‘A Star Is Born’ (1937) comes to Blu-ray

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 .

Nothing Sacred (William A Wellman, 1937)

I’m returning to the director whose career I’ve been intermittently following on this blog, William A Wellman – and to another famous  movie, which has a lot in common with its predecessor, A Star Is Bornthough this time the emphasis is on satirical screwball comedy rather than tragedy.  Nothing Sacred stars Carole Lombard as  Hazel Flagg, a lively young woman fed up with her monotonous small-town existence. She  is wrongly diagnosed as dying from radium poisoning, and brought to the big city by New York newspaper reporter Wally Cook (Fredric March) for a final fling. But just how long can a final fling last?

To be honest, I don’t feel Nothing Sacred has worn quite as well as A Star Is Born, but the problem may simply be that I had already seen it a couple of times in the past and watched it again this time on the back of repeat viewings of Small Town Girl and A Star Is Born – plus other directors’ versions of the Star Is Born story. So it’s likely that I had slightly overdosed on portrayals of women desperate to escape from small towns by the time I got to this one. Also I think Wellman’s melodrama often grabs me more than his comedy. Anyway, this celebrated movie is definitely worth seeing and is a must for Carole Lombard fans, as she gives a sparkling performance.

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A Star is Born (William A Wellman, 1937)

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.

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What Price Hollywood? (George Cukor, 1932)

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.

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Small Town Girl (1936)

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.

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