What Price Hollywood: George Cukor-David O. Selznick Collaboration

George Cukor’s first film at RKO was What Price Hollywood, the story of a gifted director (Lowell Sherman) who helps an ambitious waitress (Constance Bennett) to become a movie star while his career disintegrates into alcoholic ruin.

The project was dear to David O. Selznick who had a romantic view of Hollywood. Selznick and Cukor decided to produce a more honest and accurate portrayal of the film industry–one that will combine comedy, pathos and drama. Two working titles, “The Truth about Hollywood,” and “The World, the Flesh, and the Movies,” were dropped, because they were pompous and failed to convey Selznick’s more realistic vision.

The inspiration for Adela St. Johns’ story derived from the real-life relationship between silent star Colleen Moore and her producer-husband John McCormick. But Sherman’s character also echoes the life of Marshal (Mickey) Neilan, a silent director with a drinking problem, and John Barrymore (who would play a similar role in Cukor’s l933 Dinner at Eight).

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.

A fine actor from silent films who never achieved stardom, Sherman 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.

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 separate credit for “special effects.”

The small, incidental details of the picture are perceptively observed by Cukor. His 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, but nervous, her performance is terrible and the director fires her. She 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.

But the quality of What Price Hollywood is uneven. The film was pushed into production too quickly, with a script that Cukor never wholeheartedly approve of. The narrative is incoherent, shifting to a silly romance between Bennett and her polo-playing husband, which ultimately weakens the film. 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.

The writing credits on What Price Hollywood turned out to be problematic. A number of writers, including Jane Murfin, Ben Markson, and Gene Fowler, worked on the shooting script. After being burned by Lubitsch, and remembering his experience with Milestone on All Quiet, Cukor was particularly sensitive to the credits issue. A committee from the Academy’s Writers Branch delved into the script, which was nominated for an Oscar. After reading all versions, the committee stipulated that credit for the original story should go to Adela St. Johns and Jane Murfin and that Robert Presnell should also receive credit for his share of the adaptation.

Cukor always showed concern for the writing in his films, perhaps because he was a frustrated writer himself. Of the various collaborators in the production process, Cukor held the ultimate respect for the writer–to the point of not allowing his performers to change one word–once the script was finalized.

“Although every artist has his ego,” Lambert commented, “George was not as egotistic as many directors I’ve known. For one thing, he was extremely generous to writers. George was modest, and that is one thing that delayed his just recognition for a long time. He never publicized himself a great deal.” Cukor’s career undoubtedly suffered because he was neither a writer nor a producer.

Though Cukor held the highest regard for writers, he was much more dependent on actors for establishing his own distinctive style. He understood early on that his forte was working with actors, helping them showcase their unique persona. And because he was assigned mediocre screenplays, over which he had little control, he placed extra emphasis on casting the right performers. Cukor’s stature as an actors’ director rose with the performance he coaxed out of Constance Bennett in What Price Hollywood
“He is a rare thing,” said Bennett in l933, “an unselfish director. He doesn’t make a show of what he’s giving the actor. He doesn’t specialize in so called ‘directorial touches,’ to emphasize his own activity. He keeps himself in the background. To him, the story–and consequently the people through whom the story’s being told–are the important thing.” Actors trusted Cukor implicitly, because as Bennett said, “You know, that first and foremost it’s you and your part he’s thinking of. Naturally you’ll work like a slave, because you realize you’re safer in his hands than in your own.”

Given a lavish publicity campaign, What Price Hollywood opened in NY at the Mayfair Theater, soon becoming one of the year’s top-grossing films. 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.

What Price Hollywood is one of Cukor’s most interesting films, despite its contrived ending and shifting tone from satire to pathos. The film still maintains a fresh, timeless quality in its observations about movie stardom, making it one of the most enduring pictures about Hollywood. Selznick later used the same story for the l937 version of A Star Is Born, which Cukor was offered to direct but turned down. Cukor himself would later use the same theme in his l954 musical version of A Star is Born, starring Judy Garland. Though both succeeding films are better constructed, What Price Hollywood still stands on its own merits.

During the course of this film, Cukor’s friendship with Irene Selznick, Louis B. Mayer’s daughter and Selznick’s wife, became more intimate. Selznick encouraged their friendship; the producer knew that Irene needed friends of her own. Cukor was also friendly with Irene’s sister, Edith, who was married to William Goetz, a top Paramount executive. Soon Cukor became Irene’s personal confidante, which, given Selznick’s womanizing, put him in an awkward position.

Stories from the set of What Price Hollywood wafted across town. Rumors circulated that Cukor was vituperative in a way that was not only amusing but also got results; even his profanity was salutary. Irene Selznick described the young Cukor as a man who had “invigorating viewpoint and original personality” and was “full of beans, taste, and humor.”