Cast & Crew
While working at Hollywood's Brown Derby, Mary Evans, a pretty, sassy waitress, amuses alcoholic film director Maximillan "Max" Carey with her sharp wit and clever observations. Charmed by Mary, Carey invites her to the premiere of his latest film, which is being presented at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, and then spends the night drinking and carousing with her. The next morning, the ambitious Mary cajoles Max into taking her to the set of his latest production, and she eventually convinces him to give her a walk-on part in the film. Untrained as an actor, Mary performs her role terribly and is fired from the production. Determined to regain her 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, the film's producer, with her performance and is signed to a seven-year studio contract. While visiting the exclusive Santa Barbara Polo Field, Mary, now a polished movie star, meets Lonny Borden, an Eastern-bred millionaire. 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. At the same time, Carey, lonely for Mary's companionship, increases his drinking until he is forced out of motion pictures. When a distraught Carey shows up drunk in Mary's bedroom one night, Lonny misunderstands his intentions and, in a jealous rage, files for divorce. Now alone, Mary gives birth to Lonny's son but refuses to allow Lonny to see the baby. After Mary bails an intoxicated Carey out of jail, Carey commits suicide in Mary's bedroom. Her career ruined by the subsequent scandal, Mary abandons Hollywood and moves to France. Eventually a repentant Lonny shows up in France and, after informing her that Saxe wants her to star in his next movie, is reunited with Mary and their son.
Pandro S. Berman
David O. Selznick
Adela Rogers St. John
Best Writing, Screenplay
What Price Hollywood? on DVD
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
What Price Hollywood? on DVD
What Price Hollywood?
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
What Price Hollywood?
David O. Selznick wanted Clara Bow for the role of Mary Evans, but she turned it down when she was offered more money from Fox.
Max Carey was modelled after Lowell Sherman himself, a known alcoholic, as well as silent film director Marshall Neilan and actor 'Barrymore, John' (who was Sherman's brother-in-law at the time).
The working titles of this film were The Truth About Hollywood, Hollywood Madness and Hollywood Merry-Go-Round. Pre-production articles in Film Daily announced William Seiter as the film's director and Joel McCrea as Constance Bennett's co-star. Although filming had already begun in mid-April 1932, Bruce Cabot was announced as Bennett's co-star in an early May Film Daily news item. Robert Presnell was announced as the continuity writer in a Film Daily pre-production news item. According to Screen Achievements Bulletin records, after Adela Rogers St. John was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Story, the Writers Branch of the Academy investigated the film's writing credits and concluded that both St. John and Jane Murfin should have received screen credit for the original story and that Presnell should have received an "adapted by" credit. In spite of the Academy's findings, only St. John was given a nomination. (Frances Marion won the award for The Champ.) RKO borrowed George Cukor from Paramount for the production. Film Daily news items add the following actors to the cast: Jack Trainor, Gordon DeMaine, Carol Wines, Rex Lindsey, Veda Buckland and Eric Wilton. Their participation in the final film has not been confirmed. Some exterior scenes for the film were shot at the First United Methodist Church of Hollywood and at Grauman's Chinese Theatre. The film's budget was $411,676, according to studio records. A Hollywood Reporter news item states that a bedroom scene between Bennett and Neil Hamilton's characters was censored in Britain. The filming technique that Cukor used in "Max's" suicide scene included unusual quick shot editing, exaggerated sound effects and a slow motion shot of "Max" falling to the floor.
After David O. Selznick, who left RKO in early 1933, produced A Star Is Born in 1937 for United Artists, RKO's legal department undertook a comparative point-by-point analysis of the story lines of that film and What Price Hollywood? and, based on the perceived similarities, recommended that a plagiarism suit be filed against Selznick. The disposition of the recommendation has not been ascertained. In 1954, Cukor directed the remake of A Star Is Born. (For more information, listing for A Star Is Born.) According to modern sources, the Sherman character was modelled after Sherman himself, a known alcoholic, and silent film director Marshall Neilan, who also suffered from alcoholism. At the time of this production, Sherman was John Barrymore's brother-in-law and, according to modern sources, Barrymore also provided inspiration for the Sherman role. Modern sources claim that Selznick originally conceived of the "Mary Evans" role as a vehicle for Clara Bow. Modern sources add the following actors to the cast: Bryant Washburn (Washed-up star), Heinie Conklin (Car owner) and Eddie Dunn (Doorman at Grauman's Chinese Theater). Gordon DeMaine is identified by modern sources as "The Yes Man." In addition, modern sources list Allen Rivkin as a screenwriter.
Released in United States 1932
Released in United States March 1977
Inspired the following remakes: "A Star Is Born" (USA/37), "A Star Is Born" (USA/54), and "A Star Is Born" (USA/76).
Released in United States March 1977 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (Double Vision-Two different classics made from the same story) March 9-27, 1977.)
Released in United States 1932