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October 13, 2008

Hollywood Cavalcade

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Irving Cummings - 1939
20th Century Fox Region 1 DVD

The best part of Hollywood Cavalcade isn't in the movie, but in the out takes. One minute and twenty-five seconds of black and white silent footage shows Buster Keaton tossing pies at Alice Faye. It's amusing enough as it is, but for a few seconds there is a moment totally unanticipated: Buster Keaton laughs. Not just a smile, but a genuine open mouth laugh. This is one of those times when I was glad I bothered with the DVD extras.

Had Alice Faye's deleted song, "Whispering" been included, this would have made the DVD version of Hollywood Cavalcade perfect.

The movie itself is fairly entertaining, more so in the first half. A fictionalized version of Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand becomes less fun when the director morphs into D.W. Griffith attempting to make the biggest spectacle possible, eventually becoming an unemployable drunk. Unlike Griffith, Don Ameche's Michael Connors (not to be confused with Mike Connors) gets to make a successful comeback with a talkie. Even though Hollywood Cavalcade makes use of several people who actually were making films in the silent era, it is no place to look for accuracy, even twelve years after the premiere of The Jazz Singer.

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Don Ameche bluffs his way into the director's chair, first by sweet talking Broadway understudy Alice Faye into a contract with with a Hollywood studio, and then convincing studio boss Donald Meek that he and Faye are part of a package deal. The years covered are from 1913 through 1928, with Ameche accidentally inventing the pie fight, while Stu Erwin plays the Billy Bitzer surrogate who discovers lighting techniques as Ameche's cameraman. Alice Faye is the young actress in love with the filmmaker who is obsessed with filmmaking to the point of being oblivious of Faye's feelings. The technicolor restoration is a gaudy visual treat but the fun is in the black and white footage.

The directorial credits tell part of the story, although further scholarship may be required. Irving Cummings is officially the director of Hollywood Cavalcade. The silent scenes are credited to Malcolm St. Clair under the supervision of Mack Sennett. St. Clair got his start in film as a Keystone Kop before making a reputation for himself as one of the top comedy directors in the silent era, tapering into the sound era as a frequent writer-director for Laurel and Hardy. Along the way, St. Clair cowrote and codirected The Goat with Buster Keaton. Cummings also started in the silent era, first as an actor before settling as director, ending as one of the house directors at Fox during the sound era. One of Cummings last acting jobs was in The Saphead with Buster Keaton. For those interested in seeing a complete St. Clair silent film, YouTube has The Show Off featuring Louise Brooks. A degree of authorship should be ascribed to producer Darryl Zanuck who began his career writing for Mack Sennett before creating stories for the dog who saved Warner Brothers, Rin-Tin-Tin. Others having a hand in the silent series starring the famed German shepherd were Malcolm St. Clair and Irving Cummings.

In this bit of revisionist recreation, Buster Keaton acts as a Sennett player among the several genuine Keystone Kops, with Chester Conklin and Ben Turpin making cameo appearances. In retrospect, movies haven't changed that much since Mack Sennett's time. While slapstick comedy may be less visible, Sennett's bathing beauties have been replaced by women with even less clothing, while the cars are driven at faster speeds, and the stunts reach new levels of danger and amazement. When the sound era does arrive in Hollywood Cavalcade, Don Ameche takes a gander at The Jazz Singer. An older, heavier, Al Jolson recreates part of his appearance in the original - but not from any of the expected scenes. At least Ameche gets it right when he mentions that The Jazz Singer is ninety percent silent, before completing his comeback film with sound sequences.

As for the rest of Hollywood Cavalcade, Ameche and Faye seem to attempt creating the kind of sparks of John Barrymore and Carole Lombard in Twentieth Century. Of course it's not as good, but it's better than the more serious tone taken in the second half of the film. Whatever it's merits as a film, much less film history, Hollywood Cavalcade provides a view of Hollywood looking back at the not-so distant past during the same year audiences first saw Stagecoach, Wuthering Heights and Gone with the Wind.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at October 13, 2008 12:19 AM