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.
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.