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A Star is Born 1937

by Glenn Erickson Mar 19, 2022

They’ve hit us with three remakes of this one, one about another actress and two about music stars — maybe the next will be about a TikTok star. Thanks to an unexpected full digital restoration from original Technicolor elements, this 1937 original once again plays like a winner. Silent legend Janet Gaynor is Esther Blodgett, soon to become the famous Vicki Lester. Fredric March gives one of his best performances as a matinee idol running his career into the ground with drink. David O. Selznick’s classy production takes some cynical jabs at The Biz yet characterizes Adolph Menjou’s producer as an all-wise, all-forgiving saint. The WAC adds great extras in full HD — a swing musical short and a sarcastic Merrie Melodie cartoon that spoofs the main feature.


A Star is Born (1937)
Blu-ray
Warner Archive Collection
1937 / Color / 1:37 Academy / 111 min. / Available at Amazon.com / Street Date March 29, 2022 / 21.99
Starring: Janet Gaynor, Fredric March, Adolphe Menjou, May Robson, Andy Devine, Lionel Stander, Edgar Kennedy, Vince Barnett, Clara Blandick, Francis Ford, Jonathan Hale, Carole Landis, Margaret Tallichet.
Cinematography: W. Howard Greene
Production Designer: Lansing Holden
Costumes: Omar Kiam
Art Director: Lyle Wheeler, associate Edward G. Boyle
Special Effects: Jack Cosgrove
Film Editor: James E. Newcom
Original Music: Max Steiner
Screenplay by Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell, Robert Carson, story by Carson and William A. Wellman
Produced by David O. Selznick
Directed by
William A. Wellman

Ten years ago we reviewed a Blu-ray of the Technicolor A Star is Born that was described as ‘the best transfer possible.’ I felt the need to explain why it hadn’t been fully restored:

(from 2012) “The film elements may not even exist to restore it properly. Even if they do, don’t hold your breath or expect a fabulous restoration to be performed. Some studios, especially Warners, have commissioned full digital restorations. Titles like The Wizard of Oz have warranted going to great lengths to transfer the three B&W Technicolor film strips separately, and then combine and align them in the digital realm. It’s so expensive that only a few old movies qualify for rescue in this manner, titles that will generate enough income to justify the expense. A Star is Born is a famous picture yet not a practical candidate. Neither are hundreds of other terrific 3-strip Technicolor movies. Perhaps the price tag will eventually drop … before the surviving elements for all of these films are lost to decomposition.”

Well that day has arrived, for the Warner Archive is now routinely releasing 3-strip Technicolor features given full digital restorations; every month re-premieres a beautiful MGM musical, it seems. A Star is Born was once the domain of terrible knock-off Public Domain transfers. I’ve been advised that Warners likely acquired the vintage title from David O. Selznick when they produced the 1954 Judy Garland remake. Either the Selznick organization or WB took good care of the Technicolor elements.

A Star is Born ’37 was an early feature produced in the 3-strip Technicolor process. Selznick had already released The Garden of Allah in 3-strip with Marlene Dietrich and Charles Boyer; it’s what’s playing at Grauman’s Chinese in an early scene of this picture. David O.’s memos contain a note to an underling insisting that he is the film’s true author. It’s often regarded as a reworking of What Price Hollywood?, a pre-Code film made at RKO when Selznick was head of production. The work of his credited writers was second-guessed by uncredited pinch hitters that included Adela Rogers St. John, Ring Lardner Jr. and the ubiquitous Ben Hecht, all of whom were probably rewritten by Selznick himself. The independent Selznick production was originally released through United Artists.

 

The storyline is basic rags to riches with some Hollywood heartbreak added for good measure. Ambitious farm girl Esther Victoria Blodgett (Janet Gaynor) lets her grandmother (May Robson) give her some money to run away to Hollywood, where she finds a friend in assistant director Danny McGuire (Andy Devine) but no luck in a studio system overrun by would-be hopefuls from the sticks. But then she meets alcoholic star Norman Maine (Fredric March), who gets her a screen test and then a leading role right off the bat. Under her new name Vicki Lester our girl zooms to instant stardom while Norman slips in popularity. The studio is forced to give him up. Vicki is working more than ever, and eventually Norman decides that he’s a millstone around her neck.

