What Price Hollywood? (George Cukor, 1932)

Constance Bennett, Lowell Sherman and Gregory Ratoff in What Price Hollywood?

I’ll admit I originally wanted to see What Price Hollywood? because I knew it was an important influence on William A Wellman’s masterpiece A Star Is Born, released just five years later. (David O Selznick produced both films and they have the same basic story.) But, having watched George Cukor’s pre-Code twice, I now see it as a fine film in its own right, with compelling performances by both Lowell Sherman and Constance Bennett and wonderfully sharp, witty dialogue. I know I’m always moaning on this blog about 1930s movies not being available on DVD, but it is particularly frustrating that this one hasn’t been released as yet. I can only think that it is because none of the lead actors are household names, and, although Cukor is a celebrated director, he isn’t one of the very few who get box sets devoted to their work.

This is one of the first films where Hollywood eats itself, and it is often said to be harder-edged and more disillusioned with the world of showbiz than either Wellman’s A Star Is Born or Cukor’s own remake. However, before the disillusion sets in, it does fully show the glamour and seduction of Hollywood, with an extraordinary opening scene where Mary Evans (Constance Bennett), alone in her bedroom, is eagerly reading a fan magazine and imagining she is Greta Garbo in a clinch with Clark Gable. She is clearly in love with the whole idea of Hollywood, not just the handsome actor, as she devours ads for make-up and stockings which have been given the seal of approval by beautiful starlets.

The glamour is abruptly stripped away in the next scene, as Mary goes to work as a waitress in the famous Brown Derby restaurant near the studios in LA, where people loosely connected to the world of film are keen to see and be seen. Several of those dining and drinking there are out to impress Mary, but she clearly knows who is washed up and out of favour (“Ham for you!”) and now seems streetwise and fast-talking rather than the starry-eyed girl of that first scene. A big difference between Constance Bennett’s Mary in this film and Janet Gaynor’s Esther in A Star Is Born is that we never see where Mary comes from – there is no small-town background and no family. She is a waitress living in Hollywood from the start of the film, waiting for her main chance – and ready to pay for it. When “genius” film director Max Carey (Sherman) staggers in drunk, she sees her chance to be discovered, and persuades a fellow waitress to let her serve him. (“I let you have Wally Beery last week… and you can keep the tip!”)

Carey is so wildly out of control that Mary doesn’t have much say over how the evening’s events go from that point on. She probably wasn’t particularly planning on being taken along to his film premiere, announced as a countess, and ending up asleep on his sofa after helping to carry him into his house – but she takes it all as an opportunity, and makes sure he agrees to give her an audition. It is largely luck that Esther is “discovered” , whereas Mary sets out to make her own luck.

Being picked up by Carey is only the start – there is an audition which she fluffs, but she takes his advice and works through the night to master the one line she has to speak, walking up and down the stairs at the boarding house where she is living. I thought this scene, largely focusing just on her feet, encapsulates the hard work which will have to go into becoming a success, just as that opening scene encapsulated the glamour she is dreaming of. After that scene the film skates over her first year or two as an actress and within a few minutes of screen time she is a superstar – but we have seen that it takes work as well as luck.

As well as showing the seductive temptation of stardom, the film also shows the way people are chewed up in the machine – with the main victim being Carey, who is on the way down the stairs as Mary is on her way up. It’s quickly clear that his career is being damaged by his drink problem, and he either can’t or won’t take the advice of friends like producer Julius Saxe (Gregory Ratoff), who urges him to cut down on the booze. Really Max seems beyond help from the start of the film – but I think there is also a sense that he is drinking himself into oblivion because he wants to turn his back on success and has had enough of the world he is living in. I’ve recently written a posting about State’s Attorney, another film released by RKO just a few weeks earlier which was scripted by three of the writers who also worked on What Price Hollywood? (Louis Stevens, Gene Fowler and Rowland Brown). This film also features a central character with a drink problem, John Barrymore as a lawyer working in a  corrupt justice system, and has the same mix of disillusion and drinking – though Barrymore’s character still has ambitions. Sherman’s doesn’t have any, and in one scene describes himself as “dead inside”.

