What Price Hollywood – US, 1932
About a half an hour into George Cukor’s What Price Hollywood, the movie which was remade in 1937, 1954, 1976, and 2018 as A Star is Born, a man breaks into a woman’s home, picks her up from her bed, and forcibly takes her to his home. The man then refuses to release her and even force feeds her caviar, all within the gaze of numerous male musicians and servants, none of which raise a single objection to the inhumane spectacle occurring in front of them. So much for chivalry.
Now rewind about five minutes. The set-up to the grotesque display I have just described occurs on a Hollywood film set, where a director is filming live actions shots of a game of polo. The soon-to-be-abducted woman is shown taking an interest in a rider wearing a uniform numbered 2. When she hears he wants nothing to do with “Hollywood blondes,” she is beside herself, and when an errant ball hits her from behind, she decides to give the man a piece of her mind. What follows in a dressing down the likes of which rarely come from protagonists, and you could understand if the jockey concluded this exchange by observing how right he was in his earlier sentiments. Except he doesn’t. No, the guy takes an interest in his insulter and is soon asking her to join him for dinner. She makes a few remarkably greedy demands and then stands him up even though he has met them. Enraged at the loss of face, he sets off to commit the crime mentioned in the first paragraph.
Would it surprise you, given such an introduction to these two characters, that they get married just a few scenes later? Admittedly, surprise is the wrong word here, for, as with similar moments in John Waynes’s McLintock! and The Quiet Man, modern sentiments simply do not endorse the kind of verbal attack levied upon the man or back the notion that kidnapping can be the start of a beautiful relationship, not even in a film made before the Hayes Code was fully enforced – unless George Clooney is involved, that is.
The woman referred to above is Mary Evans (Constance Bennett). When we first meet her, she is an aspiring actress waiting tables at a restaurant frequented by a number of Hollywood elite. She is also confident in her abilities and walks with the kind of swagger that reveals just how much confidence she has in herself. One particular day, Max Carey (Lowell Sherman), a big-time director, walks in drunk and distributing flowers. Mary begs her co-worker to let her wait on him, and pretty soon, she’s being swept off to a Hollywood premier and receiving an opportunity to break into Hollywood. One guess how that turns out.
I like that Mary is overconfident and slightly arrogant. You probably had to be to make the cross-country journey that so many people did at that time. And I like that she matches Carey’s sardonic wit with humor and sarcasm. It makes her a force to be reckoned with even before she has any real power over her own destiny. Suddenly, she got a contract. It’s all so sudden – a fairy tale lie that Hollywood all too often tells about itself. A wiser film would have explored her ascent and growing skills. Instead, all we get is a night of rehearsing and, voila, a studio head is offering her a seven-years deal and declaring that he’s going to make her a star – all this after seeing her onscreen for just ten seconds. The Hollywood myth on display for all to see.
Here would be a good time to mention that tokenism of the African-American characters, a sad part of early Hollywood history, and a scene in which Max pulls an African-American servant into a swimming pool after she decides to spontaneously serenade him as an audition is particularly jarring. After all, he gave Mary a part for doing essentially the same thing. Honestly, some of what used to be passed off as humor is utterly embarrassing today.
What Price Hollywood is a decent and engaging film when it focuses on Mary’s friendship with Max. That’s right, friendship. Like The Artist, Max discovers Mary, and Mary’s career flourishes; when Max hits rock bottom, it’s Mary that tries to resuscitate him and get him to dispel his demons. In later versions of the story, the roles of the husband and director were morphed together, which was the right decision. With two male protagonists, What Price Hollywood is too disjointed, with Mary running around trying to save her marriage in one scene and Max’s soul in the other. In this version of the story, Max’s story gets the short end of the stick, and that is to the film’s detriment. As for the ending, it can only be seen as a product of its times, when unwritten rules didn’t allow female heroines to be self-sufficient or single. A knight had to come riding along, regardless of whether the damsel was actually in distress.
If you know the structure of the various iterations of A Star Is Born, the second half of the film will look familiar. Fortunately, it is in this half that the film finds its stride. Cukor was an excellent director, and he is at his best here when focusing his lens on Mary and Max. Cukor also helps viewers understand a time that is remarkably similar to the present. Throughout the film, he frequently returns to newspaper clippings that are both speculative and salacious. The most invasive one is a column called “You Ask Me,” which, like many websites today, publish the rumor instead of the facts. As a result, Mary must deal with headlines that speculate on the health of her marriage and later Mary’s relationship with Max.
Still, What Price Hollywood is only partly enjoyable. When it focuses on Hollywood’s inner workings and exposes its seedier side, the film is a revelation, and when it explores the connection that Mary and Max have, it is riveting. Yet when it turns its lens to the marriage, the films suffers, partly because the film is so short, that it’s impossible to get how they met out of your head. This created an awkward moment: In one scene, Mary is distraught over the state of her relationship, and I mentally shrugged. Of course, it fell apart. Don’t you remember how it began. I know I do. (on DVD from Warner’s Archive Collection)
2 and a half stars