The show fronts a veneer of cynicism, especially in the person of press agent Matt Libby (Lionel Stander). Yet Esther enjoys a fairytale rise to fame. Janet Gaynor gives a terrific performance simply by not looking ridiculous as the hayseed hopeful in Tinseltown. Few previous Hollywood-on-Hollywood movies had treated the subject seriously. In the silent comedy Show People, Marion Davies elicits big laughs striking exaggerated facial expressions to prove what a great actor she is. Curiously, the only ‘acting’ Gaynor’s wannabe Vicki Lester does are some dreadful star imitations. People tell us that she’s fantastic, luminous, etc., on screen.

 

Much of A Star is Born is very accurate. A zillion good-looking women arrived in L.A. to seek their big chance, and only a tiny percentage found meaningful acting work. One of the better early scenes has the receptionist of a talent agency give Gaynor a peek into a busy telephone exchange: operators repeat 40 times a minute that there are no jobs available. The direction is clear and to the point, a cornerstone of William A. Wellman’s personal style. The former man of action proved to have a talent directing actresses. Janet Gaynor had featured in sentimental classics since the silent era (Murnau’s Sunrise) and this show gives her an opportunity to play in a melodrama with some very realistic rough edges. Alcoholism as a serious problem was not a popular movie subject, and Gaynor and March present it in believable terms.

We fully believe how Gaynor’s Esther Victoria Blodgett gets her break. Jolly pal Andy Devine can’t do much for her but Esther catches the eye of matinee idol Norman Maine, played with finesse and understatement by Fredric March. We just have to take it for granted that the girl from the corn belt has some magic light in her eye. That and the fact that the script makes sure that every other available female in the film is a contemptible snake.

 

Norman jump-starts Esther’s career based on nothing but friendship and good faith. The dispiriting truth of such arrangements is that the powerful person often ends up sleeping with the hopeful wannabe and loses their judgment, if they had any in the first place. We don’t see the screen test and in fact, we never see Esther perform. From then on everything she does turns to gold. A Star is Born supports the notion that stars are indeed ‘born.’ Esther just happens to have the magic, an elusive star power that the public will embrace. The irony is that Norman knows his own stardom is slipping through his fingers.

The more cynical among us will mentally re-write Esther’s part the same way we did Debbie Reynolds’ Kathy Selden in Singin’ in the Rain (which happens to be due for release in 4K Ultra HD). Esther may not use Norman, but the effect is almost the same. A new life means a new identity as Vicki Lester; being renamed is like being reborn. It’s a Depression – era fairy tale to which millions of American females could relate.

Like most big Hollywood movies about The Movies, A Star is Born criticizes everyone but the producers. Studio head Oliver Niles (Adolph Menjou) is something of a saint. Niles agreeably signs Esther on the basis of Norman’s say-so, casting the complete unknown in a major production as well. Esther thinks for a second that Oliver is hitting on her right in his office. He instead turns out to be a truly loyal friend, a detail that must have warmed the heart of lecherous predator Harry Cohn. Niles is understanding and flexible with Norman’s outrageous behavior. He never disassociates himself from the disgraced actor, even after a scandalous debacle at the Oscar ceremony.

The big villain is Lionel Stander’s loathsome press agent. Matt Libby pronounces Esther’s original last name as if it were a disgusting bodily function. Worse, Libby indulges a psychotic need to kick Norman Maine when he’s down. Much of the town is just as unforgiving. They judge the big star’s bad behavior when he’s on top, and are eager to jeer him when he’s not. That’s fairly accurate as well. One stays loyal to friends and benefactors in Hollywood, but the competition separates everyone else into winners and losers.

There’s nothing in the show about producers overworking their actors, running their love lives, cheating them out of money, forcing them to work in crummy movies or feeding them drugs to keep them on their feet for long shooting days. Not that that was always the case. Esther gets a leading role on the basis of a screen test?  It would be more likely that she would be hired as a contract player and used to dress up parties and perhaps get cozy with whoever the studio needed to entertain. Ask Shelley Winters.

