Made during the pre-Code years, What Price Hollywood? is a strikingly subversively little film that shoots down that clichéd tale of a dreamer who becomes a star and enjoys fame, love, and the adoration of millions (and is usually a pretty little gamine).
Whereas thirties musicals often presented idyllic portraits of ordinary girls whose talent takes them to the top, Price went for a barbed realism within a melodramatic framework.
Brown Derby waitress Mary Evans (the ravishing Constance Bennett) offers to forfeit any tips to a co-worker in exchange for waiting on the table of famous Hollywood director Max Carey (Lowell Sherman), a drunkard whose career is starting to wane due to his almost constant state of inebriation and slow liver pickling.
Too tanked to have remembered he was supposed to pick up a date for the premiere of his latest film, he decides to take leggy blonde Mary – not because he likes her, but he figures she’s another ingredient in crafting a perfectly shocking entrance in front of peers, fans, and newsreel cameras.
Max arrives in a steaming junker with a surprisingly well-dressed Mary (seems her star-in-waiting plan includes an immaculate suit at her Derby locker), passes her off as a phony duchess to a live radio audience, and makes his longtime producer, Julius Saxe (actor / occasional director Gregory Ratoff) squirm on a night that's supposed to be a top industry event.
When Max awakens the next morning, he finds Mary asleep in his living room, albeit clothed and insistent that nothing happened that night. Mary uses her act of goodwill – helping Max into bed after he yodeled all the way home – to get a chance at a bit role in his current film.
After a second audition, she succeeds in quickly convincing producer Julius of her star quality, and her career rapidly blossoms into a huge success, which eventually leads to a union with polo champ Lonny Borden (Neil Hamilton). The two maintain an uneven marriage, with Mary’s career and Hollywood friends mucking up the couple’s chances in creating a stable relationship.
Max goes on a week-long bender and virtually burns the last bridge with Julius, and the night he shows up at Mary and Lonny’s villa, he’s taken in, which permanently fractures the couple’s marriage and sends Lonny packing. Unbeknownst to Lonny, Mary’s pregnant, but she’s determined to raise her son solo - well, with the aid of loyal maid Bonita (Louise Beavers), another lovable servant from down South, and an aspiring singer.
Max disappears again and is bailed out of jail by Mary, but realizing he has no desire to rebuild his destroyed career and has tainted Mary’s marriage, he kills himself in her home.
The scandal creates a furor among the tabloid press, and when Lonny is rumored to be heading back to Hollywood to take custody of his son, Mary’s panics, and heads off to France with her moppet, where she manages to live quietly until Lonny shows up. Her once-beloved explains his planned trip to Hollywood wasn’t to snatch their love child, but help Mary cope with the scandal surrounding Max’ death.
The two are eventually unified, and their marriage is given a new chance outside of Hollywood, an ocean away from the stressors that nearly destroyed them.
Price has been cited as the forerunner of A Star is Born (1937), the classic tale of a wannabe star who marries an alcoholic actor whose seething self-loathing eventually destroys him, and endangers his wife’s career.
Besides co-screenwriter Adela Rogers St. Johns and executive producer David O. Selznick, there are few personnel ties between this 1932 anti-Hollywood fable and the ‘37 variation, in which virtue and stardom triumph in the end. (There is, however, the uniqueness of director George Cukor having directed Price as well as the 1954 A Star is Born remake.)
Selznick may have felt reworking Price into a conventional melodrama set inside a simplified Hollywood made the ’37 project ideal for the new 3-strip Technicolor system, but in creating a pro-Hollywood version, he inadvertently doomed Price into obscurity, where it's slipped away from widespread distribution.
A RKO Pathe production, Price was firmly rooted in the daring pre-Code advancements of frank characters, spicy language, independent women, and adult themes & depictions that virtually disappeared in 1934 when the Production Code became the law of the town.
In Price, Mary isn’t a big-eyed doe in danger of being used, abused, and spat out by manipulative aberrants within the studio system; she’s a headstrong woman who makes it clear she wants a career, and a damned good one. She may understand that sex is something that may be required along the way, but any subservient behaviour will happen at her choosing (and most likely she’ll do any directing, too). To become a star, she’ll work hard at the craft of acting, but she’ll also be wise to the ways of slimeballs, and stand up for her rights.
Her benefactor - Max - is a drunk, but he’s fine with his downward spiral, and while his self-loathing is never explained – a script flaw that was also present in the variant of Norman Maine in the ’37 version - he’s got that odd ability in being able to balance a boozy lifestyle and show up on set, and more importantly, get the job done (was also an acceptable skill for detective Nick Charles in the first Thin Man film, made in 1934, as the Code was put into practice).
It’s worth bringing up The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) because 20 years later one can see how Hollywood was struggling with being self-critical without tarnishing the attractive (and profitable) myths it had spent decades refining and reinforcing. Even after his demise, the arrogant womanizing producer / studio boss Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) is regarded as a visionary, and his sins are more or less forgiven by the people he treated so cruelly.
