoch is approached humorously early on in the film—for example, when singer/actor Charles King implies that perhaps silent actor Conrad Nagel (one of the film’s MCs) is not a competent singer. The latter makes the case that he can, in fact, successfully woo a woman through song and is then shown singing “You Were Meant for Me” to Anita Page, who pulls up next to him on the piano bench. However, the vocal track is actually dubbed by King who made the song famous in The Broadway Melody (1929), which would go on to become the first sound film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Of course, the joke is that possibly Nagel cannot sing, or at least cannot sing as well as King, but as we watch Nagel mime to King’s singing, part of what makes his performance successful is less King’s voice and more the moves Nagel puts on the actress seated next to him. He makes a case for himself as a successful actor while poking fun at himself, which rather than limiting him actually seems to contribute a certain amount of cool to his reputation. Nagel would go on to have a long career in sound films, so while he is teased here about his musical abilities, he clearly had a speaking voice that appealed to audiences.

Another actor who uses the sound context of The Hollywood Revue of 1929 as an opportunity to reshape his persona is John Gilbert, the silent-era leading man who starred in The Big Parade (1925), MGM’s most profitable silent-era film. Here Gilbert stars in the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet with Norma Shearer in a Technicolor sequence. As he recites Shakespeare, Gilbert demonstrates that he can act with some of the subtlety required of the sound era. His performance with Shearer is slightly corny with some weird enunciation to boot, but the performance is being undertaken somewhat slyly and with a bit of a wink—for it turns out that the actors are being directed by Lionel Barrymore, who calls “cut” and compliments them on what they have done, but then explains in what is obviously a comic transition that he has received a telegram instructing him to modernize their performance. We then transition to the new balcony scene with the two actors trading slang translations of Shakespeare back and forth. The slang is dreadful, and the initial performance is also slightly painful to watch, but the sequence as a whole kind of works as a comedy sketch with tinges of self-deprecation; and seeing Gilbert, who was typically cast as a dramatic leading man in romantic pictures, take part in it is amusing. Unfortunately, his career declined in the sound era, but it is hard to see, as is sometimes claimed, how the balcony sequence with its explicit comedy about bad dialogue in sound pictures would have served as an obvious negative contribution to his attempt to transition to sound roles. Gilbert’s voice, while mythologized in popular culture as high and squeaky, is actually low and pleasant both here and in other films, and his downfall in the sound period likely had more to do with the (ironically) inept dialogue of his successive movie ventures, his tumultuous relationship with MGM, and his alcoholism.

Gilbert’s costar in The Big Parade, the actor and comedian Karl Dane, also appears in The Hollywood Revue of 1929 as part of the comedy duo Dane and Arthur, and yet his professional and personal collapse at the onset of the sound era was significantly more pronounced. Dane was an accomplished silent film star, who in addition to The Big Parade appeared in the blockbuster The Son of the Sheik (1926) with Rudolph Valentino; his unique facial features and considerable height cause him to be instantly recognizable. Towards the end of the silent period, he branched into a silent comedy act with George K. Arthur in a series of shorts, but when the sound era arrived, Dane’s thick Danish accent eventually caused MGM to cancel his contract (note that although he appears in The Hollywood Revue of 1929, he does not actually speak a word). Although Dane attempted to continue to work on camera, he was unsuccessful. Impoverished and depressed, he committed suicide in 1934. While there are many exaggerated stories of silent stars having unsuitable voices for sound films, Dane was a real example of just such a predicament, and his haunting, dialogue-less presence in this film is a reminder of the real challenges that sound technology could present to actors who had flourished in a period with different expectations.

That is to say that we find considerable behind-the-scenes drama, full of sad tales of decline and failure, within the broader context of The Hollywood Revue of 1929; but it must be admitted that some of the on-screen performances exhibit moments where the film’s potential to rescue its stars’ careers seems especially powerful. Consider the wonderful “Lon Chaney’s Gonna Get You If You Don’t Watch Out,” which is probably the revue’s funniest number. In it, a paternal figure warns a dormitory full of pajama-clad girls about the famous silent star as if he were a bogeyman lurking in the closet. After the singer has explained that Chaney is the most frightening night specter of them all, dancers in creepy masks come to “get” the girls. The sound quality is better in this performance in part because of the way that the singer projects and enunciates—as a result, we are able to perceive the jokes more readily. If the overall agenda of the film is to justify the continued existence of silent stars in the sound era, the “Lon Chaney” performance goes above and beyond to convince us that silent star Chaney is larger than life, the stuff of eerie nighttime legend—in other words, not easily eclipsed.

