The agenda at a board meeting of prominent New York bank Pettypacker & Sons centers around the sale of Colossal Pictures—a Hollywood independent studio that financier Ivor Nassau (C. Henry Gordon) seeks to acquire for far below its $10,000,000 price tag. Nassau has made president Fowler Pettypacker (Tully Marshall) an offer of five million, and the senior Pettypacker is seriously considering the offer…despite the admonitions of the bank’s top number cruncher, Atterbury Dodd (Leslie Howard). Dodd’s impassioned plea on behalf of the bank’s shareholders prompts Fowler to send his man out West for a thorough examination of Colossal’s books.
No sooner has Atterbury arrived in Tinsel Town when he “meets cute” with Lester Plum (Joan Blondell), a former child star who now works in motion pictures as the “stand-in” of this film’s title. Lester will become Dodd’s ally—along with producer Douglas Quintain (Humphrey Bogart)—in staving off Nassau’s scheme to acquire Colossal. They’ll have their work cut out for them because Ivor has his own confederates inside the studio: temperamental Russian director Koslofski (Alan Mowbray), diva Thelma Cheri (Marla Shelton), and PR flack Tom Potts (Jack Carson) in Stand-In (1937), a frenetic, freewheeling farce about our favorite subject—the movies.
When ClassicFlix announced its plans to start its own DVD label back in 2016, Stand-In was originally on tap to be one of its first releases. The movie was no stranger to DVD; it had been released to disc in 2003 from Image Entertainment but went OOP not long afterward—something that benefited me when I sold my unopened copy during The Great DVD Purge of 2007 (I netted a little over 60 bucks from that sweet sale). ClassicFlix held off on the movie’s Blu-ray introduction (and DVD revival) because the elements weren’t up to snuff…then two years later, they acquired additional material from the British Film Institute that gave them a leg up in the restoration department. It’s still not as pristine as CF would like, but in its recent resurfacing in February of this year Stand-In looks pretty snazzy. The Blu-ray includes a restoration comparison as a bonus feature, along with trailers for other CF titles like Tomorrow is Forever (1946) and Down Three Dark Streets (1954).
While I have a great deal respect for actor Leslie Howard’s talents, I need to confess up front that he’s not one of my favorites…and I attribute this to his participation in my bête noire of classic movies, Gone with the Wind (1939), in which he plays Ashley Wilkes, one of the silver screen’s legendary simps. So Stand-In is my favorite of Howard’s many movie vehicles (well, I also like Pygmalion , too); his Atterbury Dodd is a Harold Lloyd-like character (Howard does some marvelous physical comedy throughout) who’s a bit stunted when it comes to social interactions with his fellow human beings…but his experience at running a motion picture studio helps coax him out of his shell and into a little respect and romance along the way.
Stand-In features an enchanting performance from Joan Blondell—who is one of my classic movie favorites. It’s been speculated that Joan’s Lester Plum was modeled after ex-child star Marie Osborne…but whatever you choose to believe, Blondell’s delightful—performing a nauseatingly cute version of On the Good Ship Lollypop (there’s a gag throughout Stand-In where Atterbury has no idea who Shirley Temple is…I envy the guy) and teaching Dodd jiu-jitsu. Lester’s boarding house existence is also quite appealing (you could almost have made a separate film about the eccentric residents), with entertaining contributions from Our Lady of Great Caftan favorite Esther Howard (no relation to Leslie, btw) as the landlady and beloved screen villain Charles ”Ming the Merciless” Middleton as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator.
Stand-In director Tay Garnett observed in his autobiography (Light Your Torches and Pull Up Your Tights) that Mayo Methot—Mrs. Humphrey Bogart at the time—persuaded producer Walter Wanger to cast Bogie as Douglas Quintain in the film, hoping it would lead to more romantic leads outside of his image as a screen heavy. Humphrey had his pal Leslie Howard to thank for that; Howard went to bat for Bogie at Warner Brothers, insisting that the actor reprise his role as Duke Mantee when the studio brought the Broadway success that was The Petrified Forest to the big screen in 1936. (Bogie would name his daughter “Leslie” in tribute to his friend.) Bogart’s character has an amusing affectation in that he cradles a Scottish terrier in one arm throughout but don’t let that fool you: Quintain gives the audience an early look at the Bogart persona of the hardened cynic who is nevertheless motivated to do the right thing. (Quintain’s dog affectation is a quirky touch—Dodd’s obsession with emptying ash trays is another—that makes the movie’s characters so engaging.)
Stand-In was originally serialized in The Saturday Evening Post as a novel by Clarence Budington Kelland, whose short story “Opera Hat” was the basis for the 1936 classic Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. (Kelland also penned the story that became the Harold Lloyd film The Cat’s-Paw —is it any wonder that I can imagine Lloyd playing Atterbury Dodd and quite well?) Gene Towne and C. Graham Baker do an excellent job with the screenplay (it’s one of the best of the Hollywood send-ups) and Garnett, always in his wheelhouse with movie comedy, excels with the direction. The movie’s triple-threat trio (when the movie was re-released in 1948, Bogart got top billing in the promotional ads) are ably assisted by Mowbray (quite a change from his deadpan butler in Merrily We Live ), Shelton, Carson (at his obnoxious best), Gordon, and Marshall (in top cranky old man form—the scene with his birthday cake is a riot). Hie yourself to ClassicFlix and put this in your shopping cart, capisce?