August 13, 2013
Going Hollywood (1933) was a gambit by William Randolph Heart to rejuvenate his lover Marion Davies’ career, but instead it accelerated the rise of Bing Crosby. By the end of 1933 Crosby was a top-ten box office attraction, while Marion Davies would be out of movies altogether a few years later. Like their careers, the whole movie is pulled in different directions, as its patchwork backstage musical romantic comedy plot lunges from lavish Busby Berkeley style spectacles to a filmed radio show. Even the box office receipts are schizophrenic, with a cost of $914,000 and total revenues of $962,000 it was a money-maker that barely broke even. Though immensely talented, the actors perform at cross-purposes, with Crosby at his most louche and Davies in a perpetual panic. That Going Hollywood holds together at all can be credited to ace songwriting duo Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, as well as director Raoul Walsh, who had just managed the controlled chaos of his turn of the century NYC comedy The Bowery (1933). Going Hollywoodis out now in a handsome DVD from the Warner Archive.
Through his Cosmopolitan Production company, Hearst optioned “Paid to Laugh” by Frances Marion, who had provided many stories for other Davies films in the recent silent days. He handed the adaptation to Donald Ogden Stewart, a playwright and budding screenwriter who would go on to pen such knee-buckling classics as Holiday (1938) and The Philadelphia Story (1940). In his magisterial Bing Crosby biography, Gary Giddins relates that it was MGM lyricist Arthur Freed who requested that Bing Crosby be hired as the lead. Crosby was the only singer, Freed felt, who could “put over” his doomed lust song “Temptation”, written with his partner Nacio Herb Brown. Before he became ingrained in American consciousness as the singing priest from Going My Way (1944), Crosby had a reputation as a hard partier. Hearst was wary of casting him because of his womanizing, but relented when Davies also pushed to hire the crooner.
It was only after the film was ready to shoot that Walsh was hired. Walsh recalled how the Cosmopolitan rep made the offer: “The Chief wants you to direct a picture”, spoken like a royal decree. He had seen Crosby perform at the Coconut Grove, and was pleased to work with him. He also didn’t buy the prevailing narrative regarding Marion Davies, saying, “The catty whispers that Hearst alone was responsible for keeping her in the public eye were forgotten as soon as one watched her in action.” He had clearly seen Davies in King Vidor’s Show People, which is the superior model for their scattershot production.
Hearst gathered the whole cast and crew at his San Simeon estate for a week, where they rehearsed and rubbed shoulders, reportedly with a nonplussed Winston Churchill. During this period Marion Davies asked Walsh if he had ever been to Rockaway Beach as a child, and when he said yes, she dubbed him “Rockaway Raoul”, a nickname which stuck for the duration of the production. Bing Crosby even wrote a song called “Rollicking Rockaway Raoul”, a biting little ditty about the Going Hollywood production. The last lines: “And now that we’re through/MGM can go screw/Says Rollicking Rockaway Raoul”, enraged MGM to the point where Walsh says he and Bing were banned from the studio lot. A party recording of the song was released on the bootleg “Both Sides of Bing Crosby” (if anyone knows where I can find a copy please let me know).
The movie itself seems tame in comparison, but it has its compensatory pleasures. Marion Davies plays Sylvia, a free-spirited boarding house French teacher who “seems to go about in a dream.” When she hears Bill Williams (Crosby) croon sweet nothings on the radio, she packs up and moves to Hollywood. She works her way up from extra to featured player, and even catches the eye of Bill, who is otherwise in the clutches of French bon-bon Lili (Fifi D’orsay). He has to choose between booze and Lili or clean living and Sylvia.
The Freed/Brown score is superb, and there is an inventive staging of “Beautiful Girl”, a tune which would later re-appear in Singin’ in the Rain. In this equally mocking version Crosby is cutting a single as he circles through his morning routine, putting on his pants and pouring his alka seltzer, the poor sound man struggling to keep up with his circlings. The slapstick on-screen is in direct inverse with the saccharine beauty pouring out of the speaker – though the two meet up when he sings the last lines, “I forgot the words…so that will have to do.” Crosby plays Bill as a consummate actor, this scene suggesting there might not be an authentic personality underneath his pipes.
Sylvia is desperate to find out, and follows him on his train ride west, impersonating a French maid along the way. Davies was famous for her impressions, and Walsh lets her loose with one of her friend Fifi D’orsay, an exuberant foot-stomping routine mocking D’orsay’s thick accent and narcissistic persona. Davies’ love of mimics may explain the presence of an inexplicably long sequence of the three “Radio Rogues” plying their wares on the air, with imitations of Kate Smith and Rudy Vallee among others. There is also a hair-raising scene of Davies masquerading in blackface, speaking in Hollywood’s made-up “mammy” dialect. These disconnected vignettes give the film a sketch comedy feel – although some of these never should have made it past dress rehearsal.
It is clear that Freed and Brown tailored their songs for Crosby, with “Temptation” the infernal highlight, bringing out a dissolute side to his perfect pitch. Set in a dingy night club, Crosby sits with a bright cocktail, his hair ever slightly mussed. Fifi D’orsay is seated to his left. Walsh frames him in profile from the knees up, staring at her. He sings, “You came/I was alone”. Then he cuts in closer, from his head to his cocktail. “I should have known/you were temptation.” Then there is a jarring cut, to D’orsay in an extreme close-up, staring straight into the camera, bringing a glass to her lips. The spatial relations are all off from the classical style. She should be gazing screen right, to match Crosby. But then Walsh inserts chiaroscuro shots of the dance floor, the revelers shuffling like zombies. With the camera too close for faces to be distinguishable, it’s clear the film has entered some kind of nightmare. Crosby begins gazing upwards, his eyes brimming with tears. He stops acknowledging Fifi’s presence, as she’s as much inside his head and his body as she is sitting on the seat next to him. The sequence ends with him finally taking a sip of his drink, furthering his intoxication, and cementing his status as a star.