Wednesday, May 26, 2010

What Price Hollywood? (1932)



It was exuberant and a little larger than life; it was a romantic story of a decent girl, and of a fellow who did her a good deed. They weren't in love with each other, they were friends, and in spite of her success she was always mindful of him and had compassion for him. She never lost her respect for him, they had a wonderful relationship; he was, in a sense, a father figure. It was a very difficult story to write--it was a balancing act, awkward, funny, touching, and a very human story, different and very interesting. I think that's why it's been remade so many times.
--George Cukor, quoted in David O. Selznick's Hollywood by Ronald Haver


Sometimes it takes more than one viewing to appreciate a movie's worth. So it was with What Price Hollywood?, the breathtakingly good 1932 George Cukor film that the Siren just saw for the second time, after watching and liking it, but under less than ideal circumstances, in late 2008. Famous mostly for being the precursor to three later stories of a woman's star rising while a man's burns out, this movie stands apart from any later version of A Star Is Born, and does so in ways that work almost entirely to its credit. What Price Hollywood? is the best movie the Siren has seen so far this year.

One thing you won't find the Siren doing here, however, is using What Price Hollywood? to run down the 1937 A Star Is Born, an excellent film with one of Fredric March's best performances, or the 1954 Cukor-directed version, which is a masterpiece. It's astonishing that three such good movies were made from the same idea; there are plenty of stories that were made well twice, like Imitation of Life, but three? That must be unique, or damn close. (The 1976 Star is Born, however, despite charismatic leads, thrust "Evergreen" upon a blameless public and therefore cannot be forgiven either in this life or the next.) Instead, the Siren is saying that What Price Hollywood? is no mere dated antecedent, but its own superb self and deserving of the same affection lavished on the other two.

The vital distinction was made by Cukor himself, above: The central relationship is not a romance, but a friendship. Constance Bennett (remember our mercurial Constance, the 20th-century Becky Sharp?) plays Mary Evans, a waitress at the Brown Derby who yearns for stardom but has yet to get a break. Into the restaurant one night reels director Maximilian Carey (Lowell Sherman), top-hatted, white-tied and half-seas-over. Mary's sang-froid and wit captivate him as much or more than her beauty, and Max takes her to a premiere and later gives her a bit part in his latest movie. So good is Mary that she parlays one line of dialogue into later stardom, and she remains grateful to the man who gave her a break. But they don't become lovers. Instead, Mary the star falls in love with a polo-playing rich boy, who predictably makes her miserable. Meanwhile, Max's drinking goes from a manageable habit to a terrifying dependency that kills his career. Mary refuses to desert him; she intercedes with his producer, puts up with Max's drunken intrusions, pays him just to hang around her set and finally bails him out of the drunk tank after he kites a check. That night, while staying in Mary's guest room, Max shoots himself. The scandal takes down Mary's career.




Constance Bennett considered this her best picture, which shows her intelligence--stars are wrong about that more often than you might think. As Mary, she's tarter and more ambitious than the two Esthers that followed. She targets Max as soon as he walks in the Brown Derby, negotiating with another waitress so she can take the table: "I gave you Wally Beery last week!" We see her poring over fan magazines and practicing her star mannerisms, but when the daydream ends Mary is all business and realistic about the manipulation that will go into forging a career, as well as the sheer work. Mary isn't naturally brilliant. When Max gives her a bit part with one line, she's terrible; Bennett's face, as she does lousy takes and seems helpless to improve, will hit home with a lot of former acting students. She goes home and practices over and over, Cukor's camera following her feet going up and down the stairs until she finally gets it.

Lowell Sherman was primarily a director but he also acted; the Siren knew him as the agent of Lillian Gish's fall from virtue in Way Down East. Sherman was good, even if that great Griffith silent didn't demand, or get, much subtlety from him. But what a performance Sherman gives as Max. There's no explanation for why he drinks; his one comment when told he should give it up is "What, and be bored all the time?" He doesn't show contempt for his Hollywood trappings, but there's something in Max that stands apart and mocks. The script gives Sherman a lot of lines that could play as nasty; Sherman speaks them in the deadpan manner of a man who long ago gave up hoping anyone was going to get his jokes. Mary does gets his point, all the time, and she tosses the verbal ball right back at him. That is reason enough to believe that he would take her to heart. When Max is viewing rushes of Mary with the producer Julius Saxe (Gregory Ratoff, and you won't believe how young he looks), the director is so sure of his judgment that he lounges back in his seat until his face disappears, feet propped up in front of him. And Sherman gives you every nuanced reaction you could want with just the soles of his shoes.

Brian Kellow, in his excellent biography of the Bennett sisters, suggests that Max's character reads as gay, an analysis the Siren wouldn't dispute. Bennett was (probably) 28 and ravishing, and Max notices, but he never reacts to her as a potential conquest, nor do we see him flirting with any other beautiful women, or even checking them out. More than that, in Max's banter with Mary there's a great deal of the gallant but teasing way that gay men often flirt with women.




