I will be watching all 10 nominees from 1937 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it.
In the late 1930s, there existed a colorless film standard: the technology was too expensive and not reliable enough for the majority of films to translate from sets or locations to film, then to playback across screens across the country. The infrastructure was still in its infancy. Naturally, with time and adaptation, the technology became commonplace – now when a filmmaker chooses black-and-white, the director chooses it as a style to possibly reflect a specific mood or callback to a past time. Schindler’s List is mostly in black-and-white, whose color palate reflects bleakness and starkness, dotted with some color for dramatic effect. Director Michel Hazanavicius, chose for Best Picture winner from 2011, The Artist, to film in black-and-white and remove sound, too. But there was a time when, in 1937, A Star Is Born, broke the color barrier (if you will), as the first Best Picture nominee to have been filmed in color.
The Artist won as homage to film’s past, so if we anchor A Star Is Born as homage to film’s future, we might expect a win, too, for its production quality alone. But like In Old Chicago and San Francisco before it, A Star Is Born could not win “Outstanding Production” on gimmick alone. The color adds extra depth to the story, but does not replace the qualities that make great story – especially those that reflect the mood and gestalt for 1937. But: this story is good, if not a little convenient, but could have been made five years earlier (maybe not in color) or five years later, and would have had the same effect. Janet Gaynor, film’s first Best Actress winner, plays a convincing, if reluctant leading lady. Once again, Adolphe Menjou lends his talents once again as a talent manager, and Frederic March rounds out the leading cast as the most interesting character. The color adds depth to his emotional journey, allowing for a full range of emotion from love on high to the end on low. There was no “switch,” though. Just deep blues and reds and greens and indigos. The man was a mess, but the late 30s were more of a recovery period than a messy one, and pushes this film out from Best Picture consideration.
This film, while a showcase for emotional range of the human experience, does not reflect 1937’s mood the way The Life of Emile Zola or Stage Door did. So a worthy watch in its own right, A Star Is Born feeds off the Gaynor’s and March’s internal energy and the slow burn of the transfer of power as the star is “born,” while the other fades away. In that right, this movie earns its stripes as a must-watch.
Nineteen thirty-seven produced a series of at least 10 fantastic films that covered the human experience on land and on the sea; films that covered historical fiction and fairy tale; themes that reflected the very nature of how people react to stimuli at the very essence of being. While the Academy dictates one winner, the group of films together can help us, nearly eighty years later, understand how people lived, breathed, dreamed and died. Not a whole lot different from today, actually. This year interwar marked a calm before the storm, but as Paul Muni reminded us in The Life of Emile Zola, we must fight for what we believe. This idea manifest, is why this picture won Best Picture in 1937 among a slew of qualified candidates. We would need all the hope in the world just two years later.