Joe Dante’s debut, co-credited with Allan Arkush, came courtesy of his training ground as an editor (cutting trailers) for Roger Corman’s New World pictures. It was producer Jon Davison (later of Paul Verhoeven sci-fi classics Robocop and Starship Troopers) who got Dante and Arkush the gig, suggesting to Corman “Let the trailer boys make a picture”. Corman agreed, on condition what became Hollywood Boulevard was a ten-day shoot and the cheapest picture New World had ever made. The idea was to churn out a “found-footage assemblage”, with newly shot scenes linking existing studio archive material, but the duo, fashioning a ramshackle riff on low budget filmmaking that more or less was their low-budget film, pulled together enough of a movie in its own right that only ten of the 83 minutes ended up that way. Cult status followed, but Hollywood Boulevard is more interesting as a career footnote than as a picture in its own right.
It would be fair to say the movie is replete with longueurs, Danny Poatoshu’s screenplay having an understandably make-it-up-as-you-go-along (or can fit in existing footage) quality that brings naïve wannabe actress Candy Wednesday (Candice Rialson) to Hollywood at the rear end of the food chain.
Along the way she meets useless agents (Dante instant-regular Dick Miller on tremendous form as Walter Paisley, the name of his character in Corman’s A Bucket of Blood, an excerpt from which we see at the drive-in as Miller reminisces he “could have been a contender”), pretentious directors (Paul Bartel stealing every scene he’s in as Erich Von Leppe, the name of Boris Karloff’s character in Corman’s 1963 The Terror) and, in what Bill Krohn points out is an early example of the slasher movie, jealous film star Mary McQueen (Warhol friend Mary Woronov, who showed up in Nomads the other month) offing her potential pretenders to the throne by way off giallo-inspired stabbings, sporting a cape and surrounded by dry ice. There are also a couple of music montage interludes, and being a Corman film, copious quantities of breastage (Corman wanted to call it Hollywood Hookers), and that found footage, which includes excerpts from Battle Beyond the Sun, The Big Bird Cage, Crazy Mama and most visibly Death Race 2000.
To suggest Hollywood Boulevard wears the era in which it was made on its sleeve is to understate matters. Its dubious regard for women makes Sam Raimi’s early pictures appear the model of progressive representation. One might – if one was really pushing things – argue that a trio of topless actresses discussing the movie business (“Movie guys are all the same. All they care about is tits and ass”) is sharp commentary (Bartel concurs: “This is not a film about the human condition. It’s a film about tits and ass”).
But any leniency falls by the wayside amid the wet t-shirt hosings and, in particular, the just-for-laughs rape scene in which Bartel “directs” Candy in a “sensual scene of sexual depravity”; when that movie is shown at the drive-in, she opines, as Sharon Stone would following her career-making snatch flash, “They promised not to use that scene”. We then see it played and replayed until Candy confronts the projectionist, who then begins a comedy assault on her himself, accompanied by an enraged father who just can’t help himself. This isn’t so much contributing to the debate on whether movie violence influences behaviour as reflective of an era when getting comedy mileage out of rape was the norm. Dante’s treatment of such matters could leave something desired even up to The Howling.
Still, it’s instructive that, right from the off, Dante’s approach to moviemaking was entirely self-reflexive. Miller, whose lousy agent gave up acting because “I had a lousy agent” is on the phone at the start advising “It’s a nudie picture with a two-thousand-dollar budget. No script, a ten-hour shooting schedule, and it opens in twenty-two cities at the end of the week”. A parody of the Corman approach, but only a little. Screenplay writer Pat (Jeffrey Kramer) comes to the rescue of Candy at the end; the writer saving the movie? He also cheerfully takes the piss out of Miracle Pictures (“Sure is, if it’s a good picture, it’s a miracle”).
In a sign of things to come, the skydiving death that begins Hollywood Boulevard (the footage comes from Night Call Nurses) leaves a Looney Tunes skydiver-shaped hole in the ground (see also the Bat Gremlin in Gremlins 2, the shed roof in The ’Burbs). Robbie the Robot will show up a few times more too. The drive-in sequence, with Miller reminiscing, before it gets all rapey, shows the kind of affection and nostalgic warmth that would typify many of the director’s later pictures. And, never one to miss an obvious gag, ketchup is used to humorously suggest blood at least twice.
Hollywood Boulevard worked well enough that it got Dante a “proper” directing gig with Corman, a Jaws rip-off that did very well at the box office, thank you, and brought him to the attention of the wunderkind Jaws director himself. So, while it may be the least of his features, although no doubt some will staunchly claim otherwise, it proved vital to his subsequent career.
Addendum (02/02/23): Much as it pains me to say this, as he ranked as one of my favourite moviemakers, it appears Joe Dante was a Black Hat. And I say was, as he is no longer.