MGM golden girl Joan Crawford is to thank for a number of uncommon treats airing on TCM this month, including, happily, a rare film featured in That’s Entertainment:The Hollywood Revue of 1929. This film is most notable for being the first onscreen depiction of the now-classic “Singing in the Rain,” but there’s a LOT of other things going on in here as well… and the lack of focus, in turn, is probably why it’s not been seen more widely.
As one might expect given the title, Hollywood Revue is essentially a theatrical, multi-part stage show, to the point where I even hesitate calling it a “movie.” It’s presented in a purely vaudevillian fashion: the actors address the camera directly, there’s no plot, and the stars are introduced by their real names. This is not so much a movie perhaps, as it is a staged, promotional variety show put onto film. But that’s fine! Although silent films had achieved incredible cinematic artistry and expression in the years leading up to sound, as we see here, the new technology temporarily set the studios back on their heels a bit, as they had to completely reinvent their process as well as reintroduce the audience to their brands.
It can feel a bit messy and unpolished at times, which ultimately becomes part of the film’s charm; some parts almost feel like you’re watching a dress rehearsal, and all of your favorite stars are still in street clothes and curlers. Crawford has a kind of frenetic song-and-dance number at a piano, but somehow it feels off, in part because it stands in such evident contrast with her later, more polished work. I’m not sure whether it was the actual camera work, or that the specific choreography just didn’t look great on film, but something is not right. In any case, most people at the time probably weren’t focused on the choreography, but instead on a chance to hear–actually hear!–their idol for the first time.
Laurel and Hardy’s bit as magicians is great, and the skit is a fantastic example of their willingness to adapt their act to sound; they’re able to effectively harness the new sound technology specifically for comedy. In particular, there’s one moment where Hardy throws something offscreen and we hear an exaggerated crashing noise, but we never see the actual impact. The “offscreen crash” gag has been used again and again in later films to the point of becoming a bit of a clichéd trope, but what we see here is surely one of the (if not THE) first instances of the bit on film.
Buster Keaton is dependably hilarious, playing a bumbling, pseudo-Egyptian undersea princess who is trying (and failing) to maintain a modicum of grace in front of her regal father. This piece is largely silent, but it does differentiate itself from a typical stage show by utilizing an interesting camera trick that gives the effect of rippling water over the frame. And, of course, Keaton proves his pedigree by showing off his incredible athleticism with a great series of aerial cartwheels that end in a dramatic pratfall. Scenes like this really demonstrate what huge control one has to have over their body in order to look that clumsy, and Keaton was one of the best.
The filmmakers make good use of “Singing in the Rain” for its cinematic debut here–it’s played twice in the film. First, there’s a more traditional number featuring Ukelele Ike, the Brox Sisters, Rounders, and the MGM chorus girls. Rain splatters against the stage as dancers are filmed in silhouette, and each of the singers gets a close up during their turn of verse. Later, there’s a reprise where all the stars we’d previously seen–Crawford, Keaton, and so on–are draped in rain coats and hats, cheerfully belting out the tune (or in Keaton’s case, maintaining his straight face). This whole finale is also, hilariously, staged in front of what looks to be a matte painting of Noah’s Ark in the background, which adds a bit of a darker twist on the song, as all of MGM’s stars are presumably about to be swept away in a deluge.
All in all, it’s an interesting historical look at MGM’s stars at the time, but there’s not a lot going on otherwise, in a film sense. The disjointed, stage-style format means that each scene is totally independent in its quality; some of the stars are better suited to the new format than others, so it’s not terribly consistent in that regard. Fans of any of the featured stars though will surely enjoy seeing them in this rough, semi-unfinished form, and it’s certainly an interesting look at this unique moment of intersection between theater, silent film, and sound.