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.