Sunday, June 2, 2013

Crashing Hollywood (RKO, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched Crashing Hollywood, one of the films I’d recorded off Turner Classic Movies last January when they did a tribute to perhaps the ultimate “B” director, Lew Landers. He was born Louis Friedlander and worked at least briefly under that name — most famously on the 1935 version of The Raven at Universal (the one in which Bela Lugosi played a mad scientist who’s so obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe he’s built fully functional replicas of Poe’s most famous torture devices in his basement, and Boris Karloff is a street criminal with a badly scarred face whom Lugosi manipulates into killing for him) — before “Anglicizing” it and working at RKO, Columbia and PRC off-and-on through the late 1930’s, 1940’s and early 1950’s before settling in where it seems old “B” directors went to die, television. (Landers himself died in 1962 at age 61; he hadn’t made a feature film in a decade — though his last credit on was a feature called Terrified, released posthumously in 1963.) Landers was the sort of amiable hack who turned out watchable if unimpressive movies, though there are a few films in his oeuvreCondemned Women, Night Waitress (despite its blah title), Twelve Crowded Hours — that show signs of a real flair.

 Crashing Hollywood isn’t one of Landers’ especially good films but it is quite reliable entertainment; based on a 1922 play called Lights Out by Paul Dickey and Mann Page (it made it to Broadway but only lasted 12 performances) that had already been filmed as a silent in 1923, it tells the story of wisecracking screenwriter Michael Winslow (Lee Tracy). He’s leaving for Hollywood on a train and carrying a small briefcase whose contents he tries to insure for $50,000. On the same train is Barbara Lang (the marvelous Joan Woodbury, who was probably kept from the stardom she richly deserved by the odd bone structure of her face), an aspiring actress who’s being sent off on her way to Hollywood; and a couple of crooks, Herman Tibbets (Paul Guilfoyle) and his wife Goldie (Lee Patrick, who in some ways is more crooked than he is but who’s also playing the same sort of island-of-sanity role she did in her best-known film, as Sam Spade’s secretary in the classic 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon). Herman has just been released from a five-year prison stretch for his involvement in the Austin, Oklahoma bank robbery masterminded by a famous and never-caught criminal called “The Hawk” (Bradley Page). He learns that Goldie picked him up in a stolen car and says, “Then turn around. You might as well take me right back there,” in one of the most genuinely witty lines in the script Paul Yawitz and Gladys Atwater fashioned from the Dickey-Page play. When they overhear Winslow try (unsuccessfully) to get the clerk at the train station to insure his briefcase’s contents for $50,000, the Tibbetses immediately decide he must be a man who embezzled $50,000 worth of bonds from his employer and is on the run. So they hatch a plot to steal the briefcase from Winslow, then turn the bonds back to their rightful owner and collect the reward legally. Barbara overhears the crooks attack Winslow, only to find that Winslow and the Tibbetses have settled their differences; the briefcase contained, not stolen bonds, but Winslow’s scripts. Indeed, the Tibbetses start picking apart Winslow’s crime stories, pointing out all the details that he got wrong, and ultimately he hires them as collaborators.

They reach Hollywood and try to crash Wonder Studios (I couldn’t help but appropriate the joke from Olsen and Johnson’s Crazy House five years later and say their slogan should be, “If it’s a good picture … it’s a Wonder!”), run by 15 different relatives all named Wells. Through sheer gall, the unlikely writing trio manage to crash the office of studio head Hugo Wells (Richard Lane) and get him to green-light a project based on the real-life criminal “The Hawk” and his most famous exploit, the Austin bank robbery, in which The Hawk posed as a burglar-alarm salesman and got the bank to install an alarm of his own design — which could be turned off from a switch outside the building, allowing the Hawk and his gang to get in. In a nice metafictional touch, the man playing the actor they get to play The Hawk, Tom Darcy, is the same one playing the real Hawk: Bradley Page. The only difference is that the real Hawk has a scar on one of his cheeks, while Darcy’s scar is a fake created by the makeup department. The first half of Crashing Hollywood comes off as a knockoff of Once in a Lifetime — at least it does until you realize that its source play was written considerably before Once in a Lifetime’s, though not having read the play I can’t tell for certain who “borrowed” from whom — and it eventually turns into a quite charming farce as the movie The Trail of “The Hawk” becomes a smash hit and attracts the attention of both the cops back in Austin and the real crooks because the film contains so many details only someone intimately involved in the real crime could know. The head of the bank that was robbed brings out the police detective and they jump to the (wrong) conclusion that Michael Winslow was The Hawk because his name is the sole writing credit on the film. The real Hawk shows up on the lot and is mistaken for Darcy — and the other way around — and the film ends with an exciting shoot-out between Winslow and the Hawk before the Hawk is finally captured in a Phantom of the Opera-like sequence in the catwalks above one of the Wonder soundstages.

There are subplots, including the back-and-forth relationship between Winslow and Barbara and the desire of the Tibbetses to start their own duck farm — they attempt to raise ducks on the grounds of the Beverly Hills estate Wells has let them use, and in the final scene they offer Winslow a special treat: “duck soup” (an uncomfortable reminder of a far, far funnier movie than this one!). Crashing Hollywood is a fun movie, though far from a classic; there’s one sequence showing any kind of visual flair (in which Winslow and The Hawk confront each other on a vertiginously steep staircase on the Wonder lot — and for a moment this looks like a film directed by Alfred Hitchcock instead of Lew Landers!) but for the most part it’s pretty straightforwardly shot and really doesn’t need to be anything more than that. It’s also charmingly acted, though Woodbury is wasted as usual — she’s billed second but Lee Patrick and Paul Guilfoyle both get considerably more screen time — and perhaps because of the humiliation of having literally pissed away a major career (Tracy was on location in Mexico making ¡Viva Villa! for MGM in 1934 when he stood on the balcony of his hotel room and urinated on a passing company of Mexican soldiers — thereby getting the entire company kicked out of Mexico and himself and the film’s director, Howard Hawks, fired) Tracy’s wise-guy act is a lot more restrained than it was earlier in the 1930’s, when even in otherwise great films like Doctor “X” he came on so strong you wanted to strangle him rather than root for him!