William A. Wellman’s original 1937 version of A Star Is Born offers stunning performances, a lush production wonderfully directed, and beautifully restored Technicolor that makes this far and away the best home video version of this classic tale ever issued.
The Production: 5/5
One of the great behind-the-scenes looks at Hollywood, William A. Wellman’s 1937 A Star Is Born actually began a kind of franchise for the story: this is the first of four films that share the same name and the same basic narrative of alternating stars rising and falling in show business, and even it wasn’t completely original being at least partly suggested by George Cukor’s 1932 drama What Price Hollywood. When asked to direct A Star Is Born by his friend producer David O. Selznick, Cukor declined feeling he had already helmed the story, but Wellman did a fine job with it and delivered a genuine classic that can still bring a tear to the eye.
Movie crazy Midwesterner Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor) takes a gift of money from her crusty grandmother (May Robson) and tries her luck in Hollywood even though she has no acting experience and the odds are wildly against her even getting a foot in the door. By happenstance, she meets alcoholic movie star Norman Maine (Fredric March) at a premiere party where she is cater-waitressing, and he becomes smitten with her, enough to persuade his studio head Oliver Niles (Adolphe Menjou) to give her a screen test, sign her to a contract, and then take a chance on her playing a leading role in the film The Enchanted Hour. She steals all the notices and becomes a star overnight though she must watch miserably as Norman’s career hits the skids due to a run of mediocre pictures and lots of bad publicity generated during some of his earlier drunken binges. The two marry, but Norman’s work continues to suffer, and he ends his contract to the studio while Esther, now the Oscar-winning star Vicki Lester, grapples with what’s best for Norman’s sobriety.
The Oscar-winning story by director William Wellman and Robert Carson has been fleshed out into a script by Carson, Dorothy Parker, and Alan Campbell. It does a fine job capturing the overwhelming odds against someone making it in the business of the era and also offers some fun behind-the-scenes looks at studio departments such as publicity and make-up in Esther’s climb to the top of the mountain. Director Wellman directs all of the scenes with a sure hand, but he’s particularly adept at the Academy Awards banquet when Norman makes an angry, drunken spectacle of himself, a late-film courtroom scene where Norman goes on trial for an alcoholic car crash and Esther pleads for his release, and the climactic Hollywood premiere where both Granny and Esther have memorable microphone moments. There are also some witty and telling shortcuts in the narrative like the replacing of Norman’s name above the title of The Enchanted Hour by Vicki’s name cueing us into her rising status and his career hitting the skids and the side-by-side stacks of mail for the two stars, Vicki’s easily thrice the size of Norman’s.
While Janet Gaynor does get to show some amusing impersonations of stars’ voices (Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Mae West) and go through a litany of vocal choices trying to get a line just right, the script lets her down just a little not allowing us to see the on-screen charisma that has so enchanted audiences (the 1954 remake uses the lengthy “Born in a Trunk” sequence to show us Esther’s versatile star quality). Of course, Gaynor’s performance away from Vicki’s screen persona is wonderfully honest and moving, and the lady herself had become a huge box-office star of the silent and early sound eras by playing the young innocent just as Esther is here, so perhaps the film is intimating that Esther is basically playing herself. Fredric March bites large into the meaty part of Norman Maine offering numerous drunken scuffles throughout the film and a few earnest moments with Esther between his alcoholic binges. It’s quite telling to his weakness of character that even though he had told Niles he’d willingly accept the end of his career gracefully when it came, he actually finds the end humiliating and intolerable. Adolphe Menjou offers a sure and steady hand as studio mogul Oliver Niles, and Andy Devine offers a supportive shoulder for Esther as would-be assistant director Danny McGuire. Lionel Stander’s embittered and unforgiving press agent Matt Libby maybe lays on the sarcasm a bit too thickly, and that’s Peggy Wood as the understanding receptionist at Central Casting. Finally, May Robson walks away with all of her scenes as Esther’s granny Lettie Blodgett. Her earlier words of advice spur Esther on her way to Hollywood, and her later down-to-earth leveling with her after the ultimate tragedy takes away her fighting spirit is also emotionally praiseworthy. Though both Gaynor and March earned Oscar nominations for their work, she certainly deserved one of her own here.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 is faithfully rendered in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. No home video collector has ever had a version of A Star Is Born looking like this: brilliant color, accurate flesh tones with real detail in close-ups, and reds and greens especially which pop off the screen. The shadows are dark and inviting with colors solid and secure in the shadows. All of the dirt and damage from previous releases are now a thing of the past. This is a glorious transfer! The movie has been divided into 50 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix represents the sound design of its era of filmmaking quite well. Dialogue has been masterfully recorded and has been mixed with Max Steiner’s plaintive background score and the expected sound effects with utter professionalism. There are no obtrusive aural anomalies like hiss, crackle, pops, or flutter to detract from the listening experience.
Special Features: 2.5/5
A Star Is Hatched (8:08, HD): 1938 animated short
1937 Live Action Shorts (SD): Mal Hillett and His Orchestra (9:23), Joe Palooka’s Taking the Count (21:40), and Alibi Mark (13:20)
Lux Radio Theater Broadcasts: a 1937 A Star Is Born with Janet Gaynor and Robert Montgomery (1:00:38) and a 1942 A Star Is Born with Judy Garland and Walter Pidgeon (58:27)
Theatrical Trailer (2:49, HD)
William A. Wellman’s original 1937 version of A Star Is Born offers stunning performances, a lush production wonderfully directed, and beautifully restored Technicolor that makes this far and away the best home video version of this classic tale ever issued. Highly recommended!
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