It doesn't matter that much to the Siren, though, because What Price Hollywood? shows us a male/female friendship based on simple regard for intelligence, humor, loyalty and kindness. Such relationships are common enough in real life, whether one side is gay or not, but you would never know it from most movies. "The public don't understand relations like between you and Carey," Saxe tells Mary after the director's suicide. But Cukor, Bennett and Sherman did.

The millionaire playboy character, Lonnie Borden (Neil Hamilton), can be seen as problematic; Kellow calls him "tiresome" and the Siren's own adjective would be "insufferable." But the Siren can't believe that in a script this good, the writers didn't know what they were creating. At a polo game Lonnie hits Mary in the backside with a ball (I know, I know), then asks her out to dinner. She quixotically (or sensibly, depending on your viewpoint) decides to stay home and he shows up in her bedroom to drag her, still in her negligee, to the lavish spread he's prepared. This may be intended to play as charming, although a moment when Lonnie force-feeds Mary caviar had the Siren covering her eyes in a way she usually reserves for a director like Dario Argento.




To back up the Siren's take on Lonnie, there's also Cukor: "David [O. Selznick] didn't like cheap jibes about Hollywood or its people, he had a romantic idea that the whole world loves Hollywood...and he didn't want to make anything bitchy or sour." Lonnie's later actions and lines are surely aimed at the unearned snobbery some people had, and have, toward Hollywood. The Siren began to wonder if, in a movie filled with in-jokes, Borden wasn't a poke at the Mdvanis and other European bluebloods who wedded stars--like Constance herself, married to the Marquis de la Falaise de Coudray at the time of filming. Borden, after whining that Mary's scheduled interview is going to scotch their tennis game, develops his theme by attacking her professional colleagues: "You can work with them. But do you have to be intimate friends with them?" This while she is reading a book on high-society etiquette in order to fit in with his crowd. Lonnie polices her clothes, scowling at a bracelet she's putting on until Mary sheepishly responds, "I know, too gaudy, huh. Not with sport clothes. See, I'm learning!" (If you'll permit the Siren a bit of life advice, barbed clothing critiques from a straight man are a 100% surefire sign of a control freak to be avoided at all costs.) When Max hits the skids and Mary is trying to help him, Lonnie further demonstrates his powers of empathy by snapping, "Well, he brought it on himself."

Constance was merrily cheating on de la Falaise throughout their marriage, and it's a pity Mary doesn't do the same. But when Lonnie picks a fight over Max's latest drunken intrusion, Mary throws out her husband, and not her friend. The Siren loved her for that.



Still, Lonnie isn't the villain of the movie, much as the Siren might want him to be. That role is reserved in a small way for the public that rips off Mary's veil after her wedding, and in a big way for the ravening press that leaps in a pack on any misstep by a star. This is somewhat self-serving; the same press is the agent of Mary's rise. But the sermonizing behind the gossip-column items about Max's downfall, and the reporters on Mary's lawn after his suicide, is still with us in these supposedly more freewheeling times. (Look at the gleeful way Lindsay Lohan is nailed up for everything from getting drunk to showing up somewhere with smudged mascara; the Siren isn't the only one who finds that coverage sick-making.)




Max's suicide is the most celebrated sequence in What Price Hollywood?, and it deserves every bit of its fame. Selznick hired Slavko Vorkapich to develop the montage leading to the fatal gunshot; Haver describes the Yugoslavian immigrant as "the first person working in the American commercial film industry who had a completely intellectual concept about what film could and should do." Together, Vorkapich and Cukor created a montage that turns on the old idea of a man's life flashing before his eyes in his final moments. The concept is almost cliched; the execution is unforgettable. Due credit must also go to Murray Spivack, the RKO sound department head:
I knew that they needed some kind of sound effect to carry this and I thought, 'I've gotta get something unusual, that isn't familiar,' something that sounded like a brainstorm to me--it has to whir, a kind of crazy thing, and it had to increase in speed. So I got a cigar box, tore off the lid, put some rubber bands around it, tied it to a string, and swung it around in a circle faster and faster. And when it was recorded, it sounded just fine.

Brilliant as the sequence is, it isn't even the Siren's favorite. That would be Mary's first entrance to the studio, done from her point of view in a series of tracking shots that dissolve one into the other: behind a truck going through the gates, back past the squatty soundstage buildings, through an entrance partially blocked by a pile of dirt, and into the soundstage, the camera finding Mary around the same time it spots the film equipment and crew, until Mary finds Max at work and she stops, flanked by the lights and the camera, both things framing her and squeezing her in at the same time.

It was Cukor's third film as solo director--he'd only been at it since 1930--and yet his genius is everywhere, in moment after moment that gives you a world of character in just a minute or two. Max and Mary pulling up to a premiere in a hand-cranked car that's pouring smoke, Mary as delighted as if she were in Cinderella's carriage. Max staggering into Mary's garden and stopping to blow smoke up a statue's ass. The inscription on Max's photo in Mary's living room: "I made you what you are today. I hope you're satisfied." Mary at Lonnie's polo game, where she perches on a table and coos to her maid, "Bonita, I'm all that-a-way over one of those polo players out there. Baby, can he ride!" Max, after being put to bed by Mary for the last time, calling to her and when she responds "yes darling?" replying, without a trace of self-pity, "I just wanted to hear you speak again."

