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New book! 50 movies to start your discovery of Old Hollywood

Before 'Babylon': 6 classic movies set in Old Hollywood

The 2022 movie “Babylon” dives into the transition from silent to talkies in Hollywood with an ensemble cast that includes Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Jean Smart and Diego Calva. 

But “Babylon” isn’t the first movie to be set among the glittery world of showbiz or portray a cinematic past. The movie industry has a storied history in putting itself – or at least a made-for-Hollywood version of itself – up on the big screen. 

While there are numerous modern movies as well, let's look at these Old Hollywood classics that took audiences inside movie magic:

Singin' in the Rain (1952)

The plot of "Babylon" mines similar territory as "Singin' in the Rain" – the 1952 musical looks back at the transition to talkies 25 years before. Gene Kelly is Don Lockwood, the silent screen star who is making the leap to sound with comedic and musical help from Debbie Reynolds' Kathy (an aspiring actress) and Donald O'Connor's Cosmo. The scene stealer is Jean Hagen, who plays antagonist Lina Lamont, a superstar in silents but whose Brooklyn accent and screechy voice is proving tricky in the new sound era. Hagen snagged an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. 

Show People (1928)

A King Vidor silent comedy, "Show People" shows that audiences have been captivated by stories of "making it" in Hollywood for a long time. Marion Davies is Peggy Pepper, who arrives in Hollywood from Georgia and jumps into slapstick movies. As her star rises, she leaves behind those who helped her at the start and appears in serious dramatic roles. Her audience turns on her, she sees the error of her ways, she returns to her comedic roots and all ends well. It's one of Davies' most praised performances. The 1928 movie features several cameos and winks to the audience: director Vidor, Charlie Chaplin, John Gilbert and Douglas Fairbanks show up, and Davies appears as herself in one scene (is it a cameo if you also star in the movie?)
(pictured above)

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Billy Wilder examines 1950 Hollywood with a jaundiced eye in his "Sunset Boulevard." William Holden's screenwriter meets Norma Desmond, a relic from the silent film era, played deliciously by Gloria Swanson, herself one of the silent era's brightest stars. The movie features other big names from the early days of cinema: silent film director/actor Erich Von Stroheim picked up an Oscar nod for his portrayal of an ex-Hollywood silent film director now working as a butler, and Cecil B. DeMille, Buster Keaton and Anna Q. Nilsson also appear. Wilder also shot on lots and locations that were landmarks in 1910s and 1920s. The movie spurred two of the most memorable quotes in cinema history: "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up," Swanson's Norma Desmond says dementedly. And her retort to Holden: "I am big, it's the pictures that got small!"

What Price Hollywood (1932)

In what will become well-trod movie plot ground, "What Price Hollywood" looks at an aspiring actress (Constance Bennett) who is helped out by an older director on his way out and the romantic and moral dilemmas that ensue. George Cukor directed this 1932 flick, and he'd go on to direct a very similar "A Star is Born" in 1954 (William Wellman directed the 1937 original). 

Speaking of ... 

A Star Is Born (1937) and A Star is Born (1954)

The subject of many remakes (some set  in the music industry), the original 1937 version of "A Star is Born" takes place in the movie realm. Janet Gaynor is the young ingenue on the rise, while Fredric March is the alcoholic veteran actor whose star is fading. The 1954 version stars Judy Garland as a singer-turned-actress and James Mason as the washed-up actor she gets involved with. 

Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Writer-director Preston Sturges pokes fun at the movie industry with his ode to comedy in "Sullivan's Travels." The classic features Joel McCrea as director John Sullivan, who after years of comedy hits, wants to make an "important" picture. (One studio head urges, “But with a little sex in it”). He embarks on a journey to get to know the downtrodden, with the inimitable Veronica Lake along as "The Girl." "Sullivan's Travels" may include some of the best fictitious titles on screen: the characters talk about previous flicks including "Ants in Your Pants of 1939," "So Long Sarong" and "Hey, Hey, In the Hayloft." And the title of the "important" picture? "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

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