Thursday, July 25, 2013

Color Film of Hollywood in 1931

A Unique Look at Old Hollywood - the REAL Old Hollywood

Dirigible film poster
I have a poster of the 1931 film "Dirigible" above, but that's only a part of what is interesting about the below raw film footage from a long-ago day in Hollywood, California. I like film that seems to come from a time that it shouldn't, such as the 1939 color film of New York City that shows an uncannily modern city.

This film is "amateur" only in the sense that most of it was filmed by an individual for his own enjoyment. Everything else about the footage is extremely professional, suggesting a Hollywood big shot of some sort had it filmed with cutting-edge equipment.

But we aren't given any information on the source of the film. Perhaps, for some reason during the height of the Great Depression in 1931, somebody - most likely a technician or publicist (probably a team of both, in fact) at Columbia Pictures - decided to give one of the extremely rare color film cameras a workout one day. Perhaps he had never or rarely used one and needed the practice. He/they went around town, filming ordinary street scenes and some of the mansions on Rodeo Drive and various tourist attractions. They finally zeroed in on the real target: the big premiere at Graumann's Chinese Theater that night, April 4, 1931. The camera crew actually drives right past Graumann's earlier in the film, in daylight, but you have to look hard to notice. The area is suprisingly dingy.

It's almost like a tourist film, though no tourist in those days would have had a color camera. The camera movements are not jerky, but smooth and mechanically controlled. Notice the careful pan skyward at the new Rudolph Valentino statue. This is not some random guy with a hand-held job.

Time is spent at Valentino's grave - he had just died a few years earlier, the monument must have been brand new - and some big shot is seen playing with his dog at a hotel entrance while others look on. The dog is barking at an organ grinder's monkey, who is scampering about in the street. More time is spent looking over the brand new Hollywood Bowl, built in 1929, and then switching to the other side of it to look at the crowd assembling for the day's performance. The camera crew either was bored, or they were just practicing filming in different lighting conditions. Some of the shots are a bit over-saturated, perhaps they were working on getting the settings right.

In the street scenes, the cars whizz by dangerously, but something is missing: they have no turn signals. Blinkers were not invented until 1938, and not put in their present form until 1940 (and they haven't changed since).

The mansions are interesting. While at first they look very similar to today's houses, they seem to have fewer windows. That must have been the style in those days. Also, for such lavish houses, they don't seem particularly protected from the public, with simple driveways through un-enclosed arches. Also, nobody seems particularly hard-up, everything looks perfectly normal - in the middle of the Great Depression. Hollywood was a Depression-proof town.

Then it is on to the big premiere. The film is "Dirigible," a Frank Capra drama about exploring the Antarctic in, you guessed it, a dirigible. The film starred Fay Wray, Jack Holt and Ralph Graves and cost more than any picture Columbia had made to date.

We get to see the stars make their entrances outside the theater, just as they do today. Wray poses coyly for the cameras as the men rush through the photo op in perfunctory fashion.

The woman in white, relatively plain clothes (wait and compare the women who follow!) who arrives first is Bessie Love. Love began her film career in 1915 and continued, fairly steadily, into the 1980s. One could legitimately say that she was at the peak of her fame in 1931, and that it was all downhill from there.

Frank Fay, a comic actor enjoying a brief period of fame, arrives (that is only shown in the second video below). Unmentioned is his wife holding onto him - Barbara Stanwyck, who was just starting to get leading roles in minor films. They divorced a few years later, her career on the rise, his failing. He died, forgotten, in 1961, at a time when Stanwyck was still on top and about to become a major television star. (You'll have to watch the second video below for Fay and Stanwyck.) "A Star is Born," anyone?

Silent film star Sally O'Neil, recognizable by her distinctive nose, arrives. She is accompanied by her husband and another couple, all decked out to the nines. Check out the white minks the women are wearing, and the imperious look that O'Neil gives toward the hoi polloi fighting each other for position behind the gallery ropes! O'Neil is completely forgotten today, her career already on the ropes at the time of this film because her New Jersey accent did not project well in the new talkies. She was the epitome of the 1920s actress who couldn't transition to talkies, perhaps the model for the similar character in "Singing in the Rain." No starlet would be caught dead wearing a mink stole these days.

Edward G. Robinson arrives with his first wife, Gladys, whom he divorced 25 years later. She looks nice, but is rather plain.

Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Pictures, arrives with a big smile and a nod, checking out the competition. Thomas Edison, his fierce business rival, would pass away later that year.

Gloria Swanson is the lady in red, preening for the cameras. "I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. Demille!" She projects more star power than anyone else. "Thank you, Miss Swanson." She utters a few words after leaving view about how fascinating the premiere is - it must have been quite a big deal to impress even a big star like her. It was Columbia's first million-dollar picture, and they pulled out all the stops to promote it.

Tickets were $5 apiece, a king's ransom during the Depression for people who might not make $5 in a week. The film apparently was a success.

While "Dirigible" is completely forgotten, it had a lot of eerie elements that foreshadowed tragic future events: it was shot in the same hanger at Lakehurst, New Jersey which the Hindenburg was headed for half a dozen years later, and the aircraft carrier Lexington, which sank in World War II, is seen. The airship "Los Angeles," somewhat ironically given the way it is used in the film, was one of the few United States airships that didn't crash, instead being decommissioned in 1932 and broken up in 1939, after rigid airships went out of style.

Just observing how they promoted big films in those days - with the title spelled out in giant lit-up letters against the surrounding darkness, klieg lights flashing - is a thrill for film buffs.

However, it isn't the fact of the premiere that is the most interesting thing about this clip, but just the oddness of seeing Hollywood itself in color early in a decade that we all think of in blacks and grays. Everything seems normal, with children casually skipping rope outside and adults playing with their dogs, ordinary houses that probably look exactly the same today - until we see the street scenes, filled with classic cars roaming the streets. Turns out people driving back then were in a hurry just like today, with the cars whizzing past. It is a fascinating glimpse at a long-lost time and place.
The parts of the film which show the premiere itself also are seen in this narrated version, followed by some lengthy extraneous and obscure clips of Gloria Swanson.
If you enjoy history as much as I do, you may find this film to be quite evocative of an age long gone by. I also have some classic footage of:


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