Bradley Cooper’s latest version of “A Star is Born” is hitting theaters soon, and before I go see it, I’ve decided to review all three original versions, starting with the one from 1937.
All these movies have the main drunken celebs saying to their girls: “I just want to take another look at you.”
A Star is Born (1937)
Oscar Winner: Best Writing (William A. Wellman and Robert Carson)
Janet Gaynor stars as Esther Victoria Blodgett, a young girl with a big dream of making it to Hollywood. Her grandmother (May Robson) gives her the money to travel there, although, it becomes complicated finding an acting job.
She then meets Danny McGuire (Andy Devine), an assistant director, who gets her a job as a waitress for a wealthy party. Seeing this as an opportunity to get recognition from the big names, Esther acts her way in the game, and meets actor Norman Maine (Fredric March), whose career is going down the tube, due to his alcoholism. He decides to work with this girl, and eventually, they decide to elope.
And by the way, she’s given a new name: Vicky Lester.
Notice how the editing process was different back then than it is today. Instead of multiple cameras, the scenes are shot one scene at a time, and spliced together. You can tell by the clips and the sounds. Even fade-in/fade-outs are used. I learned a few things from an editing class I’ve taken.
Directed by William A. Wellman and an uncredited Jack Conway, and produced by David O. Selznick, “A Star is Born” shows us the old-fashioned love story of a dreamer and a fading actor, and how their stars cross. Gaynor is absolutely delightful and sassy as the dreamer, and March is beyond charming as the fading actor.
The cliches we often see today are presented here with patience and profound acting. We don’t get quick shots of fights or romances; we get those things with a certain kind of ease. The movie starts off with a dream and concludes with decisions. For those of you in today’s generation who haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil anything for you.
A Star is Born (1954)
This next version is a musical, directed by George Cukor, and is more glamorous and better edited than the 1937 original. It ended up being Warner Bros’ first movie to use CinemaScope, and the results are quite dazzling. Everything looks fantastic from the studio sets to the costume designs to the musical numbers to the images.
Judy Garland stars as the singer Esther Blodgett and James Mason plays the drunken idol Norman Maine. She’s part of a band with Danny McGuire (Tommy Noonan), and he loves her singing voice; so he decides to have her expand her horizons, by giving her a screen test. She could make it in the pictures.
The studio gives her a new name Vicky Lester, and eventually in her success, she marries Norman. But trouble brews, when the studio can no longer afford him, based on his drinking problems. She has grown tired of him trying and failing to give up the booze.
In my opinion, one of Garland’s best musical numbers in the movie is “Born in a Trunk,” in which her character sings to the audience her story about how she came to be. Look at the different sets, costumes, and the widescreen format, which makes everything in that number look wondrous. They’re presented in reds, purples, and black and whites-all marvelous. And my favorite lyrics in the song are “cause you took advantage of me.”
And another favorite of mine is the “Someone at Last” number, in which she performs for her husband, pretending they are shooting a movie. She dances with plants and cheetah pelts, while using French and Asian accents. That’s a lot of fun, especially when she slips dialogue in the lyrics. And don’t get me started on the Brazil part. I love when she uses salt and pepper shakers for maracas.
Interesting fact: when this remake was re-released in 1983, theaters complained it was too long, and Warner Bros. had to edit it. When they edited 27 minutes of it, selected scenes were missing or unable to be restored, so the movie used still shots. But don’t worry, folks, the rest moves.
This might be my favorite version, thanks to Garland’s irresistible charms, Mason’s unbelievable magic, and Cukor’s powerful filmmaking. I love the widescreen format, which shows all the best parts of the scenes and musical numbers, how patient the movie is in introducing us to the lovers, how sentimental the alcoholism side of the story is, and how the movie able to improvise from its editing situation.
This is one of the best remakes I’ve seen.
A Star is Born (1976)
Oscar Winner: Best Original Song (“Evergreen”)
I know it was a box office hit in 1976, as well as the soundtrack ranking at #1 on the Billboard 200, but I wasn’t all that impressed with this third version. It has fine acting and catchy tunes, but it isn’t all that inspiring. It basically just goes through the same kind of issues, the previous two film versions have done better.
This one doesn’t involve movie stars, but singers. The same deal between the drunk celeb and the girl applies. Kris Kristofferson plays the drunk musician John Norman Howard, and Barbara Streisand plays the other singer Esther Hoffman. They meet, they trade jokes with each other, they sing, they kiss, and they marry. Only difference is she wants to marry him, but he’s concerned that his alcoholism will ruin it for them.
Even if she doesn’t need to change her name, she becomes a success, while John’s career is down the tube.
The musical numbers are either catchy or soothing. The best involves Streisand introducing herself and performing on stage for Kristofferson’s fans. These two are both never out of tune, and their characters are likable. So, the problem with the movie isn’t them or their songs. The problem is the lack of motivation and inspiration.
We’re basically seeing the same stuff and the same situations. And even if they try to be original, they’re presented quite bland. And then, you quickly stop caring about the characters. The two actors and their songs are the stars of the show, but the rest falls flat.
The final verdict: the best version is the one from 1954.
Let’s see how Bradley Cooper will pull it off.