Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A Star is Born (1937)

Director: William A. Wellman                            Writers: Dorothy Parker & Robert Carson
Film Score: Max Steiner                                  Cinematography: W. Howard Greene
Starring: Fredric March, Janet Gaynor, Adolphe Menjou and Andy Devine

Though it’s painful to read about the blood, sweat and tears that David O. Selznick put into his pet projects, there’s no denying that the results are pretty good. The producer with the golden touch at MGM, he finally launched out on his own after an altercation with Irving Thalberg and decided to form his own production company, producing them on the RKO lot and releasing through United Artists. A Star is Born was based on George Cukor’s film from 1932 What Price Hollywood? Both Fredric March and Janet Gaynor had been stars in Hollywood for a decade and the name recognition alone was enough to be fairly certain of box-office success. The film was nominated for all the major awards at the Oscars that year, but only won for in the category of best original story. The film also has the distinction of being given a special award for color photography that year, a new medium that hadn’t been given its own category yet.

The film begins in about the most clichéd manner possible. Small town girl Janet Gaynor goes to the movies and dreams of one day being an actress and, while her aunt ridicules her, grandmother tells the story of coming out west in a covered wagon. So she gives her all the money she’s saved and sends her on her way. Out in California things aren’t as easy as she imagined. She’s staying at a hotel with Andy Devine, an assistant director who’s also out of work and he eventually gets her a job as a waitress at a party where she meets movie star and drunkard Fredric March. March falls for her and before long he gets her a screen test at his studio and a co-starring role opposite him in his next big picture and she becomes an overnight sensation. The two fall in love and marry, but where Gaynor’s star is on the rise March’s is falling, and he is soon dismissed by audiences and critics alike, which causes him to resort to drinking again and cause one scene after another. It’s then that Gaynor has the difficult decision of choosing between her career and her husband.

Probably the most distinctive feature of the film is the wonderful script. While William Wellman and Robert Carson were given the Oscar for the original story, which they had worked on with Selznick, it was the great Dorothy Parker along with Carson and Alan Campbell who wrote the wonderfully witty dialogue that makes the film so great. Max Steiner, who normally writes very distinctive music, wound up with a fairly generic score for the film, but it doesn’t seem to suffer from it. March and Gaynor both do dependable work and are assisted by support from Adolphe Menjou as the studio head, and Lionel Stander as the head of publicity. And while the story seems trite, even then, its enduring popularity is borne out by the fact that it was remade twice, once in 1954 as a musical with James Mason and Judy Garland, and again in 1976 with Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson as pop musicians instead of actors. It’s not a classic film in the artistic sense, but it is a popular film with audiences and is easily the better of the three versions. Despite David O. Selznick’s obsessive control, A Star is Born remained light and frothy, an entertaining take on a familiar theme and a cinematic icon.

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