Home Video Hovel- A Star Is Born
The most recent Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, drew many comparisons to Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly’s 1952 film, Singin’ in the Rain. This was inevitable given that both films deal – in a mostly comedic fashion – with cinema’s transition into the sound era. There were far fewer comparisons (trust me, I Googled it) to any of the three film versions of A Star Is Born, the first of which is out now on Blu-ray from Kino. This story, about a fading male movie star and his relationship with an up and coming ingénue, is a clear template for Hazanavicius’ Oscar-winning film.
As mentioned, this version – made in 1937 and directed by William A. Wellman – is the first of three cinematic incarnations. The second, from 1954, is a musical version starring Judy Garland and James Mason, which I haven’t seen. The third is a laughably self-serious piece of 1970’s new-age/glam claptrap starring Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. Though the musical tends to come up first in internet searches, it seems to be neck and neck in respectability with this first iteration, with its close but ultimately superior duo of Janet Gaynor and Fredric March.
Being, as it is, in the public domain, cheap DVD versions of this film have long been available in convenience store discount racks and the like. I am ashamed to admit that, until now, that was the only way I’d seen it. Kino’s new transfer comes directly from the George Eastman House collection and is authorized by the estate of David O. Selznick. To someone with my limited exposure to the film in the past, it’s like seeing it for the first time. Being 75 years old, it may not be entirely pristine but it is a thing of beauty.
Such a lovely transfer is truly necessary here given the lush photography of W. Howard Greene. The film was the first one in color to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars and was given a special statue that year for color cinematography. But Greene doesn’t just let the palette shine. He paints with a subtle use of shadows as well, never going for true high contrast but instead allowing a little darkness to frame the faces and bodies on screen. The effect is not unlike that achieved by Freddie Young in Doctor Zhivago.
There is far more to appreciate than just the look of the film. As with so many of the great films of the time, the dialog is as sharp as the picture. Bountiful one-liners and bouts of wordplay dot the script. Yet underneath those verbal fireworks lies a heartbreaking and intimate tale, executed to perfection by its engineers.
A Star Is Born can be watched and enjoyed only as a comedic tale of a glamorous era that is either gone from us or – more likely – never existed. Yet there is more here. It’s not just the ending that might have you in tears. This film has stood the test of time because it is an insightful and incisive portrait of the sadness of fame and its (almost but not quite) inevitable corruptions.