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The various versions of A Star is Born build on the basic myth that a rube from the sticks could land on Vine Street and be swept up in a Hollywood adventure of glitz and fame. David O. Selznick made a huge splash with his early Technicolor version, which gave a boost to the career of Janet Gaynor. Fifteen or so years later, George Cukor dusted the story off again for an early CinemaScope version, which set its sights at rejuvenating the film career of Judy Garland. We won't go near the 1976 Barbra Streisand revisit, and not just because it drops the Hollywood context. Since the Hollywood of the first two movies no longer exists, a remake for today would most likely follow the sad story of what happens to too many inexperienced hopefuls that drift to Los Angeles thinking they'll be 'discovered'.
The odd thing is that both Selznick and Cukor had already done the story just a handful of years before. 1932's What Price Hollywood? was one of Selznick's winners as production head at RKO, and also one of Cukor's very first successes as a director. Although Selznick surely thought he was improving the story when he (practically) remade it five years later, this original seems fresher and more realistic. The two classic Star is Born movies are very good, but it must be admitted that the changes made to the story are designed mainly to up the glamour factor and provide potent Oscar-bait dramatic scenes for the two leads.
Interestingly, the credits for the 1937 version don't acknowledge any of the writing talent from this original. It's unlikely that David O. Selznick would want to publicize the relationship.
In Adela Rogers St. Johns' source story the young hopeful is not a green kid from the Midwest, but someone who already knows enough to avoid the Hollywood casting couches. Mary Evans (Constance Bennett) waits tables at the Brown Derby, where the staff and even the flower lady lean on the big talent clientele in hopes of a part in a picture. Mary leaps at the chance when the inebriated director Maximillian Carey (Lowell Sherman) invites her to accompany him to the premiere of his new movie. Carey passes out stone drunk before the premiere finishes, and she manages to get him home. While the gossip columns wonder about the identity of Carey's new mystery blonde, the director repays Mary with a shot at a tiny part in a picture. She muffs the opportunity, but then works on it all night and begs for a second chance. The footage is so good that studio head Julius Saxe (Gregory Ratoff) gives her a contract and grooms her for stardom. But nothing is perfect. Max Carey's alcoholism puts him on the outs with Saxe. Mary meets and weds playboy Lonny Borden (Neil Hamilton), but he can't handle her wild life, especially when she takes time out to bail Carey out of the drunk tank, and allows him to burst into their home at all hours of the night. And the town's gossipmongers don't help either -- they drum the problem into a big romantic scandal.
Dramatically, What Price Hollywood? does not show its age. It's as least as good as the Janet Gaynor version and far more convincing. The workings of the studio are more accurate than most films from the early 1930s, with a business-as-usual atmosphere and no fakery. The Brown Derby is a place for the antics of the tipsy Max Carey, but even he knows that the guy trying to make deals from the next booth is an ex- bootlegger. Carey's alcoholism is ignored until it disrupts production, and then he's effectively blackballed - unlike the later versions, the studio head is not granted Sainthood status. We also aren't urged to mourn Carey as a victim of anything but his own weakness -- no publicity jerk (Lionel Stander, Jack Carson) turns on him in public. Face it, an actor as good as James Mason is required to make Norman Maine more than minimally sympathetic. The guy throws away a charmed life, and unless one denies free will, he's the architect of his problems.
Nope, actor Lowell Sherman gives Max Carey's dipsomania an unusually mature spin. Sherman was a brother-in-law to John Barrymore, the star assumed to be a model for the self-destructive director. Sherman would himself die just two years later, of pneumonia. He played the villain in the 1920 Griffith classic Way Down East; he was also an accomplished director. When the movie starts to concentrate on Neil Hamilton's less interesting Lonny Borden, we unfortunately lose track of the story's most interesting character for a reel or two.
Constance Bennett performs a particularly convincing -- and rapid -- transition from ambitious waitress to good actress. Her big audition scene is a disaster until she shakes herself free of her nervous anxiety. It's interesting that the later movies steer way clear of actually showing their 'major stars' perform. We only see Janet Gaynor deliver a couple of sappy lines, and I'm not sure we ever see Judy Garland doing a scene that isn't a joke, or a musical performance. Bennett is shown thesping just enough to convince us that she's good, and without a dozen cutaways to approving crewmembers.
The drama and its attendant ironies work without being over-hyped. The gossip vultures are a nuisance, but not an unholy pestilence. The one potential "Day of the Locust" moment occurs at Mary and Lonny's wedding, as the crowd outside grabs at her veil and dress to snatch a souvenir. We don't see any active hatreds or jealousies among the show people. As anybody who works here knows, such things are conveyed by friends not calling you when you're in disfavor, or in trouble. Max Carey doesn't make outrageous spectacles of himself in public, just little ones, often interpretable as 'high spirits'. Mary doesn't throw herself into emotional public spectacles, and Max's final action is not presented as a major event in Greek tragedy. It's powerful enough just as it is.
In other words, What Price Hollywood? operates on a believable scale. I can see David O. Selznick ruminating over it for years before coming up with the classic grandiose and grandeloquent moments of the later versions -- "I'm Mrs. Norman Maine", etc. In this picture even the usually stiff Neil Hamilton comes off fairly well, and Lowell Sherman should have been nominated for an Oscar.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of What Price Hollywood? restores this vintage RKO picture to very good shape, with a sharp and detailed picture plus a robust soundtrack. We're impressed by Max Steiner's music, which utilizes snippets of pop songs. As the film is dialogue-driven, it's not in the same style as the rumbling, mood-enhancing underscore heard in the same year's The Most Dangerous Game and the next year's King Kong.
The clean restoration does wonders with a couple of Slavko Vorkapich time-lapse montage sequences, which are backed by more demonstrative Steiner cues. Mary Evans' rise to fame is represented by her image literally growing in size, as a gleaming 'star' shines above and kaleidoscopic images of clapping hands, etc., surround her. Later on, her entrapment in a scandal is enhanced by another montage. In this one her image shrinks -- while more pessimistic visuals surround her like dark clouds.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
What Price Hollywood? rates:
1. From correspondent Jonathan Hertzberg, June 23, 2014:
Hello Glenn: It's also worth mentioning that What Price Hollywood? represents one of the few credits of the enigmatic writer / director Rowland Brown. Brown only directed 3 films--Quick Millions, Hell's Highway and Blood Money-- all of which were well-received and which indicated that a lengthy directing career should have been in the offing for Brown, but it was not to be. He was purportedly blackballed for punching out a producer. It's also been said that Brown's own problems with alcohol contributed to his truncated career, making the onscreen portrayal in What Price Hollywood? of Sherman's alcoholism that much more poignant. In addition to his aforementioned directing efforts, Brown was Oscar-nominated for his "original story" credits on Angels with Dirty Faces and The Doorway to Hell, and has a story credit for Phil Karlson's Kansas City Confidential. -- Jonathan Hertzberg
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
T'was Ever Thus.