William Wellman's 1937 version of this oft-told tale, of the rising starlet and the plummeting alcoholic has-been she refuses to cast aside, is usually regarded as the second-best of the lot, a few steps behind George Cukor's 1954 remake, which has the unfair advantage of being one of the unimpeachable masterpieces of American film. Wellman's reputation among auteurists, ironically, has always been that of a second-place finisher, stuck behind Hawks one day, Ford the next, Cukor after that. His direction was always life-giving, a spirited ringmaster, though he was, ultimately, a director of scripts rather than images.
So Wellman's auteur status will likely never be exhumed and placed in the upper pantheon. So what. Take a look under the hood of a movie like A Star Is Born, or one of his pre-Code sparklers, or the larger-scale assignments of his postwar period, and there's a guy who loves the theater of any given setup, punchy small roles and bit players, and the movements of actors, even if he often allowed his effects to be co-opted or mitigated by his other collaborators, in the music and editing departments.
As far as the Hollywood stuff goes, the story may be so familiar by now that you'll find yourself gaping in disbelief that the characters themselves aren't aware of it. Esther Blodgett's (Janet Gaynor) arrival in Hollywood is the stuff of relentless naïveté, played without an ounce of irony or satire. An avant-garde short, The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra, telling a far more pessimistic version of the Tinseltown newcomer, appeared in 1928, hinting that the bloom of the Hollywood dream, in fact, fell away so quickly, it's hard to say if it was ever there in the first place, except in the movies themselves.
Norman Maine's (Fredric March) downward-spiral story is only a little less musty—but then, as evidenced by the redemption narrative Chris Brown's managers have been trying to spin since he beat up a girl, there's something seductive and easy about a male star who goes through the mud and comes out clean the other side, or at least enjoys the sweet vinegar of his victimhood. It is what it is. Esther's skyrocket flight to fame has always been the harder of the two to swallow, but it at least plays into the more palatable fame fantasy, the girl from nowhere who becomes Somebody. (When Garland portrayed the same arc, 17 years afterward, she had only to utter the first few syllables of “The Man That Got Away” and all resistance was crushed.)
The oddest thing about A Star Is Born, at least as far as the 1937 script tells it (and upward of a half dozen different writers had a hand in it, including Budd Schulberg, Ring Lardner, and Ben Hecht), is that it's a mixed bag of comedy, tragedy, tell-all, cautionary tale, and romance. It's conceptually and geographically all over the place, but it's somehow managed with such stern moderation that it stays on course from the first minute to the last. May I remind you that this perils-of-fame tragedy that ends in suicide has the proto-Minnellian (as in The Long, Long Trailer) scene of Gaynor attempting to cook a steak while March drives their camper across bumpy terrain? Wellman never lets the tone of the film go more than a few paces in one direction—happy, sad, passionate, indifferent, vivid, subtle, pastoral, sassy—without issuing a course correction of some kind, bringing it back along some main avenue. There's nothing particularly new here, and the dominant tone is some kind of knowing-ness that inevitably leads the audience to enjoy a feeling of distanced awareness of the tale's agelessness, yet never so divorced from the melodrama that it lacks for effectiveness. That and the powerhouse combo of Gaynor's “indestructible angel” act and March's compromised nobility make for a house with a strong foundation.
After 75 years in circulation, mostly in the public domain, A Star Is Born looks like it's been around the block a few times, so Kino's materials, while they're as good as we could have expected (they used a nitrate print from the George Eastman House collection), are far from breathtaking. The shock of Blu-ray clarity, as you might experience it from such Kino discs as Seven Chances and A Farewell to Arms, isn't much on display here. I hate to admit it, but a really top-drawer DVD, all other factors being equal, would have been sufficient. The sound mix is acceptable, presenting voice, effects, and Max Steiner's score with clarity and moderation.
A very minimal effort. There's a trio of trailers (for this film, but also Nothing Sacred and Pandora and the Flying Dutchman), a 60-second wardrobe test featuring no recognizable principals from the movie, and a picture gallery. No subtitles, no audio commentary, no featurettes.
You'll pick this up to make a connection with a fragile Eastman House nitrate print, not necessarily to be knocked out of your socks by a classic two-strip Technicolor classic in high-definition.