A belated Happy New Year to everyone visiting this blog, and thanks very much for all your support. I intend to update more this year, hopefully at least once a week, so watch this space! This will mean keeping my postings shorter, as I have been promising for ages… though I may relapse into long-windedness when I write about one of my favourite actors or directors. Anyway, up to now I haven’t written about any new releases on this blog, as I’m concentrating on films from the past, but in the last week I’ve seen two acclaimed new films which are about classic movie-making, The Artist and My Week with Marilyn, so I thought it would make a change to write something about each of them.
I liked both, especially The Artist, which feels almost like a film made for me personally – though I know many others feel this too. For one thing, it is a loving homage to films made between 1929 and 1932, a period covering the death of silent films and the birth of pre-Code talkies, which I have been discovering over the last couple of years. (The hero, played by Jean Dujardin, looks uncannily like John Barrymore, one of my favourite actors, in some of his swashbuckling roles, especially when he turns his head and is glimpsed in profile.) For another, the plot is yet another version of A Star Is Born, and I’ve spent quite a lot of time over the past year watching and writing about various versions of this endlessly reworked story.
Even more good news on Wellman DVD/Blu-ray releases. Kino Classics recently announced it would be releasing a restored print of Nothing Sacred (1937) this month, and it is now doing the same for another great Wellman film from the same year, A Star Is Born, starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, which will be released in February. The artwork for this one looks great, and, as with Nothing Sacred, it is being advertised as an “authorized edition from the estate of David O Selznick from the collection of George Eastman House”. Both these films were previously only available in a whole variety of cheap DVDs with badly faded Technicolor, so it will be great to see them restored to their full glory. There won’t be any special features apart from the trailer, though, and there seems to be no definite information on whether these are just region 1 releases or whether they will play in other regions’ DVD/Blu-ray players .
I’m going to write about the whole plot in this review – so, if you haven’t seen this famous movie, be warned! William A Wellman’s earlier films often tend to focus on outcasts in society – wandering from one town to the next and struggling to make a living. His great pre-Codes Heroes For Sale and Wild Boys of the Road are both examples of this. By contrast, A Star Is Born, starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, is set amid the money and glamour of Hollywood, and filmed in early Technicolor rather than gritty black and white. However, although his characters in this film might be rich and famous, they are still outsiders, and they make their living from performing to a greedy crowd which might turn on them at any moment – just as the street and circus performers in some of his early movies did.
Wellman was both screenwriter and director of this bitter-sweet romantic drama, and it was the only movie he actually won an Oscar for, as a writer. (Wings won the first-ever Oscar for best film, but he didn’t get the best director award.) The basic story is a reworking of George Cukor’s movie What Price Hollywood? (1932), which I’ve just reviewed on this blog, where a young actress makes it to stardom, while the established star who helped her up plunges into alcoholism and despair. But it feels very different – partly because the earlier film was a pre-Code and could get away with more in some respects, but also because of the personalities involved.
Constance Bennett, Lowell Sherman and Gregory Ratoff in What Price Hollywood?
I’ll admit I originally wanted to see What Price Hollywood? because I knew it was an important influence on William A Wellman’s masterpiece A Star Is Born, released just five years later. (David O Selznick produced both films and they have the same basic story.) But, having watched George Cukor’s pre-Code twice, I now see it as a fine film in its own right, with compelling performances by both Lowell Sherman and Constance Bennett and wonderfully sharp, witty dialogue. I know I’m always moaning on this blog about 1930s movies not being available on DVD, but it is particularly frustrating that this one hasn’t been released as yet. I can only think that it is because none of the lead actors are household names, and, although Cukor is a celebrated director, he isn’t one of the very few who get box sets devoted to their work.
This is one of the first films where Hollywood eats itself, and it is often said to be harder-edged and more disillusioned with the world of showbiz than either Wellman’s A Star Is Born or Cukor’s own remake. However, before the disillusion sets in, it does fully show the glamour and seduction of Hollywood, with an extraordinary opening scene where Mary Evans (Constance Bennett), alone in her bedroom, is eagerly reading a fan magazine and imagining she is Greta Garbo in a clinch with Clark Gable. She is clearly in love with the whole idea of Hollywood, not just the handsome actor, as she devours ads for make-up and stockings which have been given the seal of approval by beautiful starlets.
I’ll soon be writing about Wellman’s A Star Is Born (1936), but first wanted to post a few thoughts about a couple of earlier movies which have links with it. One, of course, is What Price Hollywood? (1932), George Cukor’s great pre-Code drama which is said to have been the inspiration for Wellman’s film. But there was also a lesser-known movie released just one month before Cukor’s, which also had a plot strand of a younger woman trying to save a talented older man from his drink problem – the courtroom comedy-melodrama State’s Attorney (1932), directed by George Archainbaud and starring John Barrymore and Helen Twelvetrees. I’ve now seen this twice and really think it deserves to be better-known – both the leads are brilliant, and the dialogue is very sharp and witty. Sadly it isn’t on DVD, though it did get a US release on VHS. I think it does sometimes get shown on TCM in the US, though, and at present it is available for streaming on “YT”, though the picture isn’t that great. (I also found the film stuck in the second “reel”, but was ok if downloaded to view on realplayer).
I saw in the New Year with yet another 1930s William Wellman movie which isn’t available on DVD! After seeing this one twice, I can hardly believe that it hasn’t had an official release. It is a highly entertaining romantic comedy-drama and has close links with Wellman’s Oscar-winning A Star Is Born, released the following year. Both movies star Janet Gaynor in similar roles as a young girl desperate to escape from a stifling small-town existence – and there are certain similarities between Robert Taylor’s character in Small Town Girl and Fredric March’s famous role as Norman Maine, not least the fact that both characters are heavy drinkers. As if that wasn’t enough, this movie also features a scene-stealing support role from a very young James Stewart. Fortunately, Small Town Girl seems to be shown quite often on TCM in the US and at the moment it is also available for viewing on a very popular video streaming website.
The basic plot of this film sounds very cliched, about a couple of strangers who get married in haste on a drunken night out and then have time to repent at leisure – but end up falling in love instead. However, the movie itself is far quirkier, funnier and more bitter-sweet than this plot description might suggest. According to the TCM website, Wellman was only brought in on the project by MGM quite late on and wasn’t very happy about making the film, asking to be replaced as director at one point. Their article also says he didn’t get on very well with Gaynor at first, because she was uneasy about his liking for slapstick-style scenes. However, as they went on to work together again so soon on A Star Is Born, with its wildly slapstick plate-smashing scene, presumably the two of them got over this and achieved a good working relationship.