Saturday, 10 April 2021

Movie Review: Stand-In (1937)

A satire and romance set in Hollywood, Stand-In pokes good fun at the movie-making culture but stumbles on unsteady tones.

Colossal Pictures is a badly managed and financially struggling Hollywood movie studio. When unscrupulous corporate raider Ivor Nassau (C. Henry Gordon) submits a low-ball purchase offer, New York bank executive and mathematical wizard Atterbury Dodd (Leslie Howard) is dispatched to assess the situation at the studio.

In Hollywood he bumps into helpful stand-in and former child star Lester Plum (Joan Blondell), who helps him uncover a wasteful culture exemplified by imperious director Koslofski (Alan Mowbray), fading star Thelma Cheri (Marla Shelton), and fast-talking publicity manager Tom Potts (Jack Carson). Producer Doug Quintain (Humphrey Bogart) wants to do the right thing but is hampered by his lingering love for Thelma. Dodd has to find a way to turn the studio around, but remains oblivious to Lester's attention as she falls in love with him.

Directed by Tay Garnett, Stand-In offers plenty to admire. A story of intentional corporate devaluation and shady business transactions evolves into a tasty behind-the-scenes look at big-budget movie making. The accompanying wastefulness and narcissism are laid bare, director Koslofski and star Thelma Cheri indulging in the endless shoot for Sex And Satan, a movie that will either save the studio or comprehensively sink it.

Along the way, the haughtiness of celebrities is contrasted with the down-to-earth attitude of Lester Plum. She had her moment of glory as a child star but is now on filmmaking's margins, reduced to sweating in the lights as scenes are prepped for Thelma's appearance. Joan Blondell as Lester is Stand-In's spark, her sass, energy and precise comic timing repeatedly injecting spirit. She perfectly complements Leslie Howard's Atterbury Dodd, a genius at numbers but otherwise sexless and devoid of empathy, treating people as units until his eyes are opened by the industry's madness.

In a refreshingly different role, Humphrey Bogart offers sturdy support as Quintain, although in an example of Stand-In's wayward focus his self-hating venom for still loving Thelma appears to belong in a different movie. Garnett dawdles for too long on some scenes, only to lurch from satire to romance to slapstick to jealousy to meltdowns. The film's most spectacular stumble arrives in the final act, abandoning all the previous sub-plots in favour of an ill-fitting "we the workers" climax, and the clunky script does not even bother to ride out the final curve. 

Either the ideas or the budget ran out, but along the way Stand-In offers decent jabs into the ribcage of its own culture.



All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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