I have to say that for me the main interest of the film lies in the relationship between Max and Mary, which is at heart a love story even though it is non-sexual. Many of the greatest scenes involve the two of them together, whether it is them working on the movie set or Mary bailing Carey out of jail after he has been arrested for being drunk and disorderly. Sherman has a very appealing way of talking, a sort of witty, charming drawl similar to Barrymore’s, which makes me sympathise with his character.  By contrast, I find it hard to work up much enthusiasm for the film’s “official” romance between Mary and the snobbish polo player she marries, Lonny Borden (Neil Hamilton), who thinks he is so superior to her work. There is a cringe-making sequence where she sets out to win his heart by playing hard to get, ending up with a series of diva demands for a meal involving caviar and terrapin (exactly the same menu is served at a grand meal in Wellman’s Small Town Girl!)

I’m not sure if we are supposed to take it that Max is in love with Mary, or maybe could have been in love with her if he hadn’t already been married to the bottle. There are hints of this through a series of gossip snippets in newspapers shown as links between scenes, which always suggest that he is jealous of her husband. These brief news items could be showing what is going on beneath the surface, but could equally be showing that gossip columns misinterpret complicated relationships and turn them into a simplistic soap opera.

This next bit gives away the ending of the film, as well as the endings of A Star Is Born (1937) and Dinner at Eight (1933).

The most devastating scene of What Price Hollywood comes when Carey is staying with Mary after being released from jail, gets out of bed in the night, starts drinking, finds a gun in a drawer and shoots himself. Before killing himself, he looks in the mirror, sees the contrast between his haggard face now and his earlier face in a signed photo on the table, and realises what he has become – with scenes from his past life whirling through in a breathtaking montage created by Slavko Vorkapich. This suicide is similar to that of John Barrymore’s drunken character in Cukor’s great Dinner at Eight the following year, in that the character is confronted by the ruin of his life, the contrast between what he is now and what he was then. It’s worlds away from the noble suicide of Fredric March’s character in Wellman’s A Star Is Born, where he wades out into the sea to save his wife’s career, but to be honest I find the bleakness of this scene more convincing. However, I really think What Price Hollywood? should end here, or soon afterwards, rather than with a tagged-on happy ending which sees Mary getting back together with the appalling Lonny, who has supposedly learned his lesson. Yeah, right.

Lowell Sherman's character in despair

John Barrymore seems to be cropping up in this review an awful lot considering that he isn’t actually in this film, but I can’t resist mentioning that Cukor’s next movie after this one was A Bill of Divorcement, which I reviewed here recently. This is another film which centres on a younger woman trying to save an older man from his demons – in this case Katharine Hepburn as the daughter of Barrymore’s character, who has come home after years in a mental hospital.

For anyone who wants to know more about What Price Hollywood?, here’s a link to a great piece on the Self-Styled Siren blog, which includes a lot of background information.

33 thoughts on “What Price Hollywood? (George Cukor, 1932)

  1. Clara

    I really, really want to see this one. I saw the marvelous “Star is Born” with Fredric March & Janet Gaynor, and just like you, I want to watch this earlier film because of that. Hope I can get the Spanish subtitles somewhere :)

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Hope you can find it with Spanish subtitles and that you get to see it soon, Clara, it is well worth seeing – and glad to hear you also like ‘A Star Is Born’. Many thanks for commenting and for linking to my blog – I’ll add a link to yours!

  2. clarissasmith

    I’m just beginning to experience exactly that: Slowly coming to that point where there won’t be anything more to get than I already got. In music it is the same: People buy Handel’s Water Music like crazy. But there are many other pieces that hardly could be sold. But it goes on still: Handel had competitors who possibly were even better. But who cares for those?

    And let me say this: Those Hollywood Academy Awards are a bunch of hooey. I always guessed it was. But now that I’ve watched SHANE (1953) very carefully: That film is full of mistakes. I asked myself whether the cutter might have been intoxicated. His worst mistake: Jean Arthur walks aside, to watch Shane leaving (before he decides to stay) — so Jean is several foot away from her husband. Now comes the cut and suddenly *PING* she is at his side! Such an amateur-mistake and those academy folks didn’t see that?! But the masses say: Wow, this film got an Oscar — let’s buy it!

