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Hollywood Party, Jimmy Durante, and the cultural politics of coherence
Velvet Light Trap. .64 (Fall 2009): p11+. From Literature Resource Center.
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In the opening scene of Hollywood Party (MGM, 1934) a movie mogul and theater-owner chat about business beneath a sidewalk marquee. The day's receipts are good because the current feature "is Garbo, you know" but the mogul boasts that his own upcoming release will draw even bigger crowds. As the men slip into the back of the theater auditorium to catch the audience reaction to the preview trailer for the mogul's new movie, Greta Garbo's indelible final Queen Christina, close-up fills a diegetically framed movie screen. Most of MGM's major stars have actual cameos in Hollywood Party, but this is Garbo's--a gesture that perfectly signals the Garbo mystique as her cinematic incarnation is inscribed with the full force of materiality in its own right. (1) Although Roland Barthes, when writing of Queen Christina, perhaps too sweepingly took her as the marker of a lost epoch, "that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest of ecstasy" he testified eloquently, in taking the bait, to the lasting magnitude of her image (56). Never merely representative of Hollywood stardom, Garbo was always, as she is here, the "Divine set against her worldly counterparts, the face of Garbo" metonymizes cinema in its most idealized (mis)remembrances. And it is as such that she functions for this brief moment in Hollywood Party before she's jarringly displaced by the image of Jimmy Durante plopping to the ground from a vine--in a loin cloth, with billowing tufts of artificial body hair pasted to his modest physique--as graphic text announces the forthcoming adventures of "the mighty monarch of the mudlands," Schnarzan the Conqueror. In the guise of jungle movie star Schnarzan/ Durante vigorously pounds his chest with both fists. But instead of a hearty trill of thumps, we hear hollow timpani beats. Schnarzan then tries to let out a version of the famous yodel. Instead, the soundtrack offers up something more like the moan of a mangled, asthmatic trumpet.

As Hollywood Party's jungle movie trailer unfolds from the establishing proscenium shot to an unframed occupation of the entire filmic space, playing as an uninterrupted internal text without reaction shots or framing visual cues to remind us of its status as a "film-within-a-film," gag comedy conventions blend with classic burlesque traditions of more nuanced and sophisticated formal parody, building upon the initial juxtaposition of Durante's meager and artificially hirsute flame against the cultural referent of the highly eroticized presentation of Johnny Weissmuller's smooth, and glaringly white, Olympian muscularity in the MGM series of Tarzan feature films. The sequence does not simply allude to but literally appropriates (and "samples") its object of scrutiny as stock jungle footage--probably the same stock footage that MGM recycled in Tarzan the Ape-Man (1932) from W. S. Van Dyke's epic African shoot for Trader Horn (1931)--is intercut with scenes imitating the style and mise-en-scene of the Tarzan films. Spying a raging lion in swift pursuit of a fleeing woman (Lupe Velez as "Jane"), Schnarzan runs to the rescue and does battle with the lion to save her. But the edits in the action sequence foreground rather than disguise discontinuity, making a joke of the expected illusion. The stand-in trainer we see "attacked" by the lion is obviously not Durante (the lack of the prosthetic chest hair is, if nothing else, the visible sign of this), and the lion draped upon Schnarzan/Durante's shoulder in the subsequent close-up is clearly an inanimate prop, suspiciously void of any apparent movement--just as a stand-in trainer, not Weissmuller, performed the lion wrestling in Tarzan the Ape Man, and just as a circus performer stunt man did that film's spectacular vine swinging. Complementing the way gag humor first calls attention to the fictive construction of cinematic sound, formal parody foregrounds the mechanical structure of visual illusion, placing the very terms of cinematic address in question in the opening moments of the film.

Despite the intriguing appeal of this parodic trailer sequence's raucous rebellion against codes of cinematic realism, Hollywood Party has, to date, enjoyed only a very modest, enduring notoriety. Although the keen interest that cinephiles and film scholars have taken in the long-standing "Hollywood-on-Hollywood" subgenre has helped to keep it in circulation, providing occasion for its inclusion on cable network schedules and repertory programs, the film's unfortunate critical legacy has generally been to epitomize early sound studio moviemaking gone wrong. Hollywood Party's formal inconsistencies, combined with anecdotal folklore and the highly conspicuous blemish (in what remains a primarily auteurist critical field) of having been released without benefit of a directorial credit (presumably because of the unwillingness of any director to have his name associated with the final version), have conspired to support its general reputation as a defective, hastily churned-out assembly line anomaly. Even Henry Jenkins, the only film scholar thus far to have treated the film to extended critical consideration, situates his endeavor as an effort to understand how the "points of tension" created by new productive scenarios of the early thirties "contributed to the unsatisfying construction of this muddled text" (114).

The premise that Hollywood Party is best perceived as the peculiar outcome of a bungled production process long predates Jenkins's study and finds at least one of its roots in historical testimonial, most notably Peter Bogdanovich's interview with director Allan Dwan, first published in 1970. (2) Among eight directors reported to have worked on the film over the protracted course of its development and production, Dwan takes credit in the interview for having accidentally invented Hollywood Party's jarring it-turns-out-it-was-all-just-a-bad-dream ending. "Every star on the MGM lot was in this picture and every director had done a piece of it," recounted Dwan, "but when they finally tried to put it together, it just wouldn't jell--it was nothing ... I was invited ... to look at it and see if I could do anything with it." Dwan then describes sitting through a screening of "thousands of feet of film, all disconnected stuff," after which he wearily proclaimed, upon being solicited for an opinion by Louis. B Mayer, "It's a nightmare!" (Bogdanovich, Who 102). Mayer, this story goes, responded by pronouncing Dwan a genius and instructing him to shoot the concluding scene that would retroactively reframe the entire film as a bad dream, thereby mitigating the need to further redress its apparent discontinuities.