A great, great movie--as yet unavailable on DVD.

67 comments:

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

I recorded this the other night but haven't gotten around to looking at it (the story of my life...and my blog, come to think of it). I will rectify this ASAP, mostly on your generous recommendation...

Operator_99 said...

Lowell Sherman is a favorite of mine and he sure does a great job in WPH. I hope folks wiil seek it out, it's def. worth the time.

TLRHB said...

What? Love isn't soft as an easy chair? Cynic!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

A fold-out deck chair, maybe, with cushions.

Looks like this one's going to have to get prioritized. I don't know Constance very well, but that will soon be a degree less the case. Thanks for a wonderful piece, Siren.

Dan Callahan said...

What a wonderful piece about a terrific, undervalued movie. You catch everything that's special about it, and even make a convincing case for the usage of that damned polo player.

Cukor himself still doesn't get the credit he deserves; his career is stuffed with great or near-great films. To me, a great film director should have around ten major works. Cukor, like Hitchcock, has around twenty. There's still a lot to explore about him and his movies.

I love Sherman in this; a fine actor, and he directed "She Done Him Wrong" and "Morning Glory." Wish he had lived longer.

Arthur S. said...

Oh I've wanted to see this film for ages. And Cukor "capturing a world of character in a minute or two" is a perfect description of his special magic.

The idea of a male-female relationship not based on romance as the subject of a film was revived again in Cukor's ''Sylvia Scarlett'' where Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant are fellow conmen and have no feelings towards each other whatsover. Along with ''A Double Life'' that's probably one of Cukor's most uncompromised films. It's not as vocally stressed that a good portion of his films were taken away from him and cut against his will, they make a great deal about Welles but Cukor, a company man, though no conformist, got it just as bad.

Yojimboen said...

Max and Mary meet cute.

DavidEhrenstein said...

You're quite right about this one, Siren. It's really good and the fact that Bennett and Sherman are not lovers gives it a special flavir. Gay subtext? Maybe. But it's not hammered home. The point being made is that even in a "cutthroat busienss" people can have real friendships and sport what used to be known as "Professional Loyalty."

Known today primarily for Topper (and that's certainly a great thing to be known for) Constance Bennett was a majro thrities star, popular with audiences for her galmour and ability to play "swells" devoid of snobbery.

Besides this she's very good in two rather obscure Cukorss - Our Betters and Rockabye

X. Trapnel said...

Does anyone know anything context-wise about the "slightly odious quality" Cukor attributed to Lowell Sherman? (Can't remember where I read it.)

Vanwall said...

I prefer to remember Constance Bennett for "Merrily We Live", it had a nice sense of anarchy, altho she is really good in this film. As I've mentioned before, she exists, for me, only on screen - ahe acted the parts of poor and humble with Oscar-winning skill, IMHO, as few stars were as far from those stations in life as she was.

I wonder if Mary was an allusion, conscious or not, to Mary Miles Minter, and that mysterious Hollywood farrago that killed her career.

Gloria said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gloria said...

Wow. This was one mouth-watering post: it's certainly now in my "Too see" list. BTW, I've seen a young-ish Ratoff on The Road to Glory: his features look young indeed, but they still screamed "Max Fabian" to me all over the place.

I've been reminded of King Vidor's Show People... ¿Could it be considered a precedent (albeit an indirect one) of this film and the ones that came after?

Off-topic PS: Last weekend I was able to get a DVD of The Best Years of Our Lives, which I had not seen since my childhood... I was of course very enticed to repeat because of your earlier post: I just loved it (the film never seemed to drag for a moment... So unlike Ben-Hur, as far as I'm concerned: must see more Wyler films!)

Dan Leo said...

Damn -- doesn't seem to be available on DVD...

The Siren said...

Ivan and Dennis, both of you surely will not regret seeing this, even if you aren't as "that-a-way" about it as I am.

Operator, I have to see some more Sherman now. It kills me that he died just two years after this movie, of pneumonia. Maybe after I save Sam Cooke in my time machine, I'll go back and give him some penicillin, right after I get Gershwin a decent early diagnosis.

TLRHB, I had an ex-boyfriend who had to sing that at his mother's second wedding. I think it explained a lot about his later neuroses.

Arthur, THANK YOU for reminding me of Sylvia Scarlet, an excellent analogy. Cukor did understand male/female friendships and there are others in his movies, too, like the Philadelphia Story and the later version of A Star is Born.

David, I completely agree. I am inclined to think there is a whiff of gay subtext, but you don't have to read it that way. And even if you do, it's way off in the shadows and as you and I both say, it just doesn't matter much measured against the pleasure of seeing a professional friendship.

The Siren said...

Dan, you make the same point about Cukor that was in the back of my head throughout writing this. There's Gavin Lambert's great book and the McGilligan bio but I often feel somehow that the director isn't getting his due, perhaps because he isn't much discussed in the blogosphere where I hang out. When I was writing this I was Googling all over the place trying to find prior pieces, and there were a few, but not that many. Of course that is probably also due to this film's being somewhat difficult to see, like a lot of early Cukor.

