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What a Difference, a Remake

March 2, 2011

I’ve been wanting to have themes for my blog for a while now but was unsure of what exactly to do until TCM started my day with a double feature of A Star is Born and I realized, what could be better than “Antique Tuesdays?” …I’m working on a better name actually. The A Star is Born double feature was a blessing in disguise since I had been meaning to review the 1937 version for a while now as well as watch the 1954 version. The two are considered timeless classics, however, it saddens me that the George Cukor’s 1954 version has always outshone its predecessor, especially when taking into consideration that William A. Wellman’s original is far superior and less forced than Cukor’s adaptation. Wellman’s original film is hands down one of the greatest screenplays ever created and made for an incredible story that gives hope, breaks hearts, and inspires stargazed fans to think twice about the golden haze of Hollywood. Cukor’s remake on the other hand is an overblown puffer piece that only seemed to be created to cash in on the star power of Judy Garland.

A Star is Born profiles the story of rising star Vicky Lester and the declining career of troubled star Norman Maine and the couple’s relationship during a turning point in both their lives. The differences among the story are slight in both versions, however, it’s each film’s development and overall production that makes the two so drastically different that one fails where the other succeeds. The 1937 version tells the story of Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor), a North Dakota resident with dreams of making it as an actress. She leaves home for Hollywood quickly realizing that her dreams will take hard work and patience as she is one of thousands of women with the same idea. Esther remains positive and luck places her as a waitress at a Hollywood party where she meets the Charlie Sheen (winning, duh) of 1937, Norman Maine (Fredric March). Immediately smitten by her, Norman convinces his producer Oliver Niles to give her a screen test. Esther’s innocence and natural talent gets her a contract with the studio and her new name Vicky Lester is given to her. Esther is given a lead part in one of Norman’s films given her overnight success as she outshines Norman. The two embark on a relationship and marry while Esther must struggle with her rising fame and Norman struggles with his declining career and alcoholism.

Cukor’s version is slightly different as Esther (Judy Garland) is now a stage performer who meets Norman (James Mason) after a drunken night lands him on stage during her performance. Esther improvises by dancing with him making it appear to be intentional and not a drunken blunder. She is for some reason attracted to his sweaty drunkenness and after seeing her practice a song in bar later that night he becomes smitten by her. He convinces her to try to break into the business with his help but the next day he’s called away on business and has no way of getting in touch with her. Esther who has quit her band in hopes of following Norman, gets a job as a carhop and TV commercial singer to make ends meet. Time passes and Norman tracks Esther down and convinces studio head Oliver to give her a small part in a film. After getting Oliver to hear her sing, she is cast in a major musical as Vicky Lester and her career soon rises as she and Norman wed. Unemployed with an increasing drinking problem, Norman and Vicky struggle to keep their relationship and careers afloat.

What the remake has that the original lacked is movement, fluidity, extravagant lighting and a look of classiness. However what Wellman’s original had that’s not evident in the remake is heart, empathy, and humor. Cukor’s remake doesn’t showcase the beauty of Norman and Esther’s relationship because the film instead focuses on making Garland the centerpiece as about 60% of it are musical numbers starring her, even when a scene is about the couple. Wellman’s version shows how Esther’s rising career effects not only Norman but also herself as she struggles to ignore her own hype and make Norman feel loved and accepted. Wellman’s version profiles the couple’s relationship while also giving viewers an intriguing and captivating insight into how Hollywood worked. Esther is required to go through rigorous vocal and etiquette training, hours of makeup critique, rough moments with publicists who find her real life too boring and give her a new identity as Vicky Lester. Hollywood and the movie making process is put under a microscope in a way that hadn’t been done before in film and only after has been done exceptionally in the 1952 classic Singin’ in the Rain.

March portrayed Norman Maine exactly as he was, a troubled but good man with a drinking problem. Mason’s portrayal of Norman is impressive but there’s little redeeming quality in him as a character until the film’s climax while March’s character is developed enough to be played with such delicacy and care that only a heartless cynic would be apathetic to his codependency. This very portrayal makes for an intriguing social commentary as the film’s paparazzi and movie goers only see Norman as a drunken out of control actor on a bender, a sentiment that interrogates the cold, unempathic views we as outsiders have toward celebrity addiction. These differences thus create the major flaw with the remake in that it focuses too much on spectacle as opposed to story. There’s the awful, terrible decision to use live audio over still images while at times cutting to actual scenes to pass time and certain aspects of the script is just unbelievable such as Esther being such an incredible singer whose about to go on tour yet has never been told she’s talented until Norman tells her. There’s subtleties, beautiful close ups, hilarious moments, and a familial element to the original that’s missing from the remake. Cukor’s version reminds you the story is scripted while Wellman’s version assures viewers that this story is only a script. A Star is Born is a heart-breakingly beautiful tale of a couple trying to survive in Hollywood but that’s only if you watch the original 1937 version. If you want a thinly veiled spectacle about a struggling marriage trying to survive alcoholism then the remake may be what you’re looking for.

A Star is Born 1937= SEE IT.
A Star is Born 1954= AVOID IT.

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