Turner Classic Movies just aired It Happened in Hollywood a day or two before I wrote this so it may be awhile before it airs again. Much to my surprise you can purchase this old Columbia title on DVD, though it's a pricey one to grab just for itself as it's part of a larger collection.
It Happened in Hollywood is found in The Samuel Fuller Film Collection, along with 6 mostly better remembered classics. It very nearly slipped by me, but Sam Fuller was one of three credited screenwriters on It Happened in Hollywood, his first screen credit.
It Happened in Hollywood begins feeling like a B oater version of A Star Is Born (1937), released just five months earlier, but then takes a couple of interesting turns which wind up allowing the title to leave its own unique, if forgotten, mark.
Frank S. Nugent summarizes my feelings about It Happened in Hollywood perfectly when he closes his October 2, 1937 review in The New York Times by writing, "The picture as a whole is 'different' in its plot, well-knit, smoothly paced and fairly good entertainment of a modest sort."
When first settling into It Happened in Hollywood you're going to feel like you're watching a Western. In fact, you are, as you'll be enjoying a few of the climactic moments of "Heroes of the West" starring Tim Bart (Richard Dix) and Gloria Gay (Fay Wray) along with a hospital ward filled with ill but enthusiastic children. The main character, Dix as Tim Bart, is a silent Western hero in the Tom Mix mold, whose career is about to hit a stumbling block as talkies revolutionize the film industry.
Our lead wears a cowboy hat and speaks with a drawl (mostly) throughout, but It Happened in Hollywood itself is no Western.
It's 1928 at the open and Tim Bart (Richard Dix) is the most celebrated cowboy star of the silent screen. The kids love him and what's more, Tim Bart loves the kids. Our cowboy star hands out souvenir badges to the hospital children and makes them promises that he has every intention of keeping. He makes his biggest promises to a little fellow calling himself Billy the Kid (Billy Burrud) who is rewarded with Tim's top Sheriff badge just before he's wheeled into surgery. Billy vows to get well if only to come and visit Tim in Hollywood.
Tim's tour continues after the hospital but while on the train bound for the next group of adoring children a telegram arrives demanding Tim's immediate return to Hollywood. Talkies have arrived and Westerns are out! Our hero has to leave his cowboy hat behind but despite his evening wear and the ambiance supplied by the prop department, Tim can't manage to make love on film to the girl he really loves, his old heroine, Gloria Gay (Fay Wray), looking absolutely lovely reclined in a seductive pose with cigarette holder angled just right.
It's the old story, only since It Happened in Hollywood released in 1937 it wasn't that old yet. Tim Bart is through and, I bet this won't surprise you, Gloria Gay is pegged to be a sensation!
"We all have our day," says studio head Sam Bennett (Granville Bates) to Gloria in a private meeting. "Tim had his. Now he's through." Bennett elaborates: "The day of Westerns is over. We have to make the pictures indoors from now on. And you know if you take the horse and cowboy outfit away from Tim, he couldn't get a job as an extra."
Luckily Tim really is as swell a guy as he appeared to be with those kids from the opening scene so he still has lots of buddies around Hollywood who are always glad to see him. Joe Stevens (Edgar Dearing) of the New West Realty Company isn't in with that crowd though and no sooner does the studio hand Tim his walking papers than Stevens has a foreclosure sign planted out front of Tim Bart's 19-room, 500 acre ranch property.
Packing up and heading out Tim stops by his old cronies to pick up his mail. The mail satchel is no longer full. Just a few letters, one of them from little Billy the Kid who's getting better and counting the time until he can come visit Tim.
An interesting development comes of a bar room brawl Tim finds himself pushed into with the loudmouthed realtor, Stevens. The little Hollywood Rendezvous bar is right across from the studio and the fight broke out just after a scene completed across the way so Tim's old director, Al Howard (William B. Davidson), witnesses the spectacle and has an idea he figures will not only help Tim, but boost Gloria's flailing performance on their current picture as well. Westerns might be out but gangster pictures are in, so every boy's hero, Tim Bart, is set to rob a bank as the heel in the studio's new modern day shoot 'em up.
But Tim balks at a rewrite that makes him a cop killer and walks off the set. He's through in Hollywood, ready to ride back off into the west when one rainy night there's a knock on his door. Tim doesn't recognize the rain drenched little fellow at first but once he sees his own Sheriff's badge pinned to his chest he realizes it's his last fan, Billy the Kid.
Billy has been sick for so long that he apparently never heard the news that Tim Bart was old hat. He risked life and limb running away from the hospital to reach Tim. After Billy collapses and wakes up to tug at his heartstrings Tim's conscience won't let him send the boy back without first treating him to all of the Hollywood wonders the boy expected to see.
Far from his sprawling mansion Tim now lives amongst the extras and stand-ins in a modest bungalow. It's while having tea with his new neighbor Miss Gordon (Zeffie Tilbury), who makes her living as a ringer for May Robson, Tim has a spark of genius which leads to a very interesting scene: He'll throw Billy a party with Hollywood doubles standing in for their famous lookalikes.
Victor McLaglen mugs it up with Tim on his way into the party; W.C. Fields shows up in his David Copperfield costume twirling his cane; Mae West saunters in making a comment suggesting Billy is Tim Bart's illegitimate son; John Barrymore performs an eccentric soliloquy with Chaplin and Harold Lloyd among his small audience. Edward Arnold rings a dinner bell and yells "Come and Get It!" followed by a little laugh. At the dinner table Greta Garbo excuses herself after a brief appearance because she vants to be alone while Dietrich and Clark Gable flirt and Joe E. Brown stuffs food into his famous mouth. Soon enough Bing Crosby captivates the crowd when he sings a tune.
Except, of course, these are all actors impersonating these famous personalities. Some better than others. But it's all for Billy's entertainment and it works. It works for us too, it's a pretty wild scene!
Soon enough our angry friend with the mortgage company shows up to cause trouble.
The real Gloria Gay also makes an appearance at the party much to the delight of both Tim and Billy.
From there we have a love story to be sorted out along with Tim's career. Out of desperation Tim Bart is ready to do in real life what he couldn't bring himself to do on screen but happy coincidences right the moment and ultimately lead to the expected ending.
It Happened in Hollywood is hokey but interesting nonetheless. The story seems ambitious for such a quickie B movie and the only real stars in it, Richard Dix and Fay Wray, give it their best efforts. Dix in particular is wonderful here recalling his own old cowboy characters and doing a masterful job of poor acting when called upon to do so. When his Tim Bart comes back as a gangster Dix puts over the part well enough to have made me wish he saw the job through so I could have seen how cold blooded he could become!
Tim Bart's virtue is a bit much, but by the same token steel jawed Dix can always manage to put that type personality across. The love story with Wray works well from her begging eyes to Dix's self-sacrifice in refusing to saddle her rising career to his sinking ship. For a movie I wasn't expecting to get any emotional rise out of I found myself rooting for Tim to stop playing the hero and tell Gloria how he felt! This unexpected chemistry had me wishing that they did more together.
If you're a Richard Dix fan you're bound to get a kick out of It Happened in Hollywood. Fay Wray fans can awe at her beauty. The kid grated on me a bit, but there was enough going on that I was willing to overlook him. I'm not sure how you'll feel about this one if Westerns are your genre, but Dix definitely calls Tom Mix to mind so this might be up your alley too. It's also going to recall stories of talkie transition from A Star Is Born right down to The Artist (2011), so if you've seen those movies you've also got something to latch onto here.
Toss in a party with a dozen or so doubles for famous Hollywood stars, some that I'm still trying to identify, and you've got an all around fun movie!