A Star is Born (a J!-ENT Blu-Ray Disc Review)
February 16, 2012 by Dennis Amith
Before George Cukor’s Judy Garland classic musical from 1954, there was William Wellman’s “A Star is Born” starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March. For fans of this classic 1937 film, there is no need to hang on to those public domain copies because this Blu-ray version of “A Star is Born” is the definitive version to own! Recommended!
TITLE: A Star is Born
FILM RELEASE: 1937
DURATION: 111 Minutes
BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition, 1:33:1, Color, 2.0 Mono
COMPANY: Kino Lorber Incorporated/Kino Classics
RATED: Not Rated
Release Date: February 7, 2012
Directed by William A. Wellman
Story by William A. Wellman, Robert Carson
Screenplay by Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell, Robert Carson
Producer: David O. Selznick
Music by Max Steiner
Cinematography by W. Howard Greene
Edited by James E. Newcom
Production Design by Lansing C. Holden
Art Direction by Lyle R. Wheeler
Costume Design by Omar Kiam
Janet Gaynor as Esther Victoria Blodgett aka Vicki Lester
Fredric March as Norman Maine
Adolphe Menjou as Oliver Niles
May Robson as Grandmother Lettie Blodgett
Andy Devine as Danny McGuire
Lionel Stander as Matt ibby
Owen Moore as Casey Burke – Director
Peggy Wood as Miss Phillips – Central Casting Clerk
Elizabeth Jenns as Anita Regis
Edgar Kennedy as Mr. Blodgett
Guinn “Big Boy” Williams as Posture Coach
From maverick filmmaker William A. Wellman (The Public Enemy, Nothing Sacred) comes the original, timeless tale of Hollywood fantasy and heartbreak: A STAR IS BORN.
Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor) comes to Hollywood with dreams of stardom only to have them shattered by a ruthless, cold-hearted town without pity, where the chances of finding fame are one in a hundred thousand.
Enter falling (and falling down drunk) movie star Norman Maine (Fredric March), whom Esther meets at a Hollywood party. Maine gets Esther a screen test and she’s an instant success, and the publicity machine sets about recreating the small-town girl. But as Esther (reborn as Vicki Lester) rises to celebrity, Norman’s stardom plummets, landing him in an alcoholic depression from which true love and Tinseltown fantasy may not be able to rescue him.
The original heartbreaking Hollywood romantic drama, “A Star is Born” makes its debut on Blu-ray.
While many people are familiar with George Cukor’s 1954 classic film adaptation starring Judy Garland and James Mason, the very first film was back in 1937 and was produced by David O. Selznick (the producer known for “Gone with the Wind” and bringing Alfred Hitchock to the United States to direct “Rebecca” and “Spellbound”) and a film directed by William A. Wellman (“Wings”, “Nothing Sacred”). The film was written by Wellman, Robert Carson, Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell.
The film would star Janet Gaynor (“Seventh Heaven”, “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans”, “Street Angel”, “Lucky Star”), Fredric March (“The Best Year of Our Lives”, “Nothing Sacred”, “Design for Living”) and Adolphe Menjou (“Paths of Glory”, “A Farewell to Arms”).
“A Star is Born” was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning “Best Story” (and also earning a special Academy Award for “Technicolor Cinematography” for W. Howard Greene) and would become the first color film to be nominated for “Best Picture”.
While there are earlier Hollywood films that would be based on one trying to make it in Hollywood or the perils of fame, “A Star is Born” would surprise audiences with its tragic ending and for a film of it’s time, it was a a romantic drama that was an instant tearjerker.
The film is about a North Dakota farmgirl named Esther Victoria Blodgett (played by Janet Gaynor) who dreams of becoming an actress.
Unfortunately, she has no support by most of her family members, but her grandmother Lettie (played by May Robson) believes in her. Her grandmother gives her money to travel to Hollywood and follow her dream.
