The 1930s should be in black and white. It's just plain odd to see a 1930s film in color. The exceptions to this are Gone with the Wind and Wizard of Oz, both 1939. It just feels weird to see the young Frederich March in technicolor. The power of the art deco sets and costumes is lost when its rendered not in silver bur a lot of green and brown. If there's one thing I learned from watching A Star is Born, it's that brown was a far more popular color in 1937 than I imagined. This gripe aside, this movie is undeniably a classic, only lessened slightly by the fact that I had just watched George Cukor's smart version of this story, What Price Hollywood, a few days before.
Fredric March is always great and he especially shines in the early part of the film, playing an actor who drinks too much and is unhappy with his girlfriend. One night he meets an ambitious waitress (Janet Gaynor) who treats him humanely. March is drunk and he ends up getting her fired, so he gets her a screen test to make up for the trouble he's caused her. She becomes an overnight sensation, while his career sinks into oblivion. His low point comes when he humiliates her at the Academy Awards ceremony with a drunken tirade. Afterward he disappears on a long bender while his wife and few remaining friends fear for his life. He returns and she pledges to give up acting to help him get sober. Unable to face being the cause of ending her career he commits suicide by walking into the sea.
In What Price Hollywood, Lowell Sherman plays the drunk, this time a director and Constance Bennett plays the waitress turned star. This story is complicated by a love triangle between Bennet, Lowell and Bennett's polo playing husband (Neil Hamilton). Cukor is a romantic comedy master and he creates a very romantic and funny foundation for the polo player and the Hollywood glamor gal. As their marriage falls apart Bennett is consumed with caring for her alcoholic friend who has fallen from grace at the studio. The question is never overtly raised but it seemed clear to me that this toxic friendship is as much a cause for her divorce as demands of her career. His suicide is handled in a way that lets the viewer believe that he was trying to keep from being a burden on his friends.
Hollywood's view of itself is always slightly strange, because it is always critical of the system that makes stars and spits them out when its had its merry way with them and yet the movies never do much to deflate the dream of overnight stardom. In fact they do just the opposite as in both films, the women are working dead-end jobs and their dreams come true with seemingly little effort. Although the dreams come with a price they still reinforced that fairytale. In the 30s contract players had a yearly option at which time the studio could decide not to continue employment. An off take at the box office or the wrong move in front of the press could end a career. Actors were never really secure and even the biggest stars were vulnerable to changeable tastes and the whims of executives. Many of the stars who rose to the top in the pre-code era, lost their audience when the code came in and dumbed down their movies, just as the stars who had been big in the silent era seemed to fade when sound came through, proving that talent and star quality, what ever it may be, is a tradeable commodity.
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