Saturday, May 2, 2015

Stubs – Stand-In

Stand-In (1937) Starring: Leslie Howard, Joan Blondell, Humphrey Bogart, Alan Mowbray, Maria Shelton, C. Henry Gordon and Jack Carson. Directed by Tay Garnett. Screenplay by Gene Towne and Graham Baker. Produced by Walter Wanger. Run Time: 91 minutes. U.S. Black and White. Comedy

While it might seem that movie stars are born full cloth, they take time to develop. Such is the case with one of my favorite film actors, Humphrey Bogart. While he appeared in over 75 films in a career that spanned 30 years, he was not always a star.

Bogart made his stage debut in 1921 in the play Drifting, with one line of dialogue, in the part of a Japanese butler. Between 1922 and 1935, he would appear in 17 Broadway plays, usually cast as a juvenile or a romantic second lead in what have been described as drawing room comedies. Reports are that he was the first actor to say the line “Tennis, anyone?” on stage. Critic Alexander Woollcott (the basis for the character of Sheridan Whiteside in the play and movie The Man Who Came to Dinner) once described Bogart’s acting as “inadequate.” Personally, Bogart disliked these types of roles, referring to them as “White Pants Willie” roles.

The stock market crash of 1929, led to a curtailment of stage productions and many actors, including Bogart, started to make films, though he had made one film in 1928, a Helen Hayes two-reeler, The Dancing Town, now one of the many lost films from this era. He would also appear with Joan Blondell in the Vitaphone short, Broadway’s Like That (1930).

That same year, Bogart signed a contract with Fox Film Corporation, starring with Spence Tracy, another Broadway actor, in Tracy’s film debut, Up the River (1930) directed by John Ford. The next year, he had a minor role in the Bette Davis film, The Bad Sister (1931).

Between 1930 and 1935, Bogart travelled between the Hollywood movie set and the Broadway stage, but often times not working. Things began to change in 1934, when he starred in the play Invitation to Murder (1934). This led to him being cast in the play, the Petrified Forest, opposite Leslie Howard. When Warner Bros., bought the film rights, they cast Leslie Howard, Bette Davis and Edward G. Robinson, the latter playing Duke Mantee. But Howard was adamant about them casting Bogart in the role and Warner Bros. relented.

While The Petrified Forest was what they used to call an “A” picture and Bogart received great reviews, he was signed to Warner Bros. and began a long career playing in “B” picture crime dramas.

Stand-In (1937) was a bit of a departure from his screen persona. Loaned out to producer Walter Wagner in exchange for Henry Fonda, The Stand-In reunites Bogart with Howard and Blondell. The film was an independent production and released through United Artists.

Wagner had been in motion pictures, having started at Famous Players – Lasky (later  Paramount) with the film The Sheik (1921) which starred Rudolph Valentino. He also produced the Marx Bros.’ first film for Paramount, The Cocoanuts (1929). Other films to his credit include: The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933); John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939); Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940); Scarlet Street (1945); Joan of Arc (1948); the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956); I Want to Live! (1958) and Cleopatra (1963) with Elizabeth Taylor.

A take-off on Hollywood, Stand-In opens with cranky old Fowler Pettypacker (Tully Marshall), head of the banking firm of Pettypacker & Sons, deciding to disregard the recommendation made by his vice-president, Atterbury Dodds (Leslie Howard), not to sell Colossal Film Company, which has been losing money, to the Hollywood Cinema Finance company, headed by well-known shyster Ivor Nassau (C. Henry Gordon), for half its $10 million value to get rid of it.

Atterbury, considered to be the most brilliant brain developed by Wall Street in the past ten years, this per Nassau, wants to protect the investment of the firm's 30,202 stockholders and he offers to go to Hollywood to investigate and correct the problems at Colossal.

Pettypacker agrees, but warns Atterbury that they are dealing with people, not just a business, but Atterbury insists that business is business. His confidence comes from mathematics. Pettypacker puts Atterbury in charge, but tells him if he fails to save Colossal not to come back.

In Hollywood, Nassau, who is infamous for making money by closing and selling studios, plots with star Thelma Cheri (Maria Shelton), her fiancé, Russian-born director Koslofski (Alan Mawbray) and press agent Tom Potts (Jack Carson) to drive the studio under through expensive retakes on their current picture. The four plot to pull a fast deal over on Atterbury.

Enter Douglas Quintain (Humphrey Bogart) who is less interested in their plotting than getting Cheri and Koslofski to finish the picture they’re currently making. When Cheri reminds him that she has final cut, Quintain recalls that he’s the one who gave her such approval. He blames the fact he was in love with her and admits, even though she’s engaged to Koslofski, he still is.

Douglas Quintain (Humphrey Bogart) tries to motivate Thelma Cheri (Maria Shelton) to finish the movie she's making.

