What Price Hollywood? was the first collaboration between producer David O. Selznick and director George Cukor during their time together at RKO in 1932-33. Invariably compared to A Star Is Born, a title first produced by Selznick at his own company in 1937, and next directed by Cukor for release through Warner Bros. in 1954, this earlier telling of the rise of a young actress intertwined with the fall of the man who discovered her earns the right to stand alone.
By no means the first inside-Hollywood movie—there were plenty of silents, including a few classics—nor the only one playing by the time of its release, What Price Hollywood? was part of a cycle that included Universal’s The Cohens and Kellys in Hollywood and Once in a Lifetime, Paramount’s Make Me a Star, Columbia’s Hollywood Speaks, and even RKO’s own The Lost Squadron. That group of 1932 releases alone provides plenty of entertainment for fans of this type of film, but What Price Hollywood? emerges as the cream of this crop, not so much for taking us behind the scenes in Hollywood as for its two strong leading characters, a third engaging supporting performance, and film technique wisely used to advance the story rather than distract on its own merits.
Lengthy for its time at eighty-eight minutes, What Price Hollywood? still accomplishes what the best pre-Code era films do, and that is properly telling its story in the time required, without filler.
The biggest drawback to What Price Hollywood? is that the beginning of the film, charting the rise of Mary Evans (Constance Bennett) from Brown Derby waitress to Hollywood superstar, is a very tough act to follow. The middle of the movie, in which Mary, firmly established as “America’s Pal,” meets, falls in love with, and marries wealthy playboy Lonny Borden (Neil Hamilton) is a necessary evil that teeters towards turning the movie into a standard romance, but is elevated by emphasizing the differences between Mary and Lonny’s backgrounds, as well as the compromises of fame that begin chipping away at happiness from the time of their wedding day. Love and marriage are resolved in the end, but not before What Price Hollywood? drops its comedic tone to draw the story of Mary’s discoverer, fallen director Max Carey (Lowell Sherman), to its bitter end. Bennett does enough in the first third of the movie to make Mary Evans an image-altering role for an actress whose previous associations were all glamour and romance—associations reinforced throughout the middle act—but it’s the thread of Sherman’s witty, urbane, and absolutely jaded Carey that turns What Price Hollywood? into something special.
Bennett portrays panic through some over-the-top hysterics a couple of times towards the end of the movie, but she’s wonderful throughout Mary’s Hollywood rise, begun when she sticks at the side of director Carey (Sherman), who arrives drunk at the Brown Derby on the way to the premiere of his latest movie. Mary accompanies Carey up the red carpet at the Grauman’s Chinese premiere and even gets to say a few words to America over the radio after Carey introduces her as a Duchess tagging along with him.
The next morning it takes some prodding for him to remember her (he’s aided some by Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, in his film debut as Max's butler), but once he does, Mary finagles a movie opportunity from the hungover director, who’s charmed by the straightforward, fresh-faced beauty.
During a quick rehearsal Mary races through her lines and flubs her opportunity, but upon arriving home she practices her scene up and down the stairs of her apartment in what is, for me at least, the most memorable few moments of the movie. This transformation takes hours but Cukor and Bennett manage to turn Mary Evans from green to polished within just a minute or so.
After upsetting producer Julius Saxe (Gregory Ratoff) with her ill-timed entrance, Mary joins the projectionist while Saxe views the day’s rushes. Saxe is bowled over by Mary, who’s immediately awarded with the standard seven-year contract, promises of fame and riches, and the “America’s Pal” nickname.
“Mr. Carey, I’m in pictures!” the excited young actress declares to the seasoned director, sprawled out in the row of seats behind the producer.
“Well, don’t blame me,” Carey tells her, his tone friendly, but his words poignant.
“Suggest sensational comeback for Clara Bow in a Hollywood picture titled The Truth About Hollywood,” David O. Selznick wired his bosses in New York in early March 1932. They weren’t very keen on the idea, and apparently Bow wasn’t either. Selznick got his way with the studio, then made plans for William A. Seiter to direct Helen Twelvetrees in his inside-Hollywood film. That changed fast. Twelvetrees was busy in State’s Attorney and RKO soon discovered she was pregnant—she was shifted to a less demanding role in Is My Face Red?, directed by Seiter. Next, RKO announced that they’d seek out a young, unknown actress for the lead, but before the calendar turned to April Selznick had borrowed director George Cukor from Paramount and cast another of RKO’s top properties, Constance Bennett, in the leading role. Joel McCrea was originally cast opposite Bennett, reuniting the pair from The Common Law and Born to Love (both 1931), but Neil Hamilton was ultimately cast as Lonny. Bennett and Hamilton would also work together in their next film, Two Against the World, while Bennett wound up paired twice more with McCrea soon after, in Rockabye (1932) and Bed of Roses (1933).
