Sunday, May 22, 2022

Tonight's Movie: A Star is Born (1937) - A Warner Archive Blu-ray Review

The original version of A STAR IS BORN (1937), directed by William A. Wellman, is now available on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive.

I first saw this version as a teenager at the Vagabond Theater in Los Angeles. Although I love the "behind the scenes" Hollywood aspect, truth to tell I've never much cared for the tragic story, though I do far prefer the 1937 version to the 1954 remake.

However, this new Blu-ray restoration, a 4K scan from the original nitrate negative, is an absolutely eye-popping visual treasure, which added enormously to my pleasure in watching it. I've certainly never enjoyed this film more than watching the new Blu-ray, and I will definitely be watching it again.

From the moment the opening credits begin, with the names in neon against a picture postcard perfect view of Hollywood, the visuals prompt one delighted gasp after another. It's simply stunning.

The well-known story created by Wellman and Robert Carson, which has been remade not just once but three times, tells the story of farm girl Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor).

Esther dreams of a career in Hollywood, and with funding from her granny (May Robson) she hops a train for California.

Esther has no luck for weeks, but a kindly assistant director (Andy Devine) in her apartment building gets her a waitress gig at a big Hollywood party, where she meets actor Norman Maine (Fredric March).

Maine is quickly sweet on fresh, honest young Esther and gets her a screen test, then a starring role opposite him in a major movie, thanks to the agreement of producer Oliver Niles (Adolphe Menjou, in a particularly sympathetic performance).

Esther, renamed Vicki Lester, immediately becomes a star, but shortly after she and Norman are married, Norman's own career starts on a downward spiral. This also leads Norman to resume the heavy drinking he'd given up when he and Esther/Vicki married, and from there on things don't go well...

Gaynor and March are both as excellent as one might expect. I did note on this viewing that it's interesting that other than a brief "movie clip" at a premiere, we don't actually see their characters "act." Over the course of the film's 111 minutes we simply see them in costumes, on sets, or talking about work, but not actually doing their jobs. This leaves a bit of a dramatic hole, as the film is focused on their careers.

I'd be interested to know why the many screenwriters -- Carson, Dorothy Parker, and Alan Campbell are those credited, with more working behind the scenes -- made that choice. Perhaps they were worried that nothing that could be put on screen would make the actors appear to be as wonderfully talented as we're told they are?

Victor Fleming and Jack Conway are said to have done uncredited directing work on the film along with Wellman. The Technicolor photography was by W. Howard Greene, and the score is by Max Steiner. David O. Selznick produced, with the film originally released through United Artists.

The locations in this film are particularly outstanding. In addition to great shots of the Chinese Theatre, there is wonderful second unit work of the honeymooning actors' trailer driving through Lone Pine's Alabama Hills.

The supporting cast includes Lionel Stander, Clara Blandick, Owen Moore, Peggy Wood, Guinn "Big Boy" Williams, and Edgar Kennedy. Look for Dennis O'Keefe in the party sequence; he's mostly shot from the back of the head, but there's no doubt it's him.

The Warner Archive disc is loaded with outstanding extras, the most important being a pair of Lux Radio Theater broadcasts. The first, from 1937, pairs Gaynor with Robert Montgomery; the second, performed in 1942, stars Judy Garland and Walter Pidgeon. It's remarkable to have an audio performance of Garland performing this character a dozen years before she made the 1954 film. I very much appreciate the Warner Archive making these interesting slices of cinematic and radio history available.

The Blu-ray also has a trailer; a cartoon, A STAR IS HATCHED (1938); and three shorts from the year A STAR IS BORN was released: MAL HALLETT AND HIS ORCHESTRA (1937), TAKING THE COUNT (1937), and ALIBI MARK (1937).

Although the story has never been a favorite, this Warner Archive Blu-ray presentation has overcome that to help me appreciate the movie on an entirely new level, and it receives my very enthusiastic recommendation.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray. Warner Archive Blu-rays may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection Amazon Store or from any online retailers where Blu-rays are sold.


Blogger Tony Wendice said...

It's nice to see this released in Blu-ray. It's a really great film, one of Wellman's best. I think it is, by far, the best filmed version of this story. It's simply told while later versions are really overwrought and overly emotional. It is, of course, loosely based on the marriage of Frank Fay and Barbara Stanwyck.

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