Friday, February 10, 2023

Oscar Film Journal: A Star Is Born (1937)

Welcome back to the Oscar Film Journal here at, where I go back and review a Best Picture nominee of years past, in my near-futile attempt to watch all 591 of them (I'm now at 269 and counting...)!

Today it's the original version (and I use the word "original" loosely for reasons I'll get to shortly) of A Star Is Born, directed by William A. Wellman (of Wings fame) and starring Fredric March and Janet Gaynor.  By now most of you should be familiar with the basic premise of this film, given that it's been remade not once, not twice, but thrice, and the newest version starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga was a mega-hit.  Ordinary young woman with untapped talent dreams of becoming a star, gets discovered by older male star whose fame is fading, becomes a huge star herself, marries the guy, the guy self-destructs due to his rampant alcoholism, and so on.  It's a compelling narrative to be sure, and one that's universal enough to remain relevant generation after generation, hence all the remakes.  

But did you know?  The original 1937 film, written by Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell and Robert Carson, was the subject of a potential plagiarism lawsuit?  It's true, there was a film five years earlier called What Price Hollywood? whose story is almost beat for beat the same as this one.  In the end that film's distributor RKO Pictures opted not to pursue litigation against David O. Selznick for this movie, though I'm honestly not sure why; they'd easily have had a compelling case based from where I sit.  Seriously, it's basically the same damn movie.
Anyway, back to the subject at hand, A Star Is Born was one of the early Technicolor films, and because the process hadn't quite been perfected this movie's color palette looks rather blotchy and inconsistent.  To be honest this took me out of the movie a little bit and I think it would've worked better as a black & white movie.  Generally speaking I'll take great-looking black & white over mediocre color cinematography any day of the week. 

Paired with the film's visual clunkiness is that of the period, wherein the performances are stylized the way 1930s performances generally were, which for me removed some of the urgency of the story's inherently relatable drama (The constant melodramatic background music didn't help either).  The tragedy of the once-beloved movie star facing career ruin, compounded with his violent alcohol dependency, is somewhat removed of its teeth in this version.  The story in many ways was ahead of its time and feels like it couldn't be told properly in the Hays Code era.  

That's not to say the performances aren't strong.  Fredric March proved himself one of the great film actors of the era in Reuben Mamoulian's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and delivers strong work here as well.  But I'd have loved to see him play this character free of the constraints of the late 30s.  He doesn't get to go as dark here as he probably would've liked (That's pure speculation on my part, I grant you).  Janet Gaynor is a persuasive everywoman-turned-unlikely box office sensation, her character's midwestern innocence making her the perfect girl-next-door prototype for producer Oliver Niles (Adolphe Menjou), who's looking for a new kind of movie star.  Gaynor's Esther Blodgett (dubbed Vicki Lester by the studio) is humbled by her success and attempts to balance her busy new schedule with caring for her increasingly helpless husband, at one point contemplating giving up her career to see to his recovery.  

There's a fine story being told, but it's the way it's told here that doesn't quite work for me.  I suppose it's hard to go from the brutal honesty of the Bradley Cooper version back to the quaintness of this one, but to me a tragic tale like this deserves to be told with a bit more candor.  It just all feels too sanitized for our protection.  Perhaps a shimmery black & white photographic palette would've better lent itself to the execution, but as it stands this film is a very slight thumbs down for me.

I give A Star Is Born 1937 **1/2 out of ****.

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