The Hollywood Revue of 1929 is of interest more for the part it plays in cinema history and the once-in-a-lifetime cast rather than the actual content of the film. Presumably anxious to show off the new medium of talking pictures, MGM did not waste valuable time writing a script. Instead, the studio bosses simply rounded up their brightest and best talent, shoved them on a stage, pointed a camera (just one by the look of things) and let them get on with songs, dances and comedy routines.
The entire thing is filmed with all the cinematic flair of a parent recording their child’s school play, and the rigid camera and uninspired angles often sap much of the energy and talent of the performers for the viewer. Of course, a non-stop parade of variety acts would be perfectly fine for those watching in a theatrical setting, as the immediacy and the atmosphere from the audience would more than compensate for the repetitive format. However, this film was made to an empty house, making the corny banter of hosts Conrad Nagel and Jack Benny fall flat, something not helped by having them address the non-existent theatre audience, rather than the camera.
Unlike other films that use the revue format, The Hollywood Revue of 1929 has no story, either to link the skits or run in the background, surprising, and a little frustrating, given that silent pioneers – including some on this bill - had been hard at work developing cinema in order to tell stories. They had also invented a few tricks and techniques that were unique to the medium, but these are few and far between here. There are a couple of cinematic touches, such as the opening number where the picture goes (presumably intentionally) negative, or, more successfully, where Bessie Love initially appears in miniature (inside Jack Benny's pocket of all places) before growing to full size to complete her number. In fact, the effect is so successful that it is repeated later in the film with Marion Davies and her soldier-themed routine.
Despite this there are enough points of interest both on and off screen for fans of the films and the history of early Tinseltown to watch The Hollywood Revue of 1929 at least once. For a start, it marks the first on screen appearance of the song Singin' in the Rain, more than 20 years before co-writer Arthur Freed, in his later capacity as an MGM producer, would use it as the basis of the classic film of the same name.
We also get to see early talkie appearances from silent stars such as Laurel and Hardy, in an enjoyable routine playing bungling magicians, and Buster Keaton, doing pratfalls in a scene that lacks the purely cinematic invention of his classic work. Meanwhile, Joan Crawford, introduced as "the personification of youth, beauty, joy and happiness", shows off her lesser known song and dance talents.
While it may make for an uneven, often grating watch, not helped by the nearly two hours running time, there is no denying the place of The Hollywood Revue of 1929 in the story of cinema as a medium. Films like this were part of a process that separated those, like Crawford or Laurel & Hardy, who could adapt to sound from those who couldn't, such as, sadly, Keaton.