While Dwan and Bogdanovich's version remains the more popular among many writers and cable network hosts, Jenkins's review of MGM's archived production fries decisively dispels any myth that Hollywood Party is literally comprised of entirely "disconnected" footage simply tossed together at the last minute. Making generative critical use of studio records to illustrate writers', directors', and producers' struggles--and, indeed, a perceived organizational imperative within MGM--to adapt a project originally conceived as a sequel to Hollywood Revue of 1929 (dir. Charles Reisner) into a presentational mode more consistent with the classical Hollywood norms that had developed over three decades to privilege internally motivated character and narrative as the fabric of film language, Jenkins illuminates creators' conscious and deliberate efforts to strike "the proper balance between narrative and number, character and performance, climax and closure, unity and heterogeneity" in Hollywood Party (125). However seemingly frail, the film's connective tissue emerged over a nearly two-year-long development process; and while extensive changes were certainly made throughout shooting of the film, early and evolving draft scripts also show, argues Jenkins, that most components of the final version, including the links between its various elements, were heavily vetted and conceived on paper even before shooting began. His study also includes a reference to a proposed "dream ending" early in the film's development (although with a different character as the dreamer), thus casting a significant shadow of doubt over Dwan's more colorful story (Jenkins 124). And although Jenkins doesn't address Dwan's role in shaping the final film at all, his account of the production process makes it abundantly clear that Dwan certainly did not invent a significantly new final conception of the film only a few short weeks before its eventual release.

Jenkins's What Made Pistachio Nuts? engages Hollywood Party as part of its larger effort to explore how the advent and mass implementation of sound cinema technology and the accompanying recruitment of Broadway and theatrical circuit talent (such as Durante) to work in the movies precipitated the resurgence of a "vaudeville aesthetic" that had largely faded from filmed entertainment with the rise of the Hollywood group style. From the outset the format experimentations that structured former stage entertainers' absorption into the emergent sound film medium privileged Broadway's racy, dialogue-driven drawing room dramas, bedroom comedies, and titillating musical revues, further accentuating cinema's associations with, on the one hand, legitimate theater's strong claim to the favors of bourgeois taste and, on the other hand, the decadent and hedonistic lifestyles of urban elites and bohemians. But the performance styles imported from the popular stage acts of the period also just as forcefully privileged sensibilities and traditions more strongly associated with the urban working class and ethnic traditions of vaudeville and burlesque, traditions that emphasized spectacle, gag, and physical performance virtuosity over narrative structure and its attendant sentiments. Refashioning a legacy of film criticism focused primarily on the comedy style of the Marx Bros., perhaps the most successful, along with MaeWest, of the period's stage-to-screen Hollywood stars, Jenkins identifies and explores a distinct breed of "anarchistic" film comedy rooted in the "vaudeville aesthetic" that prospered briefly in the early 1930s, a comedy style structured to invoke "a popular laughter, which entertained without pretenses of moral education or social reform," an "anarchistic laughter that challenged the power of institutions to exercise emotional and social constraint upon individual spontaneity, a nonsensical laughter that was meaningful precisely in the way it transcended narrative meaning" (284). In exploring the convergence of industrial, social and cultural exigencies that conspired in the second half of the decade to reabsorb this influx of disparate, heterogeneous performance spectacle and the unrepentant disruption of social convention into the "more formally and thematically conservative" style that he labels "affirmative comedy" (281), Jenkins approaches Hollywood Party as "an extreme yet particularly informative example of the ways in which the clash between classical Hollywood norms and the vaudeville aesthetic was confronted and compromised" by studio filmmakers (114). (3) The points of disjuncture marked by the film's highly volatile methods for integrating performance spectacle into narrative enact in Jenkins's treatment the historical push and pull between popular and bourgeois cultural traditions and their interconnections with structurally situated social positions of class, ethnicity, and race.

Although Jenkins effectively demonstrates the value of reading the cultural politics of the era through the tension between narrative and number in classical form, I offer a different approach here to Hollywood Party as a compelling case study for interrogating the ways in which classical Hollywood cinema duplicitously mediated social conflict and class struggle within what Michael Denning has described, following Gramsci, as the "conjunctural terrain" of the New Deal era (22). Hollywood Party's insubordination to nearly every standard for measuring quality commercial filmmaking--from its strikingly erratic methods of integrating performance spectacle into story, to the seeming lack of honor with which it forecloses on its own ostensible promises (with, if nothing else, an entirely unforeshadowed "bad dream" ending), to the absence of any distinct author/ auteur to hold accountable for its riddles--warrants a view from another angle. Insofar as criteria for assessing formal coherence in Hollywood cinema are primarily retroactive paradigms, it's worth noting that in contrast to its subsequent reputation, many indicators suggest that Hollywood Party was not, in fact, a major financial or critical failure at the time of its release. Its reception was mixed. Although the reported first-weekend grosses showed the film playing weakly but not disastrously in cities such as Kansas City and New Orleans, Universal City's Rialto movie house was doing such brisk business that they held it over. (4) Variety's review described the film as "averagely passable screen divertissement" likely to "satisfy mildly." "Considering the general looseness of the basic structure, the unreelage isn't altogether messy," the reviewer further commented."[T]he numbers, with a couple of exceptions, are not permitted to run overboard or bore; there is judicious mixing up of the several styles of comedy and there is enough lavishness, spec and girly stuff to impress optically" ("Hollywood Party"). Taking Variety's suggestion of the potential for an affable contemporary response to the film's formal qualifies as one of its cues, the remainder of this essay further explores a range of ways in which the popular cultural contexts and idioms that structured the movie-going experience in the ephemerally rapid distribution flow of the early 1930s might have afforded, shaped, and enriched multiple layers of expressive and presentational continuity and meaning for viewers. In particular, I emphasize the extent to which the star image of Hollywood Party's featured performer, Jimmy Durante, would most likely have shaped inflections of the film's contemporaneous enunciation.

