It’s safe to say I know a lot about Hollywood; whether it’s reviewing movies or, by extension, reviewing movies about the art of making movies there’s no escaping the glittering pool of the silver screen. It could explain the proliferation of behind-the-curtain features I watch. The problem, though, is hitting the pinnacle of the genre and backpedaling to its eventual inspiration. What Price Hollywood? inspired the best of the Hollywood backstage dramas, most especially both versions of A Star is Born. However, it’s hard to watch this story perfected in the latter film because the flaws of What Price Hollywood? are saliently felt.
Mary Evans (Constance Bennett) is a Brown Derby waitress who catches the eye of drunken director, Max Carey (Lowell Sherman). With Carey’s guidance Mary ends up becoming a Hollywood sensation, but can she blend success with a home and family?
It’s hard not to compare this to A Star is Born because the later movie obviously took the basic formula in this George Cukor feature and enhanced it. Both movies feature a young ingenue who, through the help of an older man suffering from alcoholism, becomes a Hollywood icon. This isn’t the typical rise and fall story because Mary is the one succeeding where Max fails and, at only 88 minutes, there isn’t much time to explore the nuances of everyone’s problems. The problem is exacerbated by splitting Mary and Max’s story. The script never decides who it’s focused on because both are in different careers. In A Star is Born, the movie kept the camera on both Vickie Lester and Norman Main because they were husband and wife. The actions of one directly affected the other. There’s no romance between Mary and Max in What Price Hollywood? so when Max disappears after Mary settles into stardom and takes up with a polo player named Lonny Borden (Neil Hamilton) the plot turns towards Mary’s stardom affecting her relationship with Lonny; only later does Max return once Lonny’s left the picture and the movie shifts accordingly.
Revered for his “women’s pictures,” Cukor forsakes a juicy Hollywood satire, or exploration of how fame affects relationships, in favor of a light domestic drama about a woman deciding between home and career as manifested by two men. Constance Bennett is beautiful and certainly personifies the bright-eyed neophyte, as evidenced by the repetition of a promotional montage where she looks at the camera with a face full of eagerness. “All I need’s a break” and Mary Evans certainly gets it. Lowell Sherman is fine as the drunken Max Carey, but he’s entirely one-dimensional. You could say the same about James Mason in A Star is Born, but the script and Mason’s performance prevented him from becoming a buffoon; he was a man trying his hardest and failing. Because Sherman is out of the frame so frequently, he is the drunken buffoon. Neil Hamilton is the nice polo player who wants a wife, not an actress, so in the end the movie implies Mary will give up Hollywood to return to home and hearth. A brief divergence, for a woman’s picture, there’s a bizarre control dynamic between Mary and Lonny. Lonny’s attempts at wooing Mary include breaking into her house, kidnapping her and force feeding her. How is this romantic, even by 1930s standards?
A Star is Born is just too good causing What Price Hollywood? to depreciate in value. The basic formula is there, but there’s little connection between characters and a lack of cohesion between the spheres of domesticity and Hollywood. If you’ve yet to experience A Star is Born (either version), watch this first. If you saw A Star is Born already, watch this with the knowledge it’s a test case.
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