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David O. Selznick wasn't the first producer to depict Hollywood on-screen when he assembled What Price Hollywood? in 1932, but he was the first to treat the film industry with some respect. Whereas previous films about the picture business had lampooned every aspect of the industry, Selznick treated it as a legitimate, even admirable line of business. Individual characters and situations in this tale of a waitress made a star by a director whose career is coming to an end may have been alternately comic or tragic, but the industry setting was handled honestly and even with a degree of reverence. It was a precedent both Selznick and Cukor would follow when they returned to the material years later for its better-known reincarnations as A Star Is Born.
The producer had dreamed of making a fair treatment of filmmaking for years and finally got the chance when he was hired as head of production at RKO Pictures. He quickly put half a dozen writers to work shaping the story for What Price Hollywood? and even added some of his own memories of tinseltown scandal. One-time reporter Adela Rogers St. Johns came up with the story peg, inspired by the marriage of silent screen star Colleen Moore and alcoholic producer John McCormick. To this were added stories about other filmmakers who'd lost their battle with the bottle, including director Marshall "Mickey" Nielan. When director Lowell Sherman returned to acting to play the director on screen, he added character traits he'd observed in his brother-in-law, John Barrymore. The result, Selznick felt, was the screen's first accurate depiction of Hollywood life. He even called it The Truth About Hollywood at first. "Ninety-five percent of the dialog in that picture was actually straight out of life and was straight 'reportage,'" he would later say.
Production on What Price Hollywood? coincided with the availability of Selznick's best friend in Hollywood, director George Cukor. The two had worked together at Paramount Pictures, where the former stage director had started with a series of co-directing jobs, most notably the screen version of the Broadway comedy The Royal Family of Broadway, a loose satire of the Barrymores. Cukor had only recently started directing solo and hadn't scored any solid successes when Selznick brought him to RKO. A specialist in backstage stories, which drew on his keen observation of showbiz life and his love of gossip, Cukor would score his first solo hit with What Price Hollywood?, which also was his first movie about the movie business.
Originally, Selznick had thought the female lead would be a perfect comeback role for Clara Bow, the irrepressible silent screen comedienne who'd fallen on hard times with the arrival of talking pictures. But her own bout with alcoholism had left Bow too heavy to possibly lose enough weight to start production, so Selznick took a chance on RKO contract star Constance Bennett. Although a member of a prominent acting family (father Richard was a major stage star; sister Joan would go on to star in Hollywood films and the daytime drama Dark Shadows), Constance Bennett's screen career was built around her beauty and her facility for wearing elegant clothes. She wouldn't get to do that, however, until well into What Price Hollywood?, playing her first scenes in a waitress uniform. Under Cukor's guidance, she turned in one of her best performances, surprising critics and fans alike.
One of the most memorable scenes in What Price Hollywood? is Sherman's suicide when he realizes his career is over and Bennett's loyalty to him is hurting her chances for stardom. Over the sound of buzzing, which most viewers compare to a swarm of bees (it was actually a partially closed cigar box swung around quickly on a string), Cukor cut between shots of Sherman as he shoots himself and flashes of the character's past life. After the climax, Sherman falls to the ground in slow motion, a shot that anticipates the slow-motion deaths in Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969) by almost 40 years. The sequence was the brainchild of the special effects man, Yugoslavian immigrant Slavko Vorkapich, whose famous montages include 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). What Price Hollywood? was Cukor's first solo hit and one of the many successes that made Selznick's reign at RKO the studio's golden age. Still fascinated with the subject, Selznick returned to the basic plot and setting for the first version of A Star Is Born, which starred Janet Gaynor and Fredric March in 1937. Cukor would then direct the 1954 musical remake with Judy Garland and James Mason. The story moved into the music industry for a 1976 version starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, while a projected remake will star Will Smith, this time as the rising star mentored by a female singer whose career is on the skids.
Producer: David O. Selznick
Director: George Cukor
Screenplay: Jane Murfin, Ben Markson, Gene Fowler and Rowland Brown
Based on a story by Adela Rogers St. Johns
Cinematography: Charles Rosher
Art Direction: Carroll Clark
Music: Max Steiner
Principal Cast: Constance Bennett (Mary Evans), Lowell Sherman (Maximilian Carey), Neil Hamilton (Lenny Borden), Gregory Ratoff (Julius Saxe), Louise Beavers (Bonita the Maid), Eddie "Rochester" Anderson (James).
By Frank Miller