As any good party planner will tell you, one of the keys to throwing a successful soirée is knowing who to invite and who not to invite. When the folks at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer began planning a little shindig tentatively entitled The Hollywood Revue of 1933–a musical/comedy mélange that would compete with those over-the-top Busby Berkeley spectacles over at Warner Bros.–they envisioned an all-star assemblage à la 1932’s Grand Hotel with appearances by Wallace Beery, Joan Crawford, Marion Davies, Marie Dressler, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Buster Keaton and other in-house notables, and with the goings-on set to a Rodgers and Hart soundtrack.
Roughly one year, two title switches (Star-Spangled Banquet came and went), seven scripters, eight–count ’em, eight!–directors, and countless roster changes later, what the studio got was Hollywood Party (1934). It’s an at-best occasionally funny romp with a rather meager guest list. But, like an embattled host running out of refreshments, it does the best it can to stretch out its rather thin storyline with some help from two famous comedy teams, an animated anti-war fable (in Technicolor) from none other than Walt Disney, some so-so musical numbers boasting some rather risqué imagery, and more disturbingly phallic nose references than one movie should be allowed to have.
Said nose references come at the expense of the film’s main star, the Old Schnozzola, Jimmy Durante. Durante plays himself–or some version of himself–as the lead actor in a series of action movies about jungle king Schnarzan (Get it?), who spends his days hanging out in the treetops with his comely mate (“Mexican Spitfire” Lupe Velez, at the time the real-life Mrs. Johnny Weissmuller) and wrestling the occasional lion. A film company executive is shown sneaking into a theater–giving us the chance to see three seconds of Greta Garbo in the final scene from Queen Christina–to gauge the audience’s reaction to a trailer for the latest adventure of “the mighty monarch of the mudlands.” He is dismayed to learn, however, that the Schnarzan pictures are losing their popularity with the public.
No, it’s not due to the loincloth-clad Durante’s physique (see the photo on the right, if you dare), but because those “man-eating felines” he’s been tangling with are starting to look a little long in the fang. What’s more, audiences aren’t any more attracted to Schnarzan’s rival jungle hero, Liondora (dialect comedian George Givot), whom the theater owner states “doesn’t even use real lions.” As luck would have it, famed explorer Baron Munchausen (Jack Pearl, who played the boastful Baron on the radio) is said to have just returned from an African safari with a newly-caught menagerie for sale. Durante/Schnarzan (for some reason everyone refers to him as himself and his film-within-a-film character) decides to throw a lavish party at his mansion to welcome the Baron, an event that will give him the inside track on getting some fresh lions. Liondora, meanwhile, plans to sneak uninvited into the festivities and claim the Baron’s cats for himself.
News of the party is enough to set the telephone wires buzzing and get a chorus of neon-uniformed operators dancing and singing to the title tune (“Hollywood party, goin’ a mile a minute”), one of three Rodgers and Hart songs that managed to survived the year-young creative process. The operators’ moves are accompanied by shots of men and women–mostly women–dressing up for the big night, with as much bare back, torso and limb and fleeting lingerie shots as a major studio release could get away with the Production Code looming on the horizon. It’s a nice little sequence, but one that feels like minor-league Busby Berkeley.
And that is part of the trouble with Hollywood Party; A lot of what finally made it to the screen feels like things that were done better elsewhere. For example, when Durante, another group of chorus girls, and some jazz-dancing “African natives” (complete with feathered headdresses and, yes, bones in their noses) greet the arriving Baron Munchausen with another Rodgers/Hart song, “Hello,” it comes off as a once-removed cousin of “Hooray for Captain Spalding” from the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers, complete with the Baron being interrupted as he tries to give a speech. On the other hand, Groucho wasn’t carried into the room by a gorilla, while Munchausen is: “the most ferocious ape ever captured in the wilds of Africa”–Ping Pong, son of King Kong–who then skips mincingly down the steps…
…to which Jimmy comments, “A chim-pansy!”