This focus upon the film's immersion in the transient vocabularies of popular film culture also necessarily privileges its status as an act of institutional and communal self-representation, an aspect of the text that was of no particular consequence in shaping Jenkins's critical approach. In the present context, however, the fact that Hollywood Party is very much a film "about" show business, stardom, the movies, and Hollywood--a place, a cinematic language, an industry, a series of temporal, cognitive experiences--is perhaps its most compelling characteristic, offering further perspective on the complex range of ways in which Hollywood cinema both availed itself and resisted the construction of normative social identities predicated upon the fluid hegemonic project of Anglo-inscribed whiteness and the assimilative mandate within the popular cultural practices of the early 1930s. Jenkins's engagement with the film to help chart "anarchistic" film comedy's eventual subordination to "affirmative comedy" conventions also rather seamlessly corroborates, of course, the prevailing critical paradigms that have developed (since at least as far back as Robert Sklar's Movie Made America) to narrate 1930s Hollywood history as a whole in similar terms: across the span of the decade, says the received wisdom, the often seemingly subversive sensibilities of "pre-Code" cinema gave sway to the dictates of conservative "morality"; depictions of women who transgressed normative gender roles were, in particular, much more assertively monitored, neutered, and contained; sexuality itself was more heavily codified and its representation more clandestine; and the relative wealth of ethnic heterogeneity that seemed to characterize early sound cinema increasingly vanished inside homogenized idealizations of "white" (Anglo-Protestant) middle-class normativity. (5)

If the basic premise that Hollywood cinema became more homogeneous, more conservative, and more "bourgeois" over the course of the 1930s seems, presently, to be a fairly indisputable general conceit, much about the ways we theorize the implications of that transformation with respect to Hollywood cinema's role in the production and creation of American cultural hegemony remains contested ground. Mark Winokur's American Laughter: Immigrants, Ethnicity, and 1930s Hollywood Film Comedy (1996) has rather assertively challenged, for instance, a certain double erasure enacted by both the habit of reading shifts in Hollywood's representational practices in the period as a consuming erasure of ethnic difference assimilated into and subsumed by a static "anglo-puritan ideology" and the habit of casting what he sees as expressly "ethnic" cultural practices and expressive modalities in languages that describe them more generally as proletarian, populist, or working-class "sensibilities." Questioning the entire framework of an insider/outsider dichotomy as the language for understanding the nature of an ethnic relation to some discernibly other "dominant" or "host" Anglo-American culture, Winokur finds little to puzzle over in the relative lack of explicitly ethnic representations (except in their most stereotyped forms) after the early thirties even within a "film medium that [was] to a great extent dominated by the immigrants and children of immigrants" known to have provided most of the managerial, technical, and performative labor for the production of motion pictures in the silent and studio eras (4). "In an official culture that trusts only immigrants who can repress the visible characteristics of ethnicity" and where access to discriminatory systems of production in the public realm was often dependent upon individuals' ability to enact such repression in order to secure their positions as laborers, the "denial of ethnicity becomes," observes Winokur, "a piece of the fabric of success" (5). In acquiescing to the social mandate of ethnic assimilation--in becoming "white" while also proving in the process that whiteness is also therefore only an amalgamatory pretense (if people can become it, then where does the corporealized symbolic foundation of whiteness's ideological authority and meaningfulness reside?)--the ethnic subject was simultaneously compelled to put the lie to and reaffirm racialized essentialisms and the real world horrors that they wrought. For Winokur, who treats this tension as the mark and substance rather than the abolition of ethnic American identity, the pervasive replacement of more explicitly"ethnic images" with more ambiguously "white" ones in the 1930s does not mark a void, erasure, or absence of ethnicity; it marks, rather, the reinvention and reconstitution of "dominant" American culture itself. Hollywood cinema could never obliterate the fact of the "ethnic" from its heritage and collective voice any more than the multitudes of "Americans passing as some version of anglo-American" could, or even necessarily ever wanted to, erase it from their own lives (Winokur 10). The act of ethnic repression and denial, its complexities, anxieties, and contradictions, is not the thing "accomplished" by classical Hollywood cinema but rather the thing it articulates and enables as the collective experience and nature of both "ethnic" and national identity in U.S. twentieth-century life.

I want to suggest, though, that in the example of Hollywood Party we can also find traces of Hollywood cinema as a popular cultural practice that gave more than obliquely codified expression to these experiences and anxieties. In the institution of Hollywood stardom in particular, popular film culture of the 1930s sometimes engaged the politics of corporeal difference and the attendant promises of its potential transcendence in profoundly intriguing and complex--if not often contradictory and chaotic--ways.

