Saturday, December 29, 2018

Stubs - What Price Hollywood?

What Price Hollywood? (1932) Starring: Constance Bennett, Lowell Sherman, Neil Hamilton, Gregory Ratoff, Brooks Benedict, Louise Beavers, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson Directed by George Cukor. Screenplay by Gene Fowler, Rowland Brown, Ben Markson, Jane Murfin. Produced by  David O. Selznick (Executive Producer) Pandro S. Berman (Associate Producer) Run Time: 89 minutes. USA Black and White Drama

Hollywood has never met a good story that it didn’t want to remake, sometimes again and again. Take A Star is Born. There have been four versions of the film made, A Star is Born (1937), starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March; A Star is Born (1954) starring Judy Garland and James Mason; A Star is Born (1976) with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, and A Star is Born (2018) with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. (There was even an Indian remake Aashiqui 2 (2013)).

But before A Star is Born comes What Price Hollywood? (1932), directed by George Cukor at RKO under David O. Selznick the Head of Production. While Selznick would also be the producer behind the first A Star is Born, which he made for United Artists, RKO would undertake a comparative point-by-point analysis of the storylines of the two films and, based on the perceived similarities, recommended that a plagiarism suit be filed against Selznick.

Selznick wanted to make a film that was true to Hollywood and even added some of his own experiences into the plot about scandals in tinsel town. Loosely based on the marriage of silent star Colleen Moore and alcoholic producer John McCormick, other stories were added as there is no end to Hollywood filmmakers who have lost their own battles with the bottle.

To play the part of the director, Lowell Sherman, an actor and director, was cast. While he was never a household name as a director, he did go on to make She Done Him Wrong (1933) and Morning Glory (1933). A Broadway actor and film actor himself, he added some character traits he'd observed in his then brother-in-law, John Barrymore.

Selznick originally wanted to cast Clara Bow, the irrepressible silent star of such films as Wings (1927), who had fallen on hard times with the arrival of the talkies. However, Bow, herself an alcoholic, couldn’t lose the necessary weight to play the part. At the last minute, Selznick gave the role to Constance Bennett, then a contract player at RKO. Bennett was a very popular actress in the 1920s and 30s and was once the highest paid actress in Hollywood.

To direct, Selznick chose his best friend in Hollywood, George Cukor. At the time Cukor had only recently begun to direct films by himself, having co-directed several films at Paramount Pictures where he had worked with Selznick. Even though he had not yet scored a hit on his own, Selznick entrusted him with the film.

Originally called a variety of titles including Hollywood Merry-Go-Round, The Truth About Hollywood, and Hollywood Madness, the film, made on a budget of $411,676, went into production on April 4, 1932, wrapped on May 13th and was released on June 24, 1932.

Like many girls, Mary Evans (Constance Bennett) dreams of being a movie star.

The film revolves around Mary Evans (Constance Bennett), a waitress at the once iconic Hollywood Brown Derby (a restaurant now closed but best remembered for co-owner Robert Cobb’s Cobb salad).

The Brown Derby restaurant. Gone but not forgotten completely.

Mary is pretty and sassy and wants to be an actress. One night at work, she manages to amuse alcoholic film director Maximilian "Max" Carey (Lowell Sherman) with her sharp wit and clever observations. A bit of an eccentric, Carey invites her to the premiere of his latest film, which is being presented at Grauman's Chinese Theatre.

Mary catches the attention of eccentric director Max Carey (Lowell Sherman).

They drive there in a jalopy he bought off a motorist just for the occasion. He introduces her to the radio audience that is listening in and then spends the night drinking and carousing with her.

He buys a jalopy to drive to his film's premiere in Hollywood.

The next morning, not wanting to waste the opportunity, the ever-ambitious Mary cajoles Max into taking her to the set of his latest production and eventually convinces him to give her a walk-on part in the film. Untrained as an actor, Mary performs her role terribly and despite the work that is done with her, she is fired from the production.

Mary practices her scene on the staircase at her rooming house.

But Mary doesn’t give up that easily. Determined to keep the part, Mary practices at home that night until she finds the proper rhythm and style for her delivery. The next day, she stuns Julius Saxe (Gregory Ratoff), the film's producer, with her performance and is signed to a seven-year studio contract (only in the movies).

Her improved acting catches the attention of Julius Saxe (Gregory Ratoff), the film's producer.

