It might be sacrilege to even “think” this, but I prefer What Price Hollywood? to A Star Is Born, both the original and the Judy Garland/George Cukor remake that is the Holy Grail of “Redemptive Hollywood Stories.” There’s an efficiency in the storytelling and direction, and an easygoing, seriocomic energy that makes a good portion of it still feel relevant today. Luckily, Warner Archive Collection has released a beautiful print of What Price Hollywood? on DVD that allows you to judge for yourself.
Brown Derby waitress Mary Evans (Constance Bennett) is an aspiring actress who uses the opportunities her position allows for access to the Hollywood elite. She charms the successful director Max Carey (Lowell Sherman) on the premiere night of one of his films when he’s already “three sheets to the wind.” The drunk but smitten director whisks her to the star-studded Grauman’s Chinese Theatre Premiere and after, his home, although it is quite clear nothing “happens.” He does promise her a screen test. Sadly, her enthusiasm is far greater than her acting chops, but she works all night, and returns to the soundstage the next day; nailing the small scene. The big producer Julius Saxe (Gregory Ratoff) sees her screen test and determines right then and there she’s perfect for his next picture.
Almost overnight, Mary’s dreams of becoming a Hollywood star are realized; as we see her go from supporting to leading roles and finally, celebrity status. Sadly, as her star rises, her benefactor Max’s career slides into decline, thanks to one part alcoholism and two-parts self-loathing. Mary weds a wealthy polo player, Lonny Borden (Neil Hamilton, best known 30+ years later as Batman’s Commissioner Gordon). Growing dissatisfied with his successful wife, Borden walks out on the marriage, just as she learns she’s pregnant with their first child. Then Max goes missing, only to turn up depressed at her home. He wallows in self pity, to the point of suicide. The tabloids are merciless with the sensationalistic death, and Mary flees to Paris with her newborn baby.
One of the joys of What Price Hollywood? is Constance Bennett. She has such an immediate charm; an effervescent energy and light touch that she’s a thoroughly relatable and believable person. She might be seen as slightly opportunistic for 1932, and that may have been the point, as this was pre-code, and if a woman was to act “strident,” she was going to have to pay for her excesses in the final reel – but watching today she comes off as plucky and smart, going about making her career “happen.” The question then, ‘what price Hollywood?’ as in ‘the price one is willing to pay for fame,’ doesn’t pack the moralistic punch it once meant to. And that’s fine. Because the upbeat Hollywood ending instead feels well deserved.
George Cukor, who directed, was also considered for the first A Star is Born with Janet Gaynor 5 years later, but demurred because it was too similar to What Price Hollywood? (they were both based on the same story by Adele Rogers St. Johns, which in turn was based on real life incidents surrounding silent film star Colleen Moore and her marriage to alcoholic John McCormick and the suicide of actor/director Tom Forman). Interesting, then, that Cukor would helm the Judy Garland version of A Star is Born 20 years later.
Actor-director Lowell Sherman plays the disillusioned alcoholic director here, and there’s some interesting elements at play. It may have been far too subtle for 1932 audiences, but today Sherman plays the character with a definite “gay” energy. While he has a great affinity for Mary, and she to him, it’s safe to say their love is platonic. Even though he’s jealous of her husband and disagreeable over the distraction, it never plays as sexual or romantic. It’s also surprising that the writers chose to not drive the story in that direction, as it’s the rising action for A Star is Born, in all its incarnations. His depression and suicide also play extremely believable if he’s suffering from repressed homosexuality, which seems quite likely.
While Cukor was not the most visual of directors, (his stories tended to focus on dialogue), there are several visually impactful moments, not the least of which is the suicide of Max Carey. He shoots himself, not in the head, but in the chest (which is how the real life director Forman ended his life) and the accelerated montage of Max’s life that precedes his death is nothing short of breathtaking.
Also of great appeal are the locations, from the real Brown Derby to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre; which gives the film not only a layer of authenticity, but a charming time capsule into what Hollywood looked like in the early 1930s.
So many “Hollywood on Hollywood” films never honestly depicted an authentic behind-the-scenes feel and appeal, especially in the classic period when the studio heads and executives had too much to lose, which is another reason to celebrate What Price Hollywood. It may have candy coated much of the movie star lifestyle, but in attempting to tell a tale of morality, the resulting realism turns out to be something of a lucky accident, and a good reason to make What Price Hollywood? a part of any classic film lover’s collection.