Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Hollywood Steps Out (1941)

Hollywood Steps Out (Warner Bros., 1941)
Dir: Fred "Tex" Avery
Cel Bloc Rating: 7/9

Near the end of his tenure at Warner Bros., before he was fired over the ending of The Heckling Hare, Fred "Tex" Avery upped the ante on the Hollywood caricature/cameo picture with Hollywood Steps Out in 1941. This is actually the film in this sub-genre that I have seen the most, due to its inclusion in the roster of the long defunct (and far preceding Turner's Cartoon Network) Cartoon Channel, which played on the UHF band in Anchorage, AK around 1987-89. (The dates are not precise as it is hard to find information on the channel, though I do remember it being on when I was first married, and it was also the reason my late beloved pup Blip was named so, because of the constant reruns of Space Ghost that were offered up on the station.) Hollywood Steps Out was shown often due to its have fallen into the public domain at that time, along with a host of other Warner Bros. cartoons such as the incredible Book Revue (Review) with the Danny Kaye-esque Daffy Duck jitterbugging with Little Red Riding Hood.

However, it was shown with numerous cuts, and now when I watch the film on the Looney Tunes Golden Collection DVDs (or as I did recently on Cartoon Alley on TCM), I see several moments that I don't remember ever seeing in its earlier incarnation. Not that any sort of mild censure would do much harm to the gag content of this cartoon: the film is fairly bursting with quality moments, all built off of the marvelous caricature work of Ben Shenkman, who previously did the lampooning designs in Friz Freleng's Malibu Beach Party (1940). But where that rather enjoyable (and personal favorite) film was still somewhat low-key in its approach, Avery's later attempt at the genre goes full-bore in its loving attack on Hollywood cult of personality. There are no fewer than 44 clear cameos built into this picture, and they unceasingly pile on top of each other until the supposedly still-incomplete ending. (There are rumors that a scene at the tail end of the film where Gable wiggles his ears at a transvestic Groucho Marx was considered a bit too risqué and was unceremoniously cut at the last minute.)

Practically the entire picture is set to a conga beat, and even the spotlights arcing over the streets of Hollywood get into the act as the fun begins on the floor of Ciro's, the famous L.A. nightspot. Cary Grant asks cigarette girl Greta Garbo for a light, which she strikes off of her enormous shoe. Johnny Weissmuller hands his evening coat to a hot coat-check girl, revealing his Tarzan outfit underneath. James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and George Raft seem to planning some sort of nefarious caper, but then it turns into a game of penny pitching, with the tough mugs behaving more like little kids. Harpo gives Garbo a hotfoot, and her only response is an extremely unenthusiastic "Ow."

Master of Ceremonies Bing Crosby (continually bothered by a jockey and his horse, a visual reminder of his notorious gambling tendencies) introduces Maestro Leopold Stokowski (a nod to Disney?) who breaks his orchestra into... another conga? James Stewart is brilliantly portrayed battling temptation from a sarong clad Dorothy Lamour. Too hot for Mr. Stewart as she steps onto the dance floor, she causes him to rush from the table, leaving a sign stating "Mr. Smith Went to Washington" on the tabletop. And, of course, Avery's running gag with Gable dancing/chasing the beautiful blonde (a disguised Groucho, for whatever reason. He also did this in The CooCoo Nut Grove) about the room pretty much constitutes the only "plot" that the film possesses, but who cares?

When Sally Strand (actually Rand) performs her bubble dance, the film goes crazy as Avery marks another step in the evolution of his Red Hot Riding Hood character at MGM. The girl strips/dances, and all the men turn into wolves (but not literally, like they would at MGM, though they start out as wolves in those pictures). The professorial Kay Kyser sees her Ms. "Strand", yells to his "Students!" and behind him are William Powell, Spencer Tracy, Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, Wallace Berry and C. Aubrey Smith, whistling and yelling "Baby!" Peter Lorre (in my favorite moment in the film) is also enraptured by the dance, but strangely, not by the seemingly nude girl. Dreamily, he offers "I haven't seen such a beautiful bubble since I was a child!" The monotone and crabby Ned Sparks (!) asks a table with Boris Karloff, Arthur Treacher, Buster Keaton and Mischa Auer if they are having a good time, to which they reply with a stone-faced and similarly monotoned "Yes." Harpo eventually slingshots the bubble, revealing Ms. Strand clad in suspenders and strategically placed barrel.

All this, and I haven't even mentioned Edward G. Robinson, Ann Sheridan, Tyrone Power, Sonja Henie, Frankenstein's Monster, the Three Stooges, Oliver Hardy, Cesar Romero, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Lewis Stone (as Judge Hardy, whom Rooney implores to help pay for the $50 dinner. They both end up washing dishes... to the conga beat, of course), Henry Fonda ("Coming, mother!"), J. Edgar Hoover, Jerry Colonna (with binoculars, sitting next to the invisible Yahoodi). Also, there is a gag involving empty tables where the names and differently sized seating arrangements of Bette Davis, Kate Smith and the Bumstead family are invoked; furthermore, a cameo by Warner Bros. producer Leon Schlesinger and his assistant Henry Binder is augmented by the familiar Looney Tunes theme. I'm sure that I have missed someone (I'm still not sure with whom Romero is dancing), but I'm also sure that I will be returning to Ciro's quite often over the years, so I should have plenty of occasion to learn who I have left out.

[Editor's note: The text and photos for this article were updated on 10/30/2015.]

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