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).
Ceiling Zero is among the films in the BFI Howard Hawks season
I was excited today to discover that the British Film Institute in London has a comprehensive-looking Howard Hawks season coming up in January. The list of movies is on their site with an introduction by David Thomson. It will include Hawks’ earliest surviving film, Fig Leaves (1926), and other silent rarities, as well as early talkies like The Criminal Code (1931) and many better-known films from the rest of his career. As well as the silents, I’m also extremely tempted by the thought of seeing my favourites like The Crowd Roars (1932) and Ceiling Zero (1935), both starring James Cagney, as a troubled racing driver and womanising pilot, or Twentieth Century (1934), with John Barrymore and Carole Lombard – or The Dawn Patrol (1930), starring Richard Barthelmess, on the big screen. Realistically, as it is a long way to London, I’m not likely to be able to see more than one or two of the wonderful array of films, but will report back on this blog on whatever I do manage to see, anyway!
The BFI has also got what sounds like a great Frank Capra season running at the moment. On top of its programme of showings, it has ongoing appeals to restore nine rare early Alfred Hitchcock silent films and to find 75 “most wanted” lost British films – including missing features starring Errol Flynn, Laurence Olivier, Dorothy Gish, Peter Lorre, James Mason, Phyllis Calvert and many more famous actors, and also including work by directors such as Hitchcock, again, and Michael Powell. I don’t know if they have had any luck in digging up copies of any of these missing treasures, but here’s hoping.
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.)
I’ve just finally got round to seeing the film noir classic Scarlet Street, directed by Fritz Lang – one of the many greats I had somehow managed to miss up to now. I’m not going to write a full review, but will be going off at a tangent about the artist whose work is featured in the film, John Decker. However, on the film itself, I will briefly say that I was struck by the darkness and feeling of menace building up all the way through, and especially by the haunting final scenes, which are justly the most famous. Many copies of the movie around on the web and on budget DVDs are bad public domain prints, but the picture and sound are much better on the remastered version issued by Kino.
If you ask around among James Cagney fans about which of his movies they’d most like to see get a DVD release, this pre-code film will be near the top of the list. It was a huge box office success at the time, and is memorable in his career for several reasons.
It’s the film where Cagney has his first extended dance scene (there is a brief dance scene in the earlier Other Men’s Women, but you see more of his footwork here) – and the film with his first, and longest , scene speaking Yiddish. Most famously, it’s also the movie where he (almost) says “You dirty rat” – though the actual wording is “Come out and take it, you dirty yellow-bellied rat.”
James Cagney and Loretta Young
The movie also features another major star, Loretta Young, who is at her luminous pre-code best here. It’s full of the trademark Warner grittiness, and packs a breathtaking amount of comedy, quickfire dialogue, action and melodrama into just under 70 minutes. Yet this movie has never been released on VHS, let alone DVD – and in the UK it is never even shown on TCM. Surely Warner Brothers should come up with a lovely remastered print soon in one of their box sets!