XT, I'm not sure what Cukor was talking about there. Sherman is said to have based his character in part on John Barrymore, who was his brother-in-law. Maybe Cukor just didn't care for him personally. Sherman's acting certainly puts paid to the ridiculous canard that Cukor was great with actresses but not so much with actors.

Vanwall, the movie is so teeming with Hollywood lore that it wouldn't surprise me a bit if they had the Taylor murder somewhat in mind, although it's usually said to have been inspired by Colleen Moore's miserable marriage to John McCormack, as well as by Marshall Neilan's alcohol-fueled flameout.

Dan, ain't it a crime? You can follow Yojimboen's link for a taste of it (thanks Y!)

Gloria, Selznick specifically wanted a serious movie about Hollywood because he was bothered by the fact that the only movies about it were, like Show People, comedies. I don't take that necessarily to mean he disliked Show People, though; it's a great movie.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Siren if you ever get the chance you shoudl visit the Margaret Herrick Library (of the Motion Picture AcademY) here in Hollywood and ask to see the Cukor files. They're absolutely voluminous, as he left TONS of stuff. But a cursory glance at the general holdings and looking at one or two items should be a real eye-opener. He annotated the scripts he was shooting with cues for the actors. He NEVER trold them to do specific things, but always talked about the tone or mood of a scene thorugh allusions to a world of other things -- novels, plays, painting, personal anecdotes. In this way he brought his actors best out by making them part of the process. This is the reason why in a film like Adam's Rib which has an enormous cast, everyone shines. Sure Tracy and Hepburn were the stars. But that was the easy part. What Cukor wanted to bring to life was a whole urban world where a wife taking a pot-shot at her straying husband stands the city on its ear. Even the briefest passign performance is accounted for. More than anything else this, for my money, is why he's so damned great.

The Siren said...

I'd love to see that archive. Cukor was a peerless director of actors but in an odd way that doesn't always work to his credit; it's often seen as a minor talent. But his visual facility was incredible and he does get high praise for that.

Neil Hamilton as Lonnie, for example, really isn't bad at all; I think the fact that he's rapped is due more his character being such an unholy pill. It KILLED me that they got back together in the final shot but I did see it coming. And I took comfort from him having to lure Mary back in part with a promise of a new picture. I figure that in the end, Max is right when he says it won't last, I just didn't get the satisfaction of seeing her kick him out again on camera.

Yojimboen said...

When Selznick set up his Janet Gaynor Star he offered it first to Cukor to direct, who refused it, recognizing the fairly naked plagiarism of WPH. There were reports of threatened legal action by RKO against Selznick Pictures, but AFAIK nothing came of it (settled out of court?).

The Siren said...

Yojimboen, I think it was more that Cukor didn't want to repeat himself in such a short time frame and said so at the time. I'm guessing, but Selznick probably felt somewhat entitled to take another whack at a story he had developed, too; he wasn't satisfied entirely with WPH? and wanted to smooth out what he saw as contrivances. The Haver book has a memo where Selznick is telling Wellman to look at WPH for tips on how to execute something. There are certainly differences as well as similarities between the 32 and 37 films so it would be interesting to know if RKO had a valid claim, considering how common it was to just blatantly steal a plot concept.

Karen said...

Oh, Siren, do you know the way to my heart or WHAT? As soon as I saw the title of the post I let out an exclamation of sheer delight.

I love, love, LOVE, L O V E this film. I know I've spoken before about details like the depiction of Mary's meteoric rise, or the camera technique employed to show Max's body falling. I gasped when I saw that in 2007; I can only imagine the effect it had in 1932.

I sought out all the Sherman I could find after seeing it the first time. I know The Royal Bed is Netflixable. I've seen him in Ladies of Leisure, too, which I don't believe is, though.

I could have sworn that I'd read somewhere that he based Max on a combination of Barrymore and himself....ah, yes, here it is, in the AFI Catalog: "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."

The AFI also offers this tidbit: "Modern sources claim that Selznick originally conceived of the 'Mary Evans' role as a vehicle for Clara Bow."

Y., yes, there was a proposed lawsuit in the wake of A Star is Born. According to AFI, again, "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."

Siren, thank you a thousand times for a wonderful assessment of this brilliant film. You know, I had it on my DVR for 3 years, and then the cable box died and had to be replaced...there went my only access. It's criminal that there's no DVD of this brilliant film.

The Siren said...

Karen, that's really interesting re: Sherman basing Max in part on himself. I don't have a lot of stuff on this movie at home--just Kellow, the Haver book and to a much lesser extent McGilligan, whose opinion I usually don't share on the more obscure Cukors anyway--and there wasn't anything about that. It reminds me of Barrymore playing essentially himself in Dinner at Eight...and meeting the same fate in the movie.

As for the suit, oh I totally believe RKO wanted to bring it and I can't say I blame them, either. What I'd be curious about it is how it shook out; was it settled, in which case probably both sides thought RKO had a shot, or did it just fade away, in which case it was sabre-rattling?

I was hoping this post might please you, as I do well remember your boosting this movie. You must be feeling as I did over Yojimboen down in the Garfield thread. :)

DavidEhrenstein said...

