Quick! What is widely considered to be the highest-grossing film of all time?
You knew the answer, didn’t you? We bet you didn’t even have to Google it.
You see, this is why Hollywood is Serious Business; movies are valued by how much money they make. So it’s a treat when Hollywood pokes a little fun at itself, as it did in the 1937 comedy Stand-In.
Stand-In is the story of an independent Hollywood studio (Colossal Film Company) that is losing money so fast, its financiers want to dump it in a fire sale. However, they decide to give the studio one last chance and dispatch their resident financial wizard, Atterbury Dodd (Leslie Howard), to straighten things out.
In this film, Howard portrays a punctilious efficiency expert who can add a column of six-digit figures in his head in milliseconds. When he arrives in Hollywood, he goes dancing with an actress and has the following conversation:
Actress: “Do you dream, Mr. Dodd?”
Howard: “Not habitually.” [Thinks about it.] “Occasionally. When I have something to eat that disagrees with me.”
Upon his arrival in Hollywood, Howard meets a Miss Plum (Joan Blondell), who impulsively climbs into his cab while it’s waiting at a stop light. Blondell, who is unfailingly cute and funny, explains to Howard that she is a “stand-in”, someone who stands in for the actor while the lights are set up on a movie set. Blondell tells Howard that, as a stand-in, she does the sweating for the star.
Howard realizes he’s the stand-in for the fianciers and, by the time the film concludes, he’ll have done a lot of sweating, too.
There is so much to enjoy in this film. Every character is a treat, including the amusing bellhop who tells Howard that the hotel suite’s bathroom is painted “dramatic jungle red!”
Howard is extremely funny and says his ridiculous lines without a trace of irony. His character’s primary concern is money; there is no time for frippery. When he learns that ruthless movie mogul Mr. Nassau (C. Henry Gordon), is gunning for Colossal, Howard remarks with geekish alarm, “That is a very startling piece of information.”
(Digression #1: This movie was released by United Artists, which was formed in 1919 as a backlash against the studio system. UA was originally created as a distribution company for independent Hollywood filmmakers. It was acquired by MGM in 1981.)
(Digression #2: Before you watch this movie, we must warn you of an uncomfortable scene that involves a harmonica-playing stage mother and her inappropriately-dressed preschool daughter. When the daughter finishes her dance routine, the mother says, “Now do that Mae West number.”)
If you’re in the mood for an amusing send-up of old Hollywood, we recommend Stand-In. It’s movie-making satire that’s been done many times but, as one character remarks, “Great pictures are not made. They are re-made.”
See? Who says Hollywood can’t laugh at itself?
Stand-In: Starring Leslie Howard, Joan Blondell, Humphrey Bogart. Directed by Tay Garnett. Written by Gene Towne & Graham Baker. United Artists Corp., B&W, 1937, 90 mins.