Dixie

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Alice White and her… zombie beatnik chorus?

When you’re feeling poorly, a pre-code can be a tonic, or else it can be about all you can handle. Although some of them are rather spicy, and some (THE BOWERY) even toxic, so you have to watch out. Fiona had a very good week, during which we ventured out of early thirties Hollywood and ran L’AUBERGE ROUGE, but then she’s had a couple of bad days so we ran for cover into the soothing crackle of Vitaphone.

A SHOW GIRL IN HOLLYWOOD is a 1930 Warners dramedy, or dromedary if you will, with an interesting history. The character of Dixie Dugan sprang from two novels by J.P. McEvoy (IT’S A GIFT), was adapted into a comic strip with Louise Brooks serving as model for the showgirl’s design, and then found her way to a Gershwin-scored Broadway play (Ruby Keeler in the lead), and thence to the screen, embodied by Alice White in 1928’s SHOW GIRL (which I haven’t managed to see) and its sequel.

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Gargantuan clown weeps chorines: a staple of entertainment in the ’30s.

This being 1930 means the studio with the most pre-code paprika hadn’t quite hit its stride — Mervyn LeRoy directs, but he lets everybody take their time (even Herman Bing, though playing a character called Bing, just does not bring the Bing), and everybody being somewhat miscast and the material being somewhat thin, the film kind of just lays there. Still, it’s interesting.

One reason for this is the behind-the-scenes stuff, which we’ve been wallowing in lately. Though the movie isn’t particularly abrasive in its portrayal of Hollywood, it does feature a musical number interrupted by shots taken from inside one of the soundproof booths, which means they must have crammed TWO cameras in there, one filming the other. The motor whir is pretty loud, alright. This fine post covers most of what I’d have said about that.

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Another reason is Alice White, who fascinates. She has natural oomph, and it’s not that she can’t act, exactly — she just seems to not know what’s going on around her most of the time. Her quicksilver shifts of facial expression are enticing, but not strictly tied to anything in the scene, they’re more like hats being tried on for size. A more intelligent performance might have focused and injected fizzle into what are often quite flat scenes. It’s not really clear if Dixie is a gold-digger, a ditz, or what, and White’s reading of the snappier lines is uncertain enough to suggest Dixie is repeating things she’s overheard, rather than minting her own witticisms.

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Third reason is Blanche Sweet, in one of only three early talkies she made, rather cruelly cast as a past-her-prime actress. “I’m thirty-two,” she confesses, though Sweet was actually a little older. Still, point taken — Hollywood’s search for the new, the young, is a merciless thing. Sweet had a perfectly good voice, in fact she made her living in radio and on the stage when the movies stopped calling, so her decline can be credited purely to the changing of fashion. I guess when movies began yapping, people were excited to see their favourite stars give voice, but less-celebrated players couldn’t compete with imports from the New York stage or elsewhere, who could be marketed as the next big thing.

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4 Responses to “Dixie”

  1. Thanks for the link over. Yes, interesting describes this one best. I turned it on with low expectations and found myself fascinated by little turns and touches throughout. The movie also opened my eyes to Jack Mulhall, who I’d like to catch in something else now.

  2. Marc Hampton Says:

    I believe “Show Girl” (1928) is a lost film.

  3. Marc, yes, I wondered if that might be the case but never got around to checking. A shame!

    Cliff, you’re welcome, thanks for the fascinating piece. Show Girl in Hollywood’s shots of soundproof booths etc are now one of its greatest attractions!

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