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What Price Hollywood?

What Price Hollywood?(1932)

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If the story of What Price Hollywood?, the George Cukor-directed 1932 show-biz tale of an aspiring actress on the rise and an alcoholic director spiraling downward, sounds familiar to you, it's likely because it's something of a rough draft for A Star is Born. Not that Cukor's film or the original story, penned by newspaperwoman-turned-screenwriter Adela Rogers St. Johns, received any credit, but the inspiration is undeniable. The 1937 A Star is Born has a more polished script and lavish budget, and its rise and fall tale has a classically tragic arc, but What Price Hollywood? is witty, spunky, adult, and bouncing with energy, a Hollywood tale right out of the pre-code sensibility of the early 1930s.

Constance Bennett is aspiring actress Mary Evans, a spunky young woman waiting tables at the Brown Derby as she tries to break into movies, and Lowell Sherman is the boozing director who wobbles into the restaurant, orders a few drinks, and invites Mary to be his date at the grand opening of his new picture. There's no hanky panky here, it's just another lark for big time Hollywood director Max Carey, a generous and funny guy who saves his acid wit for fellow film professions and show business celebrities. "Let me give you a tip about Hollywood," he advises Mary. "Always keep your sense of humor and you'll do just fine." She plays along with his gag and he gives her a bit part as a thank you for being a good sport.

This is a snappy, sassy script with a clear-eyed view of show business dreams and reality. Our introduction to Mary says it all: fantasizing about the stars from the movie magazines by trying out the glamor poses, then snapping back to reality to put up the murphy bed of her tiny studio and head out to work waiting on the rich and famous. Even better is the reality check of her movie debut. All of that oversized copycatting of screen stars in the privacy of her apartment is poor rehearsal for actual movie acting, which we see includes movement, body language, timing, delivery, composition, and hitting your marks on cue. So she puts in a night of private rehearsals to master a true performance and begs for a second chance. The fantasy gives way to the hard work of the business and film never looks back. Even after she rockets to the top, the scenes of Max and Mary shooting scenes takes into account the entire machinery of the process, with technicians checking, setting, and running their equipment and the director actually directing actors, walking through the scene with specific suggestions to shape a performance rather than spouting the vague, important-sounding phrases we usually get in Hollywood's self-conscious self-portraits. Lowell Sherman was not only a leading man with a gift for sophisticated comedy, he was a director in his own right and he brings a little of his experience to the performance. Max may not take his own life seriously as he drinks himself out of a job but he's very serious when it comes to making movies. To the film's credit, there's no attempt to "explain" his drinking. It's simply part of his character and Sherman never makes you doubt it.

What Price Hollywood? is a love story, just not the one you expect. The bubbly Bennett and the sardonic Sherman genuinely love one another, but it is platonic, a matter of friendship and loyalty. It is, however, far more interesting and convincing than the film's official romance between Mary and millionaire polo player Lonny Borden (Neil Hamilton). Hamilton became a cult figure after playing Commissioner Gordon in the 1960s Batman TV series but he was a bland leading man in the thirties and he's stiff and lacks charisma here, even with a courtship scene where he combines high society manner and caveman brutishness. He works hard at it, though, and it's enough to win over Mary. Only Lonny doesn't like being a show biz husband, with its constant spotlight of attention and gossip column fodder, and this East Coast social snob looks down on the California culture of new money and garish manner of Mary's friends and colleagues.

The witty lines and sardonic observations of Hollywood culture really make this zing. When Mary asks if society playboy Lonny is married, she's told: "No, strictly a breach-of-promise guy." That kind of knowing wit runs through the film, but the playfulness gives way to the darker tones of Max's self-destructive drinking binges and Mary's marriage collapsing under the gaze of non-stop media attention. Cukor and his screenwriters (there are four credited writers--Gene Fowler and Rowland Brown, and Jane Murfin and Ben Markson--along with St. Johns) drop Mary in the fishbowl and show the tabloid press as piranha in the water waiting for a drop of blood to start the feeding frenzy.

Gregory Ratoff plays the studio head with a comic German accent that suggests all the immigrant studio heads of the time. In joke or not, it feels like an affectionate satire of Goldwyn and friends. Louise Beavers has a small role as Bonita, Mary's sharp-tongued maid, and she gets a few zingers in along way. Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson, in an early, unbilled role as Max's butler, doesn't get any such opportunity and he's practically unrecognizable in a role without any dimension.

Slavko Vorkapich gets credit for special effects and they are special: a couple of rapid-fire montages with optical effects and expressionist graphics illustrating the rise of Mary, the demise of her career at the hands of the tabloid press, and a startling suicide sequence. This death scene builds to a frenzy as the victim's life flashes across the screen in a machine-gun montage, and then all but stops dead on the gunshot, downshifting into a remarkable slow motion shot that communicates the gravity of a human death. It's an expressionist triumph in a hard-edged Hollywood comedy and a work of cinematic art. Vorkapich's work was distinctive in Hollywood and his name actually became a noun in the industry during the 1930s and 1940s; scripts would call for a "vorkapich" to describe his style of graphically dynamic montage sequence. His work here is among his most memorable contributions.

What Price Hollywood? is an all-too-often overlooked classic of 1930s Hollywood, a smart, snappy, mature mix of screwball, satire, tragedy, and Hollywood success story. The disc looks fine, with a strong picture that is a tad on the soft side and features minor blemishes--periodic scratches and splotches--that are to be expected for a film of this vintage. There are a few pops on the soundtrack which has a ghost of background hiss but it otherwise clean and clear.

by Sean Axmaker