Although there had already been many films made about Hollywood and filmmaking by 1932 (Behind the Screen (1916), "The Extra Girl" (1923), "Ella Cinders" (1926), "Show People" (1928) and "Free and Easy" (1930), to name a few), "What Price Hollywood?" is sometimes considered the first of a particularly-persistent formula retitled "A Star Is Born" in subsequent editions, or remakes. Hollywood, alone, has made four versions since and thus far (there are, at least, also two from Bollywood). These pictures feature two stars, one of who is an alcoholic with his career in decline while the ingénue he discovers begins to reach the pinnacle of her career. The main intrigue of these meta narratives, as I see it, is in how these lead characters reflect the real-life images of the stars portraying them.
In the 1937 film, the career of Janet Gaynor, the first Best-Actress-Oscar winner, was actually in decline, which if anything was more reflective of the alcoholic part played by Fredric March, whose own Hollywood stardom was, in reality, more recent and would continue to thrive long after Gaynor retired. This dynamic is even more stark in the 1954 remake, where Judy Garland nominally plays the ingénue, but James Mason's addict and unreliable performer may be read as the shadow of Judy's real-life image. The 1976 and 2018 pictures are largely vanity projects of their stars: Barbra Streisand and Bradley Cooper, respectively. And, that's largely reflected on screen, too, as the real-life stars demonstrate their love for their own images. The 2018 one is, perhaps, only saved by its reflexive commentary on Lady Gaga's past in the shallow business of pop music. "What Price Hollywood?," however, casts a couple relatively minor actors in the leads. The resonance of the picture indubitably would've been enhanced had producer David O. Selznick cast his first choice of Clara Bow, or had, say, John Barrymore played the drunkard. Nevertheless, there's one talent involved here whose career may be hinted at in the mirror of this movie, and that's its director, George Cukor, who went on to helm the 1954 version, as well.
Interestingly, unlike the subsequent iterations, the aging drunk here is a film director instead of a performer (whether an actor or singer). He also doesn't have a romance with the star he discovers, nor with anyone else on screen, for that matter. Like the boozing director within the film, Cukor, too, was living something of a double life as a homosexual in a then very homophobic society. (Indeed, a biography of Cukor is entitled "A Double Life," which is also the title of another Cukor film about acting.) These two lives surely often clashed; for one, Clark Gable (who's referenced a couple times in this film, which may seem ironic in retrospect), reportedly, had Cukor fired from the set of "Gone with the Wind" (1939) over the director's sexuality. Also reflecting the protégé part, "What Price Hollywood?" was early in Cukor's career and so represented a big break (I mean, his last job involved him being demoted on the set of "One Hour With You" (1932), although that was supposedly for reasons of incompetence). This is before he was known as a "woman's director," leading several actresses to Academy Awards and nominations, and would be nominated himself for five Oscars, winning one.
"What Price Hollywood?" would heartily be recommended on the basis of this dynamic between the fading star-director and the rising star-actress, but, unfortunately, the picture is saddled by a dull romance and a bizarrely unfunny series of meet-cute situations. Allegedly, the focus on the romance here was insisted upon by Selznick against the objections of Cukor, who wisely wanted to concentrate on the relationship between the director and actress. This is pre-screwball, and the supposedly-witty banter doesn't work especially well in general, but it gets much worse during the courtship scenes. To land herself a millionaire, waitress-turned-actress Mary Evans contrives to act obnoxiously in front of said millionaire (and polo player--seemingly to make sure I don't care for him right off the bat) Lonny Borden. Things get worse from there, as Mary stands Lonny up for an expensive dinner date she had him plan for her. Next, Lonny brakes into Mary's bedroom (he literally breaks the glass of her door to get in) and kidnaps her, so as to take her to that dinner. Then, he force feeds her! A reasonable viewer might consider this sort of behavior sociopathic and, in Lonny's case, at least, potentially criminal. Compare this to the non-romantic first meeting between Mary and "big-time" director Max Carey, which is actually cute and amusing. Additionally, the humor involving African-American, and one French, servants is dated.
When the narrative focuses on Hollywood and filmmaking, it's quite good. As opposed to the "natural" stars of subsequent versions, we see Mary here needing to practice acting after she blows her first audition. Indeed, she was only a waitress whose only evident training in acting consisted of her practicing in front of a mirror the looks of stars she sees in fan magazines and of imitating the accent of either Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo (point is, she's not very good at it--although, later, she more-obviously imitates the singing of Dietrich for a scene in one of Max and Mary's films). These early shots of Mary practicing her reflection stand in contrast to later scenes where Carey looks in the mirror and has nightmarish flashes (there's also an interesting newspaper montage with symbolic, dreamlike imagery). Additionally, during the backstage filmmaking scenes, there are frequent shots focusing on the crew, which is something less seen in the later star-driven versions of "A Star Is Born," where the focus is almost exclusively on the leads.
Although "What Price Hollywood?" is an odd mix of melodrama and a flat comedy of remarriage, the friendship between Carey and Mary sustains the picture. It also adds heft to Selznick's otherwise rosy picture of Hollywood, with a scenario that holds most of its ire for the press. Carey never makes a pass at her, the would-be "America's Pal." As the oddly-accented producer tells Mary at one point, "The public don't understand relations like between you and Carey." It's no wonder that the best version of "A Star Is Born" would be when Cukor directed Garland, who had already become a tragic figure and gay icon by 1954.