Thursday, March 25, 2010

1937 - A Star Is Born

There is an odd phenomenon that occurs in the vast expanse that is the Times Square subway station. Inside, there is a small electronics store. If that weren't inexplicable enough, the store has a few television displays in its window, one of which appears to be stuck on a channel that only plays footage of boxing matches. But wait, I'm still not at the odd part yet. Every time, and I mean every time, that I walk past this store, there are a handful of men simply standing motionless, eyes transfixed on the bout. Sometimes, it's about half a dozen onlookers. Sometimes, it's more. I can't figure it out. What is the fascination? Do they know the sports schedule so well that they time their commute to be at Times Square at the opportune moment? Or are they merely not in any kind of rush to get to their destination that they are easily distracted by sweaty men pounding the crap out of each other?

Whatever it is, they all seem completely hypnotised. Just like the man gazing at the freeway sign that Steve Martin drives by at the beginning of L.A. Story. Which worries me. Because by the end of that film, Steve Martin was doing exactly the same thing...

Today, I continued the review of the Best Picture contenders of 1937 by watching...

A Star Is Born
William A. Wellman
Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell & Robert Carson
(based on a story by William A. Wellman and Robert Carson)
Janet Gaynor, Fredric March, Adolphe Menjou, May Robson, Andy Devine, Lionel Stander
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
1 win, for Best Original Story, plus a Special Award for colour cinematography

Remade in 1954 with Judy Garland and then again in 1976 with Barbra Streisand, the original 1937 version of A Star Is Born is the only one to receive a Best Picture nomination. The story follows the plight of wannabe starlet Esther Blodgett (Gaynor) as she arrives in Hollywood with big dreams and no plans. The work is tough. Or at least it would be if she could get any. With no prospects, she takes a job as a waitress for Hollywood parties, where she catches the eye of silver screen sensation Norman Maine (March). The two quickly begin a love affair and Norman uses his connections to shoot Esther to the top. But as her star rises, Norman's string of flops and struggle with alcoholism see his career fade into oblivion.

It seems unlikely that this is a realistic account of how the movie business actually operated in the thirties. While there must have been a few ingénues plucked from obscurity to star in major studio films, Esther's rise to fame is just a tad too fairy tale. Then again, perhaps I just have a case of sour grapes. I mean, I've travelled a lot further than she has. Where's my Norman Maine? (Relax, Matt, she's a fictional character...)

In any case, the Hollywood star system is really just a backdrop to the real drama of A Star Is Born, which is the fascinating marital dynamic created when one spouse is the talk of the town and the other is a has-been. In fact, the most interesting aspect of the protagonists' relationship here is that they rarely discuss the issue. Esther and Norman are not at each other's throats at all. They have a genuine love and respect for each other. Sure, Norman pulls a Kanye, interrupting Esther's Academy Award acceptance speech in a drunken tirade, but he doesn't denigrate his wife. Instead, his rant is just a stinking bowl of self pity. And rather than hold a grudge, Esther is profoundly concerned for him. Which is understandable. He's an alcoholic, after all. Norman's struggle is heartbreaking, and while his tragic end is probably an act of cowardice, it could also be interpreted as the ultimate sacrifice to ensure Esther lives out her dream.

The petite Janet Gaynor, Oscar's very first Best Actress, received her second nomination for this role, which includes a spate of brief but accurate impressions of Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn and Mae West. The talented Fredric March is exceptional as the fading movie star, delivering a touchingly subtle performance. Andy Devine succeeds again as the quirky sidekick, appearing in his second nominee from 1937 along with In Old Chicago. He is topped, however, by Adolphe Menjou, appearing in his third, a trio of showbiz-related pictures. His meatier roles in Stage Door and One Hundred Men and a Girl leave a greater impression, though.

And as if this film hadn't been remade enough already, there is yet another remake in the works, this time starring Beyonce and, potentially, Russell Crowe.


  1. Are sequel's ever better then the original? (hmmm...thinking New Testament...)

  2. Well, The Godfather Part II is at the very least as great as the original. But that may be the only exception.

    Although, we're talking remakes here, so if someone tried to remake The Godfather, then I suspect the outcome would be rather different. (Take Psycho, for example.)

  3. A Star is Born is one of two 1937 nominees that I hadn't seen (I did see the two remakes with one, the 1954 version, arguably the best of the three) I did like this one quite a bit. Janet Gaynor was excellent and Fredric March, in an unflattering role, was equally fine. The crux of the movie occurred in the second half, but frankly it was a tough watch, as is most films about alcoholics.

    Tomorrow night, my wife and I are going out to dinner with a couple of my old police work colleagues. One, was my first Sergeant who also happened to be the first female patrol Sergeant in the U.S. Now for the real reason I'm writing about this. She is also the eldest daughter of Lionel Stander (who played Matt Libby, the press agent who socked Norman Maine in the nose.) We often talk about him. Truth be told, he wasn't around too long, marrying another five times and having another five daughters. He was a character and quite notorious for his taking on the House Un-American Activities Committee before he was blacklisted.

    On the subject of remakes, I had mentioned before that My Fair Lady was to be remade. The latest info has Emma Thompson taking on screen-writing responsibilities as she did with Sense and Sensibility and Corey Mulligan replacing Keira Knightly as Eliza Doolittle. The role of Professor Higgins now may go to Hugh Grant (and not the two other Hughs - Laurie and Jackman).