Arriving wide-eyed at the sights of the film capital, many of which are no longer there, like the Brown Derby, Atterbury fortunately meets Cheri's stand-in, Lester Plum (Joan Blondell), when she jumps into his limousine, the Colossal Picture’s limo, at the corner of Hollywood and Highland. She’s tired and asks the driver to take her home. Making herself more comfortable, she takes off her shoes.

Stand-in Lester Plum (Joan Blondell) invites herself into new studio head Atterbury Dodd's (Leslie Howard) limo.
She tells Atterbury that she’s a stand-in for Cheri, but he doesn’t know who Cheri is and what a stand-in does. She jokes that since he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the motion picture business he should do fine. When she gets out of the limo at Mrs. Mack’s Boarding House, she accidentally leaves one of her shoes inside the car.

When Atterbury checks into the hotel, is he shocked at how much the room is, $100 a day, and that it is being charged to Colossal Pictures. Everyone, including Potts, is very carefree with Colossal’s money and Atterbury starts taking notes about expenses. Potts is sent to distract Atterbury, but he is not interested in the date Potts has arranged for him.

Barely in town for an hour, he is confronted by a stage mother, who drags her Shirley Temple wannabe into his suite for an audition. Welcome to the picture business, Atterbury Dodd. However, Atterbury is unimpressed and castigates the mother for how she’s raising her daughter.

Later, Atterbury goes to Mrs. Mack’s to return the shoe Lester left behind in the limo and is immersed in the hams, wannabes and has-beens who live there. He asks Lester where there’s some place he could live without being tricked and lied to and Lester tells him there is a room in her building. Lester knows the business intimately, having once been a child star, and having graduated from secretarial school, offers herself to be the naïve and shy Atterbury’s secretary, but Atterbury is non-commital, saying he’s always had a male secretary.

The next day, Atterbury arrives at Colossal Pictures by bus to see Quintain and is at first refused entrance by the security guard. But Atterbury does get in and tells Quintain, he wants to immerse himself in the business so the books will make more sense. Quintain warns him about Nassau’s plans for Colossal while showing Atterbury around the studio.

Quintain shows Adderly around around Colossal Pictures.
Atterbury seems to be overwhelmed by the activity and the jargon of the film productions he watches. He also sees Lester in action, standing in while lights and cameras are set up for Cheri. Quintain takes Atterbury to meet Cheri and Koslofski in the actress’ dressing room. Cheri invites Atterbury to a party in his honor and when he tells her he doesn’t like parties, she agrees with him, but still tries to flirt with him, which only chases him away.

Lester though doesn’t give up on the idea of working for Atterbury and bugs him until he hires her as his secretary. The first order of business is to send a telegram back to the home office. Atterbury wants to delay selling the studio until the success or failure of Sex and Satan, Cheri’s newest film can be determined.

Lester becomes Adderly's secretary through persistence.
Oblivious to Lester's flirtations and charms, Atterbury takes her advice to get out of the office to have fun and asks Lester to teach him to dance, which she does. Atterbury meticulously draws out every step on the floor of his office and uses math, of course, to remember each move. Lester calls the boarding home to tell them not to wait dinner for her or Atterbury, but then finds Atterbury isn’t going out with her, but rather to a dance thrown by Cheri. This provokes Lester's jealousy and ire.

At the party, Atterbury dances by the numbers while Cheri continues her flirtation, but she leaves him to take a call from Quintain, who wants to see her. When Atterbury finds that plates belonging to Colossal are being used by Koslofski, the director gives his boss a black eye. No sooner does Atterbury make his exit than Potts makes fun of his dancing, only for Atterbury to return to retrieve something he’s forgotten.

Back that boarding house, Atterbury hears Lester crying in the next room. When he checks on her, she is concerned about his black eye. She shows him some jujitsu he could have used to protect himself. Atterbury gets carried away with the lessons and throws Lester across the room before he realizes what’s he done.

Lester tends to Adderly's black eye back at back at the boarding house.
After a preview screening of Sex and Satan, producer Quintain calls the film a "turkey" and urges Atterbury to "junk it, and forget it" rather than try to save it with retakes. Koslofski advises expensive retakes and blames the problems on Quintain's drunkenness on the set.

Even Quintain's editing wasn't enough to save Sex and Satan.
When Cheri tells Atterbury that Koslofski's accusations are true, Quintain quits, leaving Atterbury to run the stuido alone. Cheri tries to apologize, but Quintain is not in the mood to forget. He blames himself for making her an applause addict and leaves to go get drunk.

But an audience preview proves Quintain was right. Comments are negative about both the story and the lead actress. Atterbury fears the film leaves him no choice but to sell the studio to Nassau. At Lester’s insistence, he tries to find Quintain in a last ditch effort to save the studio and the livelihood of its 3000 employees.

When Adderly finds Quintain he's protesting being cut off by the Cafe Trocadero.