Chasing the Real

Although the Schnarzan the Conqueror trailer might seem at first glance to be an insular "skit" devised solely for its value as diversionary amusement, the sequence nevertheless serves as the foundation for a story scenario, establishing both the situation and motivations of its central protagonist, Schnarzan/Durante. As it turns out, the mogul Knapp's endeavor into primitive "audience research" at the movie theater yields some discouraging results. After viewing the preview trailer, one departing patron proclaims that he surely won't be coming to see "that cluck Schnarzan's" new movie, and the exhibitor delivers the bad news to Knapp: "Schnarzan is slipping" because the action sequences are simply not believable, and "the public's fedup." Schnarzan is a fake. Worse yet, a competing Schnarzan imitator named Liondora has crowded the jungle movie field. When Knapp alerts his waning box office star of the crisis in the following scenes, the pair decides that the answer to their problem lies in the acquisition of two new, authentic lions, rumored to be in the possession of an aristocrat adventurer soon arriving in California fresh from the shores of Africa. Schnarzan will host a fabulous party in a competitive attempt to coax the lions' owner--one Baron Munchausen--to sell the coveted merchandise to him instead of his rival Liondora.

The "wild party" scenario generously accommodates a dizzying blend of performance spectacle as the plot that pits Schnarzan and Liondora (George Givot) against each other in a contest to acquire the authentic lions they hope will rescue their floundering careers unwinds amidst the flow of big band numbers, chorus girls, and other processionals of every sort. Even Mickey Mouse drops in to introduce Walt Disney's entirely disruptive and unintegrated "Hot Chocolate Soldiers" Technicolor animation short. (6) In the meantime, the Baron first agrees to sell the lions to an Oklahoma oil tycoon, Mr. Clemp (Charles Butterworth), who buys them on behalf of a European ambassador--actually the conniving Liondora in disguise. Not to be outdone, Schnarzan takes the approach of wooing the millionaire Clemp's wife (Polly Moran, a frequent Durante costar). Convincing Mrs. Clemp she was destined to be a movie star, Schnarzan promises he will make her one in his next film if only he can get his hands on those lions, at which point Mrs. Clemp promptly volunteers to use her sway to make it so. Elsewhere, however, the twist that was imminent from the outset has also been introduced, revealing that the entire circuit of exchange has been larcenous. Munchausen is, of course, a fraud who has used a bad check to swindle the felines from two gullible townsfolk, Laurel & Hardy. Their arrival at the party to reclaim the goods then leads, inevitably, to the unleashing of the lions from their cages. The guests scatter in a panic, and the Hollywood party is brought to a crashing halt. One of the freed lions then makes its way to the parlor, where Schnarzan has been busy flattering Mrs. Clemp, and it is in the midst of trying to do battle with the real-life lion--quite unlike the trained pets featured in Scharzan's films--that Schnarzan/ Durante's "dream" becomes so terrifying that he is jolted awake. The real-life Durante has, we are shown, dozed off reading Burroughs's Tarzan the Untamed while waiting for his wife (played, in a cameo, by Durante's actual wife, Jeanne Olsen) for a real-life Hollywood party.

But while Schnarzan and the rest of the film's characters appear unaware of the infamous Baron Munchausen's reputation for stretching the truth, it's unlikely that contemporaneous audiences missed or failed to respond to the early reference. Although it largely faded from the popular vernacular in the United States after World War II, the Munchausen figure would have been immediately meaningful to audiences of the period. (7) Above and beyond the extensive circulation of Rudolf Erich Raspe's Baron Munchausen's Narrative of His Marvelous Travels and Campaigns in Russia in a variety of forms throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (including that of a common grammar school primer), Durante costarred in MGM's 1933 comedy Meet the Baron with Jack Pearl, who played a Munchausen impostor in that film and who again appears in the same role in Hollywood Party. More significantly, Pearl also played the fantastical liar on a popular national radio show (Pearl was featured as Munchausen on the cover of the April 1933 issue of Radio Stars magazine). Both by sight and name, Pearl's persona was inherently linked at the time with Munchausen. Enhanced by the extratextual significations (the always already present reference back to prior roles and performances that attend any star image) carried by Durante into the film, the early incorporation of the Munchausen figure into Hollywood Party's eclectic diegetic universe--indeed, his placement at the very center of the plot as such--provides one of many immediately cogent reading cues, framing already familiar expectations of an unfettered relationship to realist narrative integrity that characterizes both the Munchausen figure and the ensuing film.

Throughout Hollywood Party, similarly assumed foreknowledge of contemporaneous film and popular culture provides the point of entry to its humor and texture. One of the more amusing examples is the stunt-casting use of Lupe Velez to portray the "Jane" figure opposite Durante's Schnarzan in the trailer sequence. A mainstay of tabloids and show biz columns and also a repeated Durante costar on both stage and screen, Velez was a continuous vector of Hollywood gossip. Knowledge of her stormy love affair with Gary Cooper (one nationally run story had her attempting to shoot him as he boarded a train) and then her marriage to the "real" Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller, would not only have been common but nearly impossible to avoid, adding satiric zest to the gesture of placing her in the textual position previously occupied by the relatively demure Maureen O'Sullivan playing against Durante in the role previously occupied by her husband.