The attention Cukor paid to actors is as one with his visualstyle in that he knew what their movemnt within the frame meant -- and how it impacted.

He came from the theater but he knew right from the star in A Bill of Divocement how to re-scale actor's performances for the screen. He saw that the camera picked up everything and actor's needed to recalibrate their technique. Hence his invariable direction to so many of them: "Stop acting!"

A perfect example of his sense of visual pasticity is his staging of the "The Man That Got Away" number in A Star is Born. He knew Judy's simplest gesture was intensely cinematic.

The Siren said...

David, your first line in particular is beautifully put...I so agree.

Yojimboen said...

Lowell Sherman and John Barrymore stole as much from their father-in-law Maurice Costello (who, it was said, did a superb white-collar drunk) as they did from each other. Look at drunk Sherman in WPH and drunk Barrymore in Dinner at Eight - there isn’t much between them.

(Years later [off-topic] Foster Brooks stole from all three and perfected the art.)

Bryce Wilson said...

"It doesn't matter that much to the Siren, though, because What Price Hollywood? shows us a male/female friendship based on simple regard for intelligence, humor, loyalty and kindness. Such relationships are common enough in real life, whether one side is gay or not, but you would never know it from most movies."

Amen sister. I've never understood the reluctance to portrayal a male female relationship without some unrequited love on one side or the other. Not that that dynamic doesn't exist, but the way Hollywood portrays it, a platonic relationship between the sexes is some sort of freakish aberration.

Off the top of my head the only male female friendships that don't begin or end in sex in the movies are Amy Madigan and Michael Pere in Streets Of Fire, and John and Joan Cusack in High Fidelity. And that's just sort of pathetic.

Still maybe its not too surprising, Hollywood is stuck at 15, and as Roger Ebert noted "Men and Women can only be friends when they're children or when they've grown up."

The Siren said...

Yojimboen, Constance's presence is interesting here too, as she was a teetotaler who eventually lost patience with her hopelessly alcoholic father, Richard Bennett, and basically cut him off. I should remind everyone though that she suffered a lot from Bennett's drinking; there was, for example, the time when Constance came home late and in a drunken rage, Richard lined all three daughters up against a wall and threatened them with a loaded pistol.

Constance was 13.

Bryce, it's true, it's a theme that just doesn't get much play. You see it a lot more on TV, as a matter of fact. I think it's also the conviction that every movie needs a love interest of some sort, which is also the reason why we wind up with Lonnie and Mary in a clinch at the end despite his being a well-established twit by the end of the movie.

Mary said...

Sherman could have also gotten inspiration from Myron Selznick, David's brother, who also had a serious alcohol problem. He was very cynical, witty, and sarcastic, but extremely loyal and kind to those who had worked with his family. His best friend was Irene Selznick, and they shared confidences with each other that they shared with no one else. Myron was the cynic of the brothers, David was the romantic.

The David O. Selznick papers are at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and there are a few files on his time at RKO and this film there.

Clara said...

Just yesterday I was reading a marvelous book, "People will talk" by John Kobal, and when introducing his interview with actress Colleen Moore he says (I'm not quoting because it's in Spanish) that Colleen married producer John McCormick. Their marriage was a real drama because John was an alcoholic. One of Colleen's old friends, Adela Rogers St. John wrote a story based on this, which would become "What price Hollywoood?" and then "A star is born". Even the last line of "A star is born" was taken from Collen's own life: Adela was visiting the actress when she happened to hear a conversation between Colleen and an executive from her studio —which wanted to get rid of the problematic husband of the star— and she, knowing this fact, introduced herself "Hello, I'm Mrs. John McCormick".

Yojimboen said...

Interesting factoid:
According to IMDb, What Price Hollywood? and the three versions of A Star is Born employed a total of 33 writers.

Trish said...

Oh my! I saw this movie about 10 years ago. I would LOVE to see it again!!! I wonder if I've seen Lowell Sherman in anything else... Anyway you guys are streetcar reading for me on my way home from work today.

Kevin Deany said...

Another one I really need to see. What a mouth watering write-up.

Didn't I read somewhere that Cukor directed a lot of "Gone with the Wind" especially the Twelve Oaks sequence? Those have some of the best scenes in the movie. Or am I getting my GWTW directors mixed up?

Karen said...

Clara, thanks for that dishy tease; as it happens, I have Kobal's book on the shelf next to me, so I will give you the English text verbatim (it's got stuff as good as your Richard Bennett anecdote, Siren):

While making Flaming Youth she married the man who would produce most of her hugely profitable silent films, and to whom she stuck even as his alcoholism progressed to the point where he tried to strangle her. Their marriage was one of those classic laughing-on-the-outside, crying-on-the-inside Hollywood dramas, though only insiders knew it. One of them, her longtime friend Adela Rogers St John, drew on this chapter in Colleen's life for her fictional movie-star couple in the original story from which--via What Price Hollywood? (1932)--A Star is Born was eventually made. Even the film's unforgettable last line was something Adela overheard one time when she was visiting Colleen. Colleen, then the studio's biggest draw, knowing that the executive board wanted to unload her alcoholic husband, called an executive in New York and said sweetly, "Hello, this is Mrs John McCormick." The studio got the point.