As for the rest of the party guests, they are similarly derivative. Charles Butterworth and Polly Moran–the poor man’s Wallace Beery and Marie Dressler–are an vacationing Oklahoma oil tycoon and his starstruck wife (Good luck at this party!), with Moran being wooed by the money-hungry Givot, in disguise as a Greek aristocrat (Were Greek accents really all that funny?). At one point, Givot looks for all the world as though he’s assaulting an unwilling Moran on the divan, while Butterworth watches from the garden and comments on his technique (Was this really all that funny, even in 1934?) before trying it out on an uninvited Lupe Velez, who’s snuck onto the grounds in a dress that is in constant peril of revealing something Meanwhile the oil man’s niece (June Clyde) and a guy she met in a hotel elevator (Eddie Quillan) are trying to emulate Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell in their song-and-dance number. And those are the key romantic subplots, folks.
Thankfully, it’s at this point that we get about three minutes of slight comic relief courtesy of Moe, Larry, Curly…and Ted. Yes,the act still known as Ted Healy and His Stooges pops up for its final appearance together, with the boys playing autograph seekers (Good luck at this party!) and their face-slapping straight man snapping photographs. Moe grabs the beard of an arriving scientist, certain it’s a disguised celebrity (“Come out from under the spinach, Gable, we know you!”), while another academic spies Curly’s head and raps it with a cane, convinced he’s hitting the skull of a modern-day Neanderthal…or is that “Androgynous”?
Unfortunately, this brief foray into humor leads to a scene where Durante talks to the scientists about the nature of reincarnation–which, wouldn’t you know, just happens to be the title of another Rodgers/Hart song. It’s in this sequence that two of the picture’s most unsettling images pop up, as Jimmy thinks back through his past lives to his days as Adam in the Garden of Eden with Eve…
…and in Colonial America on the night of Paul Revere’s ride. Oh, Jimmy took part in it, but he wasn’t Paul……and you thought Joe Camel was packed with Freudian meaning.
The strangest part of the goings-on, though, is probably the arrival of a rival film company’s biggest star…
How MGM managed to get Disney to loan out Mickey Mouse for Hollywood Party is a question asked many times over the years (the simplest answer is that Uncle Walt was usually in need of funds at this point in his studio’s operation and Louis B. Mayer was willing to spend money to spur interest in this trouble-plagued production). Not only does Mickey (voiced by Disney) interact with Durante and do an imitation of Jimmy, he also introduces a five-minute Technicolor animated sequence, “The Hot Choc-late Soldiers” (song by “Singin’ in the Rain” composers Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed). Brave candy fighting men wage a battle against the castle stronghold of some baked goods, with plenty of eclairs squirting out creme, soldiers melting into gooey messes, and other images that are too bizarre to go into, except to say that the scene of wounded choc-late soldiers marching home minus arms, legs and even heads seems a bit much given that this was only about 16 years after the end of World War I (J’Accuse, anyone?).
The final folks to arrive at the festivities are none other and Laurel and Hardy, not as themselves but as animal salesmen who supplied the fraudulent Baron with his lions in exchange for a check for “50,000 tiddlywinks” (“worth a dollar and a half in his country,” explains a helpful Stan. The pair try searching the mansion for the quarry but wind up at the bar just as an irate Velez is denied any more drinks. This leads to the movie’s most memorable scene, as Stan, Ollie and Lupe engage in a comedic game of one-upmanship with a bowl of raw eggs that just happens to be sitting on the bar, a contest that escalates into Hardy getting egg in his pants and Lupe sitting down on some hen fruit.
I hate to give away the manner in which this party ends, but let’s just say when director number eight, Allan Dwan, was called into MGM to see what he could make of the “disconnected” rough cut of the film, he’s said to have turned to one of Mayer’s assistants and exclaimed, “It’s a nightmare!” Dwan never imagined that the mogul would take his statement literally and have him shoot framing sequences (of which only one was used) to explain away the surreal soirée. For his “two or three days” of work, Allan said he received “a nice fat check,” which just goes to demonstrate another rule about parties; how much fun you have can easily depend upon when you show up. For an old party pooper like me, a few moments in the second half with the Stooges and Stan and Ollie were almost–but not quite–worth everything that came before it, big-nosed horse and all.