This year marks the 90th anniversary of the release of “The Jazz Singer,” which forever changed the way audiences see and hear films. Today, it is difficult to imagine the chaos that sound recording brought to the film industry, but back in the day the introduction of the microphone and the sound engineer resulted in the destruction of some prominent careers.
The 1929 independent feature “The Talk of Hollywood” was the first film to detail the impact that the “talkies” had on the motion picture capital. The production also takes advantage of the lenient Pre-Code era by incorporating racy and politically incorrect humor into its often-savage satire of the business side of the movie world.
The center of “The Talk of Hollywood” is the producer J. Pierpont Ginsburg, played by comic Nat Carr. With his thick Yiddish accent, his endless slaughtering of English (“Talking pictures are in their infantry!”) and his constant cheapness in keeping the budget down, Ginsburg is a ferocious parody of the Jewish executives that ran the major Hollywood studios. But despite his bluster and penny pinching, Ginsburg is also a sentimentalist who pines for his late wife and dotes on his adult daughter, who is engaged to his young (and Christian) lawyer John Applegate.
Ginsburg made his fortune in silent movies, but the arrival of talkies put his studio in an uproar. He is appalled by the effeminate speaking voice of his new leading man and declares, “This is a drama, not a fairy tale.” When coaching an African-American actor, he wonders aloud, “Is this the way a darkie talks?” And when his script writer envisions an elaborate death for the leading lady, Ginsburg frowns and insists, “We’ll have her shot – it’s cheaper!” But Ginsburg has no problem admiring the shapely legs of his shiksa chorus girls – and one tries to audition but stammers terribly, he quickly assures here that he will “write her a dancing part.”
The key to Ginsburg’s first talking picture is the French performer Adore Renee (a riff on MGM’s French star Renee Adoree). This Gallic import doesn’t arrive on the set until three in the afternoon, but her flirtatious behavior with Ginsburg makes him forgive her tardiness and the expenses created by her behavior. Mlle. Renee is played by one Fay Marbe, who is identified in the opening titles as an “international star” but whose movie career ended with this work. Her lack of cinematic longevity is a shame, because she had a gift for light comedy and was more than adequate in the song-and-dance department.
Ginsburg’s production gets completed, thanks to a last-minute loan from his prospective son-in-law, but the screening for prospective distributors is nearly ruined by a drunk Irish projectionist who mixes up the film reels and the sound discs, thus creating a mess where the wrong voices and sound effects are matched against the visuals. Ginsburg tries to stop the showing, but a belligerent Irish security guard does not recognize him and physically prevents him from entering the projection booth. Ginsburg is resigned to ruin, except for a single distributor who mistakes the work for a comedy and agrees to finance more Ginsburg talkies.
“The Talk of Hollywood” suffers from the staginess that was prevalent in the early sound film productions, and the musical numbers proceed in a clunky (though charming) manner. Carr’s irascible and often rude Ginsburg is a wonderful anti-hero, though a late scene when he pours his soul to his late wife’s ghost goes too heavy into pathos and becomes uncomfortable. And, yes, the politically incorrect humor is a shock in today’s too-touchy world, but the film plays equal-opportunity-offender and everyone gets smacked. (Oh, I almost forgot – there is also a temperamental Italian tenor.)
This film is an early work by Mark Sandrich, a director whose name is often forgotten today but who was responsible for helming five of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical features including the sublime “Top Hat” plus the Bing Crosby classic “Holiday Inn.” Considering the low budget and primitive technology he had to work with, Sandrich did a fine job with this film.
For many years, “The Talk of Hollywood” was only available in not-pristine copies generated from a depository print in the Library of Congress. A genuine hero in saving this work from obscurity is film historian John K. Carpenter, who purchased a deteriorating print in 1978 for $20 and, in his words, “went through financial and personal hell to save this film.” Carpenter’s print is available for home entertainment viewing from Alpha Video on DVD and it is visually superior to the crummy dupes that are floating around the Internet and on collector-to-collector sites. If anyone wants to experience this rare and fascinating gem, the Alpha Video release is the only way to go.