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Classic show biz tragedy in all its restored Technicolor glory. 4.5 Stars

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.

A Star Is Born (1937)
Released: 27 Apr 1937
Rated: Passed
Runtime: 111 min
Director: William A. Wellman, Jack Conway, Victor Fleming
Genre: Drama, Romance
Cast: Janet Gaynor, Fredric March, Adolphe Menjou
Writer(s): Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell, Robert Carson
Plot: A young woman comes to Hollywood with dreams of stardom, and achieves them only with the help of an alcoholic leading man whose best days are behind him.
IMDB rating: 7.3
MetaScore: 77

Disc Information
Studio: Warner Brothers
Distributed By: Warner Archive
Video Resolution: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Audio: English 2.0 DTS-HDMA
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 1 Hr. 41 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-ray
Case Type: keep case
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Region: All
Release Date: 03/29/2022
MSRP: $21.99

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.

Video: 5/5

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.

Audio: 5/5

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)

Overall: 4.5/5

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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Matt Hough

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Matt Hough

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Thanks, Matt!

I'm giddy with excitement!!!
I'm serious: you will not believe your eyes. I couldn't get the silly smile off my face for the first 30 minutes because I was seeing rich, deep colors and detail I had never seen before, and I've watched this movie probably fifty times in my life.
 

Rob W

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Going to wait and see this at the TCM Festival next month before I crack open the disc - tempting as it may be... My hunch is they will schedule it in the Chinese theatre so it will never get any better than that.
 

noel aguirre

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I am in shock! Mine just arrived and this is unbelievable- not only the colors but the clarity as well. There should be added a new Oscar category in 2022 for Best Restoration and this and The Wonderful World of the Brother Grimm should share it! Tied for best release of the year in my book- everyone should get this!
 

Matt Hough

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I am in shock! Mine just arrived and this is unbelievable- not only the colors but the clarity as well. There should be added a new Oscar category in 2022 for Best Restoration and this and The Wonderful World of the Brother Grimm should share it! Tied for best release of the year in my book- everyone should get this!
Exactly my feelings about it!
 

Will Krupp

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I second that, Allen! I had my big girl "gasp" moment when those opening credits rolled and the LA basin looked like it went on and on forever with those incredible strawberry red credits rolling over the whole thing. As someone mentioned earlier, it's not only the color but the clarity and, I would like to add, the depth of the image that's so astounding. I finally "get" those chiaroscuro moments of Esther and her grandmother at the train station. A simply stunning presentation.

I imagine most people cracked Grimm open first but this is the one I had to see immediately.
 

PMF

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I couldn't, I was all ALONE in the office yesterday!
There will be some Hell to pay for your co-workers if and when you come to discover that, in truth, you were ALONE because the entirety of your whole office was actually at home watching their own copies.
[…{There should be added a new Oscar category in 2022 for Best Restoration and this and The Wonderful World of the Brother Grimm should share it! Tied for best release of the year in my book- everyone should get this!
Agreed. A long overdue category. And to kick it all off, AMPAS must first introduce it with a Lifetime Achievement Oscar for Robert A. Harris
 
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RobertMG

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There will be some Hell to pay for your co-workers if and when you come to discover that, in truth, you were ALONE because the entirety of your whole office was actually at home watching their own copies.

Agreed. A long overdue category. And to kick it all off, AMPAS must first introduce it with a Lifetime Achievement Oscar for Robert A. Harris
Actually sent a idea like this to AMPAS and suggested they name it in honor of Robert Osborne
 
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benbess

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I'm serious: you will not believe your eyes. I couldn't get the silly smile off my face for the first 30 minutes because I was seeing rich, deep colors and detail I had never seen before, and I've watched this movie probably fifty times in my life.

When I read your enthusiastic review, and even more when I saw that you've watched this movie something like fifty times, I decided to get this new blu-ray, even though as usual I've been spending too much on blu-rays. For me this was my very first viewing of this 1937 version of A Star is Born. In fact, somehow in all my years of movie watching I don't think I've ever seen a movie with Janet Gaynor before. Anyway, Gaynor was great in this role of a rising star experiencing from up close a shooting star fall.

