Saturday, 31 October 2009

A Star Is Born, William Wellman, USA 1937; George Cukor, USA 1954

Last night, I watched Wellman's - or should I say: Selznick's - version of A Star Is Born, which I'd of course heard of, but had never see before. As always the case with films of which multiple versions/ remakes exist, one can't help but comparing them with, and weighing them up against, each other. It is not unlike looking at the transformation of a story from literature to screen although there, the added complexity of dealing with two different mediums make it arguably more difficult to form a fair and sound opinion as to whether the 'director and screenwriter have done justice to the novel' - or similar such contemplations - or not.

In the case of A Star Is Born, the 1937 version - although the original - has forever stood in the shadow George Cukor's 1954 remake. I bet, that many people aren't even aware that, in fact, the 1954 version is a remake, since it is so firmly associated with Judy Garland, but is equally famous for its iconic use of colour, its costumes, the choreography ('Born In A Trunk') and, or course - Garland's singing. So, talking about A Star Is Born really means talking about the 1954 version since, in my opinion, it is superior in almost every respect to its predecessor. While Janet Gaynor is a good enough actress, it is somehow hard to be believe that she would have risen to fame so quickly - and effortlessly - as she does in the film. Garland, however, with her charisma and voice, makes this rise to stardom easily believable. The same applies to the male lead: Frederic March surely is not a bad actor, but he is simply no match for the calibre of a James Mason who portrays his decline into oblivion far more subtly and much more nuanced than March. Granted, this may also be due to Wellman's direction and, of course, Selznick's meddling, for Selznick may have been accused of many things, but subtlety isn't one of them. While both versions seem slightly constructed, I find Wellman's version to be more so than Cukor's which again, are problems related to the direction as well as the editing.

The Trocadero on Sunset Boulevard

The best thing about Wellman's version are, to me anyway, the Technicolor images of old Hollywood. If you happen to be interested in vintage, early, Hollywood - as I am, for instance - then Wellman's version offers some intriguing shots of the Trocadero (which by the 1950s was no longer in existence), as well as stunning vistas from the Hollywood Hills onto the sprawling city of Los Angeles below, such as it was then, all in colours that really do look like a vintage postcard.

Janet Gaynor

Judy Garland and James Mason in A Star Is Born (USA, 1954)