I find it almost impossible to watch the original, 1937 version of A Star Is Born without constantly comparing and contrasting it to its superior 1954 remake, directed by George Cukor and starring Judy Garland and James Mason, and to a much lesser extent the mostly terrible 1976 version with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. (Yet another remake, reportedly to star Beyoncé and to be directed by Clint Eastwood, has been announced.)
The original film, itself similar to What Price Hollywood? (1932) directed by Cukor no less, was produced in Technicolor by David O. Selznick and directed by William A. Wellman. Though not quite as good as Wellman's best '30s films (The Public Enemy, Heroes for Sale, etc.) the 1937 A Star Is Born is generally very good on its own terms and extremely interesting and well made throughout. The 1954 remake, however, is substantially better in just about every way, even discounting Garland's musical numbers. If ever there was a model for how to remake a good movie into a great one, that's it.
The 1937 film slipped into the public domain in 1965 when its owners failed to renew its copyright. Since then it's been widely available from myriad labels but all current video transfers have been sourced from inferior film elements. Kino's release is mastered from an original, 35mm nitrate print, but the results are only slightly improved. More on this below. Included is a smattering of extra features though nothing spectacular.
The familiar story: North Dakotan Esther Blodgett (Sunrise's Janet Gaynor) dreams of becoming an actress in Hollywood. Her family, particularly Aunt Mattie (Clara Blandick, Oz's Auntie Em), are completely opposed to such foolishness, but her Grandmother (May Robson), an 18th century pioneer who came west aboard a prairie schooner, recognizes a kindred spirit and gives her young granddaughter the money to try her luck in show business.
However, it soon becomes apparent Esther's chances of making it in Hollywood are extremely slim; even posters at Central Casting note there are sixteen times the number of registered extras than are actually needed. She befriends a young assistant director, Danny McGuire (Andy Devine), who gets her a job waitressing at a swanky Hollywood party. There she becomes friendly with fading movie idol Norman Maine (Frederic March), whose obvious alcoholism fuels his freefall. He recognizes a quality in Esther so old-fashioned it's new, and through studio head Oliver Niles (Adolphe Menjou) arranges a screen test. Her name changed to Vicki Lester at the insistence of press agent Matt Libby (Lionel Stander) and she's soon paired with Maine for a film that proves a sensation, but only for her star-making debut. Maine, with whom by this point she's fallen in love, is all washed up.
The screenplay, by Robert Carson, Dorothy Parker, and Alan Campbell (Parker's husband and frequent collaborator), is simultaneously wide-eyed and naïve, cynical and even brutal. Though What Price Hollywood?'s story is essentially the same, A Star Is Born goes several steps farther both in terms of creating a unvarnished look at Hollywood as a harsh, impersonal industry nothing like the imagined glamour of the fan magazines. Its cynicism toward fame is downright scathing, while fame's fleeting nature and the fickleness and cruelty of the movie-going public supporting it retains its hard-edge even now.
Much has been made of the fact that in both the 1937 and '54 versions (though not the '76 film), the actress playing the rising star was actually nearing the end of her career, while the fading leading man was in both films played by an actor with a long and prestigious career yet in front of him. Gaynor, in her early '30s, even then probably seemed a bit out of synch with the times; she has the face of a silent film actress, and not the typical late-'30s movie star. Conversely, the purity of her features and the sincerity of her performance match exactly what Norman Maine finds so appealing.
Frederic March was just about the finest American actor working in films in 1937; he gives an understated, very naturalistic performance that was somewhat unusual for the time. It's an authentic characterization, but notably lacks the charm of James Mason's Norman Maine - here we almost wonder what Esther sees in him - and yet at the same time Mason's portrayal is much darker and more psychologically clinical. March's Norman seems resigned to his fate from the very beginning. Mason's Norman is alternately angry and horrified by what he's become, yet helpless to prevent his own destruction.
Comparing the two versions is endlessly fascinating. Esther in the 1954 film doesn't have a family, and certainly no grandmother to support her, making her decision to pursue a career in films more daring and isolated. In the remake Andy Devine's comedy relief character becomes more the Devil's Advocate in Tommy Noonan's hands; he's convinced Norman Maine is a hopeless drunk only interesting in sleeping with her. Where Matt Libby is merely crude and abrasive in the original, in the remake he becomes petulant and sadistic toward Norman - a change made all the more disturbing because the actor playing him, Jack Carson, was known for playing breezy, gregarious types. In the original Esther's rise to stardom is too quick to be believed; it's like she's won the lottery. In the remake, Esther faces setback after setback and her success is hard-earned. Morever, that she's already a talented professional singer and not an amateur actress makes the transition much more believable.
The original is for its time reasonably frank about Norman's alcoholism but the 1954 film pulls no punches at all. The emotional toll it takes on Esther is palpable (Garland's exposed-nerve performance makes it all the more jarring), and a key addition near the end, a conversation overheard by Norman when Niles tells Esther than Norman is long past saving, is absent in the original.
Nevertheless, the 1937 film has charms all its own. The relationship between the grandmother and Esther is a bit hokey but Gaynor and Robson turn it into something quite touching. And even this disappointing presentation can't obscure the gorgeous photography, particularly in terms of the lighting, as they say their goodbyes waiting on a small town train platform in the middle of the night.
The Hollywood scenes are as fascinating as the '54 film, with Technicolor footage of a pre-Hollywood Freeway Hollywood, of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue, and of the forecourt of Grauman's Chinese Theater (Selznick's production of The Garden of Allah is advertised, and might well have been playing there at the time).
Video & Audio
An original nitrate, 35mm theatrical print was sourced for this 1920 x 1080p video transfer. The results are somewhat disappointing. Color and detail are okay, but it's a far cry from other three-strip Technicolor films in HD where the original black & white matrixes were available. This is obviously several steps removed from that level of clarity and color. The matrixes are misaligned here and there, for several minutes around the 1:06 mark, for instance, and there are scratches, reel change cues, and other imperfections. One can't help but wonder if better pre-print material still survives at all. The audio, English only with no subtitle options, is likewise less than it might be, as once again the film's optical soundtrack was presumably the only source material available.
Supplements include an equally battered trailer, a nice collection of poster art and black & white stills, and a brief wardrobe test that is presented without any explanation, nor is it clear just what it even is. (Gaynor appears fleetingly at the very end, but who are the women seen prior to her appearance?)
A Star Is Born is a fine film but the disappointing transfer lends weight to the argument in favor of preventing older movies from falling out of copyright protection. This release looks okay, better than any version I've seen, but it's still a long ways away from how it should look. But without any financial incentive to restore it, this may be the best it's ever going to get. Recommended.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, Japanese Cinema, is on sale now.