Review: What Price Hollywood? (1932)

>> Saturday, November 1, 2008

USA/B&W-88m./Dir: George Cukor/Wr: Gene Fowler & Roland Brown/Cast: Constance Bennett (Mary Evans), Lowell Sherman (Max Carey), Neil Hamilton (Lonny Borden), Gregory Ratoff (Julius Saxe)

A Star Is Born (1937), the story of a Hollywood starlet’s (Janet Gaynor) rise with the help of a declining, alcoholic actor (Fredric March), was remade twice--first in 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason, and yet again in 1976 with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. However, the 1937 original was itself a reworking of an earlier picture, What Price Hollywood? (1932), from the same producer, David O’ Selznick.

The 1932 film tells the story of Mary Evans (Constance Bennett), a sassy Brown Derby waitress whose life changes overnight when a pie-eyed movie director (Lowell Sherman) staggers into her restaurant. Having forgotten to pick up his date for the premiere of his new picture, the amiable inebriate invites the waitress to accompany him as a substitute. Mary manages to persuade her new friend into giving her a walk-on role in his next picture; and before you can say “montage,” Mary has become a colossal star, promoted by the studio as “America’s pal.” Of course, success comes with a price. Mary finds that her career interferes with happiness in other areas of her life, while her alcoholic mentor slides deeper and deeper into the bottle.

Not only was What Price Hollywood? the first version of the A Star is Born; it is also the best. Produced before the Hayes censorship code diluted studio output, the film is a fresh, potent mix of drama, comedy, booze, behind-the-scenes glitz, and scandal. All of the pitfalls of screen stardom are covered in the brief 88-minute running time--gossip rags, promotional hype, rabid fans, marital woes, and even the paparazzi--but despite the soapy subject matter, the movie rarely descends into melodrama. Smart-alecky dialogue by Bundy Drive Boy Gene Fowler helps to keep the atmosphere light; and director George Cukor propels the material forward at a brisk pace (with the help of some well-edited montages).

The performances are also first-rate. Forgotten actor (and real-life director) Lowell Sherman is a delight as the perpetually pickled filmmaker Max Carey; and Constance Bennett is equally engaging as starlet Mary Evans. The script requires both of their characters to evolve dramatically over the course of the film, and the actors pull off the comedy and drama with equal aplomb.

More than 75 years after its premiere, What Price Hollywood? remains an intoxicating entertainment. This fizzy forgotten cocktail deserves to be rediscovered.

Drinks Consumed--Whiskey, champagne, and gin (martinis)

Intoxicating Effects--Staggering, slurred speech, drunk driving, jail time, yodeling, and suicide

Potent Quotables--MARY: Why do ya drink all the time? Can’t you cut the heavy swilling?
MAX: What, and be bored all the time?

Video Availability--The film has not been released on DVD, but an out-of-print What Price Hollywood [VHS] (Turner Home Entertainment) was previously released. The film is also shown occasionally on television on TCM.

Similarly Sauced Cinema--George Cukor got another crack at similar material when he directed the 1954 remake of A Star Is Born.


What Price Hollywood Metal Cigarette Case

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I like to drink. I like to watch movies. I like to watch movies about drinking. I like to write about the movies I’ve watched, but only if I’ve had a drink first.

All text including the title "Booze Movies: The 100 Proof Film Guide" Copyright William T. Garver

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