Friday, October 5, 2018

It's No Wonder People Keep Remaking A Movie As Emotionally Resonant As The 1937 Version Of A Star Is Born

It's common to see people complain that all Hollywood does anymore are remakes and sequels and while there's certainly plenty of modern films heavily lacking in originality, it's worth noting that Hollywood's been fixated on remakes and sequels since the very dawn of cinema. Case in point: the newest version of A Star Is Born starring Bradley Cooper and Lady GaGa, the third remake of the classic 1937 feature of the same name, with the first of these remakes being released all the way back in 1954! But before all those, there was the aforementioned original starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, a film that proved to be a big success back in its initial release (hence why it's become such a staple for being remade).

I've noticed that with each successive A Star Is Born remake, the story becomes more and more focused on music with the original features tale about two movie stars falling in love has now become about two musicians in the modern era. To give you a good idea of just how different this first take on A Star Is Born is compared to its tune loving successors, this is the only version of A Star Is Born that isn't a musical! But the basic story still remains the same, with the focus still being on a young lady harboring hopes of chasing her artistic dreams far away from her hometown, with the female lead here taking the form of aspiring movie star Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor), who uses some money from her encouraging grandmother to head off to Hollywood in hopes of becoming a leading lady.

Of course, trying to achieve such a goal is easier said than done as Blodgett struggles to get any sort of jobs in Hollywood, let alone one that allows her to fulfill her wildest dreams. While working as a hostess at a party where she tries to rub shoulders with influential film industry figures in hopes of scoring an acting gig, she ends up getting to know famous movie star Norman Maine (Fredric March), our male lead character for the proceedings. Maine becomes smitten with Blodgett and gets her some juicy acting roles, which sends Blodgett, now going under the name Vicki Lester, skyrocketing to the A-list while Maine, now Blodgett's significant other, finds himself stumbling deeper and deeper into obscurity.

Such contrasting career paths send conflict into the couple's path which is exacerbated by Maine's alcoholism. Being a major American feature made in the wake of the restrictive Hayes Code, there's only so much director William A. Wellman (who previously directed Wings) can depict on-screen in terms of conveying that Maine is suffering from this form of addiction, so it's impressive how well the characters struggles in this specific regard manage to come through thanks to some sharp writing and a well-realized performance from Fredric March who manages to ensure that the characters worst moments play out as tragic rather than just empty over-the-top moments that don't consider the heft of real-life alcoholism.

March also has great chemistry with the real star of A Star Is Born, Janet Gaynor. I was already onboard with her as a performer to be reckoned with solely after seeing her deliver one of the all-time great pieces of cinematic acting in Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, but she demonstrates that she can also thrive in non-silent film performances with her work here that sees Gaynor lend humanity to Blodgett's desire to escape her crummy home and escape to a land of possibilities. Like Fredric March, she lends some discernable realistic complexities to a character that could have been a boring archetype, thus ensuring that both of the two lead characters that A Star Is Born is solely focused on work superbly at garnering one's interest and emotional investment.

The script, credited to four writers including the features director William A. Wellman, smartly decides to just let these two engaging performers drive much of the feature even if it feels like too many pivotal moments in the couple's relationship (namely Blodgett's first ever screen test or more set-up establishing that the two leads are falling for each other) are being eschewed for unclear reasons that end up hindering the overall quality of the production. Oh well, at least what we do get of the two leads is entertaining and they're accompanied by a fantastic roster of characters actors who were staples of 1930's American cinema like Andy Devine and Lionel Stander, these two are especially fun in their roles here. There's room for improvement sure (maybe that new version of A Star Is Born will rectify some of the flaws here?), but it's easy to see why people are still so wrapped up in A Star Is Born more than 80 years later given how good this inaugural version of it is.

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