Certainly, the most significant intertext to Hollywood Party is, however, the wildly popular Tarzan product line itself, which by 1934 had been multiply merchandised with a degree of sophistication impressive even by twenty-first-century standards. Beyond the Tarzan stories, which began publication in 1914, with annual installments typically appearing first in serial and then in book form for most of the next three decades, Tarzan had taken shape in multiple silent film treatments as well as a nationally syndicated daily and weekly comic strip and radio show. (8) Even more specifically, Hollywood Party's premise refers to the fact of competing Tarzan sound features and imitations having already entered the marketplace after the enormous success of MGM's own Tarzan the Ape Man in 1932. Due in part to a complicated course of events through which MGM failed to fully secure exclusive legal rights to the property, Principal Pictures released the alternative Tarzan the Fearless, starring Buster Crabbe, in August 1933. Crabbe additionally played a knockoff version of Tarzan named "Kaspa the Lion Man" in another 1933 release, Paramount's King of the Jungle. MGM's annoyance over the jungle movie clutter was made evident in the advertising campaign for the 1934 sequel, Tarzan and His Mate, which included a bold, boxed warning: "NOTE: DO NOT CONFUSE THIS PICTURE--with any other Tarzan picture you have ever seen. It is an entirely new, full-length feature picture. The greatest of them all!" (Advertisement). Hollywood Party's "Liondora" is a direct jab at Paramount's derivative "Lion Man," again suggesting that much of the film's humor worked in intricate relation to an assumed contemporary vocabulary of popular cultural referents. The Tarzan parody was especially timely Hugely popular, Tarzan and His Mate opened only one month prior to Hollywood Party, and it's more than likely that in some cities the films even ran simultaneously at competing theaters.

Comedic appropriation of the ubiquitous Tarzan franchise also arguably brings, however, more than the pleasure of easy, playful satire to Hollywood Party. Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs, a high profile figure and celebrity in his own right, was well known for, among other things, his interest in the eugenics movement, which he proclaimed publicly and in a number of forums, including a column run in the Hearst-syndicate newspapers as well as in his novels. (9) Set in an idealized, imaginary Venusian city where eugenics is the prevailing law, Burroughs's Lost on Venus, first published in serial form in March and April 1933, is especially indicative. That this aspect of the Tarzan intertext, implicitly pervasive in the Tarzan stories themselves as well as in the author's celebrity persona, is indeed part of the cultural conversation in which Hollywood Party engages is most potently suggested by Ted Healy and the Three Stooges' brief appearance in the film, which explicitly invokes eugenics discourse when a scientist examines the Stooges' skulls in order to determine where they stand (obviously, far back) on the "evolutionary scale."

As Troy Duster puts it, "the new eugenics" provided "the ideological foundation" for the virulent 1924 antiimmigration laws through which the United States "effectively shut its borders to those 'tired masses' who had come by the hundreds of thousands annually for the previous half-century," and pervaded ongoing debate about how industrial capitalism would remediate the racial, ethnic, and class conflict that seemed to threaten the tentative stability of a social system built upon staggering inequities and structural oppression (viii). Even before he became the embodiment of Tarzan, Weissmuller had circulated as an image linked, through "physical culture" discourse, to notions of natural Anglo-Saxon biological superiority, making him the perfect choice to bring the robust symbolic inflection of Burroughs's hero to the screen. As Eric Cheyfritz writes, "American frontier romances [such as] Burroughs' ... act to literalize absolutely racial and class hierarchies (and, typically, race and class are confounded in these romances) when these hierarchies and their political agendas are needed to rationalize the policy of dispossession" (14). The technical and artistic labor structuring the presentation of Weissmuller's body as what Kirkham and Thumin define as the "naked, melodramatic sign of truth," an "ideal masculinity ... untroubled by culture [or] civilization" within Tarzan are, of course, effaced in the films themselves (13). But the imperialist and racist ideologies mobilized by Burroughs's stories and invested in the naturalized, eroticized spectacle of Weissmuller as Tarzan find, under the guise of parodic comedy, a direct and provocative challenge in Hollywood Party. (10) The fictional Schnarzan's "job" is to performatively embody a nation-affirming image steeped in imperialist and colonialist mythologies of innate Anglo-Protestant superiority. But the figure of Schnarzan/Durante works to make the illusionistic manufacture of these nationalist imageries in popular film culture both explicit and problematic, anxiously unsettling the ostensible innocence of cinematic representation and the culture of Hollywood stardom that served to naturalize and authenticate the ideological propositions invested in popular narrative realism.

"Class" and Image in the Jimmy Durante Star Text

Hollywood Party's engagement with the contemporaneous omnipresence of the Tarzan mystique also only takes shape in and through another multiply articulated cultural text as well: the star image of Jimmy Durante. "Schnarzan" is an extended rift on a well-developed act, not a character "part" that could simply have been played by any actor. Both the finer nuances of much of its humor and the overall sensibility of the film are largely mere extensions of the Durante persona itself.

Although it's sometimes said that Durante's film career was unsuccessful, in early 1934 quite the opposite would have appeared true. By then Durante had appeared in over a dozen feature films (ten MGM pictures and three with other studios) as well as the widely screened National Recovery Act short Give a Man a Job. In 1933 he starred in the significantly tamed Broadway version of the overtly left-wing show Strike Me Pink, and he continued touring his club act nationally throughout the early 1930s. In the autumn preceding Hollywood Party's release Durante also substituted for much of the season as the host of the NBC radio network's prime-time Sunday night Chase & Sanborn Hour (at that time The Eddie Cantor Show). When it entered movie houses, Hollywood Party competed in many cities (New Orleans is one identified by Variety's gross receipts report) directly against lingering runs of another film featuring Durante and Velez released in the immediately preceding weeks, RKO's Strictly Dynamite ("N.O. NSG"). In March of the same season Durante simultaneously occupied three major Manhattan theaters, appearing in Fox's Rudy Vallee vehicle George White's Scandals (which also fingered in theaters as Hollywood Party began its run) at Radio City Music Hall; in the United Artists release Palooka, again with Velez, at the Rivoli; and in a sell-out personal appearance show, again with Polly Moran, at the Capitol ("Durante-Moran-Holtz"). Across these various entertainment media and throughout his journey from Manhattan club performer to national star, the substance of Durante's act and persona remained constant and would undoubtedly have been familiar to Hollywood Party audiences.

