Silents in Talkies: Hollywood Cavalcade (1939)

Welcome to another installment of Silents in Talkies. In this series, I review sound movies that are either about the silent era or that incorporate silent films into their story. I will review the film itself and then briefly discuss whether the film helped or harmed public perception of the silent era.

This time around, Alice Faye and Don Ameche play the leads in movieland’s love letter to itself, Hollywood Cavalcade.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

Review

I have never made any secret of the fact that I do not like musicals. At all. I mean, these people expect me to believe that sane adults randomly burst into choreographed song and dance. And folks say silent films are unrealistic. Harumph!

So it may come as a surprise when I tell you that I love Alice Faye and Don Ameche. One of the very few musicals I like is Alexander’s Ragtime Band (which, in all fairness, gives the singing and dancing context) and Faye and Ameche are a big part of what makes it good. And here is a chance to see them in a non-musical. Hurrah!
Hollywood Cavalcade‘s plot will be familiar to anyone who has seen a few showbiz pictures. Boy meets girl, they make movies, boy’s ego gets out of control, chases girl away, boy hits the skids, boy sees the light and makes comeback.

hollywood cavalcade

It’s 1913. (Or so we are told in the title card. Not that the costumes do not give you that idea.) Don Ameche plays Mike Connors, a prop boy with an eye on the director’s chair. He signs Broadway up-and-comer Molly Adair (Alice Faye) and takes her to Hollywood, where she knocks ’em dead with her custard pie skills. It seems like romance is in the air but Mike is a workaholic and ends up losing Molly to her handsome leading man, Nicky Hayden (Alan Curtis). Nicky is thoughtful, handsome, sweet, loyal and not-at-all jealous. Yet Molly moons over Mike.

Mike’s ego has gotten out of control and he is considered unemployable. Molly arranges to give him a break by directing her next picture. But then there is a tragic car accident and sound is coming to the movies. Can these two crazy kids get it together?

Girls in swimsuits? Who would pay to see that?
Girls in swimsuits? Who would pay to see that?

Like most Faye vehicles dealing with the entertainment industry (Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Tin Pan Alley), Hollywood Cavalcade plays fast and loose with dates and facts. The entirety of World War One is ignored. Mike is portrayed as some combination of Mack Sennett, D.W. Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein and Erich von Stroheim. Name an aspect of early film and he invented it. Pie fights! Bathing Beauties! Soft focus during love scenes! Scene composition! Part-talkies! All the work of Mike Connors. I found my eyes rolling more times than I care to count.

The movie just tries to fit too much film history into its plot. By starting us off in 1913 and taking us to 1927, the movie is forced to take yearlong leaps in time. It also means that the 24 year old Alice Faye manages to live 14 movie years but not age a day.

(via moviepostershop.com)

I also did not appreciate the way the film handles its extra male. (Spoiler alert for the rest of this paragraph) Poor Nicky is just too perfect a rival. Who would leave him for the moody Mike? So in order to get Mike and Molly together, the script kills him offscreen in a convenient auto accident. Molly is injured but in the most beautiful way possible. Oh, brother.

(Alice Faye once said that her voice was deeper than the plots of her Ameche collaborations. I certainly will not argue with her on that.)

So, now that I have my kvetching out of the way, I will talk about the good things. First of all, it has cameos from numerous silent comic luminaries. Ben Turpin, Chester Conklin, Mack Sennett and, of course, Buster Keaton. The boys seem to be enjoying themselves immensely. Keep in mind that a mere ten years had passed since the death of the silent feature.

Sorry Don, you still look 30.
Sorry Don, you still look 30.

What really sells the picture, though, is the charm of Alice Faye and Don Ameche. While the script is improbable, Ameche captured the manic energy of early filmmakers. Part huckster, part genius and completely nuts, Mike Connors would have gotten along quite well in early motion pictures.

Alice Faye plays her usual sweetheart but what I really enjoyed was her work with Buster Keaton. You see, actresses reenacting silent films tend to overdo it. A lot. They are not so much giving a silent performance as mimicking Norma Desmond. Maybe its just because Sunset Boulevard was not made yet but Alice Faye is really, really good as a silent actress. She doesn’t overdo her mugging but she does broaden her performance just enough.

Oh, and the Technicolor is mercifully subtle with none of the eyeball-searing shades that were all too common in films of this period.

Watch or pass?

Watch with a few caveats. Your enjoyment of this movie pretty much rides on how much you like Alice Faye and Don Ameche. If you are not a fan, you may just want to see the first act, which has all the silent comedians.

Silent Era Perception

Did this film harm the silent era’s reputation, help it, or is it a draw?

Buster isn't so sure about this.
Buster isn’t so sure about this.

As usual, I will be examining the overall portrayal of silents in this film. I will not be looking for tiny technical inaccuracies or other nitpicky aspects.

Buster goes a-wooing,
Buster goes a-wooing,

Let first say that this movie does get a lot of things right. It is one of very few talking pictures about silent movies that does not fall into the trap of overusing title cards. It also portrays the close relationship between director and star in a time when performances could be verbally coached while shooting. And it properly shows that mood music was employed on silent movie sets.

That being said, this movie is also partially responsible for some major misconceptions about the silent era. The first and biggest is the pie fight. You see, custard pies have long been associated with silent film and folks on the Sennett lot did use them. However, they would also use flour, milk, jam, mud… Anything good and messy.

No.
No.

The fact is, though, pie fights were not a common occurrence in silent films. How many were there? To my knowledge, two. Total. For one thing, pie fights are surprisingly dangerous.

So, a single pie may be planted in someone’s face but pie fights? Not all that common. Sorry, Hollywood Cavalcade.

The movie also unfortunately turns Buster Keaton into a custard pie comic, which he decidedly was not. So another point lost for that.

Finally, the movie does a little too much name dropping. A few cameos and offhand mentions are fine but I was a little annoyed that one of the Bathing Beauties was named Gloria. Miss Swanson was, of course, not a mere bathing girl. She was a star. As I am fond of saying, wearing a swimsuit in a Keystone comedy is no evidence that you are a bathing beauty. Just ask Mack Swain.

The Sennett Bathing Beauties!
The Sennett Bathing Beauties!

I have to say that Hollywood Cavalcade meant well. It does not have the snide “look at these rubes making silents!” attitude that too many movies about the era adopt. It’s just that silent films tend to be stereotyped and the pie fight didn’t help matters.

The Verdict: Harm

Consider this to be friendly fire. Hollywood Cavalcade meant to celebrate silent comedies but ended up perpetuating one of the more irritating misconceptions about the era.

4 Replies to “Silents in Talkies: Hollywood Cavalcade (1939)”

  1. Lovely review. I don’t really agree with you about musicals, though. I don’t think musicals are trying to necessarily represent real life. They simply use another way of getting across ideas, emotions, and plot points other than talking or newspaper headlines, etc.

    I respect your opinion, though.

    By the way, I agree with you about intertitles. They should be used as little as is humanely possible. Hell, some silents don’t have any other than the actual title card at the beginning.

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