“The tense is wrong. You’re not slipping: you’ve slipped.”
An aspiring actress (Janet Gaynor) falls in love with a famous but alcoholic actor (Fredric March), and soon their fates begin to shift.
Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “William Wellman classic” — an earlier version of George Cukor’s celebrated 1954 musical starring James Mason and Judy Garland — is a “rare case” when the original “stands up to the remake”. It’s been well-noted that both versions ironically feature a reversal of stances, with Gaynor and Garland actually near the end of their real-life careers, and March and Mason near the peak of theirs. To that end, Peary writes that this film “appropriately capped Gaynor’s brief but impressive career”, and that “because Gaynor’s playing her, we can believe the sweetness, selflessness, and inner strength that characterize Esther/Vicki”. He adds that “March is surprisingly and effectively subdued in a role in which other actors (i.e., John Barrymore) might have chewed up the scenery”.
I’m in agreement with Peary’s review. While the remake is undeniably more masterful on every level — with Mason and Garland giving Oscar-worthy, gut-wrenching performances — this earlier version is enjoyable, well-acted, and affecting. In his Alternate Oscars, Peary writes that while “we are told Janet Gaynor’s Esther-Vicki has talent in the 1937 film, Garland proves her star talent” — and yes, it’s less obvious that Gaynor’s Esther/Vicki “deserves” the fame she wins through her lucky break. But this is essentially a melodramatic fable, so the reversal of fortunes experienced by March and Gaynor comes across as almost archetypal in its swiftness and simplicity. The star-crossed lovers’ romance feels both genuine and doomed.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Fredric March as Norman Maine
- Janet Gaynor as Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester (nominated as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in Alternate Oscars)
- Fine Technicolor cinematography
Yes, as a classic melodrama, and for its status as an Oscar winner (for original story, with script written in part by Dorothy Parker). Nominated as one of the Best Pictures of the Year by Peary in his Alternate Oscars.