And when she arrives to Hollywood, she is captivated by the handprints and autographs at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and immediately tries to get a job of becoming an extra. But she quickly learns that many other women have the same dream and the casting agency she has applied for, has stopped taking applications.
While at the agency, she meets an assistant director named Danny McGuire (played by Andy Devine) and he tells her that her chances of becoming a star is one in 100,000. This saddens Esther but Danny tries to comfort her and both attend a concert. At the concert, she meets the actor Norman Maine (played by Fredric March), an actor she deeply admires.
But while she adores Norman for his accomplishments, he is also an actor who’s career is spiraling downward due to his alcoholism.
When Danny gets a job for Esther to be a waitress at an important Hollywood party, she tries to show them her acting skills and catches the eye of Norman Maine. The two become very good friends from that moment on and Norman gets his friend, producer Oliver Niles (played by Adolphe Menjou) to give her a screen test.
Esther does very well in the screen test and Oliver sees her potential, so he gives her a new Hollywood name as “Vicki Lester” and a movie contract and star in a few tiny roles.
As for Norman, because of his off-camera problems, the studio is in desperation of finding a lead actress for his film “The Enchanted Hour”. Norman asks his good friend Oliver to give Vicki a chance and sure enough, the film does remarkably well. And Vicki is praised for her acting, while hardly is anything is written about Norman.
Knowing that his popularity is going downward, he tries to make the best of it by following his heart and proposing to Vicki to marry him. He promises that if they do get married, he will stop drinking alcohol. And sure enjoy, the two elope and have a fun honeymoon adventure by trailer camping in the mountains.
But as the honeymoon ends, not only has Vicki’s popularity continued to skyrocket, Norman realizes that his wife’s career has blossomed, while his career is essentially over. And essentially, the failure of his career leads him back to drinking alcohol.
Will this Hollywood marriage survive? Can Norman face reality in the fact that Hollywood is no longer interested in him and he will need to live off his wife’s success?
“A Star is Born” is presented in 1080p High Definition (1:33:1). It’s one of the earlier Technicolor films and while this film has been released on DVD before, many who have seen this film, saw it via terrible quality public domain videos. May they have been downloaded or purchased on DVD.
I have seen the original public domain version and because it was Technicolor and in bad quality, for me, those public domain versions were unwatchable. Fast forward to 2012 and Kino Lorber has presented us an authorized edition from the estate of David O. Selznick from the collection of George Eastman House.
With that being said, for those who are not familiar with Kino Lorber, they are not like a major studio or the Criterion Collection. They do not do frame-by-frame restorations which is very expensive and laborious but they present the best quality of a film to present on Blu-ray. So, these are films that will have dust, white specks and damage. Kino Lorber is also selective on what releases will receive a Blu-ray release and with “A Star is Born”, I’m pretty happy that they did choose this classic film and give it an HD release.
As expected from early Technicolor films, the colors are a bit softer than what one are used to seeing from a Technicolor film from the ’50s or ’60s, but still, there is clarity. And compared to the public domain releases out there, this Blu-ray release of “A Star is Born” is a huge step via picture quality as colors are not faded. Sure, there is some film damage and white specks but the clarity, the colors and even the black levels look great for this 75-year-old film and its worth upgrading from the PD copies and even the previous DVD’s to this Blu-ray release.
AUDIO & SUBTITLES:
“A Star is Born” is presented in Linear PCM 2.0 monaural and once again, Kino Lorber doesn’t clean up their releases. They present the best quality of a film on Blu-ray.
So, there are moments of mild hissing and occasional pops but by no means will this affect your viewing. Dialogue is clear, Max Steiner’s music is also clear and definitely much more pleasant to the ears compared to the PD release.
There are no subtitles.
“A Star is Born” comes with the following special features:
- Gallery – Featuring 16 stills, posters and lobby cards.
- Wardrobe Test – (1:15) A Technicolor wardrobe test.
- Kino Classics Trailers
Before there was “Sunset Boulevard” and before the George Cukor classic starring Judy Garland, there was the 1937 William Wellman original.