Sigh. So much pain underneath the glamour. I'm glad not to know that much about it, I confess.

When I was a little girl, we had a detailed brochure for Colleen Moore's dollhouse, which we had visited at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. I spent many a happy childhood hour poring over that book. I thought she must be the luckiest woman on earth.

Mary said...

Don't believe everything Adela Rogers St. John writes, she was often known to embellish or create events that can't be verified.

And yes, Cukor did direct some scenes in GWTW, but not the picnic scene that I remember. He did direct the dance at the bazaar in Atlanta and Melanie's childbirth scene. At one point, there were four directors working on GWTW.

The Siren said...

I have to second Mary on Adela; much as I love her both for her proto-feminist moxie, lively writing style and amazing way with an anecdote, I check the everloving hell out of the stuff she writes (and often as not come up empty in the verification department). And I would love to see those Selznick papers. Wonder if anyone has considered a Myron bio? He's an interesting case himself.

It's also ironic, Moore defending McCormick like that, when her lovely autobiography makes it so clear the man was worthless--unlike the doomed men in any of the movies.

The Siren said...

Kevin, I wouldn't call Cukor's scenes in the final version of GWTW "a lot" at all; there are just a few, according to Pratt's Scarlett Fever, which unlike St. John I've found pretty accurate over the years. Sam Wood has more scenes in the final version, according to Pratt. Some things Cukor is often given credit for, like a great deal of the reel sequence at the bazaar, the opening on the porch and the scene where Rhett gives Scarlett a hat, were reshot by Fleming later. But Cukor did do a few--Melanie's childbirth in silhouette, for example, and the scene where Scarlett gives Ashley a sash.

However -- and this is a big however -- Cukor's two years of preparation for the movie add up to a lot of influence, and there is also the fact to consider that he coached both Leigh and de Havilland throughout filming. So his final influence was considerable. (Neither actress knew the other was seeing Cukor, btw, which is kind of sweet.)

The Siren said...

Trish, TCM ranks this in its "not on DVD" wishlist as number 612. With only 77 votes!! Some serious ballot-stuffing is called for here, folks, and pronto.

DavidEhrenstein said...

You're quite right about Cukor's participation in GWTW, Siren. ALL of the pre-production was his doing, particularly the screen tests -- the bulk of which have happily been preserved.

I've lost the issue of "Inter/View" but back around the time of Rich and Famous Mr. Cukor was interviewed and he said (I'm quoting from memory) "Oh these directors sa 'Hollywood did this to me. Hollywood did that tome.' Well I was thrown off the biggest film ever made in this town and I went right on with my career. I even spoke at David Selznick's funeral!"

The Siren said...

Re: the threatening to shoot his daughters episode with Richard Bennett; a check of Kellow indicates that the biographer isn't sure Bennett was drunk when he did it. Almost makes it worse in my eyes. The incident ended with Bennett bursting into tears and being led from the room by his wife; Kellow does say it haunted all three daughters for years.

The Siren said...

David, GWTW dominates the discussion of everybody who participated in it, even Cukor who had good reason to be bitter. But when I read his remarks on what must have been one of the most deeply wounding moments in his career, he always seems philosophical. Possibly he realized that his immortality wouldn't need GWTW to bolster it. Selznick, on the other hand, has numerous great movies leading up to GWTW and a long, slow descent afterward.

That's great that Cukor spoke at Selznick's funeral. Cukor had a deep understanding of people...

Kevin Deany said...

Siren and David: Thank you very much for the GWTW background, and who shot what. I did not know any of that.

X. Trapnel said...

I've always felt that Cukor was like a secret Selznick brother (they damn sure looked alike; I'd like to see a movie in which J. Turturro plays both) and until GWTW were aesthetically in sync, both very much Tradition of Quality. After that Selznick's romanticism (for better or worse something the down-to-earth Cukor lacked, at least in my view) got the better of him with decidedly mixed results.

Mary said...

Selznick and Cukor remained good friends and socialized after GWTW, that's why he was asked to speak at the funeral. Though Selznick had run-ins with or fired directors like Cukor, King Vidor, John Huston, etc., they all remained friends with him, realizing he was after a certain vision for the films and not taking it personally.

The Siren said...

Mary, I always liked that about Selznick, his capacity for being a total PITA and yet retaining affection from former colleagues. It is very like The Bad and the Beautiful, which was supposed to remind everyone of Selznick, for better and worse.

X. Trapnel said...

Burt Lancaster should have been in The Bad and the Beautiful. He would have captured Selznick's "daft radiance" (David Thomson). Kirk D. certainly doesn't.

Yojimboen said...

What, and miss that dimpled chin? Heaven forfend! Nah, Burt was saving all the venom for Sweet Smell of Success.

Re G. Cukor, didn't he go straight on to The Women? I'm sure he has had more fun on that one. I know I did.

DavidEhrenstein said...