Matt Hough in his review says well what she brings to the movie:

"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."

There's humor and tragedy in this 1937 movie, and I was misting up a few times, and especially at the end. Interesting how "meta" this movie is with the close-up on the shooting screenplay at the beginning and end! For me that was a jaw-dropping touch. Frederic March gives a very strong performance too, as always. Right now I don't recall a weak performance from March in all the films I've seen him in, including as Mathew Harrison Brady in Inherit the Wind in 1960. To me he's not quite as magnetic as James Mason in 1954, but very few are.

Although by a small margin I personally find the 1954 version with Judy Garland and James Mason even more moving and powerful, this earlier version is more or less tied for me with the 2018 film with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. I still haven't seen the 1976 film.

As mentioned in the review, this is another amazing transfer from the original 3-strip Technicolor negatives. It's another Warner Archive release that makes you feel like you are not just in the director's theater, but almost on set. One of the many brief shots I liked was the panorama of Los Angeles in 1937, which is so colorful I wonder if some special effects were maybe used to enhance it? I have no idea, but in any case it looks fantastic, as does everything else in this film. As a few have mentioned, the slap at the Oscar ceremony in this movie was somewhat eerie to experience given recent events.

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benbess

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A few of the items from imdb trivia....


"The first all-color film nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture.

When the drunken Norman Maine character raucously interrupts the Oscar presentation, it was déja vu for Janet Gaynor. She had brought her sister to the Academy Awards ceremony in 1928, when she won the first Best Actress Oscar ever awarded, for 7th Heaven (1927). Her sister became very drunk and completely out of control, thoroughly embarrassing Gaynor.

The Oscar that Janet Gaynor receives in the film is her own Oscar, which she won for her role in 7th Heaven (1927).

The movie's line "Hello, everybody. This is Mrs. Norman Maine." was voted as the #52 of "The 100 Greatest Movie Lines" by Premiere in 2007.

Early in the film, when Esther stops at Grauman's Chinese Theater to see the stars' footprints, the second one she visits is Harold Lloyd, which is to the right of Janet Gaynor's own prints from 1929, a portion which is visible on screen, including the "r" in her signature."
 

noel aguirre

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TCM was showing it this morning with the older transfer which not only is inferior but makes the film seem ancient. The new restoration really brings new life to it as they say. It’s fresh and vibrant viewing it now and I could never go back to the Selznick collection version I also own ever again.

TCM should do an all-day theme on film restoration and show the updated versions of both this and TWWOFTBGrimm and others that have made their broadcast versions obsolete with their hosts discussing such. But I’d gather it would be costly for them to update what they have and license?
 

RobertMG

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TCM was showing it this morning with the older transfer which not only is inferior but makes the film seem ancient. The new restoration really brings new life to it as they say. It’s fresh and vibrant viewing it now and I could never go back to the Selznick collection version I also own ever again.

TCM should do an all-day theme on film restoration and show the updated versions of both this and TWWOFTBGrimm and others that have made their broadcast versions obsolete with their hosts discussing such. But I’d gather it would be costly for them to update what they have and license?
On 1937's ASIB if they aired the new release no one would need to buy it - there might be a window where it cannot be aired. TCM is still the best out there but they cannot get Easter right they should be showing Quo Vadis this weekend too even at XMAS frustrating that the always leave one or two out and the new graphics are not relaxing but hyper strange. Ben though has filled dear Mr. O's shoes and Eddie Mueller is class!
 

noel aguirre

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On 1937's ASIB if they aired the new release no one would need to buy it - there might be a window where it cannot be aired. TCM is still the best out there but they cannot get Easter right they should be showing Quo Vadis this weekend too even at XMAS frustrating that the always leave one or two out and the new graphics are not relaxing but hyper strange. Ben though has filled dear Mr. O's shoes and Eddie Mueller is class!
Yes and the 2 ladies are no slouches either!
Alicia Malone co-hosted an incredible weekly hour long podcast on HBO Max after each episode of The Gilded Age recently which was a fantastic historical journey into NY during that period. And Jacqueline Stewart is now the Chief Artistic and Programming Officer at the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.