And while the 1954 film was quite memorable and also was a musical with a different storyline, “A Star Is Born” is rather interesting because it took on a storyline of what was happening in Hollywood at that time.
Bare in mind, the transition from the silent era to the talkies, was the most difficult transition for many Hollywood talents. While many were well-known in silent films, many who transitioned to talking films, saw their careers decline. There was no gradual decline, one year you were hot, the next year your career was over.
And it has been well-documented of the many Hollywood talents that were unable to transition their careers from the 1920’s to the 1930’s and became alcoholics.
And while the classic film “Sunset Boulevard” featured that type of storyline focusing on a popular actress and her decline, in the 1930’s, there were films that took on tabloid news about celebrity suicides and George Cukor (who directed the Judy Garland “A Star is Born”), directed a 1932 film titled “What Price is Hollywood?” that dealt with one’s waning career (an interesting side note: David O. Selznick admitted that Cukor’s 1932 film was used as source material for “A Star is Born”).
But with William Wellman’s “A Star is Born” is your classic Hollywood story about a celebrity couple. Unlike the 1954 version which Judy Garland used as a vehicle to once again showcase her vocals, this is no musical. This is about two people who found love, but yet as one becomes a star, the other becomes a falling star and is unable to cope with his fall from stardom.
And with the 1954 version, you expect Judy Garland to sing. With Janet Gaynor, what many have known her from is F.W. Murnau’s “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans”, “7th Heaven” and “Lucky Star”. Often she played the heartbroken woman, but for this film, she had a chance to show off various sides of her acting, may it be the tearful farmgirl who wants to go to Hollywood, the comedic actress trying to show off her acting impersonations to Hollywood higher-ups and most importantly, playing the strong-willed wife who has achieved success thanks to her husband.
So, Gaynor was an intriguing actress to play the role of Vicki, because we see a different side to her acting.
Fredric March on the other hand, he has always played the suave character. May it be his role in “Design for Living” to “Nothing Sacred”, he is a charismatic actor and while his Norman Maine portrays him as strong-willed (this is a man who stays a man and never shows his sensitive side) man who is an alcoholic (strong-willed, but inside, he is frustrated and depressed).
The original also was helped by its surrounding characters. May Robson does a fine job of playing the sensible grandmother (who actually has a wonderful supporting actress role in the film, a character missing in the 1954 version), Adolphe Menjou as the producer Oliver Niles and bumbling Andy Devine as Vicki’s good friend, Danny.
This is a film that focuses on the perils of fame and while I enjoyed this 1937 film for keeping within the confines of a Hollywood story without the “happily ever after”, it’s George Cukor’s film that was full of emotion. Not to say that Janet Gaynor and Fredric March lacked emotion at all, it’s acting that was common for 1930’s, Judy Garland and James Mason took the role to another level in the 1954 film adaptation. There is no doubt that the musical version was emotionally charged and was much more of an emotional film.
While both films are similar, yet they were very different and needless to say, George Cukor knew how to make the remake even more powerful and emotional than the original film.
Still, for any cinema fan, a chance to see Janet Gaynor in her Academy Award “Best Actress” nominated performance and to see her in a much different light than she was previously seen in the Murnau films (and also to see her in early Technicolor) was quite enjoyable. Also, if musicals are not your thing and has pushed you away from watching the 1954 version, fortunately in 2012, we have the best version of the original “A Star is Born” on video ala Blu-ray. You can trash those public domain versions or give them away to a friend, but if you want the definitive version of this 1937 film, this Blu-ray release is the way to go!
Granted, the picture and audio quality may not be pristine but still, this Blu-ray release is so much better than the old public domain copies and the film has never looked so good until now!
Overall, “A Star is Born” is another wonderful release from Kino Lorber and a fine addition to their Kino Classics lineup on Blu-ray. I look forward to more of these classic Hollywood films from Kino! Definitely recommended!
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