Blog Directory CineVerse: Playing the fame game

Playing the fame game

Thursday, May 14, 2020

There's a reason why A Star is Born keeps getting reinvented every few decades: It speaks a timeless truth about the pitfalls of being a celebrity and the sacrifices required in a relationship. Our CineVerse group discussed the 1937 edition of this film last night (click here to listen to our recorded group discussion) and drew the following conclusions:

What did you find interesting, unexpected, or desirably different about this movie, especially compared to other versions of A Star is Born?

  • It’s the only non-musical version of the story, unlike the 1954, 1976, and 2018 adaptations.
  • It’s rare to see such an old film graced with Technicolor; this was one of the first movies ever the be filmed in the then-new three-strip Technicolor process. Unfortunately, it looks quite faded and dated visually because the film stock has not been well preserved due to the picture falling into the public domain.
  • There’s a lot more cynicism, tragedy, and dark subject matter here than you’d expect for a 1937 classic Hollywood film. This movie shows the dark side of Hollywood star-making—how the press can lionize or bury you, how your identity is quickly replaced with a fabricated one, how the capricious public can turn on you, and the pressures that come with celebrity status and partnering with someone who eventually outshines you.
    • Hollywood rarely depicted social problems like alcoholism and suicide at this time; to pack both in your movie may have surprised moviegoers in the late 1930s.
    • Yet, while the movie attempts a warts-and-all portrayal of Hollywood and the price it exacts on its players, this film also whitewashes other elements that we know better about today. For example, many producers and studio heads at that time were lewd, vindictive, sexually manipulative, and incorrigibly tyrannical.
  • Curiously, we never witness Esther actually act in front of a camera.
  • There are also some trivial things in this film that stand out today: Like the fact that Esther’s aunt (played by Clara Blandick, Auntie Em from the Wizard of Oz) arguably looks older than Esther’s grandmother (played by Mary Robson); Norman’s not-so-funny alcoholism (including driving drunk) is often treated as a source of comedy; and Esther calls herself “Mrs. Norman Maine” at the end of the film, which may not jive with the gender politics of today.

Why does A Star is Born keep getting remade? What themes stand out that resonate with viewers?

  • The fickle, random, and happenchance nature of fame and failure, of triumph and tragedy. We see how quickly Esther’s star can rise at a proportionate velocity to Norman’s plummeting fortunes.
  • Can love withstand the cruelties of fate and relationship disparities? We see how patience and unconditional love is demanded of Esther, and we observe how Norman is willing to kill himself to prevent his wife from sinking with him.
  • The sacrifices required to achieve or support stardom. Norman and Esther each pay a terrible price for their fame.

Other movies that we think of after watching A Star is Born

  • Show People
  • What Price Hollywood?
  • Nothing Sacred
  • The Star
  • The three remakes (1954, 1976, and 2018)
  • Singin’ in the Rain
  • The Bad and the Beautiful
  • All About Eve
  • Sunset Boulevard
  • Inside Daisy Clover

Other films directed by William Wellman

  • Wings
  • The Public Enemy
  • Nothing Sacred
  • Beau Geste
  • The Ox-Bow Incident
  • Yellow Sky
  • Battleground

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