Films in Threes 1: A Star is Born

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Films in Threes 1:   A Star is Born   
            It’s hard enough these days to get people to watch films from other eras.  Most people get their food in a linear manner, like meals to a milk cow.  Eat, chew, produce milk. But life can be a rich, profound, deeply satisfying place outside the fixed, cud-chewing glazed stare of the force-fed ‘new films’ beast.
            ‘A Star is Born’ has been made twice very well.  A third – the Streisand version – is a travesty, and not worth intelligent consideration.
            Instead of ‘A Streisand is Born’, I’ll substitute a film which does belong in the mix.  This film is ‘What Price Hollywood?’ from 1932.  This film is the true foundation of the trilogy, despite the fact that it is a different story.
            The spine of all three films is that a successful director (What Price Hollywood?) or movie star (A Star is Born) is destroying his great career with alcohol.  He comes across an unknown young woman.  He sees instantly she has great potential.  He uses his contact with the head of the studio to get her a Screen Test.  The girl is signed to a contract. The two fall in love.  As his star fades, hers rises. But she will not abandon him.  It ends badly in all three films, but her inner strength and love for him pulls her through.           
            ‘What Price Hollywood?’ is based on an original story by Adela Rogers St. John, the daughter of legendary Los Angeles attorney, Earl Rogers.  She went to work as a reporter in San Francisco.  Her reporting gave her the foundation for the stories she wrote.  So you might say she is the source of these films.
            Of the two good versions of ‘A Star is Born’, my favorite is the original William Wellman written and directed version of 1937.  This has no songs, but they are not missed. The female lead is Janet Gaynor, all but unknown today.  She was the star of F. W. Murnau’s ‘Sunrise’.  In fact, in 1927 she was the first to win the Best Actress Academy Award. She won it for 3 films: ‘Sunrise’, ‘7th Heaven’ and ‘Street Angel’.  At that time, winning for more than one film was an accepted practice.  The rules were changed shortly after.
            I didn’t see this 1936 version of ‘A Star is Born’ until 1978, when I was 32.  A friend – Barbara Taft – told me she always preferred this version.  ‘Janet Gaynor has such a special quality that she gives to the part.’  The statement sums it up perfectly.
            In this original version, we see Esther Blodgett still at home, on the family farm, out West, with no future.  People weren’t supposed to want more than ‘was their Lot’. Something is wrong with you if you do.  it’s considered a character flaw.  Esther is teased for day-dreaming all the time about the Movies.  I know what this is like.  Being raised in the Mid-West, anyone with dreams of other than of plodding mediocrity is scorned.  This happened to my mother and to me. 
            Esther’s grandmother, played by the great May Robson, who has kept pretty much quiet until now, takes Esther aside and tells her not to let them destroy her dreams.  She describes the long trek across the country by wagon train and foot as a young women.  She sees that Esther is the only one in the family to still have that spark that tells you to follow your dream.  She gives Esther money she’s saved for her old age (she’s already in her late 60s), and tells her to go on out to Hollywood to follow her dream.
            In this 1936 film, Esther really is an unknown.  She comes to Los Angeles and gets herself a room in Hollywood.  The old rooming house is a ringer for one I lived in myself, in Hollywood, called The Re-Tan.  It is still there, on Whitley, just above Hollywood Boulevard.  I love that old place.
            The landlord of this rooming house is played by Edgar Kennedy, of the Slow Burn, (seen everywhere from the Marx Brothers to Laurel and Hardy shorts).  He is a no-nonsense guy, but is touched by nice, naive Esther.  He introduces her to a fellow lodger, played by Andy Devine.  He’s an out-of- work Assistant Director.  They become pals.  No romance.  Just pals. 
            One night they go to the famous Hollywood Bowl.  It is actually filmed there, looking just the same as it does today, but it was 73 years ago!  Esther is enjoying every second.  Down in front of them a drunken man and his date come in late.  He mistakes the applause for the Conductor as being for him.  When he goes to sit down he fall to the floor, bringing laughs from those nearby.
            This drunk is Norman Maine, the great Movie Star, played by Fredric March.
            Esther asks: ‘Is he always like that?’  Norman Maine hears her and gives her a ‘shush!’ look.  This is the man she will fall in love with and who arranges for her to have a Screen Test. 
