Pre-Code Crazy: What Price Hollywood? (1931)
In previous months, my Pre-Code Crazy pick has always been a film that I’ve seen numerous times before. And while I was initially quite certain that this month’s selection also fit into that category, it turns out that I’d actually never seen it before! Oh, I’d seen the film’s beginning countless times – I can’t tell you how often I’ve popped this movie in the VCR and snuggled under my bedcovers to watch it, only to drift off to dreamland after about 20 minutes. And yet, in my mind, it was a film I knew and knew well. So you can imagine my surprise – and, I might add, my delight! – to discover it for the first time just a few days ago.
What Price Hollywood film stars one of my pre-Code faves, Constance Bennett, and actor-turned-director Lowell Sherman who, for my money, gives his best performance here. Others in the cast include Neil Hamilton, Gregory Ratoff (that’s Max Fabian, for you All About Eve fans), Louise Beavers, and, in his feature film debut, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson. As pre-Code films go, it’s not exactly overflowing with scandalous scenes and saucy situations, but it’s got enough substance abuse, out-of-wedlock babies, gratuitous shots of lingerie, and snappy comebacks to satisfy any fan.
What’s it all about?
Mary Evans (Bennett) is a waitress at the Brown Derby who wants nothing more than to become a movie star. She gets her big break when she catches the eye of Maximilian Carey (Sherman), a famous director with a lethal affinity for the bottle.
How does it begin?
Although it becomes increasingly dark, What Price Hollywood starts out on a lighthearted tone, as we see Mary Evans flipping through the pages of a movie magazine and copying the styles she sees there, from the silk stockings to the lipstick. When the desired effect is complete, she takes a moment to pose in the mirror with her face next to a magazine photo of Clark Gable. “Goodbye my dahling,” she coos in her best Greta Garbo accent.
We quickly learn that Mary is determined to make it to the big screen: “You’ll see me in pictures someday,” she assures a couple of seniors who compliment her looks. Minutes later, when Max Carey enters the restaurant, she shrewdly bargains with a co-worker to switch serving stations: “I gave you Wallace Beery last week,” she reminds her. “I’m looking for a break – and I’m going to get it.” And she does, when she winds up escorting Max that very night to the premiere of his new film at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, and charming the pants off of the listening radio audience, speaking to them as the “Duchess of Derby.” Before you can say “Bob’s your uncle,” Mary has gone from a single line in a bit part, to her name above the title. And that’s when the movie REALLY gets going!
My favorite thing about the movie:
The relationship between Mary and Max is an unusual one – I can’t recall ever seeing one quite like it depicted on screen. There’s no romance between them, even in the beginning; instead, they seem to be part of a mutual admiration society, with Mary appreciating Max’s talent as a director, and Max respecting Mary’s charm and determination. As time goes on and the relationship deepens, Mary looks after Max much like a mother would – worrying about him, forgiving his foibles, encouraging his possibilities, speaking on his behalf, bailing him (sometimes literally) out of jams. She never forgets that it was Max who was responsible for her big break, and no matter the cost, she never abandons him. There’s no doubt that Mary and Max truly love each other – they share a touching and heart-tugging bond that provides the film’s heart and soul.
I have four:
“Every hour that you’re out of jail, you’re away from home.” Max Carey (Lowell Sherman)
“I bet they count the silver every time you eat here.” Max Carey (Lowell Sherman)
“Work and I haven’t been on speaking terms for quite some time.” Max Carey (Lowell Sherman)
“You live in a world where people are cheap and vulgar without knowing it. And if you weren’t cheap and vulgar yourself, you couldn’t stand it.” Lonny Borden (Neil Hamilton)
This ‘n’ That:
The film was directed by George Cukor, who also helmed such pre-Code gems as Girls About Town (1931) with Kay Francis and Lilyan Tashman; Tarnished Lady (1931), starring Tallulah Bankhead; and the star-studded Dinner at Eight (1933).
What Price Hollywood is akin in several ways to A Star is Born – in fact, four years after the release of the film, producer David O. Selznick reportedly asked George Cukor to direct the original A Star is Born (1937) and Cukor refused because of the two films were so much alike. RKO even considered filing suit against Selznick International Pictures because of the similarities, but they eventually decided against it. Interestingly, Cukor went on to direct the 1954 version of A Star is Born, with Judy Garland and James Mason.
Watch for this goof in the scene where Mary is rehearsing her single line for her screen debut. Before she begins, she drops her script behind her and it falls to the stairs, but seconds later, the script is gone.
Selznick originally wanted to cast Clara Bow in the role of Mary, but by the time he convinced studio execs that Bow was the right choice, the diminutive actress had made another commitment.
The film very cleverly uses items in a gossip column – “You Ask Me!” – to move the plot along.
Jane Murfin and Adela Rogers St. Johns earned an Oscar nomination for Best Story, but lost to their fellow writer on the distaff side, Francis Marion, for The Champ. St. Johns loosely based the plot on the lives of actress Colleen Moore and her husband, alcoholic producer John McCormick, as well as ill-fated directors Tom Forman and Marshall “Mickey” Nielan.
The film depicts Mary’s wedding, a sensationalized affair characterized by throngs of fans and countless members of the press. When the happy couple emerges from the church, Mary is attacked by the crowd, who tear at her gown and veil. It’s said that this scene was based on the real-life 1927 nuptials of Vilma Banky and Rod La Rocque.
In his characterization of an alcoholic, Lowell Sherman drew upon the behavior of his then-brother-in-law, John Barrymore. (Lowell was married for a brief time to Helene Costello, younger sister of Barrymore’s wife, Dolores Costello.) Sherman landed his first gig as a director in 1930; he went on to direct She Done Him Wrong (1933), Morning Glory (1933), and Born to Be Bad (1934). Of acting, he once said: “Nothing becomes so monotonous as acting on the stage, especially if you are successful … working in the movies seemed even duller.”
More on Sherman: he died of double pneumonia at the age of 49, just a few years after the release of this film, in 1934. At the time he fell ill, he was directing Miriam Hopkins in Becky Sharp, the first picture to be shot completely in the three-color Technicolor technique.
The original title for the film was The Truth About Hollywood.
With its fascinating insider’s look at the film industry, the way movies are made, and the public face and private effects of screen stardom, What Price Hollywood is quite simply a must-see. There’s never a dull moment, and both Constance Bennett and Lowell Sherman turn in some of the finest work of their acting careers. Do yourself a huge favor and tune into TCM on May 28th to check it out. I promise you won’t be sorry.
You only owe it to yourself.
When you’re finished over here, be sure to pop over to Speakeasy to find out what Kristina has selected for her Pre-Code Crazy pick of the month!