Imagine John Wayne hosting a television show like Entertainment Tonight. In a way he did, when he was rebounding from the failure of his first starring film, Fox’s epic production The Big Trail in 1930. The make-believe television series was called The Voice of Hollywood and it was a series of theatrical short subjects produced by Louis Lewyn, who had co-created Screen Snapshots in the early 1920s. That series continued for decades, offering audiences a peek behind the scenes of movieland. The Voice of Hollywood was essentially the same idea with a twist: each ten-minute episode purported to be a television show being broadcast on station S-T-A-R from Hollywood. Some episodes even show engineers working in a futuristic TV control room.
Lewyn spent his career repeatedly reshaping the same basic concept. Over the years he developed relationships with many Hollywood personalities, especially silent-film comics who could be counted on to fill (or is that “kill?”) time when necessary. He produced Paramount’s Hollywood on Parade series (identified in its theme song as a “televised revue”) and made a classy-looking run of Technicolor two-reelers for MGM that attracted big-name stars because it helped raise money for the Motion Picture Relief Fund. Titles included La Fiesta de Santa Barbara, Star Night at the Cocoanut Grove, and Sunkist Stars at Palm Springs.
Little is known about Lewyn, except that he moved into the new medium of television in 1949 and died in 1969. He was married to Marion Mack, the star and writer of his 1923 feature film Mary of the Movies (1923). She is best remembered as Buster Keaton’s leading lady in The General. Mack worked alongside her husband, receiving writing credit for the last three shorts he produced at MGM, including Streamlined Swing (1938), which was directed by…Buster Keaton. She outlived Lewyn by twenty years. (He died in 1969.)
In many ways, The Voice of Hollywood is the most intriguing of his efforts. Produced on a shoestring in 1930-31, it is also the most excruciating to sit through. The random list of hosts includes Franklin Pangborn, Bert Wheeler, Robert Woolsey, Olsen and Johnson, Reginald Denny, Norman Kerry, Ben Turpin, Lloyd Hamilton, James Hall, and Ruth Roland. They are almost all freelancers without ties to major studios. Like all such shorts, they rarely were allowed onto a studio lot and had to acquire footage of celebrities at public events. Viewers were encouraged to send in requests for personalities they would like to see by writing to S-T-A-R “in care of this theater,” as if Lewyn could deliver anyone audiences might clamor to see.
Yet the series contains an occasional nugget of gold: Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford chatting with Sid Grauman and greeting the public at a premiere of a film starring Doug Jr…an un-self-conscious Marlene Dietrich happily posing with William Haines and Joan Crawford at the same event…Allen “Farina” Hoskins from Our Gang introducing child stars Leon Janney, Mickey Rooney (then known as the character he portrayed, Mickey McGuire), and Jackie Cooper… Bob Steele sings, accompanying himself on guitar, four to five years before the singing cowboy became a phenomenon… aerial views of the studios taken from a dirigible…Mr. and Mrs. William Powell (Carole Lombard), “one of the happiest couples in the film colony,” walking down a ship’s gangplank having just returned from Honolulu…rare footage of Barbara Stanwyck and her then-husband Frank Fay doing a bit of rehearsed patter.
The John Wayne episode features an appearance by Thelma Todd as Miss Information, who answers questions allegedly sent in by audience members. In that context she presents silent home-movie footage of boxing champ Jack Dempsey on a fishing trip with his wife, actress Estelle Taylor.
Unfortunately, the only copy of this Voice of Hollywood episode I’ve located, in the collection of the Library of Congress, is marred by splices and jump cuts. Overall, cuts would improve many of the entries in this series, but in this case it’s a shame.
No one has systematically catalogued the content of the 25 shorts in this series, nor has any archive gone out of its way to collect them. In spite of my wisecracks, there is enough of value here to encourage such an effort, even if a ten-minute short only yields 30 seconds of valuable footage.
“This is station S-T-A-R… signing off…”