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An Almost Enveloping Darkness: William A. Wellman’s "A Star is Born"

Previewing the George Eastman House's upcoming Nitrate Picture festival with their advance screening of the original "A Star Is Born."
A nitrate print of William A. Wellman’s 1936, early Technicolor marvel, A Star is Born screens on April 30th at the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY in advance of the Nitrate Picture Show.  After the film I’ll be having a discussion with William Wellman Jr. about the film, his father, and his new comprehensive biography of his father, “Wild Bill Wellman: Hollywood Rebel.”
Stay tuned for more Nitrate Picture Festival coverage; allowing of course, that we manage to survive the weekend without being enveloped ourselves by beautiful nitrate flames.
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Wellman’s 1936 take on Hollywood and one woman’s rise alongside one man’s fall isn’t as glamorous as its 1954 successor, instead finding its footing amidst the humble beginnings of its protagonist—a ground that it stands for the full length of the picture, despite rapidly changing sets and social classes. Janet Gaynor’s Esther Blodgett may eventually answer to the name of Vicki Lester, but even when undergoing a ridiculous Hollywood makeover the she never really sheds her small town roots.  They’re always there. Wellman, as he would almost always do with his leading ladies, much to their chagrin, puts very little make-up on Gaynor’s face, save for a few appropriately satiric sequences, allowing the simplicity of her expressive, silent-era face to shine through. More than casting and character, what keeps the picture firmly grounded is the use of early color. It has the same effect as early sound, especially in a picture like Wellman’s Chinatown Nights (1929), and brings with it an almost awkward starkness. There are continual bursts of rough color surrounded by an almost enveloping darkness.  
It’s a darkness that surrounds not only the image but also the story and when it literally and figuratively envelops Fredric March’s Norman Maine, a Taxi-Driver-esque scenario emerges: is what happened real or is it a fantasy, wherein a woman actually gets to keep her successful career without being forced to choose between it and her less successful husband? Interpretation aside, in the end, as Vicki Lester famously claims Norman Maine’s name as her own, A Star is Born firmly reveals a feminist underbelly, as it becomes clear this isn’t a picture where gender roles could ever be reversed. This is a woman’s picture, and despite the likelihood that your face may be wet when the credits roll, it’s a woman’s picture in the least tear-jerking sense of the phrase. 
But perhaps most notably, and fittingly for a film about the inner working of Hollywood, A Star is Born marks Wellman’s first time working with George Chandler. Chandler would have bit parts in 21 more Wellman pictures and, as Wellman would detail, Chandler became a key tool in his directing toolbox. “I had different techniques to gain time to gather my so-called directional forces together. George Chandler was technique number one.… If he happened to be in the scene that was bothering me, he would find some way of buggering it up, forgetting his lines, sneezing, not once or twice, a seizure, or whispering while I was talking—then the roof blew off, and believe me I could blow it a mile. When I had put George and all his relatives and ancestors where they belonged, I called off work for ten minutes, stormed into my dressing room, slammed the door shut and sat down quietly, and always worked out my problem. It was like magic...”
Text originally published by Il Cinema Ritrovato for their 2014 William A. Wellman retrospective

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