Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Career Opportunities

Film: A Star is Born (1937)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on The Nook.

I’m always a little surprised when I dip down into the 1930s and find a film that was done in color. In this case, the 1937 version of A Star is Born surprised the hell out of me when the opening moments showed up in color. I wasn’t sure I really wanted to watch this tonight, but every now and then I need to get through something I’m not looking forward to. Most of the reason is that I’ve seen the first remake of this story. I liked the Judy Garland version of this well enough, but I tend to be leery of a story when I know precisely where it’s going.

Esther Victoria Blodgett (Janet Gaynor) is a North Dakota farm girl who has dreams of making it in the motion picture business. Her aunt and grandfather think here dreams are nothing but a waste of time, but her grandmother (May Robson) gives her all of her savings to head out to California to attempt to make her dream come true.

It’s slow going at first, and Esther quickly goes through the money she has. Nothing she does seems to work out and even Central Casting isn’t accepting new people as extras. She pals around with an assistant director named Danny McGuire (Andy Devine) who lives in the same boarding house and is also frequently out of work. Eventually, Danny lands a job on a picture and when the picture wraps, he manages to get Esther a job as a waitress at the wrap party.

It’s here that Esther grabs the attention of Norman Maine (Fredric March), a fading star with a serious drinking problem. Norman is immediately taken with the pretty and innocent Esther and arranges a screen test for her with his producer Oliver Niles (Adolphe Menjou). Soon after Esther signs a contract, and it’s not long after that that Esther has her first part, a one-line role. However, things change quickly in Hollywood. When Norman needs someone new in his picture, the role goes to Esther, who is suddenly renamed Vicki Lester and who becomes a major star.

And as happens in Hollywood, while Norman and Vicki fall in love and get married, their careers continue to go in opposite directions. Vicki becomes the rising star of the studio while Norman’s career continues to fall into decline. Before too long, Norman begins to slip back into his drinking despite his promise to Vicki that he’d give up drinking and become responsible. As his drinking continues and his career bottoms out, Norman becomes not merely a man who has lost his acting career, but a burden to Vicki’s.

As often happens with a film like this, my fears were mildly realized. I knew where this was going, of course, because I’ve seen the story before even if the version I have seen is the first remake. It’s difficult not to compare the stars of this one to the one with which I’m more familiar. For what it’s worth, both Janet Gaynor and Fredric March are excellent in this. However, they’re going up against Judy Garland and James Mason in the version from the 1950s. Hard to be better than those two, particularly Mason.

The story, of course, is one of the classic Hollywood romances. I like the fact that it’s a romance that tends toward the downbeat, since I evidently like my romances tragic instead of happy in general. It also concludes with one of the great lines in Hollywood history, so it’s got that going for it, too.

It’s entirely possible that had I seen this version of the film first, I’d like it more than its first remake. I didn’t, though, and so I don’t. I think it’s a solid film, and gun to my head I’d be hard-pressed to tell you why I like the remake a little bit more than this one. Well, the real reason is probably James Mason, who makes pretty much everything better all the time.

Still, this is one of those films that almost has to be watched for its place in history. While not a skewering of Hollywood, it’s a film that gives us an insider’s perspective on the business, and I love the bit toward the end of the second act where Vicki Lester gets an Oscar at the 8th Oscar ceremony (one that went to Bette Davis in real life). It’s a weird little moment in the film, since the award ceremony depicted is nothing like what happens today.

Anyway, A Star is Born holds up pretty well. I think you’re better served with the version from the mid-1950s, but you aren’t badly served by this original (well, except for What Price Hollywood? from a few years earlier).

Why to watch A Star is Born (1937): Janet Gaynor is great and Fredric March is as good as he ever is.
Why not to watch: You probably know the story even if this is the first version of it on screen under this name.

6 comments:

  1. I haven't seen this yet, and for the same reason you stated. I've seen the remake and have little desire to watch this version, or the 70s Streisand version which is on another list I have (I think the Golden Globe winning films.) I've also seen recent Best Picture winner The Artist and if you think about it it had more than a few elements of this same story, too.

    Last month I watched a 1960s Soviet version of Hamlet (from the 2015 TSPDT list). It's at least the fifth or sixth different movie adaptation of the play that I've watched (Gibson, Branagh, Hawke, Olivier, this - and maybe Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead counts, too). I had little interest in seeing that either. I could appreciate the fact that they obviously put effort into the sets, costumes, etc. but overall it didn't really grip me because other than the spoken language there wasn't really anything new to it. I gave it three stars for what went into making it, and as an acknowledgment that if I had never seen a version it might have had a bigger impact on me.

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    1. That's sort of where I ened up here. It has some solid moments, and there's some nice bits of comedy here and there in the film. And I agree on The Artist, too. It's sort of a happy mash-up of A Star is Born and Singin' in the Rain.

      I get it when people take a familiar story and rework it into something new. I don't object to that a bit. But when it's literally the same story, it does get tiresome. There's no great reason to see this if you've seen the 1950s version there's no pressing reason for this one, although Janet Gaynor is quite good, as is Fredric March.

      I've seen most of those Hamlets, too. I haven't seen the Russian one or the Hawke version, but I've seen the other three, and Rosencrantz which wants to be funnier and more clever than it actually is.

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    2. I had never heard of the Russian one before it showed up on the new TSPDT list in February. The Hawke version is from 2000 and is set in modern times. I mostly watched it for Julia Stiles who I had been impressed by in other modern-set Shakespeare adaptations 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) and O (2001). Unfortunately, it didn't do much for me.

      And I agree on Rosencrantz. After hearing about it for so many years watching it ended up being disappointing.

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    3. Yep. That was my take, too. There are some good moments in it, but ultimately, it doesn't live up to its reputation.

      Gibson's is okay, if more or less Hamlet-lite. I prefer Branagh's to all of the others.

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  2. I also prefer the Garland/Mason version, the Streisand version despite my love for her is an atrocious misfire, but there are good things in this.

    I read an interview years ago with Janet Gaynor where she made an interesting point about the two versions. She said that she thought that her version was a bit more relatable because even though she had loved the 50's version that with someone with as titanic a talent as Judy it was an inevitability that she would eventually be discovered and become a star. Whereas her Esther was just a simple girl with that elusive indefinable something that connected with the public so it could possibly happen to anyone in the audience.

    Both Gaynor and March are excellent, I think March is the stronger of the two and would be my choice for best actor that year, but as good as they are I think both Judy and Mason are more vivid in the second. Where I think the 50's version really excelled was by sharpening the focus of the secondary characters. The kaleidoscoping of Andy Devine & May Robson's roles into Tommy Noonan's Danny plus the toughening of the character gives that part a clearer definition. In this version May Robson prods Vicki out of her funk with sweet homilies whereas in the latter Danny hits her with a sharp bitter dose of reality to shake her which seems truer. Also while there’s nothing wrong with Lionel Stander’s reading of Matt Libby he comes across as more a grumpy curmudgeon than the more odious shark Jack Carson created. Though to be fair to Libby the thoughtless, irresponsible selfish Norman Maine while at heart a decent man would try the patience of even the most saintly person.

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    1. I've avoided the Streisand version because I've never heard anyone say a good thing about it, including people who consider themselves fans of hers. Life's too short and all that.

      This proves to be a good introduction to the basic story, I think, but given the chance to see only one, it's the one from the 1950s every day and twice on Sunday. But Gaynor's comments are interesting, and I see that. This version is more or less about someone being discovered by being in the right place at the right time. The 1950s version is someone being discovered because of who she is and the talent she has.

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