What Price Hollywood?: George Cukor’s Inside-Hollywood Melodrama, Starring Constance Bennett

What_Price_Hollywood_posterThe inspiration for What Price Hollywood? based on the Adela Rogers St. Johns story, derived from the real-life relationship between silent star Colleen Moore and her producer-husband, John McCormick. (See below).

But the lead character played by Lowell Sherman also echoes elements of the life of Marshal (Mickey) Neilan, a silent director with a drinking problem, and of John Barrymore, who himself would play a similar role in another Cukor melodrama, “Dinner at Eight,” in 1933.

 

 

 

Grade: B (*** out of *****)

Selznick originally commissioned the story for Clara Bow, holding the material needed an exciting actress to uplift it. Bow’s career, however, was fading, and Selznick could not dissuade her determination to retire from the screen. Instead, Constance Bennett was offered the role and the story was re-written to fit her particular talents. One of the first stars of the sound era, Bennett projected sophistication, glamour, and wit.

Sherman, a fine actor from silent films who had never achieved major stardom, was cast as the director. Though playing a drunken and disagreeable character, Sherman succeeded in making the director’s bitterness sympathetic and his suicide really touching. Sherman gave a prophetic performance; he died two years later.

My biography of George Cukor:

Cukor’s handling of the climactic suicide scene was original for its time. It is preceded by a quick succession of shots, with the director reliving his life, from the early triumphant days to the more desperate ones. The sequence is accompanied by an extraordinary sound–an eerie whirling sound, which Slavko Vorkapich achieved by attaching a string inside a cigar box and spinning it around. The impact of this scene was so compelling that Cukor urged Selznick to give Vorkapich a separate credit for “special effects.”

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The small, incidental details of the picture are perceptively observed. Cukor’s ability to draw the audience to the characters is particularly telling in an early sequence that illustrates Bennett’s ambition and dogged determination to succeed.

Bennett has a small part in the film within film, a single throwaway line. However, she is so nervous and insecure that her performance is terrible, and the director fires her. Mary then goes home and stays up all night rehearsing, trying to perfect her reading. Cukor lets the audience sees her gradual improvement as she slowly regains her nerve. When the producer sees the dailies, he puts her under contract. In her finished performance, seen in rushes, a star is born before the audience’s eyes.

Nonetheless, the quality of What Price Hollywood is uneven. The film was pushed into production too quickly, with a script that Cukor had never wholeheartedly approved of. The narrative is incoherent, shifting to a romance and then marriage between Bennett and her polo-playing husband, which ultimately weakens the film by diffusing its dramatic center.

Cukor fought to keep the story focused on the relationship between the star and the director, but he was overruled by Selznick. Selznick later admitted that Cukor was right, wishing he had spent more time on the script, particularly on the middle section (in which Mary discovers she’s pregnant and divorces her husband), and the pat, incoherent ending.

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What Price Hollywood? is one of Cukor’s more interesting films, despite its contrived ending (Mary reuniting with her husband) and radical shifting tone from satire to pathos. The film still maintains a fresh, timeless quality in its observations about movie celebrity, making it one of the most enduring pictures about Hollywood as a star-making machine.

David O. Selznick later used the same story for the 1937 version of A Star Is Born, which Cukor was offered to direct but turned down, because he did not want to repeat himself.  RKO executives considered filing a plagiarism suit against Selznick International Pictures because of the obvious similarities in the story, but eventually opted not to take any legal action.

Cukor himself would later use the same theme in his 1954 musical version of A Star is Born, starring Judy Garland and James Mason (still the best iteration of the four films made under this title).  Though both succeeding films are better-constructed, What Price Hollywood still stands on its own merits, largely due to Bennett’s, which is superior to Janet Gaynor’s in the 1937 version.

Given a lavish publicity campaign, What Price Hollywood premiered in N.Y. C. at the Mayfair Theater. After a strong opening at the box-office, the movie enjoyed a considerable run but was not a big hit for RKO. Ultimately, it broke even.

Walter Winchell, the influential columnist, gave the film a generous appreciation, for which the grateful Cukor thanked him in a personal note, an unusual deed for a man who never corresponded with critics or columnists.

OSCAR CONTEXT

Adela Rogers St. Johns and Jane Murfin were nominated for the Best Story Oscar, but lost to Frances Marion for The Champ.

END NOTES 

The film’s original title was The Truth About Hollywood. Adela Rogers St. Johns loosely based her plot on the experiences of actress Colleen Moore and her husband, alcoholic producer John McCormick (1893-1961), and the life and death of director Tom Forman, who committed suicide following a nervous breakdown.

Selznick wanted to cast Clara Bow as the female lead, but executives at RKO’s New York offices were hesitant to invest in a Hollywood story because similar projects had been unsuccessful in the past. Additionally, Bow was having problems of her own, fighting alcoholism.

Cast

Constance Bennett as Mary Evans

Lowell Sherman as Maximilian ‘Max’ Carey

Neil Hamilton as Lonny Borden

Gregory Ratoff as Julius Saxe

Louise Beavers as Bonita, Mary’s Maid

Brooks Benedict as Muto, Diner Who Will Put Mary In Pictures

Eddie “Rochester” Anderson as James, Max’s Butler

Torben Meyer as Nick, Headwaiter at Brown Derby

 

CREDITS

Released by RKO

Release Date: June 24, 1932

Running time: 88 Minutes

Budget: $420,000

Screenplay: Adela Rogers St. Johns and Jane Murfin, based on Rogers” short story

Camera: Charles Rosher

Music: Max Steiner

Editing: Del Andrews and Jack Kitchin

My biography of George Cukor: