Directed by William Castle; produced by Leonard Goldstein
Larry O’Brien (Richard Conte), a successful film producer, moves his operations from New York to Los Angeles, where his old friend, Mitch Davis (Jim Backus), has suggested renovating an abandoned movie studio. Touring the lot, O’Brien’s imagination is fired by a story told by an aged security guard (Houseley Stevenson) about an infamous murder that took place in a bungalow on the property: in 1929, a renowned film director was shot dead, and his killer never caught. O’Brien determines to make a movie about the case. But the movie’s plot demands a resolution to the unsolved murder, and someone will stop at nothing to keep O’Brien’s movie unmade.
An entertaining mystery with an unusual angle, Hollywood Story incorporates a number of
clever ideas, including the often intriguing riddle of an old, notorious murder.
The killing is probably based on that of director William Desmond Taylor, who
was shot to death in 1922; his killer was never arrested. The suspects included
a number of well-known motion picture stars. Hollywood Story doesn’t try to get to the bottom of that crime, but
uses it as inspiration.
This allows the inclusion of a number of former movie actors in
cameos. Though there isn’t really a clear reason for their appearance - Are
they to act in O’Brien’s film?
Are they technical advisers? - they provide verisimilitude. Their names - Helen
Gibson, William Farnum and especially Francis X Bushman - would have been
familiar to many in 1951. Yet it is thought-provoking that 1929, only
twenty-two years before the release of Hollywood
Story, seems more like an eon previously than a mere two decades. If a
present-day film were to invoke names from 2002, there would hardly be the
feeling of the distant past.
Yet the Silent Era must indeed have seemed distant to movie-makers
and audiences of 1951, with sound an integral part of all movies and even
colour becoming common-place. Francis X Bushman was an immensely popular actor
in his time - ‘the handsomest man in Hollywood’ - who portrayed Messala in the
first Ben-Hur (1925), yet he
evidently faded fast from public memory. Joel McCrea has an uncredited cameo in
Hollywood Story; he too is unknown to
many, but probably known to many more than Bushman. Black and white westerns
are undoubtedly viewed more often by film fans now than are silent epics.
Even without such entertaining ingredients, Hollywood Story is an enjoyable motion picture. Fictional
characters from the past are included as well as the real, and it is they, as
may be guessed, who contribute to the plot. In particular, Henry Hull provides
a fine, fun performance as a dissolute screenwriter, who may or may not have
been good at one time. Fred Clark projects his usual persona of anger and
annoyance effectively; his confrontation with O’Brien over the alleged murder
weapon is well-written. Former leading man (though not quite of the Silent Era)
Paul Cavanagh has a good rôle as a potential suspect. His relatively small part
is that of a former leading man reduced to taking small parts. And Conte
himself is credible as a man easily obsessed, with enough power in the business
to indulge his obsessions.
There are disadvantages. Julie Adams (billed as Julia Adams) is the
obligatory love interest, but her character and O’Brien don’t seem overly
attracted to one another. The narration by Backus’s character is pointless, and
would have had more significance if given to Conte. And I can’t figure out why
one character confesses to a second murder.
The actual story - the mystery - is pretty good, with clues found
by the amateurs which might actually have been overlooked in the original
police investigation, and the writing is believable. There is also cleverness
and irony - perhaps written with tongue in cheek - in the climax, which
provides a unique example of why movies sometime change real-life endings.
William Castle performs a satisfactory job directing Hollywood Story, a few years before he turned to gimmicky and very
low budget horror films.
Hollywood Story has a fairly standard ‘forgotten murder’ mystery that is given life and novelty by its setting and writing.