Mineshaft Gap

It's a screening log, no more no less. Maybe I'll have something interesting to say one of these days...

They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To.

Just got out of my first 30s Cinema History screening, we watched a Burns and Allen short and What Price, Hollywood? which basically defines the prototypical "well made film". Mary Evans is a lowly strugguling actress trying to make it big into pictures. Somehow she lucked into a job at the legendary Brown Derby as a waitress, and she gets her golden opportunity when the legendary, and currently drunk, film director Max Carey walks in before his big premiere. They hit it off, he puts her in his next picture, producers loves her and makes her a star. It's all standard stuff, easily producible and marketable (which is probably why it was made into A Star is Born with Judy Holiday and again with Barbara Streisand).

What sets this apart, however, is overall quality of every aspect of the production. This was George Cukor's eight film in his first three years in Hollywood. As the wave of the talkies came in Broadway talent came with it, Cukor was a successful Broadway director who eventually would become one of the great old Hollywood directors. Not much of a visual stylist, Cukor had an amazing touch with his actors. In What Price, Hollywood? Cukor had his second major production and his first that really established him as a "woman's director", shorthand for the fact that he was gay. Constance Bennet had a long career, but was never better than playing Mary here. She brings enough innocence that is perfunctory for the part, but it is her strength that sets her apart. The repartee with Lowell Sherman's Max shows that this woman is no one to be taken lightly, and the film actually manages of avoid the pitfall of making Mary into a martyr. When life begins to crumble in the third act, it is all natural, sympathetic stuff and not a cliche of debauchery that would so soon be established for films like this.

The key strength is the film's Oscar nominated screenplay by Jane Murfin and Ben Markson. Godard once said that Hollywood had all the best writers, and this is a great example. Murfin was a veteran Hollywood writer, dating from the silents of the late teens. Markson was new on the scene, a Broadway writer with this as only his fourth credit. Together they crafted a script that really prefigured the screwball comedies that would come about in 1934. In fact, Constance Bennet turned down a role in It Happened One Night, usually considered to be the first of the genre. Filled with witty one liners from Mary and Max as well as your typical oddball comic relief in producer Julius Saxe, these lines would feel just as at home with William Powell or Myrna Loy.

The film just holds up so incredibly well. If I put on my Socialist hat for a moment I have issues with this sort of film being made at the height of the depression, what with its opulence and worship of capitalism. And the pro-feminist side of me balks at a scene in which the debonair playboy forces Mary to eat with him, but those criticisms fall aside because the whole endeavor is just so damned fun.

In a room full of 40 film majors, all ready to rip this apart, it won it's audience over the old fashioned way, with strong acting, directing and writing. If only Hollywood still made movies that way.

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