Its impact at the time was enhanced by one of Busby Berkeley's most virtuosic pieces of visual underpinning ever. That's the second thing that makes it a treasure. Against the music, he sets a sinuous line of dancers in motion, costumed in gowns suggesting inverted calla lilies. In and out they weave through a montage of the neon signs of the meccas that were logos for Movieland: The Brown Derby, The Trocadero, The Ambassador Hotel, Grauman's Chinese Theatre, Hollywood Boulevard. It's a Deco dream, with Benny Goodman's musicians lining out the music in a motorcade to an airport, each instrumentalist standing and tooting away in a chauffeured open roadster emblazoned with placards kidding the likes of Gable, Garbo and Olivia de Havilland, with vocals courtesy of Frances Langford and Johnny "Scat" Davis.
Watching Goodman in action is no small part of the eminently preservation-worthy and highly watchable Hollywood Hotel. It's difficult for latter-day audiences to picture a tall, bespectacled clarinetist leading a band to the same kind of hysterical audience response as Elvis and the Beatles. But Goodman was one of the Swing Era luminaries who did. Sharing musical honors onscreen with Raymond Paige and the latter's much more conventional studio orchestra, Goodman is asked only to play himself in bandleading context, which he does with smiling aplomb.
In this pre-TV era, studios cleaned up by giving audiences a way to see as well as hear the musicians they idolized on radio and records. The bandleaders and their personnel were asked only to appear in musical context. Their multitudes of fans wouldn't have it any other way. So it is here, where the centerpiece is the Goodman aggregation's performance of "Sing, Sing, Sing" -- the "Sacre du Printemps" of big band jazz -- with its growls, wails, motor rhythms and spotlit solos by drummer Gene Krupa, trumpeter Harry James, clarinetist Goodman, pianist Teddy Wilson and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton.
The performance of "Sing, Sing, Sing" here paved the way for Goodman's milestone Carnegie Hall concert days after the film's premiere at the Strand Theatre in January, 1938. Goodman had been undecided about the Carnegie idea suggested by his publicist Wynn Nathanson, fearing it would backfire by being perceived as an ill-advised publicity stunt. But the rapturous reception of Hollywood Hotel by his fans, and the sight of would-be ticket buyers lining up around the block convinced him. The result made jazz history. Columbia's landmark recording of that concert has remained a staple through the LP and CD eras. Also noteworthy is the fact that the film broke the color line by presenting a racially integrated band, with no second-class citizens, as Wilson's and Hampton's solos make clear. (At the same time, cringe-inducing racial stereotypes are tossed through the film like confetti!).
But if Goodman's name was the one that sold most of the tickets, Warner studio execs bolstered the film by topcasting their biggest male musical star, Dick Powell. His sunny chorus boy eagerness keeps his gentlemanliness from growing wooden as a saxophonist with the Goodman band, who gets a shot at the movies. (The band seeing him off on his L.A.-bound TWA Skyliner early product placement! -- is the pretext for the opening motorcade sequence.) Almost immediately, he runs afoul of the studio's temperamental star (Lola Lane). Walking off in a huff over not landing a big role, she thinks she has the studio over a barrel by refusing to attend her own premiere. When the studio outfoxes her by hiring her stunt double (Rosemary Lane her real-life sister) to stand in on the red carpet and presses newcomer Powell into service as her escort, he becomes a casualty once the studio makes peace with its temperamental star. Of course, Powell's movie novice falls for the double, who also gets bounced.
She has had the good sense to retain her waitressing job. He and his newfound manager (Ted Healy) work as waiters in a drive-in run by Edgar Kennedy to a counterpoint of perpetually breaking dishes. Both eventually make their way back up the career ladder with a little help from their friends. They include real-life Hollywood gossip queen Louella Parsons, over whose coiffed, tiared head floats a halo of self-delight at being allowed to play herself. Powell's would-be crooner climbs out of $100-a-song anonymity as the invisible voice dubbing the songs sung by the star's leading man, the ever irresistibly gassy Alan Mowbray, who literally gets taken for a ride so that things can be put right at the end.
Not that anybody doubted they would be. Hollywood Hotel was never about plot, and this one has the good sense to not get in the way of the main attractions. Mowbray, Healy, Kennedy, Hugh Herbert and other reliables from Hollywood's rich gallery of character actors largely avoid the formulas and idiocies attached to their roles (although Herbert is almost swamped by the nonsensical role of the diva's father, who ruins a perfectly good Gone with the Wind send-up with a ghastly Uncle Tom blackface routine!). The Lane sisters were two of five daughters of an Iowa dentist and his wife (their sibling, Priscilla, enjoyed an even bigger career than they did). Their ability to seem good sports helps sustain the silliness, and Glenda Farrell, as the no-nonsense secretary to the scenery-chewing star, provides a welcome astringency.
Busby Berkeley's best choreography involves the cameras he kept moving around to creatively photograph Paige's orchestra in a big band arrangement of the traditional Russian fave, "Dark Eyes." Hollywood Hotel brought to an end Berkeley's lavish Warner budgets that yielded such classics as Footlight Parade (1933) and the Gold Diggers musicals. This film additionally offers a few of the nuggets so dear to the trivia-gathering hearts of movie buffs. There was a Hollywood Hotel. It sat on the land now occupied by the Kodak Theater, site of the Oscar® presentations. The film's inspiration if it can be called that was, however, a popular CBS radio program of that name, built around Parsons.
It figures in the story, as does its announcer, Ken Niles. Look for an unbilled Ronald Reagan as a radio announcer on the red carpet at the premiere of the film within the film. Carole Landis can be seen briefly as a hatcheck girl. Susan Hayward shows up in her unbilled Hollywood debut, cast as a starlet at a nightclub table. And it wouldn't be a Warner film of the '30s without a Bette Davis story, would it? This one involves the studio wanting her to play both the diva and her double. Davis talked her way out of it, arguing that the film had none of the dramatic dimension in which she excelled, and additionally called for her to do a musical number in the Hollywood Bowl, in which, she was wise enough to point out, she would not have shone. Meanwhile, Hollywood Hotel remains a choice entry in the sub-genre of big band musicals.
Director: Busby Berkeley
Cinematography: George Barnes, Charles Rosher
Music: Ray Heindorf, Heinz Roemheld (both uncredited)
Film Editing: George Amy
Cast: Dick Powell (Ronnie Bowers), Rosemary Lane (Virginia Stanton), Lola Lane (Mona Marshall), Hugh Herbert (Chester Marshall), Ted Healy (Fuzzy), Glenda Farrell (Jonesie), Johnnie Davis (Georgia), Alan Mowbray (Alexander Dupre).
BW-110m. Closed captioning.
by Jay Carr
New York Times review, January 13, 1938
Encyclopedia of the Musical Film, by Stanley Green, Oxford University Press, 1981
Encyclopedia of Film, by Ephraim Katz, Putnam, 1982
New Biographical Dictionary of Film, by David Thomson, Knopf, 2003
The Busby Berkeley Book, by Busby Berkeley with Tony Thomas and Jim Terry, New York Graphic Society, 1973
Inside Warner Bros. (1935-1951), by Rudy Behlmer, Viking, 1985