May 4, 2022

On Blu-ray: A Star is Born (1937) Restored from Nitrate

No matter how many times Hollywood remakes A Star is Born, my heart stays with the 1937 original. I’ve enjoyed seeing different takes on the story over the years, but the relationships and the characters at the center of this version have always felt the most authentic to me. I fell in love with the movie anew when I recently watched a new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive that is a gorgeous restoration from the original nitrate. 

The 1937 film is the only version to show the determined Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor) before her move to Hollywood. We get to see her humble beginnings. Her home is loving, but not satisfactory. You can see the life she could have had, one that would have spared her one kind of heartbreak, but given her another by breaking her spirit. Esther’s parents don’t understand her passion for acting, but her grandmother (May Robson) does, because she has successfully acted on her own passions. 

Esther knows that she has what it takes to be a star, nothing could stop her, but having that support gives her strength. When she stands in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, admiring the footprints of the stars, far away from home, she seems less alone because you know she has that connection. 

The film plays an interesting balancing act between Esther’s (soon to be renamed Vicki) ambition and her love for Norman Maine (Frederic March). While he is the reason she succeeds in the business, she is willing to give up that success for him. It isn’t that her dream wasn’t worthy; she simply learned that love mattered more to her. 

Their relationship is one of the great screen love affairs because of their enduring friendliness with each other. It isn’t just romantic love, they like each other. While there are plenty of unhealthy aspects to their relationship, Vicki never finds him a burden, because they are truly soul mates. 

Director William Wellman takes a simple approach in filming his stars. He frequently places them directly in the center of the frame, keeping the focus on Vicki, observing her emotions with an empathetic gaze. It gives the film an intimate feeling. 

In addition to Robson, Andy Devine and Adolphe Menjou are a reassuring presence as supporters of Vicki who stand by her through the good and the ugly. Lionel Stander is a delight as her friendly, but image-driven publicity man. I’m always shocked to see him in the film because it astounds me how long his career was; what an incredible accomplishment to have gone on to act well into the 1990s! 

Special Features on the disc include Two Lux Radio Theater Broadcasts of A Star is Born, one with Gaynor, the other with Judy Garland, the carton A Star is Hatched, the shorts Mal Hallett & His Orchestra, Taking the Count, and Alibi Mark, and a theatrical trailer. 

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review.

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