Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Another big misstep from pioneering indie producer Walter Wanger, The Stand-in raises
and then dashes hopes for a raucous skewering of Hollywood, which was then in the middle of its mogul-dominated
Golden Age. Awkward miscasting, and a plot about a meaningless power struggle, stifle what
might have been a breakthrough film for
Joan Blondell, the 'stand-in' of the title and the only player to distinguish herself. It's being
sold as a Humphrey Bogart classic along the lines of the Santana series currently being
released by Columbia, but it's a pretty demeaning role for him.
Colossal studios is being run into bankruptcy by mismanagement. The New York
bankers that own it allow pompous young Wall Street prodigy Atterbury Dodd (Leslie Howard) to
try his hand at turning it around. Avoiding the weasly machinations of behind-the-scenes
swindlers to buy Colossal cheap and liquidate it for its assets, Atterbury is confused by the
attentions and distractions of Nassau's cohorts, talentless star Thelma Cheri (Marla Shelton),
moronic director Koslofski (Alan Mowbray), and venal publicist Tom Potts (Jack Carson). But he
meets two honest working studio hands who might help him save Colossal: hardworking producer
Doug Quintain (Humphrey Bogart) and ex-child star, now-stand in Lester Plum (Joan Blondell).
Expectations can be a bad thing. Leslie Howard, star of Pygmalion, one of the best
comedies ever, is an intelligent actor and would seem an excellent choice for a screwball
comedy. And coming from an independent producer, The Stand-in might avoid the phoney
glamour mill PR then circulating about Hollywood studios, and perhaps be a comedic expose of how
they were really run.
Unfortunately, except for a vaguely leftist attitude toward unionism, The Stand-in's view
of Hollywood is a pointless fantasy. Yes, Colossal is dominated by its New York owners, but instead
of the corporate monolith that was Lowe's, we're shown a silly bunch of bankers called the
Pennypackers, who send hotshot financial wizard Attebury Dodd to tinseltown just so he can fail.
The best thing about the studios, according to the film, is all the people they employ, which is an
okay point of departure, except that the worst thing the screenwriters can imagine is Colossal
going out of business. By 1937, the big studios had gobbled up most of the lesser ones through various
kinds of mergers, but the idea that there might be money to be made by grabbing a studio cheap
and closing it up, doesn't make much sense. Much later, the studios would be chloroforming themselves
to take a one-time-only real estate profits, but not back in the waning days of the depression.
The studio moguls in the thirties were adamant to portray themselves as great institutions, instead of
factories that generated millions from underpaid and overworked labor. A decade later, when semi-critical
Sunset Blvd. began to appear, studio
heads freaked out. In the studio-sanctioned Hollywood soap
The Bad and the Beautiful, the talent
schemes and plots, but the villain producer is an independent entity. In contrast, the high-level
studio producer is wise and ethical. We never see the studio head, as if he were too lofty to
even be associated with such tomfoolery in the lower ranks.
The attitude of 30s studios can best be judged by the constant anti-union themes and messages that
filtered through their films (especially MGM). Catch Riff-Raff on TCM sometime and watch
Spencer Tracy righteously punch out a Union organizer, just for laughs.
In The Stand-in, delightful Joan Blondell's job is to show Atterbury the 'truth' about the
studios. The general idea of a boarding house populated by has-been actors and unbookable acts is
a Capra-ish idea good for a laugh or two. It doesn't carry much weight, though, as the big victory at
the end of the movie still doesn't mean any of them are going to be hired, or should be.
The way Colossal studio is pictured as running, is worse. Ethical production head Bogart has
somehow allowed a film called Sex and Satan to
be made. It looks like the Schnarzan spoof movie in Hollywood Party, and it's a
big surprise for all when it proves to be a dismal stinker at its first studio screening. This
implies that the director and his star (both colluding crooks) can be the only ones to know the
content or quality of a show before it is finished - and Sex and Satan is a silly
Tondelayo-type jungle movie with frequent cutaways to an obnoxious ape. The film's idea of satire
is to make fun of directors - the only one we see is a jerk who affects a Russian name and accent,
a witless stab at the Von Stroheims and Von Sternbergs.
All this would be moot, if The Stand-in had a better script or was better cast. Leslie
Howard's approach asks us to become sympathetic with the cartoonish Atterbury, but the character
doesn't work when it veers between bad dialogue, and Three Stooges slapstick. The direction asks
Howard to end many scenes with broad double-takes and wild faces, and the laid-back British actor
just isn't up to it. The worst gag in the film has him run over by a mob like a cartoon character.
Tay Garnett could be a good director, but you wouldn't know it by this picture.
Humphrey Bogart was a fresh hit in The Petrified Forest, but it apparently did nothing for his
career, as his ugly-mug romantic appeal wouldn't be in vogue for several more years. The Stand-in
has him stomping around, frequently carrying a foolish-looking dog, and making empty claims
at artistic ambition. The scene where he re-edits Sex and Satan on an old-fashioned Moviola,
replacing the stupid lead actress with outtakes of the ape, is rather silly. He's insufferably serious, and
what he's doing is impossible.
As the stand-in of the title, Joan Blondell gets to carry a big piece of the picture, which mostly
means being a cuddly and smart-tongued foil to straight man Howard. She's fine, and charming, and
gets to use her 'Golddiggers' smile in a warmer way than usual.
The supporting cast is very uneven, with the villains played very flat. The vampish leading lady
makes almost no impression (probably the director's fault), and what the part really needed was
a name of some
kind, instead of Marla Shelton. She made 22 films and is completely forgotten. Alan
Mobray (the great frontier actor in My Darling Clementine) and a young Jack Carson overplay
to distraction. Nassau, the main baddie, is taken by C. Henry Gordon, a third-string player who did
walk-ons in hundreds of films but doesn't distinguish himself. Cute but forgettable bits are
contributed by Charles Middleton (as an actor who specializes in playing Lincoln) and Esther Howard.
Either Bogart didn't have a Warners contract at the time, or he was on hiatus or strike or something,
and The Stand-in looks like some kind of runaway production, shot on a rental lot. I wonder if
Walter Wanger thought he was putting something over on the established moguls, or if he was kissing
up to them. The only real message is a meek call to support the studios as they are, not because they
make good movies, but because they employ people. So do sweatshops and heroin factories, so
there isn't much here to cheer about.
Image's disc of The Stand-in is an okay transfer of a basically intact but slightly grainy
element. The sound isn't distinguished either, but both are much better than anything I've seen
before of this quasi public-domain title. There are no extras. As could be expected, a reading of the
packaging would lead us to expect Humphrey Bogart to be the star.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Stand-In rates:
Movie: Fair - Good
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: February 1, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson