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The Stand-In

The Stand-In
Image/Castle Hill
1937 / b&w / 1:37 / 91 min. / Street Date January 28, 2003 / $19.99
Starring Leslie Howard, Joan Blondell, Humphrey Bogart, Alan Mowbray, Marla Shelton , C. Henry Gordon, Jack Carson
Cinematography Charles Clarke
Art Direction Alexander Toluboff
Film Editors Otho Lovering, Dorothy Spencer
Original Music David Klatzkin, Alfred Newman, Heinz Roemheld
Written by Gene Towne, Graham Baker from a novel by Clarence Budington Kelland
Produced by Walter Wanger
Directed by Tay Garnett

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 satires like 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
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: none
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: February 1, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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