It Happened in Hollywood is very nearly a success, which is surprising since most of the film is entirely mediocre. There’s a great lead performance from Richard Dix, as a silent movie cowboy who can’t make it in talkies (though, to be fair, the one bombed screen-test scene was more used to comment on the industry’s problematic transition to sound), and it’s nice whenever Fay Wray shows up as his regular onscreen love interest and off-screen possible love interest, but she’s not in it much. And the script doesn’t start getting inventive until well into the second half of the film, which only runs sixty-seven minutes. The direction, which has all sorts of opportunities to comment on sound storytelling versus silent storytelling, misses them all. Then in the second half, when Kid Melodrama starts kicking in (more on him in a moment), director Lachman misses the most perfect opportunity, one where it’s hard to forgive him.
Because Lachman isn’t a lazy director by any means. Hollywood is on a budget for sure, but Lachman and cinematographer Joseph Walker have a lot of big establishing shots (and small ones) and the one fight scene is good. Even if the production values are a little slim. It’s just Lachman isn’t interested in the story and Hollywood needs someone interested in it. Dix seems pretty interested in it, Wray seems pretty interested in it (when she’s around); the entire supporting cast, with the sole exception of Kid Melodrama, is solid. And they need to be really solid for what the script does with them in the second half. Hollywood doesn’t necessarily start with a lot of potential, but it builds up steadily throughout. Only to choke in the finale and not even because of Kid Melodrama. So let’s get to Kid Melodrama.
Kid Melodrama is Bill Burrud. He’s in the hospital at the start of the film, which is where we meet Dix. He’s on a children’s hospital tour, showing his latest silent Western with Fay Wray as his damsel. He’s the biggest Western star in Hollywood, beloved by children nationwide. Both boys and girls based on the hospital audience, which makes it weird when Dix gives a speech ignoring the girls. Something similar happens again even worse at the end, but it’s not the finale choke so it’s just, you know, 1937.
Anyway. Burrud. Burrud is the sickest kid on the ward. He’s going in for surgery and it doesn’t look good, but Dix promises the kid he can visit Dix and his horse in Hollywood if he gets better. Sadly, Burrud gets better. And he sends Dix letters throughout the first half, which chronicles Dix’s immediate and catastrophic fall from stardom in the first few months of the talkies. While he fails, Wray succeeds. For a short while it seems like the film might be about them, even though Wray’s in the film less and less. When Dix gets a chance in talkies again thanks to the aforementioned fight scene, it’s in one of Wray’s pictures, but only barely returns to Hollywood. She’s around for a second, then disappears again, including from Dix’s disaster. Because Dix is scared of her.
Basically Hollywood is forty-four year old Dix acting like a bashful teenager. Wray’s not much better, but she’s a little better. Dix pulls it off, sure, but eventually it gets a little tiresome, which coincides nicely with Dix deciding to abandon Hollywood forever.
Luckily for him, Kid Melodrama Burrud shows up. He got better just to come out and see Dix and he’s an orphan and the foster care guy makes fun of Dix all the time and Hollywood too. Even though Burrud’s annoying as hell, Dix’s concern for him works. Out of nowhere, It Happened in Hollywood all of a sudden gets to do something different. For a while, it gets rather inventive.
So the utterly pointless finish, which actually manages to interrupt a rather nice scene for Dix and Wray where it seems like at least the script understands how things echo throughout the picture… it’s disappointing. And silly. The film all of a sudden stops taking itself seriously just so it can wrap up. Nicely, Dix and Wray have enough charm to get through.