A Star Is Born (1937)
Directed by William A. Wellman
Written by Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell, Robert Carson
Starring: Janet Gaynor, Fredric March, Adolphe Menjou, May Robson, Andy Devine
A young woman (Gaynor) comes to Tinseltown searching for fame and fortune. Against the odds, she gets her break with the help of one of the leading men of Hollywood (March). Their relationship begins to struggle as her star rises and his begins to fade.
Before Judy Garland, Barbara Stresiand, and Lady Gaga played the part it was Janet Gaynor. This film is the original version of the story that has since been remade three times. This one was directed by William A. Wellman (The Ox-Bow Incident). The script was written by Dorothy Parker (Saboteur), Alan Campbell (Tales of Manhattan), and Robert Carson (Across the Pacific). In addition to Janet Gaynor (Street Angel), the stars of this one include Fredric March (The Best Years of Our Lives), Adolphe Menjou (Paths of Glory), May Robson (Bringing Up Baby), and Andy Devine (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance). The Academy honored this one with seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director.
Despite being the first of four versions of the A Star Is Born, this was not an incredibly original idea when it was proposed in 1936. In 1932, RKO Studios had released What Price Hollywood? which tells a similar tale of stars in opposite trajectory. RKO even considered a plagiarism suit, but opted against legal action at the time. Despite the history of the project, this one is a well-written story that still holds up even after more than 80 years. The script does a wonderful job of giving the audience a wide-eyed young woman to root for from the very beginning. Throughout the movie she grows from a naive young girl into a strong woman. This transformation is excellently written, and contrasts drastically with the man she falls in love with. The story also does a great job of bringing the world of 1930’s Hollywood to life for the audience. The extravagance and the challenges of “making it” are both on display. The dialogue in this one is surprisingly sharp, rising above many of the dramas of the era. There is some humor that doesn’t work quite as well due to dated references. The story is also very gritty at times, and allows for the tough moments to stand out instead of being glossed over. There are some interesting twists and turns that pay off in this one. This one also avoids a typical Hollywood ending with something far stronger. The writing earned the film its only Oscar, winning Best Story. (This category was later discontinued.)
The central performances in this one are excellent. Janet Gaynor provides a wonderful depiction of a young woman with a dream. Then she gradually develops her character into a budding starlet, and finally into a major Hollywood powerhouse. Her work is especially strong since she rarely overplays her part. She also does a great job playing off of the stars around her. She’s equally matched by Frederic March. His performance is intense and emotionally driven throughout the movie. He also does a nice job bringing his character’s gradual decline to the screen.
The two stars of this one are surrounded by some really talented people. May Robson does a really nice job turning a smaller role into something important and impactful. Like Gaynor, she avoids melodrama and really crafts a genuine performance. Adolphe Menjou and Andy Devine also add good performances of their own to this one. While some of the performances aren’t perfect, there isn’t anything that takes away from the overall success of the film. March and Gaynor would be nominated for Best Actor and Best Actress for their work.
This one is an early example of the Technicolor process. In addition to the Oscar nominations, the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded this one an honorary award for the color cinematography. The cinematography, set design, costuming, and other visual elements are all nicely done in this one. Additionally, the score does a good job of maintaining the tone of the story. In addition to the awards already mentioned, this film also earned Oscar nominations for Best Assistant Director and Best Writing, Screenplay. (Both categories were later discontinued.)
Despite being more than 80 years old, this one is a surprisingly relevant movie. The themes of the story are somewhat timeless, and the production has not aged as badly as many films from the 1930s. If you’ve seen other versions of this one, this is a movie you should check out. I would also suggest this one to fans of the stars. I give this one 4.1 out of 5 stars.