    So there we are. Just a few freaks. At least I reckon those experts at Warner Bros. really like us. And to me it seems they do what they can, because they are like us and like that swell stuff too. So there still is somewhat hope…. :|

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Thanks for commenting, Clarissa. I’ve got loads of movies lined up that I haven’t watched yet, so I’m not in danger of running out any time soon (I got hooked on classic movies fairly late in life!), but I do agree that it is frustrating that so many of these great 1930s films are not available on DVD. Still, I shouldn’t complain too much since I have plenty to watch. I haven’t seen ‘Shane’ as yet – another one I hope to get to soon – so can’t comment on the editing, but I’ll watch out for that when I do see it. Sadly Warner Archive still refuse to sell their DVDs in the UK, though I keep hearing that they might do soon.:)

  3. clarissasmith

    They should actually appreciate us classic film bloggers, because we inspire lots of people to get interested. And of course we do need a little food to work on — don’t we?

    We are a big branch and not so very unimportant!

    Reply
  4. mndean

    I always like finding ’30s Hollywood-set films where there’s more than a hint of how it’s not what it appears in popular culture. What Price Hollywood stands high in that, as does A Star Is Born, but even different takes on the uglier side of the industry, like Make Me A Star are interesting in how they depict the place and how the deluded can be swept up by the glamor, and their victories Pyrrhic.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Thanks for this – I haven’t seen ‘Make Me a Star’ but will hope to do so. It sounds intriguing. I’m always interested to see satirical behind-the-scenes views of Hollywood too – another one which comes to mind is ‘Something to Sing About’ (1937), a musical Cagney made with a poverty row studio after breaking with Warner.

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  6. CagneyFan

    Judy, I haven’t seen WHAT PRICE H’WOOD, but I’ve long wanted to watch it. I’ve seen Lowell Sherman in only two films (as far as I can recall), but I liked his performances in both. You make a good comparison between the ending of this movie and DINNER AT EIGHT (which I have seen a couple-three times). You also mentioned BILL OF DIVORCEMENT, another one I haven’t yet seen, but I hope to rectify that soon before it gets away from me again.

    Looking forward to your review of A STAR IS BORN (’37).

    Excellent review, Judy. Thanks!

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      I think the only other Sherman role I’ve seen is in ‘The Greeks Had a Word for Them’ aka ‘Three Broadway Girls’, which he also directed – must admit I don’t remember him in that one very well. There seem to be a few films around this time with this type of devastating ending – I must watch ‘Dinner at Eight’ again soon. Sadly ‘A Bill of Divorcement’ is another one not on DVD. I saw it on a VHS video and the picture on that was pretty good. Thanks very much, CagneyFan!

  7. Jason Marshall

    Another great essay Judy on an obscure film. I’m one of those rare people who don’t care much for the 1937 “A Star is Born” but from what you’ve written here, it seems as though I would like this one better. You’ve given it a grittier tone than the Fredrick March/Janet Gaynor yawner, especially the suicide scene. It sounds like the movie is worth checking out just for that.

    I could have sworn that there was another version of this story made before this one. I know it was one of those endlessly recycled stories so I may have it all mixed up, but wasn’t there a silent version too? I must be wrong because I have searched all over the internet and can’t find anything about a silent version. I did find out that Adela Rogers St. John loosely based her story on Colleen Moore’s life so maybe that is why I had that idea in my head.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Sorry to hear you don’t like Wellman’s ‘A Star Is Born’, Jason – you won’t be surprised to hear that I love it, and don’t find it remotely boring! You might well prefer WPH, anyway, as I remember you like Cukor… it does have quite a sardonic feel to it in some scenes, though the tagged on romance gets annoying at times, to me anyway.The suicide montage scene is great – I really want to see more of Vorkapich’s montage scenes, which are almost like mini-films in themselves.

      ‘What Price Hollywood’ actually has eight writers listed at the imdb, including Adela Rogers St Johns – I’d heard that about the story being partly based on Colleen Moore too, and hope to find out more about that. I hadn’t heard anything about a silent version, but you have me intrigued now. Thanks very much.

  8. John Greco

    I agree Judy; this one needs a DVD release. There are many wonderful scenes in this film and you highlighted them all. Constance Bennett is a joy to watch in this film, sweet and tough at the same time. The suicide scene is a shocker, at least for me it was. Believe it or not, I still have not seen the 1954 Judy Garland version (have seen the Janet Gaynor and the putrid Barbara Streisand versions.) It is on TCM all the time and for some reason…anyway this film certainly stands on its own and deserves to see the light of day on DVD.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Yes, Constance Bennett is great in this – I also love her singing in French in the cafe scene she is filming. I recently read David Niven’s ‘Bring on the Empty Horses’, which I think has to be taken with a large pinch of salt, but anyway he describes her as a real superstar when he was first in Hollywood – ironically her chaotic, partying lifestyle in his description sounds all too similar to some of the scenes in this movie. I haven’t seen the Judy Garland version for a long time but have recently recorded it from TV and intend to do so in the next few days! Thanks, John, and let’s hope this one does get a DVD release.

