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Humphrey Bogart in a screwball comedy about the movies? An odd idea but it works in Stand-In, a 1937 send-up of Hollywood by Hollywood. Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936) was a big hit from the year before, so independent producer Walter Wanger picked up the rights to a new story by Deeds' creator, Clarence Budington Kelland. From there, however, Wanger made some odd choices. For screenwriters he used Gene Towne and C. Graham Baker who had just written the script for Wanger's last hit. Never mind that it was the script for Fritz Lang's You Only Live Once (1937), one of the darkest crime dramas ever made. Wanger then secured as his male leads Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart who starred in the recent hit The Petrified Forest (1936), another very serious crime picture.
The film that resulted from this odd pairing of personnel and material succeeds nevertheless, proof that during the golden era of Hollywood, anything was possible. That's the lesson learned in the film by Atterbury Dodd (Leslie Howard), an efficiency expert for a New York bank who takes over Colossal Studios to prove it should not be sold. Completely absorbed in facts and figures, Dodd is baffled by the bizarre manner in which Hollywood conducts its business. His director (Alan Mowbray) will not consider shooting a scene until real edelweiss is flown in and his star (Marla Shelton) has a contract so extensive that she practically runs the studio. Dodd does get help from his star's stand-in (Joan Blondell) who points out the many workers relying on him to save the studio while she also attracts his attention to her feminine charms.
Leslie Howard, always a bit of a stuffed shirt on screen, is perfectly cast as Dodd and gets a rare chance to indulge in slapstick. Joan Blondell is, as always, both sexy and funny as the stand-in. Explaining to Dodd who Shirley Temple is, Blondell does a perfect impression of the then box-office superstar while singing "On the Good Ship Lollipop." Bogart, in a smaller role as the producer of the film within the film, is completely Bogart from the second he walks on screen, even while carrying a Scottish terrier under his arm. His speech lambasting the lead actress contains more than an echo of his final speech to Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon (1941). It seems almost impossible that an actor with such obvious star quality had four more years of small roles before becoming a star in his own right.
According to Stand-In director Tay Garnett, he hadn't thought about casting Bogart in the film until Mayo Methot, Bogie's wife at the time, accosted him at dinner one night complaining, "Why can't the best actor in the world get to play anything but heavies? And what the hell are you going to do about it?" However, while watching rushes of the film, Garnett's friend and former assistant Paul Schwegler turned to the director and said, "Have you lost your cotton pickin' mind? What makes you think you can turn that guy into a leading man? The sonabitch LISPS!" But Garnett had faith in Bogart and later stated in his autobiography (Light Your Torches and Pull Up Your Tights!) that "Stand-In was Bogie's first sympathetic part and catapulted him straight into the arms of Ingrid Bergman, Katharine Hepburn, and Lauren Bacall (for real)."
Prior to the release of Stand-In, Joseph Breen, head of PCA (Hollywood's self-censorship committee), took issue with some of the content, particularly anything that suggested "illicit sex relations" between the characters. Annotations on the movie in the American Film Institute Catalog reveal that Walter Wanger eventually agreed to several changes, "including changing the character of "Thelma Cheri" to that of an unmarried woman; deleting a speech about the stifling of competition in the industry and the crushing of independent companies by the majors; and deleting a speech by Atterbury at the end, in which he says he is going to start a Senate investigation of the motion picture business."
At the beginning of the film, a large title card reads, "The characters and events depicted in this motion picture are fictitious. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental." Of course, this probably means characters were based on actual Hollywood celebrities but the in-jokes are a bit obscure after 66 years. The villain, Ivor Nassau, might be David O. Selznick as he has an addiction to horse racing and a sign outside his office that suspiciously resembles the "Selznick International Pictures" logo. Could the accented director, Koslofski, be a dig at MGM's Richard Boleslawski or possibly even Erich von Stroheim or Josef von Sternberg?
Producer: Walter Wanger
Director: Tay Garnett
Screenplay: Gene Towne, C. Graham Baker, Clarence Budington Kelland (novel)
Cinematography: Charles Clarke
Film Editing: Otho Lovering, Dorothy Spencer
Art Direction: Alexander Toluboff
Music: David Klatzkin, Alfred Newman, Heinz Roemheld
Cast: Leslie Howard (Atterbury Dodd), Joan Blondell (Lester Plum), Humphrey Bogart (Doug Quintain), Alan Mowbray (Koslofski), Marla Shelton (Thelma Cheri), C. Henry Gordon (Ivor Nassau), Jack Carson (Tom Potts).
by Brian Cady