‘Hollywood Story’ (1951): A clever little noir mystery

Or….Sunset Boulevard and On the Waterfront redux! 

By Paul Mavis

Those magnificent bastards at Mill Creek Entertainment (how cool are they? Got three hours?) have released on Blu-ray a very tasty noirish double feature—Hollywood Story and New Orleans Uncensored—both from the prolific director’s chair of future fright king, William Castle. 

1951’s murder mystery Hollywood Story, which we’ll discuss in this review (based loosely on the true-life murder of director William Desmond Taylor), stars Richard Conte, Julie Adams, Richard Egan, Henry Hull, Fred Clark, Paul Cavanagh, Jim Backus (as well as silent movie performers Francis X. Bushman, Betty Blythe, William Farnum, and Helen Gibson).  Mill Creek’s Blu B&W transfers are crisp and clean—vintage noir fans will need these in their collections.  

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Agent Mitch Davis (Jim Backus) has plans for his former school chum-turned-successful Broadway producer Larry O’Brien (Richard Conte): a bump up to first-time movie producer. So imagine Mitch’s concern when Larry becomes obsessed not only with the abandoned National Artists Studios he’s renting out for the production…but also with the real-life murder that occurred there in 1929.

You see…there was a famous director-in-residence at the studio, Franklin Ferrara, living in a cozy bungalow right on the lot, but someone plugged him one night, and the once-scandalous murder remains unsolved to this day.  Larry thinks it would make a swell picture, but Mitch is opposed to it (“Back stage stories are okay. Back camera stories are absolutely no good,”), while Larry’s financial partner, Sam Collyer (Fred Clark) is adamantly opposed—so much so that he’s initially willing to break up the partnership if Larry doesn’t ditch the idea.

Larry the producer turns into Larry the gumshoe when his obsession to solve the real-life murder becomes a verisimilitude necessity for his reel-life murder mystery movie. Old silent movie ghosts and skeletons are shooed out from their dusty corners, including Vincent St. Clair (Henry Hull), a down-on-his-heels screenwriter who worked exclusively with Ferrara; old smoothie Roland Paul (Paul Cavanagh), a former matinee idol now reduced to butler roles; and Amanda Rousseau (Julie Adams), the look-alike daughter of silent star Sally Rousseau, who was in love with Ferrara…and who visited him on the night he was murdered. Will Larry produce a killer mystery…or be killed by Ferrara’s mystery killer?

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I always crack up when I read the blasé, dismissive tone of so many of today’s douchebag “film critics” (heehee!) who give the brush-off to movies like Hollywood Story, either because they’re not “noir canon,” or because they’re “merely” a competent little whodunit in the TV Perry Mason mode. Um…excuse me? You think you can give the noir nod based on semi-logical quota tricks (“Whelp…no femme fatale in Hollywood Story. Sorry—not noir.  Next!”)? Or relegate it to the cheapjack “B” pile because it’s small and competent and unpretentious, and physically resembles a TV series that’s still running 50+ years later in syndication? That kind of comparison somehow indicates a lesser status?

Listen: Hollywood Story is no neglected masterpiece, but it certainly qualifies as a noir murder mystery, from its obsessed lead, its puzzle piece story steeped in doom-laden memories, to its mostly nighttime setting with that familiar chiaroscuro lighting, and its recognizable noir mise-en-scene (no matter how superficially it’s employed here).  As for it coming off like a lost Raymond Burr outing…why do you think Perry Mason is still running today? Because it stinks? Simple, assured pieces of entertainment like Hollywood Story—even so-called “junk” from yesterday’s mainstream pop culture that snooty newspaper critics back then waved off—play like Citizen Kane when compared to so much of today’s half-assed shit that’s passed off as “popular” entertainment.

As a deliberate working mode, I never try to solve a movie mystery while it plays out—I like to be confused and disoriented and discombobulated as to who’s who and what’s what. After all…isn’t that the whole point of the genre? What…I should be Sherlock Holmes and know it all? If I do happen then to figure out the solution, despite my best efforts to get lost in the riddle, then that’s a pretty good indication of a ridiculously obvious conundrum. Hollywood Story’s secret had me guessing right up to the last five minutes, so right there it gets points for doing its main job: mystifying the viewer.

Everything else is biscuits and gravy after that raison d’etre is satisfied, including all those cool second unit nighttime shots of the Dream Factory at mid-century: the fabled corner of Hollywood and Vine, Ciro’s, KELA Channel 7, the Broadway-Hollywood Plaza Hotel, and even the long-gone lighted floats of the Hollywood Christmas parade sliding by Graumann’s Chinese Theater. Best of all, we get a few tantalizing shots of Charlie Chaplin’s famed movie studio, standing in for National Artists, which adds another layer of fictionalized reality to Hollywood Story’s overall micro-zeitgeist (Chaplin, still the owner at this time, would shoot Limelight there after the Hollywood Story production vacated, before selling it off.  Ironies of ironies, the studio would eventually host the final production years of none other than…Perry Mason).

Director William Castle, who gets talked about all the time because of his promotional horror gimmicks but rarely, it seems, for his skill at putting together a more-than-accomplished product, does his usual adroit job of keeping scripters Frederick Kohner’s and Fred Brady’s story moving in a sharp, clear manner. Hollywood Story has a relaxed, almost dreamy nighttime tempo. That’s well-suited to its low-key producer-turned-private eye hero who becomes haunted by a long-forgotten murder (underrated Conte’s underplaying is just right). Dead and forgotten times permeate Hollywood Story, from the silent movies and their stars that nobody cares about anymore, to a scandal no one remembers (the studio guard tells Larry that at one time, thousands of people toured the murder bungalow…but that it’s been years and years since anyone bothered to stop by).

Not surprisingly, considering producer Leonard Goldstein piloted the Ma and Pa Kettle series, Hollywood Story has an equally low-key vein of humor running through it. Jim Backus has a couple of amusing scenes, including one where he tries to convince his wife that Conte’s real-life murder mystery storyline is a bust (she instead brightly offers, “I like it,”), while Henry Hull steals the picture anytime he screws up his face to deliver an acidic line. When offered his old salary after almost 20 years of writing nothing—“I couldn’t fit it in my schedule,”—Hull tells Conte, “I think you’re absolutely crazy…but I like the sound of your checkbook.” Dressed up in full 20s Hollywood gear, he’s a stitch, as are the little throwaway gags sprinkled throughout the movie, including the two Monopoly men swells who walk down the sidewalk…right into the unemployment office (they’re actors, of course), and my favorite, Sylvester the drunk (the marvelous Joseph Mell), who giddily offers, “It’s getting better: it’s the first killing we’ve had this year!” at his cruddy place of residence, the Ajax hotel.

Even grinning Richard Egan, Hollywood Story’s cop—usually the villain of the piece in these kinds of noirs—seems faintly amused by everything, knowing his own place in this laid-back caper (he describes himself thusly:  “Oh, I don’t know…maybe comic relief: the blundering flat foot,”).  That self-reflexive quality comes full circle during a rather remarkable shot near Hollywood Story’s end, when Castle, showing the filming of Larry’s movie, pulls the camera up above the flats of the bungalow set, showing its studio reality (or unreality?), while making us realize it’s the same set we’ve come to believe was the real bungalow. It’s a clever little end to a clever little noir mystery. 

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.

Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.

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