Unlike the death of Norman Maine (who in the '37 film commits suicide to save Esther Blodgett from quitting acting and ruining her career), Max’ death is more or less for his own benefit. His suicide comes from opportunity: he finds Mary’s gun in a desk drawer, and he offs himself not to preserve Mary’s marriage but to end the personal misery of waking up sober and living like a pickled ghost.
Max’ final act almost tarnishes Mary’s life and career, and although it’s the scandal and the the fear of losing her son that sends Mary packing off to France, it’s the toxic behaviour inherent to Hollywood from which she flees; there’s little doubt that had she stayed in Hollywood, she would’ve been devoured by the press and lost her top box office placement, or perhaps she would’ve turned into a monster whose behaviour would’ve warped her love child.
Producer Julius Saxe remains a clichéd figure: he’s loud, abrasive, money-minded, and manipulative; at one point, he forces Lonny to postpone the couple’s honeymoon for a few weeks so Mary can do some reshoots for her latest picture.
Moreover, the fact the screenwriters acknowledged the practice of reshoots infers Hollywood didn’t always get a film right; in Price, reshoots reveal an imperfect system in place, whereas the test and preview screenings in Bad as well as the 1954 Star are portrayed as normal stages of a film’s refinement in becoming commercial art.
The critical elements within Price, however, are sometimes delivered with humour, although that may stem from the popularity of the screwball comedy. Max’ butler James (Eddie “Rochester’ Anderson, in his film debut) erases and adds a new pencil mark on a bottle of booze after taking a generous gulp, and Mary’s first physical contact with future hubby Lonny comes from getting wacked in the ass with a polo ball.
Lonny also starts off as a slightly screwball character: when Mary doesn’t show up for their expensive first date, he breaks into her bedroom, drags her to the restaurant in her nightie, and force feeds her the rich food she insisted he serve on their first night date. When he asks her what kind of music she’d like the idling band to play, she requests a funeral march – and he obliges.
The film’s dialogue – particularly when it comes from Max - is frequently spicy, and the writers made good use of the pre-Code freedom with peppery references and innuendo within a screwball framework. When Max awakens after the premiere, his butler reads the stats penciled on Max’ wrinkled white shirt, closing with “Sings and swims, and rides horseback.”
Perhaps the most provocative scene is when a gossip columnist, pattered after lurid pen vixens Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, visits Mary and Lonny’s homestead for an article about their love life. She questions Mary about their sleeping arrangements, and wants pictures of their bedroom so readers can imagine the wondrous events that happen under the covers.
One area where salaciousness is subjugated is with the affection between Lonny and Mary. After the columnist left, the couple lay down in their separate beds. When Mary sees the depth of Lonny’s pain, she crawls into bed with him, and plants a big kiss. A later scene where Lonny struggles with Mary’s ‘movie friends’ always being present at the house has the couple entwined on the couch.
Both scenes depict natural marital behaviour, and that candor would change under the Code, and exist merely as discreet subtext. The scenes also form a frank depiction of issues that often damaged or eroded the bliss of real Hollywood romances that were otherwise depicted as idyllic in fan magazines.
The press are also more proactive in their destructiveness: two reporters climb a balcony to gain access to Mary’s shuttered house after Max’ death, and conspire to lure Mary outside by falsifying a letter from Lonny on which he’s coming to take their son away. In both the ’37 and ’54 versions of Star, the press are mostly observers who warp the facts, leaving actual manipulation to studio publicist Matt Libby - a character wholly absent from Price, since Julian is the master manipulator who guilts and coerces Mary into working long hours, and bringing business affairs into her home.
Price a lean little drama, and offers a more cerebral interpretation of a star’s life. In one scene, Lonny sits patiently near the edge of the film set, waiting for Mary to deliver the final take of a vocal number (which Bennett actually sings in French) so the couple can take off on their vacation. The scene isn’t about a husband’s jealousy of his wife’s career (a sense one gets from the '37 and '54 films); it captures the frustration of Mary’s career demands (exacerbated by Julian) on her marriage, and it's a drama that’s actually the core conflict of Price.
The film's message within the satirical script is that Hollywood corrupts; the only solution to prevent the loss of one’s soul is to make enough money and get out before it destroys, which is quite a contrast from the Star message of making a noble sacrifice for the sake of good of commercial art.
Even with its comedic elements, What Price Hollywood? is a rare example of Hollywood taking a dramatic swipe at itself during a wave of frothy romances and comedies set in Tinseltown. Later efforts - Bad and the Beautiful - mixed romance and steeped melodrama, whereas others isolated the artist as a long-suffering soul, and sacrificial lamb, as in the noir classics The Big Knife and In a Lonely Place. (Budd Schulberg's 1959 scathing drama What Makes Sammy Run? was a powerful statement on the cruel studio system, but its candor and sharp dialogue was more unique to the creative liberties in live TV than feature films.)
Besides being one of George Cukor’s earliest films, Price also boasts striking montages designed by Lloyld Knechtel and Slavko Vorkapich, many of which were accompanied by music by Max Steiner, who would also score the ’37 Star as well as Selznick’s monster hit, Gone With The Wind (1939).
Co-star Lowell Sherman was also halfway through a strong directing career before his death in 1934, during the start of production on the first 3-strip Technicolor feature, Becky Sharp (1935).
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan