Watching any version of A Star Is Born is almost impossible to do without comparing it to the other two versions available. While the original 1937 version has its merits, I’m partial to the 1954 Judy Garland and James Mason remake, while I can barely stomach the 1976 offering that featured Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. (Yet another remake, reportedly to star Beyoncé and to be directed by Clint Eastwood, has been announced.)
The original film was itself so similar to George Cukor’s 1932 offering, What Price Hollywood? That RKO threatened to sue producer David O. Selznick for copyright infringement. Produced in Technicolor, and directed by the legendary William A. Wellman (Wings, The Ox-Bow Incident) is an engaging and well made film. However, the film slipped into the public domain back in 1965, when its owners failed to renew the copyright. That means that while the film has been available from a myriad of sources, the transfers have been taken from inferior video elements. Kino’s recent Blu-ray release was mastered from an original, 35mm nitrate print, giving us the finest home video edition to date.
The story is a familiar one: North Dakotan Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor) dreams of Hollywood stardom. Her family, particularly Aunt Mattie (Clara Blandick) believes she ought to forget her foolish dreams and find a good man. Fortunately, her Grandmother (May Robson), an 18th century pioneer who came west aboard a prairie schooner, recognizes a kindred spirit and gives her granddaughter her life savings to take a shot at making it in Hollywood.
Soon after arriving in tinseltown, it becomes apparent that those who make it in the movies are few and far between. Even getting a job as an extra proves elusive. One night in her boarding house, Esther strikes up a friendship with a young assistant director, Danny McGuire (Andy Devine), who gets her a job waitressing at a swanky Hollywood party. There, she catches the eye of fading movie star Norman Maine (Fredic March) whose heavy alcoholism is speeding his downfall. He quickly recognizes Esther’s girl-next-door quality, and convinces studio chief Oliver Niles (Adolphe Menjou) to give her a screen test. The screen test goes well, and Esther signs a contract. At the urging of press agent Matt Libby (Lionel Stander) her name is changed to Vicki Lester. For her first big film, Vicki, paired with Norman is a sensation, but Norman, with whom she is now in love, is ignored.
In love, Esther and Norman happily elope. After a short and wonderful honeymoon, Maine’s drinking increases when he realizes that his career his officially on the skids, while his wife is in demand. From there, the script takes some decidedly dark turns—a trip to a sanitarium, an attempt at sobriety, a Malibu suicide. For every star that rises, one must fall. One look at the tabloids tells you that sentiment is still as true today as it ever was.
The screenplay, by Robert Carson, Dorothy Parker, and Alan Campbell (Parker’s husband and frequent collaborator), with uncredited contributions from Ring Lardner, Jr., Ben Hecht, and David O Selznick won the Best Original Story Oscar—somewhat amazingly, considering the plagiarism claim. Janet Gaynor’s performance here is wonderful. She shows drive and compassion in equal turns, willing to give up a very successful career for the man she loves. No matter that his life seems to be going nowhere fast. Fredric March is great too; he balances Maine’s inherent “devil may care” attitude with a kind of world weary humor that makes him likable even when he’s being a total jerk. Andy Devine, Adolphe Menjou, and Lionel Stander all do fine jobs in their supporting roles, adding necessary color to the story.
A Star Is Born comes to Blu-ray in its original 1.33.1 aspect ratio. Mastered in 1080p from the original 35mm nitrate print, the final product is a bit of a mixed bag. The image is inconsistent, with some scenes exhibiting fine contrast and color saturation, while others appear somewhat washed out. Blacks are fairly solid, but shadow detail is lacking throughout. Skin tones are rather pale, but this is typical of early Technicolor films. Scratches and blemishes are minimal but the originating print, suffers from some noticeable imperfections.
The English lossless PCM 2.0 Audio track is sufficient, with volume that is consistent without too much fluctuation. A minor hiss is discernible, but it’s not distracting. Dialogue is always audible even if a bit tinny.
No subtitles are available.
The following slate of special features is available:
- Gallery (1080p): A user-directed gallery with 16 stills, posters, and one-sheets.
- Wardrobe Test (1080p, 1:15): A short but interesting behind-the-scenes Technicolor wardrobe test.
- Trailers (1080p): Includes trailers for A Star is Born, Nothing Sacred, and Pandora and the Flying Dutchman.