Building upon his immersion in the burgeoning New York ragtime and jazz scene in which he played, recorded, and published as a pianist and composer as well as worked as a nightclub booker, Durante's early career capitalized upon the popularization and segregated mainstreaming of jazz and ragtime while never comfortably settling into the big band and swing era taming of jazz's sharper musical and social edges. In the midtwenties he partnered with vaudeville performers Eddie Jackson and Lou Clayton to put together an act described by Durante biographer and bibliographer David Bakish as "the Ritz Brothers and the Marx Brothers set to razz-a-ma-tazz jazz and honky-tonk music" (27).Working the New York nightclub scene and at times showcasing themselves in short-lived venues in which they were also owning partners, Durante, Jackson, and Clayton innovatively blended vaudeville and burlesque performance styles with Durante's accomplished knowledge of jazz music. The enduring substance of Durante's act congealed in this context. Signature numbers developed in the nightclub setting were directly transplanted into the team's move onto the vaudeville circuit in 1927 and, subsequently, Broadway. So too were the comical mangling of standard English and self-deprecating remarks--focused most intently on the nose--that peppered Durante's role as bandleader and became the trademarks of his lifelong career. When the team debuted on Broadway in Florenz Ziegfeld's Show Girl in 1929, Durante performed solo numbers as a "character" named Schnozzle, and nearly all of the team's material in the show was culled more or less directly from their nightclub and vaudeville act ("Comicalities"). Similarly, the team's next stint on Broadway in Cole Porter's The New Yorkers (1930) incorporated four Durante-composed songs, including the team's showpiece number, "Wood" a set-destroying comedic treatise on the importance of wood that led to the antic hurling about of anything made of wood, including, in the nightclub act, the tearing to pieces of the stage piano (Crissler 4).

As was true with most of the theatrical performers recruited to Hollywood, material from Durante's stage act also provided the fodder for his early film roles, which again highlighted many of the same musical numbers (always, in Durante's fashion, largely comedic in tone) as well as staples of his performative persona, including signature expressions such as "ahchacha," "How mortifyin'," and "I got a million of 'em, a million of 'em!" Among the other licenses taken when MGM made the New Adventures of Get Rich Quick Wallingford (based upon George Randolph Chester's turn-of-the-century Get Rich Quick Wallingford stories, a repeated source of silent film adaptation since the teens) was the renaming of the character to be played by Durante in his first MGM contract role in 1931 as "Schnozzle."

That Durante is, in effect, playing "himself" in Hollywood Party is made clear in various moments that explicitly collapse Schnarzan and Durante: the invitation depicted in the "Hollywood Party" number montage announces a party hosted by Schnarzan but is signed by Jimmy Durante; and the scene portraying Schnarzan's seduction of Mrs. Clemp includes a line of dialogue in which he refers to himself as following in the familial tradition of "the Durante way" (again invoking the palpable theme of heredity). These literal signals merely accent, however, the already obvious impossibility of drawing any viable distinction between the Durante persona and the "text" of the film as such, since both the script and the production as a whole liberally presume audience access to the known entity of Durante as well as an extensive knowledge of film culture more broadly, betraying any premise of a self-enclosed or internally unified text at the outset.

While the mock trailer sequence employs many stock elements of his act, Durante's second scene in Hollywood Party perhaps more literally reflects the cumulative ethos built upon that litany of routine gags. A static visual prefaces Durante's second entrance in the film--this time as the "real" off-screen Schnarzan--by depicting a sign outside the star's estate that reads "The Little Dream Nest in the Hollows: Burns Keep Out" The sign sets up the extended joke of the scene, which will yoke laughs by portraying Schnarzan/Durante as a crass dilettante in the art of bourgeois lifestyles--little more, in effect, than a "bum" in disguise. Donned in polo garb, Schnarzan pulls up in a sportster, having just returned from a match. As a row of domestic servants attend his arrival, one solicits, "I trust you scored, sir." Schnarzan replies, "You bet I scored! I hit four goals and three players." Retiring to the library, he finds the agitated mogul Knapp, who, with a newspaper in hand, reports the plot-driving crisis in Schnarzan's public image. "They're saying your lions are moth-eaten, toothless, and half of them have the mange," to which Schnarzan defensively responds: "The mange, ay? Well, they didn't get it from me." When a servant attempts to remove his boots for him, Schnarzan ends up being pulled from his chair to the floor. And when Knapp hands the newspaper to Schnarzan, he mumbles a few incoherent words as if reading but then quickly hands the paper back to Knapp and asks, "What does it say?" implying that Schnarzan is illiterate.

This portrayal of Schnarzan/Durante as a likable mug surrounded by the trappings of "high class" but unable to adopt the manners appropriate to that social context encapsulates not only Durante's comedic persona but also his star image as a whole. Press coverage and publicity routinely insisted that Durante was in real life that same, resolutely authentic, average Joe who implicitly repelled the application of surface polish and who could not help but unwittingly betray any of his own efforts to put on airs. Durante rarely broke from character in personal appearances, and even print interviews consistently "wrote" him in ways that insisted upon denying any distinction between person, performer, and persona. (11) In particular, features unanimously refuted any suspicion that Durante's troubled grammar and elocution might have been merely performative, repeating the oft-told story that radio and movie scriptwriters simply lifted malapropisms from actual conversations with Durante or inserted big words they thought he'd be unable to pronounce into scripts (but never wrote the mispronunciations themselves, since such contrived premeditation invariably failed: Durante would only mispronounce the intended mispronunciation).

