Since its inception, Hollywood has always loved making movies about itself. That these pictures usually take pot-shots at the industry doesn’t discount the arrogance behind the endeavors. Still, there have been many memorable movies in this mold, and I can now count 1937’s Stand-In among them.
At a time when most studio fare was light-hearted and optimistic, you had to see a film like this to get your fix of acerbic wit. And this is one seriously funny movie.
Leslie Howard stars as an uptight mathematical wiz of an accountant. He works for a firm in New York City that has a large interest in a failing movie studio.
When we first see him, he is reviewing a co-worker’s numbers produced by an adding machine. Within seconds, he finds an error in the calculations that had resulted in a seven-digit total. He’s so good, that he has found a fault in an adding machine.
His superiors want to sell the studio, but Howard believes this is a salvageable operation. As he tells the board about his conviction, “Confidence based on mathematics. I’ll stake my future on it.” And so he does, as he is sent packing to personally head the studio. If he doesn’t succeed in turning it around, they aren’t going to let him return.
This feature gets decent mileage from the fish-out-of-water boilerplate. Upon his arrival in Hollywood, there’s a great montage of weird Los Angeles buildings interspersed with his reaction shots from the back of a cab.
Once planted in his office, he becomes fully immersed in that strange parallel universe that is the entertainment industry. One of my favorite moments is when an overzealous mother and her “talented” young daughter storm into his office and demand an audition. He wisely terminates the audition when the mother tells her prepubescent ward to “do that Mae West number.”
I can’t remember which thing he says this about, but “How much does all this bad taste cost?” could apply to a couple of dozen things he witnesses. Many of these are in the service of Sex & Satan, the deeply terrible movie within this movie.
He rooms in a boarding house filled with eccentric characters all hoping to find work in pictures. There’s the guy who is always in character as Abe Lincoln yet is struggling to memorize the Gettysburg Address. There’s a trained seal that lives in the bathtub.
And there’s also Joan Blondell as the Howard’s secretary. There’s a great bit where she does a bit of “Good Ship Lollipop” in a performance that drips with sarcasm. She has an unrequited crush on her oblivious boss. Howard: “I’ve usually had a male secretary.” Blondell: “Well, I’ll try to keep my voice and emotions at a low register.”
She tries to build up his self-esteem, encouraging him to stand tall both within the studio and outside of it. Explaining the dog-eat-dog nature of the industry to him: “In Hollywood, when you turn the other cheek, they kick it.”
These efforts initially backfire. Howard, his eye blackened after a brawl at a party that was supposed to be in his honor: “Don’t you think I have been sufficiently honored for one evening?”
Still, she shows him such maneuvers as the judo throw she’s perfected. As she explains, it’s handy for when a guy thinks your knee is the gear shift. In the course of the film, we will see her throw Howard a couple of times but, unfortunately, we do not get to see her somehow throw a guy within the confines of an automobile.
Stand-In is great fun, with solid performances and snappy dialogue throughout. What intrigued me most is how it eerily foretells the current state of the film industry (and recording industry, and publishing industry), where bean counters decide what is art.
Dir: Tay Garnett
Starring Leslie Howard, Joan Blondell, Humphrey Bogart
Watched on Classic Flix blu-ray