Carrying on with my series where I pick five films which have some kind of loose thematic connection – not necessarily the best or even my favourites, but five which interest me. Anyway, films about films seem to be my theme of the moment, as I’ve recently written postings about The Artist and My Week with Marilyn. So here are another five self-regarding movies. Be warned, there are spoilers in my first choice for anyone who doesn’t know what happens in the various versions of A Star Is Born.
What Price Hollywood (1932): This melodrama directed by George Cukor was the first version of the A Star Is Born story (as far as I know, anyway). It gives a very bitter picture of a Hollywood which chews people up and casts them aside. Lowell Sherman is absolutely stunning as the washed-up drunken film director Max Carey, dominating the film and drawing on his own real-life drink problem. Constance Bennett is also excellent as ambitious waitress turned rising star Mary Evans, but her romance with millionaire Lonny Borden (Neil Hamilton) doesn’t really ring true and is a weak spot in a powerful film. I also love William A Wellman’s A Star Is Born (1937), which is very much a reworking of the same story, with great performances by Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, and the George Cukor remake, with Judy Garland and James Mason – just a shame that the complete version of that one is lost. But, anyway, Cukor’s pre-Code version has a witty toughness all of its own. And the suicide scene is unforgettable, focusing on the agony of the man whose life is over, and not seen as some kind of noble gesture to the rising star he loves, as in the remakes.
Something to Sing About (1937): James Cagney made this musical at Poverty Row studio Grand National after leaving Warner Brothers. Sadly, although it got pretty good reviews, it proved too expensive and lavish for the studio to bear, and led to its collapse, meaning Cagney was soon forced back to Warner. But, in the meantime, this comedy is something of a hate letter to Hollywood, satirising many of the things he resented about the studios. He plays a dancer and musician who is wooed by a major studio but finds he is expected to change his whole personality and keep quiet about the fact that he is married – even entering on a bogus romance with a co-star in the interests of publicity. There is also criticism of racism in Hollywood, as a Japanese-American budding actor finds himself forced to be a servant in the studio and speak with a put-on Japanese accent. Unfortunately, I don’t think Cagney’s screen wife in this, Evelyn Daw, has much star quality and her singing voice is unbearably shrill. But, all the same, the film has a lot going for it, and there is a memorable scene where Cagney gives Daw a quick acting lesson, showing her how he widens his eyes on camera to give a feeling of shock and surprise. You can see him delighting in his own power, although I’m glad he doesn’t give away too many professional tricks. Cagney also starred in at least three more “films about films”, patchy pre-Code Lady Killer (1933), where he plays a gangster turned actor, madcap comedy Boy Meets Girl (1938), where he and Pat O’Brien go over the top as a pair of lazy screenwriters, and the great biopic Man of a Thousand Faces (1957), one of the many films I want to write a full review of some day, where Cagney is devastating as Lon Chaney and gives a glimpse of what he would have been like as a silent actor himself.
In a Lonely Place (1950): Humphrey Bogart is at his greatest in Nicholas Ray’s compelling film noir, as a hard-drinking, troubled and violent screenwriter who might or might not be a murderer. This is primarily a crime mystery and a dark love story rather than a film about Hollywood, but the setting is important all the same. You definitely get a feeling of how hard it is to stay in the game, and how easy it would be for Bogart’s character to be thrown on the scrapheap and not make any more films. Bogart also made another great film about films, The Barefoot Contessa with Ava Gardner, though I feel that movie comes unstuck near the end when it forgets about satirising Hollywood and lurches into an unlikely murder mystery plot.
Play It Again, Sam (1972): Talking of Bogart, I only recently saw this Woody Allen comedy where Allen pays homage to Casablanca, wryly reworking the plot and even introducing Bogart as a character, who treats Allen to various outrageous hard-boiled diatribes on how to treat “dames”. To be honest, the scenes with Jerry Lacy as Bogie aren’t my favourite parts of this movie – the scenes with Allen and Diane Keaton neurotically messing things up for themselves without his help are even funnier, and show the way forward to Annie Hall. But anyway, for anyone who likes Bogart, Allen or both, it isn’t to be missed! Allen has made quite a few films about films over the years, from Stardust Memories and The Purple Rose of Cairo to Hollywood Ending - and he often pays tribute to other movies and directors in his other films, too.
Cinema Paradiso (1988): Nearly everyone loves this film, and so do I. It might be sentimental at times, but it certainly shows how cinema casts its spell over a young boy who goes on to dedicate his life to it, moving from being taught the tricks of a dying trade by an ageing projectionist to becoming a director himself. And I love the reel at the end where all the kisses removed by the projectionist, Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), together with the disapproving local priest, are triumphantly restored.