Sunday, June 16, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #11: "Hollywood and Vine" (1945)

If you like the intersection, you'll love the movie.

The flick: Hollywood and Vine (PRC Pictures, Inc., 1945)

Current IMDb rating: 5.8

Director: Alexis Thurn-Taxis (A Night for Crime, The Yanks Are Coming)

Actors of note: James Ellison (I Walked with a Zombie), Wanda McKay (The Lady Eve, The Great McGinty), Franklin Pangborn (All Over Town, Now Voyager, The Bank Dick), Ralph Morgan (The Life of Emil Zola, first president of the Screen Actors Guild), Prince Michael Romanoff (restaurateur and "professional impostor"), Daisy (twenty-seven Blondie movies between 1938 and 1950), Emmett "Pappy" Lynn (Night of the Hunter, The Ten Commandments)

Intersections of note: Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street, Los Angeles, CA 90028, today the location of a sushi restaurant, an Irish pub, a parking lot, and an empty retail space.

The gist of it: Martha (McKay), a pretty young lass on her way to Hollywood, stops for lunch at a little hamburger stand operated by the eccentric and talkative Pop Barkley (Lynn). There, she attracts the attention of successful playwright Larry Winters (Ellison), who follows her to Tinseltown, where he's working on the adaptation of his Broadway hit, Grandfather's Follies. Thinking it belongs to Martha, Larry brings along a talented little stray dog (Daisy) whom he dubs Emperor after Strauss' Emperor Waltz, which was playing on Pop's jukebox when he and Martha met.

Martha eventually does reconnect with Larry, who passes himself off as a newcomer named "Larry Summers" and takes up residence in a modest bungalow near Martha's. Soon, Larry's bosses and his snooty fiancee are searching frantically for him. Meanwhile, Emperor becomes a big Hollywood star whose overnight success leads to a zany custody battle involving most of the other characters.

"Uncle Carl."
My take: I wonder when Hollywood started turning its cameras back at the movie business, realizing its own industry was as bizarre and fascinating as any scenario a writer could dream up. One of the little joys of this movie is the chance to see a now rather quaint-looking version of Hollywood, a place where people still went to the Brown Derby and the Trocadero.

Watching this movie in 2013 was like seeing the innocent first draft of Barton Fink or Mulholland Drive with all the surrealism and seediness taken out. The "pretending to be poor" thing, too, seems like a harbinger of John Landis' Coming to America. While he's pretending to be a pauper, Larry takes a job at a drugstore, where he works for fussbudget Franklin Pangborn who does his trademark "prissy queen" routine again. The movie never comes out and says it, but I'd like to think that the place is Schwab's Pharmacy.

The studio in the film is called Lavish Pictures, where the members of the Lavish family all have phony-baloney jobs (like "Assistant to the Assistant Story Editor") and phony-baloney offices (with numbers such as "7 and 3/8ths"). I'd imagine this was a swipe at the Laemmle clan, whose founder inspired this famous quip from Ogden Nash: "Uncle Carl Laemmle/Has a very large faemmle."

Sharp-eyed MST3K fans will note that this film was released by the poverty row studio called PRC Pictures, which stands for "Producers Releasing Corporation" and not "Penile Replacement Corporation," as Tom Servo had it.

By the way, I wonder if any scenes from Hollywood and Vine wound up on the cutting room floor because there are some subplots which never get wrapped up. One running gag, for instance, has tough-looking gangster types come into the drugstore and cryptically request a "banana surprise," which makes Franklin Pangborn very nervous. Nothing ever comes of this, though. And there's a wraparound story in which Pop Barkley tells some reporters how he came to be enormously wealthy, but I don't think this was adequately explained either.

Daisy the dog, the actual star of this movie.
Is it funny: Occasionally. As a satire of the motion picture business, Hollywood and Vine is fairy toothless. Studio chiefs are penny-pinching blowhards who keep their whole family on the payroll. Romances are manufactured for the benefit of the press. Directors are temperamental divas. Aspiring actors are likely to end up working in drug stores. I knew most of that.

Because of Daisy, Hollywood and Vine has plenty of bark, but the script has no bite. The movie lavishes much more attention on the dog than it does on the rather dull human love story supposedly at the center of the plot. I guess it's funny watching the talented pooch roll over, play dead, bark on command, close doors, and hide objects when necessary, but it's obvious that the animal is waiting for cues from a handler who is just off-camera. At the time, Daisy was in the middle of a very hot movie career, playing the role of the Bumsteads' dog in a series of cheap-but-popular comedies based on the Blondie comic strip. What's really funny in this film is the "star treatment" lavished on Daisy/Emperor, including lawsuits and charges of tax evasion. I chuckled quite a bit during the Empreror Goes Hollywood montage. After all, like Elvis Costello once said, "You're nobody 'til everybody in this town thinks you're a bastard." Or a bitch, so to speak.

Ellison and McKay play their parts straight down the middle, so most of the comedic dialogue in the film is given to the supporting players like "Pappy" Lynn, whose crazy old coot character quickly wore on my nerves. I did like the way his character wound up figuring into the film's longest-running gag at the very end, though.

My grade: B-

P.S. - Not a Negro stereotype in sight here. No minorities of any kind, in fact.

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