Hollywood Hotel

(Busby Berkeley, USA, 1937): About an hour and eighteen minutes into Hollywood Hotel, a call comes into the switchboard of the place the movie is named for. “Benny Goodman?” says the bobbed blonde operator. “I’m sorry but he’s rehearsing in the Orchid Room and can’t be disturbed.” Cut to the ‘rehearsal’, and in the next four minutes a new era in American popular music is blasted into being. Goodman and his band, including Gene Krupa on drums, Harry James on trumpet, Lionel Hampton on vibraphone, Teddy Wilson on piano, with Goodman out front on clarinet, rip through a two minute version of ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ — a syncopated sizzler that could clock in at ten minutes in concert —  followed by ‘I’ve Got a Heartful of Music’, with Hampton and Krupa duelling on rhythm — and Hollywood Hotel not only lifts itself out of the by-the-numbers romantic-comedy backstage musical torpor it had wheezed through up to this point, it made Goodman change his mind about that offer John Hammond had made that his band ought to play Carnegie Hall.

Goodman had been cast in the movie as himself mostly because the studio saw one of those routine opportunities to fold a radio show’s popularity — in this case, NBC’s weekly three-hour Let’s Dance — into a movie to both lure wireless listeners and drive disc sales. But the lineups Hollywood Hotel started generating at the nation’s box office made Goodman think maybe Hammond was on to something after all. Maybe Carnegie Hall wasn’t just a freak show publicity stunt. Maybe people were ready to take this swing business uptown. In January 1938, just a few months after Hollywood Hotel was released, Goodman and the band would make a bit of sonic history — and nail at least one possible start of the swing era — by doing for Carnegie Hall what they’d done for that studio mockup of the Orchid Room.

It’s easy to underestimate the impact of the sequence watching Hollywood Hotel from any historical distance. The fact that it sits so deeply embedded in a movie that’s really about what happens when mid-western sax man and warbler Dick Powell wins a talent contest and a ten-week studio contract — duh: he falls in love and sings his heart out — suggests it wasn’t intended to ring any bells, and the fact Berkeley, the pioneering choreographer who found a transcendent new cinematic form for shooting dance numbers, shoots the Orchid Room sequence with such matter-of-fact unfussiness echoes the impression. But there was no containing that music, and if anything the absence of anything standing in the way between it and us — Goodman and band play directly to the camera, with Berkeley mostly cutting on instrumental solos and reserving his modest stylistic intervention to tilted angles on rows of blasting horns and tapping feet — simply lets the tide roll in and over with full force. Plus we get to watch something that’s almost as captivating and irresistible as the music: not only are these guys clearly and without a doubt really playing — you can practically feel the floor pulsating beneath them — they’re really digging the noise they’re making. Even the normally taciturn Goodman can’t keep from smiling over how good he knows this is. Krupa and Hampton are virtual heat generators in combat, and watch closely as the rest of the band sits grinning and foot-tapping between blasts of instruments. That they’re digging it so much only makes it that much harder for us not to. Even they can’t believe the sound they’re making. And that ending, when Goodman steps off the stage saying “All right boys, that’s all. And don’t forget let’s be on time tonight,” is as understated an epochal post-performance quip as John Lennon’s Apple Corps rooftop sign-off thirty some years on: “I would like to say thank you on behalf of the band and I hope we passed the audition.” Timing is one thing these guys do not need any help with.

Inspired by Louella Parsons’ radio show of the same name — the grand dame of Tinseltown gossip appears, inevitably and imperiously, playing Herself in the movie — Hollywood Hotel is among the hundreds of musicals made in the decade following The Jazz Singer, the era that confirmed American pop music’s destiny as a visual medium that needed to be seen as much as heard — ergo the early, irreversible and mutually dependent merging of radio and movies during the Depression — confirmed Berkeley himself as a visionary prophet of the new era and radio the real pipeline of American pop culture’s energy and vitality. Only talking for a decade, and movies were already singing (and now swinging) as though their life depended on it. Which it very likely did. After all was done and said, talking was only an incidental attraction. What really confirmed and propelled the triumph of sound in movies was music.

If you want to accuse Hollywood Hotel of being rather rumpled wrapping around the Orchid Room sequences — there’s another, later, on-the-air one, but it never ignites quite like that ‘rehearsal’ — then it’s only guilty of something so many music-driven movies were over the decades, from The Girl Can’t Help It to Girls! Girls! Girls!, or The Student Prince to Purple Rain, which is failing to find a so-called dramatic framework that provided anything like adequate support for the music we’d really come to see (and, almost incidentally, hear). But this accusation itself fails, as it presumes the music ever really needed adequate dramatic support to justify its presence or attraction. If we came to see Elvis, who truly gave a shit that he happened to be playing the same guy in this movie that he was in that last Elvis movie last month? And as wonderful as it happened to be that A Hard Day’s Night just happened to be so brilliant and innovative and thoroughly of an organic pop piece with the Beatles’ music and persona, would it ultimately have mattered to the fans of the moment if it hadn’t? Ultimately, its landmark status as a work of pop art is just one of those whimsical frills of industry.

If you watch all of Hollywood Hotel, you’ll be treated to no shortage of other period-specific, variously arcane diversions as it engages in this enduring process of trying to find a reason to exist apart from the music: a remarkably fresh Ronald Reagan appears as a radio host with an already Presidential crown of hair; the former Three Stooges’ boss Ted Healy is seen mere months following his fatal beating in a Hollywood bar fight; the makeup maestro Perc Westmore applies his trade during the movie’s most Berkeley-esque montage sequence; and the era’s fundamentally conflicted racial attitudes are almost surreally evident in the fact that the same movie can feature not only one of the very first integrated big bands — Goodman’s — but also a cringingly unfunny blackface routine on the set of a Hollywood plantation epic in-the-making. So trust me, there’s reason to stick around both before and after the rehearsal if you need one. Otherwise, be satisfied with that alone: four minutes of the future making itself seen and heard. (Warner Home Video)