I’d like to start 2014 with a throwback. All the way back in 2012, when I started (or rather restarted) We Recycle Movies, the blog was reborn with a trio of reviews of the various versions of A Star Is Born (1937, 1954, and 1976, respectively). At the time, I remarked that they were all based on an earlier movie called What Price Hollywood? that was unavailable through conventional means and only seemed to be a minor inspiration anyway. I have to be honest. This rankled me. I’m somewhat of a completist (as my current column on The Film Experience will attest), and I didn’t like the idea of starting the blog with an unfinished set. Fortunately for us, Turner Classic Movies screens everything, so I at last was able to uncover a lost gem. And what a gem it turned out to be!
It’s impossible not to compare What Price Hollywood? to the films it later inspired. Unlike A Star Is Born, What Price Hollywood? (1932 dir. George Cukor) is not a Depression era morality fable about the joys and sorrows of Hollywood. In fact, unlike its pontificating progeny, What Price Hollywood? is not very moral at all. It’s one of the last Pre-Code films about Hollywood, and although its content isn’t particularly lascivious, its tone is nonetheless one of unapologetic excess.
Mary Evans (Constance Bennett) is a cynical waitress at the Brown Derby who wants to be a star. When drunken director Max Carey stumbles into the restaurant the night of his premiere, she rides his tipsy tailcoats all the way from the Chinese Theater to a studio contract and stardom. Max’s career spirals out of control while Mary rises higher; she marries a mercurial millionaire and settles in France, while Max commits suicide in a sober spell of self-loathing. This is no story of star-crossed lovers – Max and Mary are not in love. Most of the time the story seems pulled from a ‘30s fan magazine.
Before 1933, anything really did go for movie stars. This was the era of Gloria Swanson’s Lancia limo upholstered in leopard fur, and Greta Garbo’s less-than-subtle love affair with Mercedes de Acosta. This is Mary’s world, and compared to most of Silent Hollywood she’s practically a nun. Mary’s worst faux pas is going to her millionaire boyfriend’s dinner in her nightie (not by choice). And then there’s Max’s sad suicide in her living room. That one does almost cost Mary her career. Mary is a low-class actress who wants to be famous and have fun. There’s no moral judgement against Mary for her ambition. The film applauds her for it.
This is because What Price Hollywood? is an artifact of Pre-Code Hollywood. While I’ve talked extensively about the effect the Hays Code had on films, I’ve left out its effect on studios. Once the Hays Code crackdown happened in 1933, stars had morality clauses written into their contracts. Gone were the days of wild parties and rape allegations (well, almost gone). Depression-era audiences said goodbye to the worldly girls like Mary Evans. It was time for the virtuous Vicky Lester’s star to shine.