I’m going to write about the whole plot in this review – so, if you haven’t seen this famous movie, be warned! William A Wellman’s earlier films often tend to focus on outcasts in society – wandering from one town to the next and struggling to make a living. His great pre-Codes Heroes For Sale and Wild Boys of the Road are both examples of this. By contrast, A Star Is Born, starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, is set amid the money and glamour of Hollywood, and filmed in early Technicolor rather than gritty black and white. However, although his characters in this film might be rich and famous, they are still outsiders, and they make their living from performing to a greedy crowd which might turn on them at any moment – just as the street and circus performers in some of his early movies did.
Wellman was both screenwriter and director of this bitter-sweet romantic drama, and it was the only movie he actually won an Oscar for, as a writer. (Wings won the first-ever Oscar for best film, but he didn’t get the best director award.) The basic story is a reworking of George Cukor’s movie What Price Hollywood? (1932), which I’ve just reviewed on this blog, where a young actress makes it to stardom, while the established star who helped her up plunges into alcoholism and despair. But it feels very different – partly because the earlier film was a pre-Code and could get away with more in some respects, but also because of the personalities involved.
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.
I’ll soon be writing about Wellman’s A Star Is Born (1936), but first wanted to post a few thoughts about a couple of earlier movies which have links with it. One, of course, is What Price Hollywood? (1932), George Cukor’s great pre-Code drama which is said to have been the inspiration for Wellman’s film. But there was also a lesser-known movie released just one month before Cukor’s, which also had a plot strand of a younger woman trying to save a talented older man from his drink problem – the courtroom comedy-melodrama State’s Attorney (1932), directed by George Archainbaud and starring John Barrymore and Helen Twelvetrees. I’ve now seen this twice and really think it deserves to be better-known – both the leads are brilliant, and the dialogue is very sharp and witty. Sadly it isn’t on DVD, though it did get a US release on VHS. I think it does sometimes get shown on TCM in the US, though, and at present it is available for streaming on “YT”, though the picture isn’t that great. (I also found the film stuck in the second “reel”, but was ok if downloaded to view on realplayer).
John Barrymore may be best-known for his work in the theatre and in films of the silent era. But, every time I see him in an early talkie, I’m struck by how great he was in these too – and A Bill of Divorcement (1932), a melodrama directed by George Cukor for RKO Radio Pictures, is no exception. Barrymore gives a heart-rending performance as a father coming home after 15 years in a mental hospital. However, although Barrymore was the star with his name above the title, these days the film is best-remembered (when it is remembered at all, that is!) as the debut role for Katharine Hepburn, playing the daughter whose world is about to be torn apart. She was fourth-billed and her name was actually spelt wrong in the final credits, but, even so, she is really a joint female lead with Billie Burke , and has several scenes where her unique film personality comes across.
The film is adapted from a play by British dramatist Clemence Dane, and set in England, although none of the stars worry too much about doing English accents. As with some other movies from this period, this is very much a filmed version of a stage play, with almost all the scenes taking place on the same set, so at times it gives a feeling of what it might have been like to see Barrymore on stage. I have seen some reviews suggesting that the film feels too static, but this is a movie where I think this works, as with Howard Hawks’ The Dawn Patrol (1930), because again the atmosphere is intended to be claustrophobic and intense.
The last Shakespeare production I wrote about was Orson Welles’ moody take on Macbeth. George Cukor’s movie of Romeo and Juliet was made only 12 years earlier, but seems to belong to another world. Where Welles’ Poverty Row film looks rough around the edges, Cukor’s gives the Bard the full gleaming Hollywood treatment. MGM under Irving Thalberg poured two million dollars into this production, with half of that spent on building an ambitious replica of Verona on a backlot, while the budget also ran to enormous crowds of extras. Kenneth S Rothwell’s book Shakespeare on Screen, which I’m finding invaluable for background on these older adaptations, recounts how the studio did even consider filming in Verona itself before deciding against.
Given the lavish feeling of the whole production, it’s quite surprising MGM didn’t go for Technicolor. Instead, they stuck to black and white, but the emphasis is very much on the white, with many scenes shot in brilliant sunlight, and Norma Shearer as Juliet dressed in a succession of flowing white gowns by Adrian – a long way from Welles’ cardboard crowns. At times I must admit I find the sheer glossiness of it all a bit much, and the opening shot of Shearer feeding a pet deer in a jewelled collar, as orchestral themes from Tchaikovsky swell in the background, reminded me of Disney. (Snow White was released the following year.)