Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Star Is Born (1937)


Hollywood looks at the romantic side of the movie industry as well as the disastrous side in A Star Is Born, a Technicolor picture from the quality based production company of Selznick International Pictures. For many audiences this film provides images of fabled Hollywood, a place most only hear stories about or see in newsreels, in beautiful color giving it an even more charming land of glitz and glamour. But the picture focuses on the tragedy that lies behind the scenes of what people see on the screen, the downfall of a once bright star as he succumbs to his own demons to his ultimate demise. With two stark contrasts in tales intertwined by a love story A Star Is Born is a feature that leaves an impact on audiences as a classic tragedy.

A Star Is Born is a romantic drama about a farm girl that rises to become a famous actress with her aid and romance with a falling alcoholic movie star. With dreams of Hollywood in her eyes a small town girl, Ester (Janet Gaynor), makes her way to the land of movies, First discovering that it is not easy to break into the business she gains an opportunity through meeting a once great star in Norman Maine (Frederic March) while waitressing. With help from Norman and his connections to a major studio, Ester, now going by stage name Vicki Lester, becomes America’s newest sweetheart actress. Ester and Norman’s relationship blossoms into marriage, but as Vicki rises in fame Norman falls deeper into his depression knowing he is a has-been. Norman tries to quit his drinking, but his frustration brings him to the edge of destruction. Reaching the heights of the Hollywood elite, Ester vows to give up her dreamed career to help her husband which leads Norman, upon discovering her plan, to drown himself. Vicki, broken from her great lose, is led to continue her dream, carrying on the name of her once great husband.

The picture is a tale that begins innocently as a story of fulfilling one’s dreams, but turns into a tragic tale of lose and how an individual suffers from falling from such high success. Directed by the seasoned and versatile William A. Wellman, A Star Is Born is presented in a very smooth production. The picture is displayed in its beautiful Technicolor to aid the romantic view of Hollywood, before turning into a difficult story of a very flawed man, leaving audiences to forget they are watching a color picture (a rare event at this point in feature films). Wellman portrays the innocent wonder of a young lady in Hollywood for the first time, fulfilling the use of Technicolor as a marvelously still infantile luxury of motion pictures, but as an intelligent filmmaker he still knows that the story is the paramount notion to any picture, which is why this early color picture works well.

Starring two Academy Award former winners in Janet Gaynor and Frederic March, A Star Is Born was obviously meant to have the quality in acting as well as production value as determined by the “quality first” studio of Selznick International. Gaynor won her Academy Award at the age of 21, and here 10 years later she still pulls off the innocence of her character, Ester, and her turn to maturity. Gaynor would use her own 1927/28 Academy Award as the prop award in the picture as Vicki Lester wins the award for best actress. Gaynor’s own performance would earn her a nomination, once again, for the award. March has the much more difficult task of playing the troubled and multi-dimensional character of Norman Maine, an alcoholic and quickly falling star of years past. His character rides the rollercoaster of emotions and drunkenness until he sacrifices his life that Ester may not have to put up with destructive nature. March too would earn as best actor nomination for his performance as well, an award he first achieved for role in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Even the supporting cast would be of great quality. The picture is bookended with the support of Ester’s grandmother, the one that reminds Ester to keep reaching for her dreams, played by an Academy Award nominee May Robson. Andy Devine plays the role of Danny, a neighbor of Ester in early days of moving to Hollywood who too tries to find work in town, he being an assistant director. Devine’s raspy voice and innocent demeanor makes him a likable man that you would see as a trusted friend of Ester in good times and bad. Adolphe Menjou supplies the greatest supporting character as Norman’s pal and movie producer that helps make Ester into Vicki the starlet of Hollywood. Menjou seems to always be around the major motion pictures, making him a great fit of a veteran studio producer in the film

A Star Is Born shares similarities to the George Cukor picture of 1933 What Price Hollywood. In that feature you get similar storylines of a rising stress and a heavy drinking man that falls from success, but in that case the male character is a director. It is reported that Cukor was offered to direct A Star Is Born, but turned it down due to the similarities to his former picture. RKO, the studio that produced What Price Hollywood, considered filing a suit over plagiarism due to the two films striking similarities, but decided not to follow suit. Time would have a sense of humor however as George Cukor would direct a remake of A Star Is Born in 1954 starring Judy Garland.

The film would be well represented at that year’s Academy Awards, receiving seven nominations. Aside from March and Gaynor’s nominations for acting, the film received nods for best picture, best writing, and best assistant director, while winning for best story and receiving a honorary Oscar for its Technicolor cinematography (as color feature films were still a new advent to motion pictures). The film would leave a lasting impact on Hollywood itself, being remade in 1954 and 1976. The story would continue to be an idea that is pushed around as a plot in many studios for decades as a classic tragedy tale. This early film version stands well with time in production quality and reverence, despite falling into public domain in the 1954, after the not having the copyright renewed after the first remake by Warner Bro.

The film provides an excellent early color time capsule of striking early color views of Hollywood, Los Angeles, and Grauman’s Chinese Theater in its hay day of the Golden Age of film. For that purpose alone the picture is worth looking at, but the film and its story does overshadow its simple cinematic beauty with a classic tale of rise and fall, success and tragedy.

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