But of course, the physical unattractiveness, unrefined vulgarity, and implied illiteracy that provided the fuel for nearly all of Durante's jokes were not, in fact, intrinsic limitations (that Durante could not have overcome, even if they were true) but, rather, actively constructed elements of a meticulously constructed star image. If, on the one hand, Durante's comedy derived from the premise of a common "mug" clumsily and unsuccessfully aspiring to put on airs, it also directly questioned the social mandate toward ethnic and working-class assimilation into Anglo-Protestant models of middle-class normativity. Durante's language consisted of not only his trademark mispronunciations and malapropisms but, more significantly, a highly stylized slang (exemplified by the song title "So I Ups to Him"). While this language undoubtedly signified working-class urbanity and perhaps even inferred ties to gangster culture and a then still emergent Italian stereotype, it also marked new social formations of American modernity in the linguistic occupation of a social space that was neither the legitimized voice of standard English nor one of the marginal, hybrid dialects of first-generation immigrant or subaltern African American communities. Durante substantially refashioned, then, the exaggerated imitation and mockery of ethnic and southern African American dialects that had long been a mainstay of vaudeville bills in the form of so-called ethnic humor and minstrel acts, introducing a language that retained the comedic affect of dialect humor but rejected the racial and class hierarchies that such humor both derived from and helped to perpetuate.

From the outset, Durante's transition from cabaret and vaudeville into more upscale forms of entertainment was predicated upon the extent to which his act already played, in essence, to the thematic concerns of assimilation and class miscegenation so endemic to the narrative forms into which producers aimed to incorporate him. Billed as a "sociological musical satire," The New Yorkers (which featured, among other numbers, Porter's "Love for Sale") told the story of a socialite in love with a bootlegger, although here, too, in a late stage of development the story was refrained as a dream in order to soften potential social criticism (Bakish 43). On the other hand, Durante's entrance in Strike Me Pink! was made not from backstage but, rather, down the center aisle, performed as a confrontation between Jimmy and a group of ushers unwilling to admit him to the theater because of his slovenly appearance and crass manners (Crowther 4). While the stunt seems wholly congruent with all of Durante's material, its inclusion in the context of Strike Me Pink!, which even in its toned-down Broadway form still included the "Home to Harlem" number portraying a narrative of African American progress from cotton field cabin to Harlem nightclub, also highlights the way Durante's material was informed by and directly spoke to more explicit questioning of the social and cultural politics of inclusion and exclusion (Bakish 45). The signature number "Jimmy, the Well Dressed Man," which had been introduced to theatergoers with Clayton, Jackson, and Durante's vaudeville debut and subsequently inserted into Ziegfeld's Show Girl, had also nominated Durante's far more stylish standard stage garb as mere pretense, playing upon the same illusory semiotics of glamour that most elements of show business contrarily worked to naturalize. The song's satire of dress as the performative codification of class simultaneously mocks and honors the function of surface as both sign of class status and potential agent of class mobility, playing upon the promises made by a burgeoning consumer culture offering access to the symbolic "white/middle" via the organized functions of commodity consumption.

Durante's language also necessarily invoked the well-noted concerns over multiplied layers of meaning carried into Hollywood film with the introduction of recorded dialogue, which installed not only spoken words but also vocal pitch, diction styles, and the subtleties of accent into the sphere of cinematic signification, complicating the broad dichotomies that silent films' intertitles had effected with the signifying function of visually rendered "dialects" As both sound film and national broadcast radio conspired to establish the aural quality of a centrist national voice and language, Durante constantly revealed himself as a social imposter upon speaking, both unwilling and unable to "pass" even as he traveled in the ranks of "high society."

In constructing an image comically based upon the premise of unassimilability, the Durante star image called attention to the fact of the assimilative mandate, gave expression to anxieties surrounding the proper performance of normative behaviors, nominated the normative as performative, and refused to enact the erasure of ethnic working-class identity in exchange for worldly "success" in a "classless" society.

Conclusion: Cultural Politics and the Real

The presumably intrinsic humor of placing Jimmy Durante in the representational scenario of jungle movie star begins in an extratextual realm and draws upon an established persona defined largely as a relatively singular joke: the fact of Durante's own stardom set against the seeming unlikelihood of that very same thing. Although direct stylistic parody was by no means commonplace in early thirties film, Edmund Goulding's Blondie of the Follies (1932) had previously made similar use of Durante, featuring Marion Davies and him in an imitation of John Barrymore and Greta Garbo's love scene in Grand Hotel. The references to his own conspicuously ample nose, which Durante had made a foundation of his act during the early years of his career in the midtwenties, figure prominently in both instances, insisting that the nose function as a bodily sign of difference corroborating the misfit, outsider-standing-on-the-inside status upon which all of Durante's material played. As Sander Gilman notes, the ethnic nose was in many respects part of the facilitating lexicon of modern European American societies--the genetic truth-teller that ostensibly revealed the distinction between Irish and English, Jewish and Aryan, black and white. Precisely because the nose functioned as a generic marker of "the other" even though it was never widely treated as the "sign" of Durante's own specific Italian ethnicity, his adoption of the obtrusive ethnic nose as the hallmark of his performative persona invited further contemplation of the very nature of the bodily marker--and corporealized difference--itself. The intrusive schnoz was the perpetual joke--the idea of the body out of control, unable to adhere to social scriptures (a fart joke)--the body that speaks truths and reveals lies. The addition of prosthetic body hair in Hollywood Party's mock trailer sequence only adds another level of detail (although by no means an insignificant one) to the insistence upon invoking disruptive and seemingly irrepressible modalities of embodied difference (expressed aurally and visually)--in order to nominate their ultimate nonsensicality--as the essence of the Durante image. (12)