He certainly did, Yojim. And as he'd tested many of the leading ladies for that one for GWTW there was built-in rapport . Cukor of course didn't take a word of The Women seriously and approached it as an exercise in style coupled with a superb "how to" lesson in making an ensemble film. Silly as all hell the damned thing STILL works and crackels like a house on fire.

X. Trapnel said...

Y, I never think of Selznick as venomous; Douglas never suggests a man crazily in love with making movies. And as always in hard hitting/punch pulling inside Hollywood films it comes down squarely on the side of establishment normality. But, oh, that Raksin music!

The dimple? I always think first of Douglas' teeth, having neither upper nor lower, but simply continuous from gum to gum.

Arthur S. said...

The main thing about Minnelli's ''The Bad and the Beautiful'' vis-a-vis Selznick is that while that film makes a case that Kirk Douglas made the right call when he said so-and-so wasn't ready to make a big picture and that he's responsible for a writer's career and the like, you can't really make the same case for Selznick. The tragic fact is that for all his eye of talent, all his discoveries were better away from him - Cukor, Hitchcock, Bergman, Jennifer Jones. But he had a passion for film-making and took to it with interest.

And of course let us not forget that he insisted that the original Magnificent Ambersons, which he was among the few to see, and only to recognize as a masterpiece, be sent to the MoMA. Nobody listened to him, alas.

DavidEhrenstein said...

That I didn't know, Arthur. Selznick gets a Big Gold Star for that.

The thing about he was that he concieved produced and WROTE his big ones, but insisted that others direct. Isherwood (who knew him well socially) suggests in his diaries that there was a fundamental shyness about him. He could let it all out in his famous memos, but face-to-face was antoehr story. The thing was he chose to work with top directorial talents who had ideas of their own as well -- ie. Cukor, Vidor.

What we all must keep in mind is that while today we all talk about Cukor and his career freely and easily back when he was making films NO ONE in the general public knew who he was. Cukor's fame was entirely within the industry.He was the "go-to guy" for sophisticated material, and he really knew what to do with stars as diverse as Garbo, Katherine Hepburn, Anna Karina, Dirk Bogarde, Jean Simmons, James Mason Judy Garland and W.C. Fields.

He prided himself on being a pro and LOVED Hollywood -- something clearly refelcted in his extremely affectionate and lavishly detailed treatment of the business in .

Or to put it another way when opened no one said "Oh look it's the new George Cukor!" Garbo was the film's auteur as Cukor well knew. Judging from Gavin Lambert's interview he didn't really direct her at all. Just as Altman said of Meryl Streep he knew he didn't have to. She had that part in her bones. Cukor's job was to support her, create the proper frame to make this long-ago world come alive and make the romantic tragedy of a dying courtesan falling in love with a naive young man of "good breeding" make everyone from society swells to garbage collectors week buckets.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Addenda to The Bad and the Beautiful : While "Jonathan Shields" is mainly David O, he's also Val Lewton and Howard Hughes.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Correction: that was "in A Star is Born

and "weep" (not "week")

Trish said...

Siren, I've voted for WPH with four different email addresses. Two I had almost forgotten about. Constance is a great beauty. Did she not also play a series of unwed mothers in pre-code films with Joel McRea and others? I'd love to see them as well.

X. Trapnel said...

David, how many directors in those days had much in the way of name recognition? Hitchcock and Ford perhaps. My guess is that the names Walsh, Hawks, Vidor, Lang, Curtiz, Lubitsch were not sufficient to bring in the crowds. I have a sense, maybe wrong, that this changed after the war (with no particular French assist) and the average moviegoer spoke of a Wilder or Huston picture (both vivid personalities whose self-made myhts got through to the public).

Yojimboen said...

David E, before we leave the topic, yes, The Women, silly as it is, is a superb how-to demo for other filmmakers; not least because of the lighting camerawork. The film is a serious master-class in black and white cinematography. Two DPs are credited, Joe Ruttenberg and Oliver Marsh, I’ve always wondered who did what.
Do you know, David?

DavidEhrenstein said...

That I couldn't answer for sure. I suspect one or the other was specially assigned to Norma.

"JUNGLE RED!!!!!"

Goose said...

Don't get me started on The Women. It is a movie that I find impossible to watch in one piece, but I have seen, with my jaw on the floor, the final shot of Norma climbing the stairs. Except for Joan Crawford, all of the performances are horribly heavy-handed, which raises suspicions as to Cukor's reputation for handling of actors. Almost as bad are Bill of Divorcement (even Kate) and Dinner at Eight, except for John Barrymore on both counts. And in a short period of time, he piloted the career-ending pictures of both Garbo and Shearer. My Fair Lady is awfully slow, and (again) afflicted with over-acting.

Cukor appeals to me most with Selznick - the Dickens and the Romeo and Juliet - and scenes where menace and suspense in a still frame are depicted, such as the funeral in the rain in Keeper of the Flame, the Othello scenes in A Double Life, Boyer's observing the bed-confined Bergman in Gaslight.

I enjoyed What Price Hollywood when I saw it 20 years ago or so. A Star is Born, also, perhaps his best film.

