I often find it interesting when Hollywood turns the camera on itself and gives us stories of what goes on behind the glitz and glamor. But there will always be the question of how honest are the filmmakers really being with us. One of the most famous behind-the-scenes Hollywood stories is A Star is Born. The original was released in 1937, with remakes coming in both 1954 and 1976. But five years before the first version of that story came our film today. Directed by George Cukor, who would be offered A Star is Born but turned it down because he found it too similar to this film. Eventually, he would direct the 54 version, but right now let’s look at 1932’s What Price Hollywood?
The story focuses on Mary Evans (Constance Bennett), a waitress at the Brown Derby who takes every opportunity to try and catch the eye of the Hollywood producers and directors who frequent the joint. One night, she serves the perpetually drunk director Max Carey (Lowell Sherman) on the night of his big premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Carey ends up causing a bit of a stir when he shows up at the premiere with the pretty young unknown, pulling up in a smoking jalopy he bought from a guy on the street. The next morning, Max finds Mary sleeping on his couch, but has no memory of the night. She takes the opportunity to get him to give her a screen test.
Mary’s first screen test is disastrous, but she stays up all night practicing and nails it when given a second chance. This starts her down the road toward stardom. She ends up a big box office draw and ends up in a relationship with a rich polo player, Lonny Borden (Neil Hamilton…the 1966 Batman’s Commissioner Gordon!). While Mary’s star is on the rise, Max begins to fall out of favor in tinsel town. His drinking eventually lands him in prison for drunk driving. Mary decides to come to her old friend’s rescue, but is it too late for him?
What Price Hollywood? has many of those quirks that make pre-code films so much fun, but it’s a bit uneven. It starts really strong and gradually starts to drag as it goes on…only to sock us with a shocking climax. The scenes depicting Mary’s rise to fame are a real treat. Constance Bennett does an amazing job being awful for Mary’s first screen test. Then watching her practice all night and slowly transform into a seductive screen siren is absolutely priceless. The bigger scene stealer, though, is Lowell Sherman as the constantly soused, and more than a bit flamboyant, director. Sherman turns in a wonderfully complex performance. Though it is never outright said, I concluded early on that Max is a homosexual. Whether he is or isn’t, I appreciated that there was no romantic angle between the director and the young actress…which would’ve seen like the typical way to go.
Speaking of romance, the love story is one of the more bizarre aspects of this film. Call me twisted, but I found Mary and Lonny’s first date to be the highlight of the film. After meeting on the polo field, because he bopped her in the rear with the ball, he invites her to join him for dinner at a fancy restaurant. When she stands him up, he breaks into her home, drags her out of bed, and carries her to the eatery in just her nightgown. Dinner then starts with him literally forcing a spoonful of caviar down her throat. By the time the night is done, she’s sporting an engagement ring. I know, I know…standard boy meets girl story. Don’t get me wrong, folks…it’s horrible, but these are the kind of scenes that make watching pre-code films such a wild experience.
Though What Price Hollywood? has several wild pre-code moments, they do come in fits and spurts. Many pre-codes I’ve seen tend to clock in at just over an hour, whereas this one is right about 90 minutes. Had this one been a bit more streamlined, I think it could’ve been a bit more solid. As is, What Price Hollywood? both succeeds and struggles as it works its way towards a sucker punch finish.