A Star is Born, Part One (1932-1937)

I’m writing this while experiencing the vilest strep throat I’ve ever been stricken with, so hopefully this and the next set of blogs will make sense. (The final edit didn’t reveal a rant about potatoes or lyrics to a song about flying green donkeys, so I think all’s well.)

Okay. The first set of new reviews deal with A Star is Born – the myth as handled by filmmakers in four distinct areas: pre-Code Hollywood, Technicolor commercialism, fifties musical hybrid; and a slight counter-culture variation with actors sporting lots of hair and ‘fros.

1932 brought us What Price Hollywood? (currently - and shamefully - not on DVD), where the lure of stardom and the corrupting elements of Hollywood were unsubtle in what was otherwise a drama about a hard-working independent-minded working actress whose marriage is almost destroyed by her studio boss and the press parasites that want details of bedroom activities with location pictures.

Directed by George Cukor for executive producer David O. Selznick at RKO, the story was revamped into a more pro-Hollywood myth of a young girl’s fame and her husband’s destructive alcoholism. That 1937 film, A Star is Born (Image Entertainment), was part of Selznick’s indie streak for his own production shingle, Selznick International – which often made commercial films in the new 3-strip Technicolor process.

The first version was later upgraded as a musical in 1954 (Warner Home Video) and interestingly, was directed by Cukor, whereas in the 1976 version (also WHV), the story was transposed from Hollywood to the rock world. The latter was a logical decision, since seventies audiences seemed to want stories critical of the establishment rather than revisiting bloated studio productions.

Each of the four Star versions kind of got bigger and more ambitious in scope, but unlike the ’32 film, holding a critical camera lens to a corrupt town and chi-chi lifestyle was heavily tempered in the ’37 and ’54 versions; the ’76 was a partial attempt to show conflicts within the music industry, but those elements were inevitably obliterated by emphasizing romance, music, and watching brilliance flame out.

Each of the Star films benefitted from charismatic actresses: Constance Bennett provided a smart, indie-minded heroine named Mary who wins the moral battle at the end of the ’32 film; for the ’37 version, Gloria Gaynor made her Esther a dreamy but dignified heroine who valiantly weathered her husband’s emotional demise; Judy Garland’s Esther in the ’54 film was more of a street-smart crooner whose overtly emotional personality increased her husband’s guilt because he could see more readily the anguish his drinking was causing, making his sacrifice in the end quite poignant; and the ’76 reboot headed by Barbara Streisand as another Esther was a valiant attempt to show how some brilliant creative souls are inexplicably driven to destroy themselves when they have everything that makes a career solid: fame, money, and a rich creative legacy that will impact future generations.

So in Part One, I go through the first two films to reveal the changes that codified the myth of a starlet’s dream to succeed in Hollywood, whereas in Part Two (due Wednesday) I address the myth being goosed with music, and later transposed to a different section of the entertainment industry. Part Three will deal with the music of the films (with an emphasis on the 1937 and 1954 films).

And since What Price Hollywood? was produced before the implementation of the restrictive Production Code rules that neutered the portrayal of vivid female characters, I’ve added a review of the 2003 TCM documentary Complicated Women (not on DVD), based on the book by Mick LaSalle.

Price isn’t highlighted in the doc, but it’s part of that wave of pre-Code films (a period that basically ran from early sound films produced up to and including part of 1934) that featured smart, savvy, sleazy, unrepentant and gutsy women. The doc helps places Price in context, and it’s worth a peek if you can catch it on TCM.

I should point out that in the Star reviews I fixate on comparing the basic story’s journey from anti-Hollywood to a commercially digestible myth, and the chances each subsequent batch of screenwriters made to ensure each new version reflected the period in which it was produced.

It is fascinating to see how the same simple story has been handled by filmmakers after 15-20 year breaks. Theoretically, there should’ve been another in the nineties, but that never materialized.

Joel Schumacher was reported to have developed a version set in the music world, and in her commentary track for the 1976 Star DVD, Streisand describes producer Jon Peters suggesting she direct a new version, with the gender roles flipped - the fading star is a woman, and the up-and-comer is a man (hopefully not named Esther). That would in fact be the next logical change, since it’s hard to see the same story working in another realm like fashion, painting, or TV.

A planned 2012 remake with Nick Cassavetes is in the works, but what’s striking is how all three of the proposed remakes were set in the music world. No one seems to care about resetting the myth in Hollywood again, and maybe it’s a sign that it’s too easy to critique Hollywood today: the news media feeds on stories of destruction and career implosion, and the details – in picture, video or audio evidence (like Mel Gibson’s reported rant to ex-lover Oksana Grigorieva that was released yesterday) – are more graphic than any film could be, making an anti-Hollywood drama kind of pointless.

Besides, keeping it in the music realm means soundtracks can be sold; why settle for a theme song in a drama when you can have a whole score of songs to sell?



Mark R. Hasan, Editor


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