Later, now a successful actress, Mary is on set near the exclusive Santa Barbara Polo Field, where she meets Lonny Borden (Neil Hamilton), an Eastern-bred snobby millionaire. He asks her to dinner and she makes some outlandish demands which he keeps, though she decides to skip the engagement. Undeterred, Lonny kidnaps her from her hotel room and practically drags her to the dinner he’s arranged for her. She resists but eventually succumbs to his will.

Mary on location in Santa Barabara with producer Julius Saxe. Here she meets Lonny.

After a fiery courtship, Mary and Lonny marry in an opulent, much-publicized ceremony, but differences in their social backgrounds as well as the pressures of Mary's Hollywood career soon take their toll on the marriage. Lonny doesn’t have the patience for such things as fan magazine interviews and such.

Lonny (Neil Hamilton) shows contempt for Hollywood.

At the same time, Carey’s alcoholism takes its toll on his career until he is forced out of motion pictures.

Max shows up one night outside Mary and Lonny's bedroom.

One night, a distraught Carey shows up drunk in Mary's bedroom and this is the last straw for Lonny. Mary can’t turn her back on Carey, who had been so important to her career, but Lonny doesn’t see it that way and, in a jealous rage, leaves, later filing for divorce.

Now alone, Mary gives birth to Lonny's son but refuses to allow Lonny to see the baby.

Max's life flashes through his head as he commits suicide.

After Mary bails an intoxicated Carey out of jail, Carey, distraught at his life, commits suicide in Mary's bedroom. Her career is now ruined by the subsequent scandal and Mary flees Hollywood, taking her son and moving to France.

But no matter how far away she goes, Lonny, now repentant, finds her. He informs her that Saxe wants her to star in his next movie. In the end, Lonny is reunited with Mary and their son.

Upon its release, the film got good reviews but still lost money. Making $571,000 at the box office, RKO showed it losing $50,000 when all was said and done. The film did manage an Academy Award nomination for Adela Rogers St. Johns and Jane Murfin Best Story but lost out to Frances Marion for The Champ (1931).

The film did though help make Cukor into a successful director and his future films with the studio including A Bill of Divorcement (1932), Our Betters (1933), and Little Women (1933) would make Selznick’s reign there RKO’s golden age. When Selznick moved to MGM, Cukor followed, there directing such films as Dinner at Eight (1933) and David Copperfield (1935), Romeo and Juliet (1936) and Camille (1936) working with both Selznick and Irving Thalberg.

Constance Bennett, who had made her career up to that moment wearing elegant clothing in films, really stretched herself as an actress. She would go on to appear in such films as Bed of Roses (1933), Topper (1937), Topper Takes a Trip (1938), Two-Faced Woman (1941) and The Unsuspected (1947).

Lowell Sherman was good as "Max" Carey but his own directorial career would be short-lived. He would act in only one more film, False Faces (1932), and direct only a handful of films before dying at 46 of double pneumonia on December 28, 1934.

Neil Hamilton, who had been acting in films since 1918’s The Beloved Imposter, would go on to appear in Tarzan and His Mate (1934), the second in that series, but he’s probably best remembered for his role as Commissioner Gordon on the 1960s Batman series. He plays snotty very well here to the point that the reunion at the end of the film sort of feels false.

But the somewhat forced romantic ending aside, the film has one very memorable sequence. Over the sound of what seemed to be a swarm of bees, but was, in reality, a cigar box being swung around on a string, Max distraught over the negative effect he’s had on his protégé’s life, kills himself. The brainchild of the special effects man, Yugoslavian immigrant Slavko Vorkapich, the sequence includes a quick montage of scenes from Max’s life, his life literally flashing by as he shoots himself and before he falls dead to the floor in slow-motion. This slow-motion death technique would be used to great effect by director Sam Peckinpah in his film The Wild Bunch (1969) almost 40 years later. Vorkapich would also produce memorable montages including the harpies flying through New York at the start of Crime Without Passion (1934), the earthquake in San Francisco (1936) and the locust attack in The Good Earth (1937).

That one scene is well worth the price of admission in my opinion. However, there is more to What Price Hollywood? then that. The film is perhaps the first one to try to give a somewhat realistic look at the trappings of sudden fame and the scourge of alcoholism. Though it has a breezy pace, there is something more substantial to the film and it is definitely worth a viewing, if only to see the origins of A Star is Born, no matter which year’s version you prefer.

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