SPOTLIGHT: Cunning Pre-Code Bennett (II)

Welcome to a new Film Friday and the continuation of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of the unjustly neglected Constance Bennett (1904-1965), whose work we’d never covered before here on Film Friday! We kicked off the series last week with The Easiest Way (1931). Today…

 

What Price Hollywood? (1932)

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A drunken director whose career is fading helps a waitress become a Hollywood star. Starring Constance Bennett, Lowell Sherman, Neil Hamilton, and Gregory Ratoff. Written by Gene Fowler and Rowland Brown. Screenplay by Jane Murfin and Ben Markson. Story by Adela Rogers St. Johns. Directed by George Cukor.

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“While working at Hollywood’s Brown Derby, Mary Evans, a pretty, sassy waitress, amuses alcoholic film director Maximillan “Max” Carey with her sharp wit and clever observations. Charmed by Mary, Carey invites her to the premiere of his latest film, which is being presented at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, and then spends the night drinking and carousing with her. The next morning, the ambitious Mary cajoles Max into taking her to the set of his latest production, and she eventually convinces him to give her a walk-on part in the film. Untrained as an actor, Mary performs her role terribly and is fired from the production. Determined to regain her part, Mary practices at home that night until she finds the proper rhythm and style for her delivery. The next day, she stuns Julius Saxe, the film’s producer, with her performance and is signed to a seven-year studio contract.

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“While visiting the exclusive Santa Barbara Polo Field, Mary, now a polished movie star, meets Lonny Borden, an Eastern-bred millionaire. After a fiery courtship, Mary and Lonny marry in an opulent, much publicized ceremony, but differences in their social backgrounds as well as the pressures of Mary’s Hollywood career soon take their toll on the marriage. At the same time, Carey, lonely for Mary’s companionship, increases his drinking until he is forced out of motion pictures. When a distraught Carey shows up drunk in Mary’s bedroom one night, Lonny misunderstands his intentions and, in a jealous rage, files for divorce. Now alone, Mary gives birth to Lonny’s son but refuses to allow Lonny to see the baby. After Mary bails an intoxicated Carey out of jail, Carey commits suicide in Mary’s bedroom. Her career ruined by the subsequent scandal, Mary abandons Hollywood and moves to France. Eventually a repentant Lonny shows up in France and, after informing her that Saxe wants her to star in his next movie, is reunited with Mary and their son.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)

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Known primarily for being ripped off five years later as David O. Selznick’s oft-remade A Star Is Born (1937), What Prince Hollywood? is a less glossy, more pointed look (after all, it is a Pre-Code) at the motion picture industry during a time in which it was probably among the most glamorous: the early 1930s. Our heroine begins the film as a waitress at the Brown Derby, “the watering hole” that Lucy Ricardo famously visited two decades later, where she’s whisked off by a notorious director to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (a spot also visited by Mrs. Ricardo), giving audiences a chance to look at some of the already established landmarks that helped give Hollywood its glittering and unrivaled allure. Of all the Pre-Code films that turned to self-reflectivity and concerned themselves with the ups and down of moviemaking, What Price Hollywood? is probably the most well known — and deservedly so, for there’s likely no picture that comes as close to presenting the intoxicating dazzle dazzle of Hollywood in its heyday, the process of filmmaking (as all the scenes in and around the studio are brilliant in their realism) and the darker truths that lay underneath Tinseltown’s shimmering promises.

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Because of the story’s similarity to A Star Is Born, and the over-saturation of Hollywood narratives, the film is not one that keeps contemporary audience members on the edges of their seat, at least, not in regard to its premise. For audiences of 1932, perhaps there was more of a novelty; today, the film may seem predictable. Girl goes from waitress to starlet, has a rocky relationship with a millionaire, and watches as the man who gave her this success drinks himself to a tragic end. It’s fairly routine. But it’s the moments in between all of the anticipated plot points that give this picture its inimitable fascination. Credit for this must be given to director George Cukor, still in the early stages of his ascendant career, who imbues the picture with an excitement that plays up the story’s glamour and its emotional truths. Two moments in particular are worth mentioning. The first is the montage that sees Mary Evans achieve stardom, allowing the story to progress forward and resume with our heroine as an established and successful actress. But in addition to its function within the story, the montage is a thing of joyous beauty — our leading lady becomes a leading lady: her dreams come true. The other moment is Max Carey’s suicide. Like the story, it’s not a shocking moment, but Cukor’s direction gives it a chilling intensity that packs an exceedingly powerful metaphorical punch to the gut. It’s quite something, especially for 1932.

But Cukor’s brilliance has always been a result of the performances that he’s able to draw out from his actors. Our spotlighted star, Constance Bennett, is the focal point of the narrative, and Mary Evans is undoubtedly her most well known Pre-Code performance. The mark of a successful characterization is maintainable believability through growth within the character as it transforms throughout the narrative. Mary Evans goes from a down-to-earth wiseacre waitress and Hollywood wannabe to a temperamental starlet quarreling with her millionaire beau. She does light comedy, humane melodrama, delivers witty lines and cries genuine tears, and even sings a beautiful ditty en Francais! I’m certain that a handful of the actresses we’ve covered on Past Film Fridays could do the scenes as well, maybe even better. But I doubt that any of them could be as honest or believable as Ms. Bennett, who not only gives a memorable performance, but looks stunningly beautiful whilst doing it. In fewer words, she’s marvelous.

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Meanwhile, Bennett plays off an equally strong supporting cast, which includes Gregory Ratoff as a domineering producer, Louise Beavers as, you guessed it, the maid, and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson in a small role as a valet. Neil Hamilton has the somewhat difficult task of being Bennett’s love interest, and he does an admirable job; their scenes together have some spark, but much of that can be attributed to her own natural sensuality. Hamilton’s role is less defined, and therefore, not as memorable (and their reconciliation at the film’s close is not as strong a finish as the film deserves). But he’s overshadowed not just by Benentt, but by the male star of the film, Lowell Sherman, who plays the alcoholic director that gives Mary Evans her start. Reportedly based on both John Barrymore and Sherman himself, the actor portrays him refreshingly truthful — free of histrionics and false extremisms. Max Carey is a flawed human being, and Sherman’s turn is, like Bennett’s, a thing of wonder.

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What else is there to say about What Price Hollywood? (1932)? 83 years after its premiere, it’s still a painfully truthful film — of beautiful highs and mournful lows. And with two particularly strong performances, it, at times, works as a much better film that any of the three A Star Is Born adaptations. (Although both the Gaynor and Garland versions — the latter also directed by Cukor– are superb in and of themselves.) I recommend it highly.

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Come back next Friday for another Constance Bennett Pre-Code! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week of fun on That’s Entertainment! 

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