XT, other directors from that era with name recognition would be DeMille and Capra.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Acting styles change opver time, Goose. The 30's isn't like the 40's, which isn't like the 50's and on and on

What about The Marrying Kind ? Not to mention one of my very special faves The Actress, Bhwohani Junction and Justine. Dman subtle, IMO.

hamletta said...

Goose, I'm very sorry, but I can't understand you. What?

Go back...go back...go back....

As to WPH, I haven't seen it in years, and I obviously didn't watch it carefully enough.

Now that I'm officially whoring for the cable company, I'll have my beloved TCM back! Hooray! I'll be able to catch these gems.

The Siren said...

I'll admit to not much liking A Bill of Divorcement, except for Barrymore; for one thing, the dialogue doesn't exactly sparkle. I am definitely a fan of Hepburn but for me she is very stiff in that movie; despite her beauty she hadn't yet worked out how to handle those long limbs on camera. She did soon enough, though.

But other early Cukors I've seen are good (like the two others with Constance, Our Betters and Rockabye) and Dinner at Eight I'd describe as flat-out great. That one was my Cukor gateway drug.

Goose, others have defended The Women, an old favorite of mine, so I'll just say "Paulette Goddard;" I think she's a stitch. And I'd also argue that at every turn Cukor manages to undermine Luce's low regard for her own sex. But thank you so very much for bringing up David Copperfield, a great movie too, with W.C. Fields as the finest Micawber ever put on film and another montage from Vorkapich, the shipwreck sequence. And I EVEN like Maureen O'Sullivan in that one; she's such a good fit for Dora.

Arthur, I really don't know about saying great directors didn't do good work for Selznick. Maybe the low general opinion of Rebecca is due to Hitchcock always having been sniffy about it in later interviews but fact is, I'd say it's one of his best. And Cukor had a great run under Selznick as well. Bergman, well, yes, Bergman wasn't handled well. By the time she came along Selznick had moved into taking talent and basically loaning it out to others at exorbitant fees and it caused no end of resentment. And we already talked about Selznick & Jones, a sad story.

David, the Val Lewton analogy is right in your lap in B&B but this is the first I'd heard of a Hughes connection. It's quite possible that this is because out of all the Hollywood moguls, Hughes is the one I really can't stand.

Hamletta, I often think that if I'd had TCM in Toronto I might not have blogged at all; the channel would have taken up every bit of spare time. Each time I move and get cable reinstalled I have the same conversation while they are pitching service levels: "Give me whichever package includes TCM. You can show test patterns on the rest of the channels for all I care." I am fond of the batty Fox Movie Channel too, though. Occasionally when I get together with a certain critic, we entertain ourselves by plotting a FMC takeover wherein we replace endless Independence Day re-runs with screenings of Clifton Webb and Betty Grable and plenty of Murnau and Borzage.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Hughes is evoked in Shields' (Douglas) efforts to control Georgia (Turner) -- yet keep her at a distance at the same time. Hughes' manipulation of Jane Russell during the production of The Outlaw was alredy Hollywood legend by the time of B&B. Naturally Douglas and Turner aren't H.H. and J.R. -- Lana being glamorous and hysterical in her own special key (which is why we love her.) Moreover the film is climaxed by The Big Scene involving may all-time favorite movie tough-guy, Elaine Stewart.

Yojimboen said...

“…because out of all the Hollywood moguls, Hughes is the one I really can't stand…”

Then you probably wouldn’t enjoy “Howard Hughes: Hell's Angel” by Darwin Porter, which I’m plowing through at the moment; the ultimate tell-all’s tell-all; best described as the kind of book you read with a paper bag over your head.

The (puerile but fun) tome is basically a list of people the bi-sexual Hughes schtupped in H’Wood. It might have been simpler to publish a list of those he didn’t; that would almost fill a 3 x 5 card.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Darwin Porter (the love child Boze Hadleigh tried to hide) specializes in such books -- which include "biographies" of Steve McQueen, Paul Newman and Merv Griffin. I'm quoted in the last one.

Stewie said...

You can find the movie on rapidshare:

http://movie-megaupload.com/2010/04/12/what-price-hollywood-1932.html

RvB said...

Terrific stuff, Siren. I'll tip off my friends about this blog. Do you recall S. J. Perelman's description of the evil of Lowell Sherman in Way Down East? "Apparently, they had to spray him with fungicide between takes to keep the mushrooms from sprouting on him."

Tom Block said...

[Bringing up the rear again.] I finally saw this last night--I agree with every single thing the Siren says about it, especially concerning Max and Mary's relationship and Sherman's performance. Also striking--I'm not sure if anyone mentioned it--is how many long stretches there are with no music, even during dramatic confrontations.

One funky note, though: the copy I saw was a burn from TCM which, when they aired it, displayed their on-screen logo precisely as Max is putting the gun to his heart, so it was visible through the whole montage. That had to be a deliberate decision, either that or one of the most punishing coincidences of timing I've ever seen.

Mark T Lancaster said...

Thanks for the lovely piece, Siren. So disappointing to learn it's not on DVD... but, I see it's coming to TCM in April! Sunday 4/15/2012 at 10:00 p.m. My DVR will be set weeks ahead of time!

wwwww said...

saw the movie on you tube last week. thank-you