The fan magazines loved What Price Hollywood?, but that probably didn’t surprise Variety, who praised the production only after describing it as “a fan magazinish interpretation of Hollywood, plus a couple of twists invariably known as the working girls’ delight.” This shouldn’t have been a surprise to the same source who, prior to the film’s release, reported What Price Hollywood? would be among the inside-Hollywood films featuring less “inside picture stuff” because of a fear that “audiences will become overwise with a resultant box office effect.” The movie only places us on a Hollywood set a couple of times, but if What Price Hollywood? comes up short on relaying technical details, it does offer an honest appraisal of some of Hollywood’s social foibles.
Sherman’s director Max Carey ought to be stamped with a warning label. His descent, marked by equal doses of alcohol and bitterness, is a harsh reminder that what goes up most often comes down. Hard. “I’m dead inside,” he eventually confesses to Mary. “It’s all gone in here,” he says, tapping his chest. Their relationship, platonic from start to finish, is the most touching aspect to What Price Hollywood? Of course, Hollywood absolves itself, and the kindly producer, from any responsibility in Max’s downfall by making him an alcoholic, but even from the beginning of the movie—before we know what a chronic drinker Max is—every lighthearted remark he makes, every chuckle he provides, drips with warning that neither Mary nor the viewer take time to heed. There’s no sense in Max being more forceful, with her or with us: he’s aware of the temptation fame and fortune offers. We begin to see it before Mary, who ascribes Max’s downfall to Max, and, despite her protests, can't really become too hostile towards Saxe for cutting ties with him. She sticks because she’s loyal and Max has been a friend. It’s not until Max inadvertently manufactures scandal around her that Mary is driven from the top of the screen heap and back to a reality defined by more important, immediate things. In this case, protecting her child. By the time the movie ends, we can see her own priorities will be different going forward, even if the ending is a bit too standard-issue.
Sherman moves from clown to derelict in a moving performance, one of his last before embarking on directorial career as brief as it was promising before his sudden death from pneumonia at the end of 1934. He and Bennett were both lauded for their work on What Price Hollywood? with Gregory Ratoff’s caricature of a Goldwyn-like film producer also drawing a lot of praise. Fan magazines Photoplay and Screenland both included Sherman and Bennett among their best performances of the month, while Variety thought Sherman “excellent throughout.”
For myself, the rewards of What Price Hollywood? are split about 75/25 between Sherman and Bennett. I love the first portion of the movie charting Bennett’s rise from oblivion, but I always feel a little cheated when her rise from contract player to stardom is handled in a short yet creative montage highlighted by her growth in magnitude and rise in billing. It looks great, but this is another case where I'd prefer to see her working her way up and down those stairs. By the next scene, when she and Hamilton’s rich boy meet on the polo field, little Mary Evans has already transformed into, well, into Constance Bennett. Mary’s putting on a bit of an act to tempt millionaire Lonny, but she gets away with every bit of the act because Mary Evans is big enough to do so. I miss what must have come between Mary’s transformation to Connie.
The movie makes up for it with a primal courtship that involves Mary being yanked from bed in her nightie and force-fed caviar by an exasperated Lonny until she finally submits to his animal attractions. It’s a pretty sexy scene, but truth be told, by this point of the movie I find myself distracted by anticipating Lowell Sherman’s next chance to impress. He sort of disappears for awhile, and rightfully so since the booze is taking him over, but his earlier charms have cursed the movie with constant expectations of his presence. When he does make a more permanent return to the story line it turns out to have been worth the wait, but I suspect the movie would have played more evenly for me if his Max hadn’t been so damn interesting. Despite Bennett’s strong rise out of the gates, Sherman steals the movie.
Some of this unevenness is probably caused by the excessively large team of world famous writers who worked on the movie. What Price Hollywood? is based on an original story by Adela Rogers St. Johns which was then (as I can best piece it together) touched up by Gene Fowler and Rowland Brown before being adapted to a screenplay by Ben Markson and Jane Murfin. All five are billed, and others also had a hand, but when the movie was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Story a special committee had to be formed to come to the conclusion that credit belonged to Murfin and St. Johns. Seems to be a case of too many chefs, but the end result still turned out tasty, if not quite gourmet.
What Price Hollywood? is not as polished as the later William A. Wellman film for Selznick, A Star Is Born, but between Bennett’s performance in the beginning and Sherman’s throughout I prefer this earlier, less tidy, movie about Hollywood.
- Behlmer, Rudy, ed. Memo From David O. Selznick. New York: Modern Library, 2000.
- Evans, Delight. “Reviews of the Best Pictures.” Screenland, September 1932.
- “Film Reviews: What Price Hollywood.” Variety, July 19, 1932.
- “The Inside Dope.” Hollywood Filmograph, March 12, 1932.
- “The Shadow Stage.” Photoplay, August 1932.
- “Tone Down Hollywood Films’ Inside Stuff For Boxoffice Safety.” Variety, May 3, 1932.
- “Win Story Credit.” Film Daily, December 10, 1932.
I’ll be back in a couple of days with coverage of Ten Cents a Dance (1931) for the Remembering Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon.