A Star is Reborn - a history of Hollywood remakes and four versions of A Star is Born
Hollywood often revisits the same well if it has proven to be financially fruitful, but even though Bradley Cooper’s debut as a director is the fourth interpretation of a 1930s classic, the actor has thankfully not interfered with the premise of the original story, writes Pat Stacey
Many people might be surprised to learn just how many of their favourite Hollywood movies, some of them important parts of film history, are actually remakes — and in some notable cases, remakes of remakes.
Exactly 10 years before Humphrey Bogart burned up the screen as private eye Sam Spade in John Huston’s 1941 classic The Maltese Falcon, Warner Bros had made a version starring the now-forgetten Ricardo Cortez.
Judged in isolation, the 1931 version is very good and, being a “pre-Code” production (that is, made before the Motion Picture Production Code clamped down on the racier content of the movies), very raunchy too. The reference in Dashiell Hammett’s novel to Spade strip-searching femme fatale Miss Wonderly (Bebe Daniels) for missing money, absent from the Bogart-Huston film, is present here.
The characters of Gutman and Cairo are, as in the novel, clearly identified as being homosexual. Miss Wonderly is shown bathing in one scene, while the opening close-up of a different female character fixing her stockings after leaving Spade’s office leaves no doubt that the two have just finished having sex. All of these would have been definite no-nos after 1934, the year the Code was seriously enforced for the first time.
In between these two films, the 1936 B-movie Satan Met a Lady was a loose, more comedic adaptation of Falcon, although the private eye’s name was changed from Sam Spade to Ted Shane. Female lead Bette Davis later called the film “trash”.
Before Johnny Weissmuller donned the loincloth for 1932’s Tarzan the Ape Man (another pre-Code film, pictured above), the jungle hero had already appeared on screen seven times. The Weissmuller film was pretty much a remake of the very first of these, the 1918 silent Tarzan of the Apes, based directly on Edgar Rice Burroughs’s original Tarzan novel.
Perennial bank holiday fixture The Sound of Music (1965) may be based on a stage musical, but the show itself is based on a 1956 German film called The Trapp Family, which featured traditional German folk songs rather than Rodgers and Hammerstein numbers.
There might not have been a stage show at all if Paramount Pictures, which snapped up the rights to the German original, had followed through on its plan to remake it in the 1950s with Audrey Hepburn as Maria.
Al Pacino would never have blazed across the screen in 1983’s Scarface had Paul Muni not done it already in the classic 1932 original, directed by Howard Hawks. Two Martin Scorsese films, Cape Fear and The Departed, are also remakes, the latter of Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs.
Believe it or not, even the Ben Stiller-Robert De Niro comedy Meet the Parents (2000) is a remake of a 1992 Canadian film of the same name. There are many other examples, yet no film has been as ripe for remaking as A Star is Born.
The latest version, starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, who also directed it, arrived in cinemas this week trailing glowing reviews from the critics. It’s set to be a monster hit and is expected to be prime Oscar bait too.
Even in an era when remakes are the norm rather than the exception, A Star is Born has proved remarkably durable. This the fourth version of the story since the 1930s and each one, irrespective of its quality as a film, has raked in a fortune at the box-office.
I’ve seen all of them, except the new one, and what’s extraordinary is how closely they align. Usually, when Hollywood decides to remake a movie, that dreaded word “reimagining” rears its ugly head.
But it seems the tragic core story of A Star is Born — an ageing, alcoholic male star watches his own career crash and burn, while that of the young ingenue he discovered and steered to stardom, soars — is as irresistible to moviemakers as it’s been to different generations of cinema-goers over the last 80 years. It’s a bulletproof template and, generally speaking, nobody has felt the need to mess with it.
The first version, directed by William Wellman in 1937, stars Fredric March as fading leading man Norman Maine, who discovers and falls in love with farm girl
Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor), who’s come to Hollywood with dreams of seeing herself up on the silver screen.
After Norman secures her a successful screen test, Esther is given the stage name Vicki Lester by the studio and goes on to become a hugely popular star. While Esther’s career is in the ascendant, Norman — who’s reputation is already being destroyed by his drunken, hellraising behaviour — finds his quickly going down the tubes as the roles dry up and the studio drops him.
There’s an achingly poignant scene where a parcel delivery boy addresses Norman, who’s effectively been reduced to the role of house husband, as “Mr Lester”, as well as a painful one where the drunk Norman ruins his wife’s Oscar acceptance speech.