 

Even if it glamorizes workaday Hollywood A Star is Born gets a lot of the atmosphere right. The script handles Maine’s drinking problem and Vicki Lester’s attempt to do help him with dignity and grace. Selznick’s memos chart considerable discussion with the Production Code office over Maine’s last scene in the film.

No wonder Hollywood ate up A Star is Born: it’s an affirmation of the town as a worthwhile place with some worthwhile people. There were just as many ethical movie people in the Golden Age as there were predators and fakes, and the script probably oversells the worst of the town in an effort to make Vicki and Norman seem more virtuous. The picture was nominated for seven Oscars and won two: original story and cinematography. Ms. Gaynor is fine, if a little old to be a green kid from Wahoo South Dakota. Fredric March is uncommonly sensitive, at least when compared to some of the more pompous ‘important’ roles he was playing at the time. His Norman Maine is a decent guy who never learned how to cope with the no-restraint benefits of fame.

The supporting parts function well, with Menjou and Stander doing particularly fine work. Good bits are filled by faces familiar (Francis Ford, Franklin Pangborn) and unusual. Edgar Kennedy is Esther’s sweetheart of a landlord. Jed Prouty’s reprehensible press agent would be a good fit in Sweet Smell of Success. Among the starlets glimpsed at bars are Carole Landis (One Million B.C.) and Margaret Tallichet (Stranger on the Third Floor).

 


The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of A Star is Born (1937) is indeed a meticulous restoration, remastered from its original nitrate Technicolor camera negatives especially for this Warner Archive Blu-ray release. The recombining of the original B&W film elements makes all the difference. Previous PD transfers had sourced Technicolor prints, which are far too dense to yield a smooth gradient of contrast. Transfers made from Tech prints blew out light areas of the frame and clogged up the dark parts; colors were especially harsh.

Star is one of the earlier IB Tech features and maybe the first to strive for more realism with its color. Selznick’s previous The Garden Of Allah was an Arabian romance with many special effects and a stylized, storybook look. Color values here are warm, and the dyes and filters give everyone the look of rich color in magazine illustrations of the time. If there seems to be a lot of brown in the clothing, it may be because that was the predominant color in men’s suits, which were made mostly of heavy wool.

We appear to be seeing the show pretty much as it looked in 1937. In the next year or so Technicolor would refine the process even more, coming up with smoother textures and better color gradients. I’d have to say that the art directors also got more experience designing for Technicolor, which would continue to have a slightly artificial, super-real quality through the 1940s. Selznick’s Gone With the Wind proved that the process was there to stay, for top-end entertainments.

I found no good images online, so have made do with some that are in B&W — just as the WAC did for its disc cover illustration. Trust me, this Star is Born disc doesn’t look like anything we’ve seen before. It’s interesting that the WAC chose a B&W still for their disc cover.

The ample extras included make us think we’re watching a ‘Warners Goes to the Movies’ selection. All are remastered in HD, which makes a difference too. Alibi Mark uses film clips from Wild Boys of the Road to tell the story of an unemployed drifter accused of murder; the kinder, gentler lynch mob that changes its mind and befriends him seems a refutation of Warners’ own They Won’t Forget. Taking the Count is a Joe Palooka boxing drama starring Robert Norton; Shemp Howard is his manager. Mal Hallett & His Orchestra is a really good swing band short subject with terrific audio.

Those three are from 1937 but the WAC generously jumps ahead one year with the classic spoof cartoon A Star is Hatched, also remastered in HD from Technicolor elements. This is Merrie Melodies cynicism at its very best. A scrawny Kansas hick chick wants to be a star and shows it by traipsing around the barnyard and talking in an affected Katharine Hepburn voice: “Yahs, Rally, I would.” Lured to California by a slick bantam in a convertible, she’s given a humiliating Hollywood runaround. There were so many hopefuls crowding into movieland that even this couldn’t stop them, but maybe the sarcastic wisdom prevented a tragedy or two. It’s one of the greats.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


A Star is Born (1937)
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: All in HD: WB cartoon A Star is Hatched (1938); three short subjects from 1937: Mal Hallett & His Orchestra, Taking the Count and Alibi Mark; Original Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)

Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
March 17, 2022
(6689born)CINESAVANT

Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.