A Star is Born (1937)

<strong class="MovieTitle">A Star is Born</strong> (1937)

(On Cable TV, December 2018) I’m consciously watching all twentieth-century versions of A Star is Born back-to-back-to-back, and the first stop has to be the original 1937 film that codified it all. (Yes, I’m aware of What Price Hollywood? No, I don’t have it on hand.) The first shock is in the first frame—This A Star is Born is in colour, at a time when only a handful of Hollywood weren’t in black-and-white. Then comes the clichés: The young girl with a dream, going to Hollywood to strike it big. Even knowing a lot about 1930s films, it’s not clear to me what’s a cliché and what’s a then-witty attempt at openly poking fun as the Hollywood dream machine: Certainly, seeing a bus, a train and a plane arrive to “The City of Los Angeles” one after another suggests that the screenwriters were clearly aware, even in those early decades, about the satirical potential of their story. Still, it is a rough prototype of later version, sometimes delivering good scenes and at other times prototyping a basic idea to be developed in later remakes. I really liked the “switchboard” scene, which to my knowledge is unique to this version of the story (as is the strictly non-musical focus of the star’s skills). This first version of A Star is Born is a fascinating film in its own way, if only for the time-travel aspect of it. Alas, my viewing experience was marred by a muddy low-resolution picture from a TV channel largely indifferent to good presentation. This may have been a problem.(Second viewing, On Cable TV, June 2019) I decided to give this version of A Star is Born another shot when I was able to watch it in as good a high-definition version as possible on TCM rather than from a standard-definition channel of dubious fidelity to the original. The good news are that the picture and sound are quite a bit better without being spectacular—this is one of the earliest mass-market colour movies, and it’s not surprising if the image is rough (even TCM has a version scanned from a print that played in theatres—scratches, pops, discoloured spots, cigarette burns and all) and the colours are washed out. Still, this is far better than my first viewing and it helped a lot in staying immersed in the experience. Going back to the 1930s quasi-original (I’ve got What Price Hollywood? lined up next) after watching the 1950s, 1950s and 2010s version is interesting in that you can see some of the roots of the later versions. A lot more of the 2010s version is in the 1930s film than you’d think, for instance—including the “I just wanted to see you again” sequence in a slightly different format. This 1937 version has a lot more humour than you’d think considering the dramatic ending of all versions of the story—some of the dialogue is particularly snarky, which I’m tempted to attribute to Dorothy Parker as one of the credited screenwriters. Janet Gaynor and Fredric March are fine as the leads, but my attention this time around was more interested in Lionel Stander’s darkly hilarious turn as an exasperated publicist symbolizing early Hollywood’s hunger for celebrity spin. (A version of his character would pop up again in the 2018 version.) Speaking of which—the more I learn about classic Hollywood, the most interesting this sometimes-satire becomes. Still, it’s the scene-by-scene execution that remains the film’s biggest draw: it’s far more fun to watch than you’d imagine for a film more than eighty years old, and the fact that it’s in colour keeps it more accessible than many of its contemporaries.

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