One of the few 1930s films to be made in gleaming Technicolor, A Star is Born paints a witty, acerbic picture of the fickle studio system and features two wonderful performances by Gaynor and March, one of the most naturalistic actors of his era.
It’s an excellent film (you’ll find it on YouTube). But the largely faithful 1954 remake, directed by George Cukor and starring Judy Garland as Esther/Vicki and James Mason as Norman, shows the difference between excellence and brilliance. Quite simply, it’s a masterpiece.
Norman is still an actor in this version, but the character of Esther has been changed to a singer, which allows Garland to blaze across the screen in a succession of breathtaking musical numbers which show every facet of her matchless talent. Behind the scenes, Garland was struggling with chemical dependency, severe weight fluctuations and a variety of illnesses, real and imagined. Up on the screen in ravishing colour and CinemaScope, however, she’s luminous. Despite her personal demons, Garland gave her best ever performance. She was nominated for an Oscar but lost out to Grace Kelly, who gave an even more vapid than usual performance in The Country Girl. Groucho Marx sent Garland a telegram describing it as “the greatest robbery since Brinks”.
Cukor’s original cut of the film was three hours long and received an ecstatic reception from preview audiences and critics. But the studio, determined to squeeze in as many cinema screenings in a day as possible, chopped off a half-hour.
In the 1980s, film preservationist Ronald Haver found and restored most, though not all, of the missing footage, including two complete musical numbers. The remaining gaps were filled in by scanning black-and-white production stills and overlaying the original soundtrack, which had survived in its entirety. In either version, though, the 1954 A Star is Born is a superb piece of work.
You can’t say the same for the 1976 version with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, which relocated the story to the music world. Streisand, who’s not in the least bit believable as a nightclub singer plucked from obscurity by Kristofferson’s raddled, self-destructive rock star, isn’t just one of the film’s problems; she’s all of them. As the producer as well as the star, she continually interfered with director Frank Pierson, demanding reshoots and more close-ups (of her, naturally). In Pierson’s absence, she and her then boyfriend, a hairdresser called Jon Peters, who somehow parleyed his way to becoming a producer and, at one point, was joint-head of Sony Pictures Entertainment, shot scenes behind his back.
Pierson, who wrote Dog Day Afternoon, discovered too late into the shoot that Streisand had total control over the final cut. She demanded, but was denied, a co-directing credit.
Even before the film was released, he wrote a long, excoriating magazine article recounting every detail of his nightmarish experience working with her.
The 1976 A Star is Born is basically a gargantuan monument to Streisand’s massive ego. For the climax, she awarded herself a self-adoring close-up that lasts eight punishing minutes. The closing credits even mention that her character’s clothes came from “her own wardrobe”.
It’s an atrocious film, but it made an awful lot of money, which is presumably why Hollywood went back to the well again. By all accounts, the new one is a lot better — although given the version that preceded it, it couldn’t possibly be any worse (turn over for Chris Wasser’s review).
The Worst Film Remakes Ever...
THE WICKER MAN (2006)
With Nicolas Cage (above) at his Nicolas Cagiest, this ludicrous, incoherent, unintentionally funny remake of the British occult classic is effectively an internet meme that lasts for 101 minutes.
THE BIG SLEEP (1978)
Robert Mitchum, despite being too old for the role, made a fine Philip Marlowe in 1975’s Farewell, My Lovely (previously filmed in 1944 with Dick Powell as a Marlowe even better than Bogart’s). He should have avoided this turkey (another remake), directed by the awful Michael Winner, which pointlessly updated and relocated the story to the England of the 1970s. A truly horrible film.
TOTAL RECALL (2012)
If you’re stupid enough to remake the Schwarzenegger/Verhoeven classic, you shouldn’t compound the stupidity by getting rid of the Mars element of the story. Hack director Len Weisman was that stupid. Twice.
CAPE FEAR (1991)
Martin Scorsese went wildly over the top with this bombastic remake of J Lee Thompson’s gripping 1962 suspense thriller and allowed a scenery-chewing Robert De Niro (right) to do the same as psycho Max Cady, who menaces his former lawyer (Nick Nolte) and his family. Original stars Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck have cameos.
THE HAUNTING (1999)
The superb 1963 film of the same name was a subtle, scary adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s subtle, scary novel The Haunting of Hill House. This, an orgy of crappy digital effects, isn’t.