Prototype: a first, typical or preliminary model of something.
I’ve seen a boatload of old and foreign films recently but haven’t had the time to write about them. Yet when I notice a similarity between two films that don’t seem to have any outwardly, I like to note it. Both 1932’s What Price Hollywood? and 1940’s Stranger on the Third Floor are darn close to “first of a kind,” the earlier film the acknowledged forerunner for A Star is Born’s various incarnations, and the latter a lower-profile example of early film noir—perhaps the earliest example, depending on one’s definition.
In light of the new (2018) A Star is Born, there will be the inevitable comparisons between the new one and the “three” previous ones (1937, 1954, and 1976). But it’s clear that if you want to go back to the first rising star/falling star Hollywood story, you have to include What Price Hollywood? Even the famous line, “Hey, I just wanted to take another look at you” is straight from this film. The film made the “mistake” of separating the husband figure from the character that is on his way down, and conflated the two in subsequent versions. But in nearly every other way, the films are VERY similar, so much so that the film’s writers threatened to sue David O. Selznick (producer of this film and the first A Star is Born) over the similarities.
A few intriguing elements of the film: George Cukor directed, and it gives the lie to the rumor that Cukor was just a women’s director who specialized in sleek and elegant atmospheres. One, there is a dazzling montage sequence, one that seems derivative today, that shows the lead character’s rise to stardom with applauding hands, fireworks and theater marquees (thank you, IMDB, for helping me remember this). This was apparently the first of its kind, and that has been endlessly imitated since. Plus, the death scene near the end is handled with a creativity and experimental approach that the studios clearly moved away from in subsequent years.
The leads—Constance Bennett, Lowell Sherman, and silent star Neil Hamilton—are nearly all forgotten today except by film historians, and they are interesting today only because of other acting sisters (Bennett), the similarity between his role and his real life (Sherman), and because of his silent film cred (Hamilton). All are serviceable, and none stand out, expect when the script allows Bennett to show some grit. But make no mistake—this is the first version of A Star is Born. It just has a slightly different character mix and title.
Best friend and cinephile Clint Morgan, a big fan of cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (Cat People and other Val Lewton films) mentioned that Musuraca was being honored on TCM, and perhaps I’d be interested in something of his I hadn’t seen. Stranger on the Third Floor was the choice, and it was more than worthwhile. It’s clearly a contender for the first noir. Some point to Double Indemnity (1944), and some point earlier to The Maltese Falcon (1941). Some even insist that 1941’s Citizen Kane can be seen in that light (pun intended). Since the definition is noir is so loose, all these options should be considered. But Stranger on the Third Floor should most definitely be part of the discussion, and actually viewing it just confirms its importance. According to George E. Turner, “[the film has all the elements of full-fledged noir, including moral ambiguity, hovering fear, menacing shadows and angular POVs, dark streets, precarious stairs, unexpected noises, the works.” (https://ascmag.com/articles/wrap-shot-the-stranger-on-the-third-floor-1940)
At just a few minutes more than an hour, it has a simple story and solid but grade B acting. Peter Lorre is given leading role credit, though that is misleading. He is in it for just a few minutes, but is integral to the story. Any view of his career needs to take this role seriously in an overview. Like an intense but serious Bill Murray, he always seems as if he were in another film altogether. That, along with the remnants of his M performance hanging over his character, works for the film and brings it up another level.
But what makes this a real noir precursor is Musuraca’s work, the mood of despair, and the semi-surrealist sequences that predated Hitchcock and Dali’s work in Spellbound by five years. Musuraca was nominated for an Oscar for his work on the popular and traditional 1944 I Remember Mama, but his contribution to film is his work in moody and atmospheric films, especially those with Lewton and on the incomparable Out of the Past. His work here is rich, with deep focus and strong black-and-white contrasts, clearly setting a visual precedent for the later noirs.
The atmosphere of doom that belongs to the genre is only partially present here, but when it arrives, it’s bracing and so very different from most films of the time. Then there are the German Expressionist flights of cinematic paranoia that are as surprising as they are intriguing and almost shocking.
Time is a great equalizer, and the films that deserve status as originals, or at least great influences, will eventually come to be recognized for their contributions. The better news here is that both films are worth watching.