Appellate Judge James A. Stewart wants to become a radio ventriloquist.
"Oliver, darling, they're laughing!"
You do remember that "Hooray for Hollywood" was sarcastic, don't you? Making fun of Hollywood probably has been a national pastime as long as there has been a Hollywood. By 1938, there were enough jokes about actors, movies, and Hollywood phoniness to fill a movie—say a movie like The Goldwyn Follies, with a script by Ben Hecht. Hecht did, of course, have help from four other credited people, and heaven only knows how many anonymous buttinskis. Naturally, the rewrite is one of the movie customs that gets mocked in Follies.
That's not all there is to Follies. There's song, dance, and comedy. Songs by George and Ira Gershwin include "Love Walked In" and "Love is Here to Stay." Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy and the Ritz Brothers are on hand to crack jokes. There's even a plot in there somewhere—and it's in Technicolor.
Facts of the Case
After his drama drew laughter in all the wrong places—movie theaters, specifically—Oliver Merlin (Adolphe Menjou, The Front Page) hires Hazel (Andrea Leeds, Swanee River), the woman who was heckling his location shoot from the bushes, to serve as "Miss Humanity," essentially a one-woman focus group. Oliver hopes she'll help him make his movies "simple and human." Can Oliver count on her advice to stay reliable once she meets Danny (Kenny Baker, The Harvey Girls), "the last of the lunch wagon tenors," and decides that he's the star she wants to see on screen—and in her life?
There's a little bit of everything in The Goldwyn Follies, which uses its slender inside-the-movies plot as a framework for a variety show. If you aren't interested in the comedy of the Ritz Brothers or Charlie McCarthy, you might like the Gershwin songs or the big, bold dance numbers. There's even an excerpt from La Traviata. You're sure to see something you like and most of it works, but you're sure to want more of whatever you do like.
One thing that seemed odd to me, watching today, was the highbrow feel of the musical numbers juxtaposed with the insult comedy of Bergen and McCarthy and the slapstick of the Ritz Brothers. Part of that is the difference time makes. The Metropolitan Opera was originally on commercial radio, rather than being confined to the local classical music station, and Gershwin's songs are classics today, not the toe-tapping current hits they were in 1938. The other part seems to have been intentional. Having just seen the pre-code Cleopatra and heard a lot about the quirks of censors, it's easy to suspect that the Shakespearean themes and ballet were just a ploy to sneak some glimpses of bare legs and backs past the Hays Office. Unlike Cleopatra, though, there's nothing that's actually risqué.
The only familiar faces to me in The Goldwyn Follies were Adolphe Menjou and Charlie McCarthy (I remember Edgar Bergen mainly from old-time radio; I've seen the ventriloquist performing on TV, but later in his career). Most of the performances are good, if broad. The funniest performance was a turn by Vera Zorina (On Your Toes) as Olga Samara, whom many of you will recognize as a parody of Greta Garbo, who was already difficult but hadn't yet become elusive. Adolphe Menjou makes the most out of limited screen time as the controlling producer. The Ritz Brothers, who seem a little like The Three Stooges, didn't hit home runs every time they popped up, but they have a hilarious bit as they try, in turn, to charm Olga and find the task overwhelming.
The sets show off Technicolor, but it made it even more obvious that just about everything's on a set. They're nice bright sets, but they're sets nonetheless. Perhaps it's appropriate that a showbiz story looks fake, but some brief beach shots show how much better real location footage can look in color. The sound isn't fancy, but it gets the job done.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One of the movie's best moments actually skewers its flimsy premise, poking fun at moviemakers who rely too much on public feedback. While watching a contemporary musical version of Romeo and Juliet, Hazel wants a happy ending. Oliver's glad to comply. "If two hundred million people want Romeo and Juliet to live, I won't be stubborn," he says. While The Goldwyn Follies may seem out of date, this jab is even more true today, since moviemakers and studios get nervous about tentpole pictures with budgets topping a hundred million. Wouldn't it have been nice if George Lucas had seen this bit and resolved not to try to please people when making his second Star Wars trilogy? He might have pleased more people if he had.
This is a barebones release. You won't hear about the careers of the various headliners or about the impact of the movie, if it had any.
The Goldwyn Follies does what it sets out to do—present a colorful variety of music, dance, and comedy performances—and it was mostly entertaining for two hours. It also does something its makers couldn't have envisioned: preserve a colorful variety of 1938 music, dance, and comedy performances. It's not bad, but it's most interesting as a celluloid time capsule.
Not guilty, although there should be a lengthy sentence for proposing a happy
ending to Romeo and Juliet.
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