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.
Constance Bennett and Lowell Sherman
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.
I haven’t had much time for blogging lately, even for the shorter postings I keep vaguely promising – but here are a few thoughts on another Capra pre-Code melodrama, again starring Barbara Stanwyck as a fish out of water. This is said to be the movie which made her a star. Here she is working-class “party girl” Kay Arnold (though it is made fairly explicit that this is a euphemism, like “escort”) who is impulsively picked up by artist Jerry Strong (Ralph Graves) to use as a model. She soon falls in love with him, but it seems as if it is impossible to get away from her past or bridge the huge social divide between them.
Stanwyck gives a warm, vulnerable performance, as she does in other pre-Codes, and is compelling to watch. I especially enjoyed her scenes with her character’s best friend, fellow escort Dot, played by silent film star Marie Prevost. The two have a humorous relationship but definitely care about each other – and Prevost has a great scene late in the film where she runs up several flights of stairs to try to save the day for her friend. Graves is somewhat outshone by these two, plus a scene-stealing Lowell Sherman as his drunken best friend, but he does have a fair amount of chemistry with Stanwyck. (Sherman is a comic drunk in this, just a couple of years before his devastating role as a tragic drunk in What Price Hollywood?)
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).
Although I’ve been posting on a few different topics recently, I’m still very interested in William A Wellman’s silents and pre-Codes. So I was excited to read that one of his rare silent films is being screened at a festival, even though it is on the wrong side of the Atlantic for me! His film You Never Know Women, made in 1926, is being shown at Capitolfest at the Capitol Theatre in Rome, New York, at 4.50pm on August 15. This is a movie which was thought to be lost for many years until a print was found in the Library of Congress in 2001, and I believe it has been screened at a few festivals since then. Comments on the imdb from a handful of people who have seen it are very enthusiastic.
Here are the details from the Capitolfest website:
You Never Know Women (Universal, 1926) Florence Vidor, Clive Brook, Lowell Sherman, El Brendel, and Roy Stewart; directed by William Wellman. (70 min.) SILENT
Florence Vidor and Clive Brook are two members of a Russian troupe of acrobats on tour in the U.S. whose love for one another is threatened by manipulative playboy Lowell Sherman. Along the way there is a spectacular theater fire and the comic antics of El Brendel (and his goose). Reportedly Paramount was so pleased with director William Wellman’s work that rewarded him with a $25-per-week raise and the big-budgeted Wings (1927). “In addition to being one of the nicest program pictures in many weeks, it is flawlessly acted, brilliantly directed and filled with novel situations.” -Sisk, Variety
Florence Vidor and Clive Brook
This description sounds intriguing – I’m very interested to see that there’s a circus theme here, as this crops up in Wellman’s pre-Code Lilly Turner and so many of his early films are full of wanderers. If anybody visiting my blog gets a chance to see this film, either at this festival or another, please let me know what you thought of it! I suppose there is even a chance it may show up at the BFI in London in the future.