What Price Hollywood? (George Cukor / U.S., 1932):

George Cukor’s introduction of the starry-eyed waitress with her face pressed to a glossy fanzine is also an introduction of Constance Bennett, such a sinuous camera subject that her customers at the Brown Derby ask the obvious question: "Why aren’t you in the movies, dearie?" The fading director (Lowell Sherman) enters elegantly sloshed, immaculately top-hatted while dropping gardenias on everybody’s plates, and takes off in his jalopy with Bennett by his side. (His explanation of his drinking: "Wanna be bored all the time?") Hollywood is here a place that takes frivolity seriously, Sherman in tie and rolled-up sleeves is a top-level artisan getting a scene done and with no time for an amateur like the young hopeful he invited to the set. Just being photogenic isn't enough, Bennett with a couple of lines on a staircase teaches herself the art of facing the lenses (a scene reworked by Antonioni in La Signora Senza Camelie) and is declared a star in the screening room. "We make her America’s pal," announces the producer (Gregory Ratoff) in his stout European accent. Her rise is a swirl of Tinseltown anecdotes peopled by spirited sketches of dyspeptic bosses and smirking gossip-peddlers, safe but piquant. At one point, Bennett is pushed through a crowd as frantic fans snatch pieces off her dress, and it’s like a Nathanael West note inserted into a F. Scott Fitzgerald novella; at another, Cukor goes cannily yet unfussily meta by splintering the spectacle of the star singing in a café into shards of studio technique (the cranking of the camera, the maneuvering of the spotlight, the adjustments of the microphone). Wandering in and out of the main plot (and spiking it with welcome vinegar with each appearance) is Sherman’s crumbling filmmaker, who leaves the world via a fabulous Slavko Vorkapich montage, an accelerating whirlpool of split-second pictures capped by a startling soupçon of slow-mo. The various versions of A Star Is Born are just the most immediate remakes, The Bad and the Beautiful, Inside Daisy Clover, Le Mépris and others flow from it. With Neil Hamilton, Brooks Benedict, Louise Beavers, and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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