Probably the most significant musical performance in the film (both for its contribution to the revue’s star-rescuing efforts and for its sheer artistry) is “Singin’ in the Rain,” the song that would become legendary a few decades later as the iconic soundtrack to Gene Kelly’s dance routine in the 1952 film of the same name. The singer who gives the song its film debut in the 1929 revue is Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards, who performs on a rainy soundstage standing off to the left under a stylized tree. In this offbeat setting, and wearing a raincoat, cap, and galoshes while being showered with water, Edwards strums his tiny ukulele and sings in a small voice the lyrics that are well-known to the modern movie-going public today primarily because of the Gene Kelly movie:

I’m singin’ in the rain,
Just singin’ in the rain.
What a glorious feeling—
I’m happy again.

I’m laughing at clouds
So dark up above;
The sun’s in my heart,
And I’m ready for love.

Let the stormy clouds chase
Everyone from the place.
Come on with your rain—
I’ve got a smile on my face.

I’ll walk down the lane

With a happy refrain,
Just singin’,
Singin’ in the rain.

But while Kelly’s rendition of the song in the 1952 movie is strident and loud (with choreography that involves him throwing his arms wide open, spinning around lampposts, and splashing in massive puddles), Edwards’s performance is comparatively restrained and subdued in terms of his voice, the small instrument that he plays, and the fact that he hardly moves as he sings. He is notably isolated on the stage; in spite of the jubilant nature of his lyrics, his placement there makes him seem charming but solitary, perhaps even lonely, and while he is describing a state of inner bliss contrary to his stormy environs, his singing is on the verge of sounding just slightly bittersweet (especially before the orchestra kicks in). In this earlier incarnation of the song, the lyrics seem appreciative of a more diminutive and more private revelation of happiness, which takes on a sweetness via the high register of the strummed notes and Edwards’s vulnerable voice that is almost spiritual.

The film later works to undo what Edwards creates in this moment when it reprises the song with a full chorus—including all of the singing and dancing stars of the film—in front of an ark spangled with a giant rainbow. The sequence, unlike the performance by Edwards, is shot in two-strip Technicolor, with all performers in raincoats and hats. It is clear that not everyone in the group sing-a-long is familiar with the lyrics, as many appear to struggle to recite the words in unison. (It should be noted that silent comedian Buster Keaton, who is featured in an earlier comic segment where he is completely silent, even here in the finale does not utter a single word as the camera pans across the singing stars’ faces—so at least for Keaton, the studio appears to be making the case that he is most valuable still in mute form.)

But there is something phenomenal taking place in the final choral scene that, although it tears us away from Edwards, ties in marvelously with the film’s sound-era subtext. With the ark and rainbow positioned dramatically in the background, and the MGM stars filling the stage in front as if they have just spilled out of its high wooden walls onto newfound holy land, The Hollywood Revue of 1929 invokes the idea of religious salvation as it gives its performers a final run through; for “Singin’ in the Rain” and the rest of The Hollywood Revue of 1929 is there to rescue all of the MGM silent greats who in 1929 were in danger of losing their careers due to the new technology. Through the potent symbols of its backdrop, the film implicitly argues that much like Noah and his family, who were worthy of preservation by God in a harsh and fallen world, so, too, are its stars worthy of our continued affection in the new frontier of sound. As they sing their way to the closing curtain, MGM makes a final case for their enduring contributions to film and inadvertently underscores its role as savior.

Unfortunately for many of the stars in The Hollywood Revue of 1929, there is only so much that a studio can do to encourage the public to feel affection for a performer, and much as the revue strives to convince us of what is worthy and good, the public and the studio would not always align on who needed to be saved from the flood. But cinema as a whole did survive and soon found a way to flourish artistically, albeit differently from its previous incarnation. The Hollywood Revue of 1929 is worth seeing today as a tribute to those who made it and those who were left behind.