Attenbury finds Quintain at the Café Trocadero where he’s protesting them from keeping him out. Using the jujitsu he learned from Lester, Atterbury gets Quintain into a taxi. On the ride, Quintain drinks a case of beer and sobers up by the morning. The two men agree that the only way to save the studio is to recut the picture, eliminating some of Cheri’s performance, but Cheri's contract stipulates that she has final cut approval. Realizing that Cheri's contract will be considered breached if she is caught in a scandal, Atterbury takes her drinking. She willingly goes, but in the early morning hours, she slips under the table of a club, and when Atterbury joins her, their "romance" makes headlines.

Quintain uses beer to sober up.
Pettypacker reads the news and, fearing ruin, calls Nassau, who plays hard to get and has to be talked into buying Colossal Pictures. Atterbury, soon after sending Cheri a breach of contract notice for the scandal she caused, is then fired by Pettypacker. Lester berates Atterbury for being unconcerned about the studio employees who will lose their jobs. In a last ditch effort, and knowing Quintain needs 48 hours to finish the recuts, Atterbury, who is at first literally run over by leaving and disgruntled employees, manages, over Pott’s heckling, to convince them to work for no pay to remake the film as a comedy, rather than lose their jobs if the film is scrapped and the deal with Nassau is consummated.

Nassau is then unceremoniously thrown over the studio wall, and after Atterbury dictates to Lester a telegram informing Pettypacker of his plan to fight the sale, he consults his checklist of things to do and sees "Propose to Miss Plum," and asks her to marry him. She accepts and they hesitatingly kiss.

There is too much talent involved in this film for it not be better than it is with Leslie Howard, Joan Blondell and Humphrey Bogart in front of the camera and Tay Garnett and Walter Wagner behind it. But the obvious problem seems to be the story. For a film about Hollywood made in Hollywood, the story seems to have been written by people with no idea how things really work from the business-side of the equation. The big issue set up in the movie is whether or not Colossal Pictures can be saved, but that never really gets resolved.

And while it seemed all along that Atterbury was immune to the many and abundant charms of Lester Plum, some of which she enumerated for him, including her eyes and her legs (this was the 30’s, after all), his proposal seems to be a little out of left field. And that’s supposed to be our happy ending, because the film needed one. To be fair, romances in movies of the 30’s and 40’s seemed to develop rapidly or come to sudden happy conclusions, especially between people who seem to have a great dislike for each other. In Stand-In, Atterbury and Lester are not at each other’s throats, but for most of the film he only seems interested in her mind if he’s interested in her at all.

A studio the purported size of Colossal would be most likely cranking out a movie a week rather than putting all their eggs into one film. Now a single film can sink a studio, see United Artists and Heaven’s Gate, but back then a studio the size of Colossal would have many stars, many producers, directors and executives, not one of each. It just doesn’t ring true.

But I know this is not a documentary on Hollywood in the 1930’s, but I guess I expect more out of the film than explaining everything away with the tag “that’s the movie business”. Also, it’s hard to think of any star under contract who had as much control over her films as Cheri does in Stand-In. Usually, you hear about complaints about the studio abusing their stars, not the other way around.

There is character growth in that Atterbury comes to see the studio employees as people rather than units or line items on an account ledger. And while the premise of an accountant running a studio might have seem farfetched at the time, it is more the reality now.

The film’s humor is mostly verbal, but speed of speech more often than not supplants wit. There are the occasional physical comedy bits, such as Atterbury being run over and Nassau being thrown over a wall, but they seem to be a little out of place with the rest of the film.

The script overall seems to be very haphazard. Characters seem to act against their own best interest, such as Quintain’s love for Cheri, a woman who is ruthlessly only looking out for herself. Their relationship, while unresolved in the film, seems destined for failure.

There are several problems with the story. Who sobers up drinking beer the way Quintain does in the movie? Wouldn’t he wake up with a wicked hangover after adding beer on top of the drunk he already had going on? I’m pretty sure that they knew in the 30’s that a bender was not a cure for a bender. This isn’t the hair of the dog, it’s more like a pack of them.

While the character of Quintain has problems, Potts is downright annoying, with his hyena laughter. I have usually liked Jack Carson in other films I’ve seen him in (ex. Mildred Pierce), but whenever I see him on screen in Stand-In, I can’t wait for him to get off. And I honestly think he would be amongst the workers leaving Colossal when it’s sold, since he was working with Nassau throughout, is that the writer needed him to be there to heckle Atterbury. It’s the only reason that makes sense and still it doesn’t.

I had high hopes in watching Stand-In, but I came away very dissatisfied. Humphrey Bogart and Joan Blondell were not enough to save this film. While I know I’m coming at this film from a modern perspective, I don’t think my opinion is too far off the general reception the film received when it was first released. The film, budgeted at over $523,000 only made a profit of $9,274.

If you want to watch a good movie about Hollywood, I would recommend that you keep looking; Stand-In isn’t it.

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