Monday, April 2, 2012

What Price Hollywood (1932)



“Let me give you a tip about Hollywood. Always keep your sense of humor then you can't miss.”
“Don't worry about me. I got a great sense of humor.” 

            Everyone at one point in their life dreams of being a famous movie star. If you never have there is something seriously wrong with you. With every film I watch- old or new- I dream about what my life would be like as a famous movie star. I wonder what it would be like to do photo shoots for magazines, to be on a movie set and to act with a handsome actor, and mostly I think of the money I could make and what I could pay off (right now I am a broke college student so the money thing is always on my mind). Whenever I read about old Hollywood I am amazed to read how some actors and actresses were discovered: someone who worked at Lowes in New York saw Ava Gardner’s picture hanging in a photographer’s window and thought she was beautiful and asked who she was; Ginger Rogers won a Charleston contest; Bert Lancaster was a handsome acrobat; Lana Turner worked in a drug store; Norma Shearer was an extra who had this determination and look to her that got her noticed. It seems like the old stars broke into Hollywood so easily, all they needed was a look and what seems like no talent (Marilyn Monroe is the prime example). I also think how being discovered like some of my favorite stars could never happen today.
            One film that is most likely so accurate a portrayal of Hollywood in the early 1930s is What Price Hollywood?. It is a story of an actress, it could even be of a number of the real actresses working at any of the studios. It is a contemporary 1930s Hollywood story.
            Mary Evans (Constance Bennett) is a young waitress working at the restaurant mecca of Hollywood, The Brown Derby. Well, it would be the mecca if the movie people who came through were not old and washed up. All the male patrons tell her they can get her into films and Mary just blows them off since she knows they are full of crap. Mary wants to be an actress but she is smart enough to know who is for real and who is not. On her shift a famous director with a new picture about to be released named Max Carey (Lowell Sherman) comes into the restaurant. He is clearly very drunk but Mary trades her table to be able to speak to Max. She tells him she wants to be an actress and he tells her to get a nice dress on she is going to go to the premier of his new picture with him! Mary cannot believe her luck but she knows Max is looped. At the premier he jokingly tells everyone she is with the Duchess of Derby and she plays along putting on a British accent.
            Max wakes up the next morning not knowing how he got home. His butler tells him that Mary took him home and put him to bed and that she is downstairs sleeping on the couch. He goes downstairs and they talk for a bit. Max is still somewhat drunk when Mary asks if he can put her in a picture and he says yes since she helped him into the house.
            The director puts Mary in a bit part in a new film. She is not very good with her small scene so Max tells her to go home and practice and they will see how she does the next day. That night Mary practices her scene over and over on the steps of the boarding house where she lives. The next day she is flawless. When the producer and head of the studio Julius Saxe sees the rushes for the film he loves Mary. He wants to sign her for a several year contract with her salary increasing a hundred dollars every year and that she will be billed as “America’s Pal.”
            Over a year or two Mary certainly becomes “America’s Pal.” Her films are a hit and her name is above the title on the marquee. While working on a new film on location at a polo ground she meets a young eastern millionaire named Lonnie Borden. She does not know he is a millionaire and does not really like him too much. He asks her out for dinner and she tells him jokingly so he will not be able to take her out all the things she wants like gold plates and caviar. That night Lonnie waits and waits for Mary but she does not show. He gets fed up and goes to her house to find her in bed. Really mad Lonnie breaks her window and literally drags her out of bed to his place for dinner. Although kidnapped and brought to dinner against her will Mary falls in love with Lonnie.
            Not long after they are engaged to be married. Saxe throws them a big wedding when they really just wanted a small one. Reporters and fans wait outside the church like vultures. Lonnie is not very happy but puts up with it because he loves Mary not what her job. They cannot even go on their honeymoon right away because Mary has to do retakes. As time goes on Lonnie begins to get fed up with Max and Saxe constantly hanging around their house and talking films. Mary defends the two men telling her husband that they are her closest friends and cares about them deeply.
            Lonnie finally has enough when Max comes over incredibly drunk in the middle of the night. He tells Max to get out but Mary does not want to turn her friend away she knows Max desperately needs help and is worse than ever after being fired from the studio. Max walks in their room after being told to get out and he will not. This is the final straw for Lonnie since it seems that Mary cares for her drunken friend than her husband. Mary is devastated about Lonnie walking out since she really loves him and even more so when he tells her that he has given her a divorce. That news could not come at a worse time; she tells Saxe that she is having a baby.
            A year later Mary has a little son and her career could not be better. She refuses to let Lonnie see their son because he walked out on her and had the baby after he left. Mary is once again going to Max’s aid when she gets a call saying that he is in jail and needs to be bailed out. She goes down to the jail and gets her friend out. Back at the house Max is ashamed of himself. He feels guilty for Mary and Lonnie’s separation. He finds a gun in the nightstand drawer and kills himself. The police and reporters are all over the grounds of the house. It seems Mary’s career is ruined by the scandal since the papers think that she and Max were romantically involved. On top of all this she gets a telegram from Lonnie saying that he is coming to California. Mary thinks that because of the scandal Lonnie is coming to take their son away.
            Mary runs away to France. Lonnie finds her and tells her that he intended to come to California only to help her not to take their son away from her. He still loves her and wants to remarry her. Lonnie also brings Mary a letter from Saxe that he has a picture for that could be her big comeback.
            The story of an actress rising to stardom and then falling has been done over and over again but What Price Hollywood? is the original. What sets this film apart from the others is we do not see a girl who is used and abused by the star machine she is loved by Max and Saxe but her downfall comes from scandal and her husband not being able to handle her lifestyle. Also setting this film apart from the others is Constance Bennett. I love watching Bennett in films because she was a very good actress. She seemed so comfortable as an actress and knew what she was doing that it came across in her characters on the screen. You are not getting any bull with her she was just good. Bennett played Mary Evans wonderfully in every aspect: she was feisty at the beginning, loyal to her friends and never seemed to lose her head, and fell apart when her best friend died. She was just perfect she really made you believe her character and feel for her.
     There are some great scenes in the film. My favorite scene was the very first one: Mary is in her room getting ready for work. She picks up magazine where she comes to a picture of Clark Gable and Greta Garbo from their latest film. She folds over Garbo, puts Gable’s half near her face and imitates Garbo. Bennett’s impression was spot on it was so hilarious. Another scene I liked was very pre-code: Mary and Lonnie are in their room talking before bed. Mary gets up from her bed (remember there were always two beds in films back then) and slips in the covers with Lonnie. If you look at this scene in context of the time it was very sexy and still is.
            I got a kick of how the film kept making references to MGM actors. Garbo and Gable were shown at the beginning. Wallace Beery and Marie Dressler were mentioned in the Brown Derby scene. Selznick was married to Louis B. Mayer’s daughter so I guess the head honcho let his stars be mentioned. 

            What Price Hollywood? is a great film to see how early Hollywood worked. I love researching the studio system and how actors and actresses were found back then. I thought it was accurate from what I have read. When the film was released in 1932 not many people knew what went on behind the scenes of filmmaking. George Cukor did a fabulous job directing this film he brought us behind the scenes of early Hollywood and took us on a rollercoaster along with Mary Evans. What Price Hollywood? is definitely a film that not only all classic film fans should but anyone who has an interest in films. Especially those who dream of what it would be like to be an actress or actor in old or modern films should see What Price Hollywood?