  9. Sam Juliano

    “This is one of the first films where Hollywood eats itself, and it is often said to be harder-edged and more disillusioned with the world of showbiz than either Wellman’s A Star Is Born or Cukor’s own remake. However, before the disillusion sets in, it does fully show the glamour and seduction of Hollywood, with an extraordinary opening scene where Mary Evans (Constance Bennett), alone in her bedroom, is eagerly reading a fan magazine and imagining she is Greta Garbo in a clinch with Clark Gable.”

    Aye Judy. Well, as I’ve stated on other threads I am a very big fan of Wellman’s A STAR IS BORN, and Janet Gaynor’s piercing performance, one of the best of the 30’s. WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD? is a vital film in both an artistic and a historical sense, and yes, as you state in that exerpt from this towering review (one of your very best I must say) it marks one of the first times Hollywood engaed in this kind of self reflection. I agree that the film sorely needs a DVD release (Warner Archives I hope?) and that the love scenes are the most resonant.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Sorry to be slow in replying, Sam, but things have been getting away from me this week and I’m all behind with email. I am also a big fan of the Wellman ‘A Star Is Born’ – I have now re-watched the Cukor 1950s version and, although it has its moments, especially the fantastic Judy Garland ‘Born in a Trunk’ section, I’d definitely say the Gaynor version is the one for me. Thank you very much for the kind words!.

  10. ellenandjim

    Very interesting review. I wonder how many movies include a suicide and of these how many end on the suicide. Although presented mythically (fantasy), Mary Reilly includes and ends on self-killing.

    I find it a mature film too in that it doesn’t present the true lovers getting together. I’d be irritated by the woman’s abjection also, but then it has the effect of bringing home to us this is not a simple joyous love match.

    Ellen

    Reply
    1. mndean

      The Match King and The Man From Yesterday, released the same year as What Price Hollywood?, end (more or less) on suicides, and I’m sure I can think of others given time. I think the ending was more common in dramas of the time than we might realize.

    2. Judy Post author

      Thank you very much, Ellen – I’ve been wondering about how common the suicide ending is in films around this time, too. I’ve seen quite a few 1930s films in particular which feature this, although it is also in later movies. I’m interested also in your comments about the couple getting back together at the end – a lot to think about there. The problem for me is that it is presented so much as if it is a happy ending and embracing the glamour of Hollywood again, too.

      Mndean, I’ve just recently watched ‘The Match King’ (it’s another one I’d like to write about, if time permits!) and was also struck by the similarity of the suicide scene, which even features a montage of flashbacks. I haven’t seen ‘The Man From Yesterday’ but will look out for it. Thank you.

  11. CagneyFan

    This is a follow up to ellen’s comment about suicide-as-ending in H’wood movies. THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946) ends with a murder-suicide. When I first saw STRANGE LOVE, the climax blew me away. I wasn’t expecting a Golden Age H’wood movie to end like that.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      I haven’t seen ‘The Strange Love of Martha Ivers’, though it is a movie I’ve had recommended before. Thanks for that, CagneyFan, I will look out for this film too!

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    1. Judy Post author

      Thank you, Vincent, and thanks for the link to Siren’s piece – I agree Bennett gives a fine performance in this, even if she was difficult in real life. I’d like to see more of her movies. Watching different versions of the ‘A Star Is Born’ story, it is interesting to see how much each one is tailored to the different talents and screen personalities of the actress in the main role.

    1. Judy Post author

      Thanks, Colin – I had heard there is an Italian DVD, but there is a comment at Amazon.co.uk saying that the picture is of poor quality and looks like a video transfer, with Italian subtitles which can’t be removed, so I’m afraid it may be best to approach with caution.

  14. Colin

    Aha! I’ll be holding off on that one then. There’s always hope of it turning up in the UK at some point I think – lots of rarities are appearing bit by bit these days.

    Reply
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  17. Colin

    Hi Judy, thought you might be interested to hear that What Price Hollywood? will be out on DVD from Montparnasse in France on September 4.

    Reply
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