The presentation of the Schnarzan trailer is also somewhat unique, however, in its creation of an unusual dichotomy between real world and diegetic audience. Only the actual audience, for whom the trailer is clearly presented as comedy, gets the joke. The fictive audience framed within the film is being asked to take the pitch "straight"--and not to favorable results. The disjuncture between the "joke" perceived by that fictive audience (who, according to the exhibitor, reject Schnarzan's unconvincing feigning of masculine prowess) and the one provided by Hollywood Party for the actual audience (the burlesquing of Tarzan, which potentially subverts that text's racist iconography) represents a problematizing of "the audience" atypical of Hollywood film and its ancillary discourses. As Jane Feuer notes, the most common use of a represented audience within classical Hollywood films occurs in the musical, a genre also most actively associated with MGM. In the self-reflective musical, however, the relationship between the audience in the film and the audience of the film is generally identificatory. In anchoring our point of view, the diegetic audience works to efface the difference between live theater and film and helps authenticate "the myth of entertainment" that Feuer sees as central to the self-reflective musical's project (26-38). Even when there is a discrepancy between the knowledge possessed by these respective audiences, narrative closure generally enforces a reconciliation. Hollywood Party's opening sequence creates, on the other hand, a gap between represented and real audience that is never closed. We are supposed to laugh (even though we may not) at the Schnarzan trailer, but the fictional audience is expected to take it seriously. This forging of a problematized space between the "serious" and the "joke" structures the overall sensibility of the film.

The conspicuously Anglo-American audience portrayed by Hollywood Party speaks about movies as though they were supposed to be "realistic" demanding an ontological base, a metaphysics of body and presence, from the indexical sign of the photographic image. They might be viewed, on the one hand, as metaphoric ancestors of the Edison Company's iconic Uncle Josh. Edwin S. Porter's Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show (1902) has sometimes been misread as documenting a real historical problematic of audience inability to distinguish between illusion and reality in early motion picture exhibition. "Uncle Josh" first panics at the specter of an oncoming train and eventually pulls down the screen in an effort to save a damsel in distress from an advancing villain. As Janet Staiger notes, however, such readings of the film presume an audience that doubtfully ever existed, one entirely void of interpretative capacities and removed from the historical context of the thoroughgoing introduction of visual amusements into modern daily life. Appropriating the "classic theatrical and literary figure [of] the country bumpkin," Uncle Josh afforded early motion picture audiences an opportunity to laugh at the hypothetical "foolishness of taking a film to be real" (Staiger 104). But where Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show made a joke of the anachronistic subject of a residual culture subordinate to the onset of the Gilded Age, Hollywood Party's inaugurating joke invokes a far more volatile and precarious set of social tensions, including the frightening implications of an empowered social group capable of receiving a film like Tarzan and His Mate as something other than playful illusionistic fantasy, potentially transforming the fascistic erotics of Weissmuller's Aryan body into a social praxis of domination even as cinema began to realize some of its most insidious potentials overseas. The nightmare presented by the film--the nightmare prompted by Durante's slipping into sleep while reading a Tarzan novel--is, in fact, a chain of chaos unleashed by the misguided efforts of Schnarzan and his Hollywood pals to seize upon the cultural value of the real inscribed through symbolically differenced bodies, a real that comes back in the end, to use a fitting phrase, to "bite them in the ass" as the unleashed lions bring the Hollywood party to its ill-fated finale. That this relatively unusual excursion into pondering the cultural politics of the real and the cinematic illusion would have effaced itself so willingly in its own moment by circulating under a shroud of anonymity only makes the film more compelling as an object of critical scrutiny, enduring as perhaps its most provocative statement about who, and what, made Hollywood cinema itself.

Works Cited

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(1.) For a discussion of the Garbo mystique and Queen Christina see Landy and Villarejo.

(2.) Behlmer and Thomas wrote that "even in 1934, Hollywood Party was regarded as poor" (263); Parish and Pitts describe it as "tiring" with "little to offer" (175); Meyers blames its inferior quality on the fact that "the production had its share of problems" (76). The interview was first published in Bogdanovich, Allan Dwan. References in this essay are from the expanded version of the interview published in Bogdanovich, Who 42-126.

(3.) For a synopsis of the notion of the "Comedian Comedy" and its antecedents see Krutnik 17-38.

(4.) See "25c Top"; "'Tell' Pushing."

(5.) See Doherty; Jacobs; Maltby; Negra.

(6.) Jenkins's viewing of the film did not include the Technicolor version of the "Hot Chocolate Soldiers" number, which was edited out entirely or shown in a black-and-white version for many decades in the versions of the film that ran on television or in repertory houses. The Technicolor version has since been restored and replaced within the version of the film that presently runs on Turner Classic Movies.

(7.) For a detailed description of Munchausen's publication history, ubiquity, and popularity in the United States see Blair.

(8.) For extensive publication and bibliographic information regarding Burroughs's fiction see Zeuschner.

(9.) Descriptions of Burroughs's private and public fascination with eugenics are provided by Taliaferro 19, 35, 225-31, 265-67, 304.

(10.) In addition to Cheyfritz 3-21, treatments of the racist and imperialist ideologies mobilized in Burroughs's writing can be found in Berglund; Jurca; Dyer 146-59.

(11.) See, for example, Kennedy; "Jimmie."

(12.) On the textual politics of male body shaving in Hollywood cinema see Cohan 191.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Larson, Allen. "Hollywood Party, Jimmy Durante, and the cultural politics of coherence." Velvet Light Trap, no. 64, 2009, p. 11+. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 25 Mar. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A207461997