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Maximilian Carey, the name movie director played by Lowell Sherman in George Cukor’s What Price Hollywood? (1932), is a drunk, but he is a good-hearted, sympathetic drunk, at least at first. When he sees an old lady selling flowers outside the Brown Derby restaurant, Carey buys them all from her, and he smiles indulgently when she asks for a chance to be in one of his pictures. Constance Bennett’s waitress Mary Evans takes her own chance with him when she gets swept up into accompanying Carey to a premiere, and after she wakes up in the morning at his grand home she seems a bit surprised that he never made a pass at her.
Is Maximilian Carey gay? If he is, he seems intent on hiding it. After Mary Evans becomes a star under his tutelage, Carey shows her how he wants her to play a scene where she is singing to men at a nightclub, and when Mary is distracted Carey says that he isn’t doing this for his own pleasure; he isn’t enjoying flirting with men. It is unclear just what causes Carey’s self-hatred, but by the end of this movie he is starting to get as destructive as he is self-destructive, even threatening to burn Mary’s house down and lighting a newspaper on fire to start a blaze. In his last scene, when Max is readying to commit suicide, Sherman looks at himself in a mirror and widens his eyes in a kind of horror, as if he is thoroughly disgusted by what he sees. Cukor handles Sherman very carefully in this movie, embedding him in it and making him seem both attractive and repulsive by turns, and mysterious.
Sherman was a director himself, and by 1933 he had worked himself up to making two classic movies: She Done Him Wrong, probably the best Mae West film, and Morning Glory, which won Katharine Hepburn her first Oscar. Though these pictures were not their film debuts, they confirmed and consolidated the stardom of both women and set them on their way to becoming legends, and Sherman has received too little credit for this. West and Hepburn couldn’t be more different, of course, but Sherman radically adapts himself to their needs.
She Done Him Wrong begins with an earthy array of short shots of life on the Bowery in the 1890s, and this sets the tone for a very fast-paced picture that packs a whole hell of a lot into a running time of just over an hour. The film was based on West’s play Diamond Lil, but it never feels static or confined to one spot, partly because there is so much happening in the saloon where West’s Lady Lou deals with the many men in her life. She Done Him Wrong is like a whirligig or a ride, and once you get on it the pleasure is ever-fresh and exciting, and a great deal of that has to do with the way the scenes are staged and shot.
Notice the slight dollying in of the camera at the start of the famous scene where West invites Cary Grant to “come up” sometime and see her, or the earlier near-shock cut of West’s Lady Lou on the stairs after she changes into a glittering gown, full-length, commanding, a queen of her milieu. She Done Him Wrong is one of the best movies of the 1930s, a perfect comedy, without one false step, and Sherman has a deep understanding of its lowbrow show business/underworld milieu.
Sherman had an even deeper understanding of the so-called legitimate theater of his time, and this suffuses Morning Glory. He insisted on a week of rehearsal with his cast for this picture, which Hepburn was grateful for, and she was also pleased that he shot the film mainly in sequence. His directorial style here is gentle and measured in the opening scene as he takes in Hepburn’s stagestruck Eva Lovelace while she gazes at photos of stage stars of the past and Max Steiner’s very wistful score plays on the soundtrack. Sherman has a sharp insight into Hepburn here as a poignant freak, but he takes a far tougher Pre-Code view of her than what was offered in later Hepburn classics like Alice Adams (1935) or Summertime (1955).
Hepburn’s Eva Lovelace is a strange and contradictory creature. She is willing to sleep her way into the profession, or “sin” as she puts it, yet she is a prude at heart, and Sherman seems fascinated by her. He helps Hepburn technically as much as possible to set her off, even darkening the lighting slightly as a drunken Eva recites the “To be or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet at a party.
Eva Lovelace could not be more different from Mae’s Lady Lou. Eva is such a romantic that she can refer to her crush on a producer she slept with (Adolphe Menjou) as the hope for “two rivers flowing through the same valley to the same sea,” a line that Hepburn gives all her youthful lyrical charge to. She can tangle with the most sordid side of show business and life on the streets and still remain somehow immaculate, whereas Lady Lou would likely be perplexed if not outright touched by her ideals. Unlike many films of its time, Morning Glory never judges Eva for her promiscuity or her willingness to do anything sexually to survive.
Sherman himself had been around, and he was known for making unprintable remarks to reporters. He had acted on stage from the time he was a teenager in the 1900s, appearing for David Belasco before going into silent pictures as an actor. Sherman played the villain who fools Lillian Gish into a mock marriage in D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East (1920), and in silent pictures he came across as a far meaner and more dissolute Adolphe Menjou. Off camera he was present at the notorious party given by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in 1921 where Virginia Rappe died, and in press coverage afterward he was flagged as a “villain” due to his image in films, but that scandal did not slow him down for long.
Sherman’s speedy and wisecracking delivery of his lines softened his screen character a bit by the time he started making talkies. He starred in his initial films as director, Lawful Larceny and The Pay Off (both 1930) and The Royal Bed (1931), and these are very creaky theatrical adaptations in which he often grimaces in a disconnected way and sometimes seems very drunk, or post-drunk. But he enjoyed his new profession. In a 1931 interview for Picture Play magazine, Sherman said that he had found acting for the stage monotonous, and he was keen on directing talking pictures. “It’s a soul-filling job having all the stimulus of creative work,” he said. His style as both actor and director focused for Bachelor Apartment and High Stakes (both 1931) but these films are marred by the helpless appearance of former silent star Mae Murray, who postures in an errant and irritating way that Sherman can’t seem to control.
By contrast, Ina Claire has all too much control in Sherman’s The Greeks Had a Word for Them (1932) as a gold-digger so heartless that she begins to seem monstrous. Sherman’s point of view lightened for a diverting Edna May Olivier vehicle called Ladies of the Jury (1932), and then he produced, directed, and starred in his first major movie, False Faces (1932), about as uncompromising a look at a 100% villainous man as Pre-Code cinema has to offer.
Sherman’s sociopathic doctor in False Faces is based on a real man named Henry Schireson, a dangerous quack who took advantage of the then-unregulated field of plastic surgery and left many victims in his wake. The style of this picture has a cold, accumulating power, and Sherman’s own wickedness is very concentrated here, dry and unflappable, a far cry from the underlined badness of his seducer in Way Down East. A restored print of False Faces was recently shown by UCLA after the intervention of archival heartthrob David Stenn, and it revealed Sherman’s full talent coming through the year before he made his two other masterpieces.
Sherman made 13 films as director in all, plus one short, and he died at that unlucky number after a bout with double pneumonia at age 46 in 1935 while he was shooting a very promising project, the three-strip Technicolor Becky Sharp, which was taken over by Rouben Mamoulian. Sherman is not well known today and has little reputation even among hardcore cinephiles, but his performance in What Price Hollywood? and his direction of False Faces, She Done Him Wrong, and Morning Glory display a talent that might have come fully into its own if he had lived longer.