            Her rise is meteoric.  His fall is almost as fast.  This tragic love story goes on its way to the inevitable sad, but hopeful ending.  The acting is uniformly excellent.  The style of 1930s acting might put you off, but do not be fooled, it is solid.  Take a moment to adjust your eyes for another time.  See what they did then and see how good this film really is.
            The acting is very good throughout.  Also, did I mention it is in Color?  Yes, good old 3-Strip Technicolor, just introduced in ‘Becky Sharp’, looking slightly ancient here but with real, true tones.  A great film.
            Much later, in 1954, Judy Garland and her husband Sid Luft needed a comeback vehicle for her.  She’d been fired by M-G-M studios from the film of the Irving Berlin musical ‘Annie Get Your Gun’.  Her erratic behavior due to drugs, alcohol, and her inner demons was costing them too much money.  The vile Louis B. Mayer had introduced her to these drugs to squeeze extra filming time out of her early in her career, and it all caught up to her.  Looking broken and older than her years, she was let go.
            But she and her husband saw this remake of ‘A Star is Born’ as her ticket back.  It is an ‘A’ Picture, all the way.  Color, CinemaScope, top songwriters and top songs, and George Cukor as director.
            This film turned out to be everything they hoped, but she never again was a big movie star.  In it she sings my favorite Judy Garland song: ‘The Man That Got Away’.  This leads me to the differences in the two versions of this story.
            In this film, Judy Garland does not play an unknown.  She is a singer with a Jazz Combo, and is already on her way in that world.  That is the big difference, that and the songs.  No grandmother.  No assistant-director neighbor.  Here he is the piano player in her Combo, played by Tommy Noonan (not to be confused with Tom Noonan, who played the killer in ‘Manhunter’ in the 1980s).
            But here, as in the earlier film, the Acting is excellent.  James Mason was never better as Norman Maine.  Charles Bickford is just fine in the old Adolphe Menjou part of the Studio Head, Oliver Niles.  Jack Carson does a great job as the Studio Publicity head.  His characterization is very hard-edged, and miles from the lighter Lionel Stander version in the 1936 film.  It is in this film that Jack Carson delivers one of the great lines, one which I use to this day, when I see anyone in the world going just ‘too far’: “He has a serious case of ‘the Cutes.’”  A perfect line.
            The film was weighed down in the second half by too many, too long production numbers (to my taste), although they are wonderfully done.  Also, this film was heavily cut on wide release.  In those days a big picture opened in one theater in town and played there for as long as they could get away with it, before being released to the neighborhood theaters.  This is when Judy Garland’s ‘A Star is Born’ was heavily cut.
            An attempt was made to restore the film many years ago.  It was one of the earliest of the Restorations. However much of the cut-footage was lost, with only the soundtracks remaining.  So they slugged the film with Production Still photos to go with the existing soundtrack.
            Don’t get me wrong.  Judy Garland’s version is a great film.  But for me I’ll always prefer the William Wellman - directed 1936 version.  It just has ‘a certain quality’ that makes it separate and special.  Also, it is more authentic about being unknown in Hollywood.  Also, to my mind, it makes a better statement about having Character and going for your dreams.
            While you’re at it, catch ‘What Price Hollywood?’ sometime on TCM, or wherever you can.  It is a good film on its own, and it is interesting to see the similarities and differences between the films.  Also, the Movie Director is played by an actual film director, Lowell Sherman.
            I should make the point that while I see ‘What Price Hollywood?’ as a direct ancestor of ‘A Star Is Born’, the excellent writing by William Wellman is what makes ‘A Star Is Born’ unique.  He’s not afraid to show a hard truth.
            I recommend that you see all three versions.  You will not be disappointed.  That’s my Christmas Gift to you.
             - December 25th, Christmas Day 2010,  Electro deFog / JBW.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

JEB BUSH was always mob Washingron, and that's why the Greyhounds still suffer and die..for pedophiles and all his " global" trafficking.
And OLIVER NORTH now talks about CHENEY and even ROVE.
So Fog Dogs, Ft. Lauderdale , were continually giving messages?
To NJ and and RON HEVENER?
Even GREY 2 K?
As they say: " PLEMEAN mercy in " KANSAS KINGS".

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