THE DVD SHELF: "Anonymous," "Shakespeare in Love," "A Star Is Born," "Nothing Sacred," "Tall Story"

By Steven Suskin
12 Feb 2012

Cover art for "A Star Is Born"

There is a small crop of superior Hollywood films that unaccountably fell into public domain back in the 1960s. Simply put, the laws of that time called for a 28-year period of copyright; this was easily renewable, upon application by the copyright holders, for a second 28. If they did not file for renewal prior to the expiration date, though, the property automatically lost protection.

Movies in this classification have thus been reissued and rereleased at will, seemingly by anyone with a faded copy-of-a-copy and the equipment to copy it once more. With no access to original materials, the quality of the resulting VHS and DVD editions is variable; what you all too frequently get is a bad copy of a blurry tape of a poorly preserved print.

A Star Is Born and Nothing Sacred, two notable 1937 movies from producer David O. Selznick and director William A. Wellman, fall into this public domain category. Now, Kino Classics brings us pristine copies of these films, licensed from the Selznick Estate and newly mastered in HD from the original 35MM prints by the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY.

Both were filmed in Technicolor; "A Star Is Born," in fact, was apparently the first color film to be nominated for Best Picture. (Cinematographer W. Howard Greene won a special Oscar for his work; two years later, the Academy split cinematography into separate categories for black-and-white and color movies.) The color work in these two restorations is bright, vibrant and startling; Technicolor — which had first been used in Hollywood in 1922 — was still very much in development, with Selznick helping push it into prominence with these two films and his 1939 opus "Gone with the Wind." The visual quality of these DVDs is not perfect, alas, but it is miles ahead of the condition of prior releases of these two titles.

"A Star Is Born" is the one about the small-town girl who goes to Hollywood and achieves stardom, while her movie-star husband finds his career eclipsed. Esther Blodgett becomes Vicki Lester, with the washed-up Norman Maine finally walking off into the Pacific Ocean. This is a compelling tale, and it holds up remarkably well. (The Selznick film is markedly better than the big budget musical remakes with Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand.) Janet Gaynor, a holdover from the silent era, is excellent in what is perhaps her most watchable film. A winner of the first Best Actress Oscar back in 1928, she received her second nomination for "A Star Is Born." Playing opposite Gaynor is Fredric March, who follows us into our next paragraph.

Our next paragraph being about "Nothing Sacred," which ranks high among the great screwball comedies. Wellman — who won an Oscar, himself, for the "A Star Is Born" screenplay — here directed a script by Ben Hecht (with plenty of doctoring). A poor small-town girl in middle-of-nowhere Vermont is dying of radium poisoning. Just the thing for the New York Sentinel to splash across the front page as a circulation builder. Ace reporter Wally Cook (Fredric March) brings Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard) on an all-expense paid jaunt to the big city, where she is hailed — with tears — by socialites and shopgirls, nightclub stars and professional wrestlers. Only thing is, the illness — unknown to Cook and his editor — is a hoax, due to a faulty diagnosis by Hazel's alcoholic village doc from Vermont.

Cover art for "Nothing Sacred"

The whole thing is laid out impeccably; movies don't come much funnier — wickedly funnier — than this. A typical moment: When Cook goes to Vermont to first contact Hazel, the townspeople are actively hostile. Wellman and Hecht cap a wonderful sequence by having a toddler speed into the street and bite March on the leg. "Nothing Sacred" is a festival of comedy, in itself. (Like "A Star Is Born," it has been musicalized twice. Hazel Flagg was a 1953 musical by Jule Styne, which in turn was rewritten for the screen in 1954 as "Living It Up." Hazel was played on stage by Helen Gallagher and on screen by — well, Jerry Lewis as Homer Flagg.)

Carole Lombard, here, is Carole Lombard at her height. They don't make 'em like that anymore, although even during her brief period of stardom she was one of a kind. Less familiar to viewers is costar March, a fine stage and screen actor who is unjustly forgotten. He was not the very first person to win an Oscar and a Tony; he shared that distinction with Helen Hayes. Each won their first Oscar in 1931 — March taking the award as "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" — and their first Tony at the initial Tony Award ceremony in 1947.

March, however, was the first person to win two Oscars and a Tony; he won his second Oscar, for "The Best Years of Our Lives," just three weeks before his Tony for Years Ago. March was also the first person to win two Oscars and two Tonys; if you restrict the criteria to leading rather than supporting categories, he remains the only person to win two of each. (Hayes ultimately won four, but one of her Oscars was for supporting actress.)

Awards are one thing; performances are another. In "Nothing Sacred" March is bright and breezy and sly, as he was in "Design for Living" (reviewed in a recent column) and the obscure but delightful "I Married a Witch." He gives strong dramatic performances — of quite different sorts — in "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," "The Best Years of Our Lives," and as Matthew Brady (opposite Spencer Tracy) in "Inherit the Wind." Two of his most celebrated performances we shall never see: as Mr. Antrobus, the intrepid hero of Thornton Wilder's 1942 classic The Skin of Our Teeth; and as James Tyrone in the 1956 Broadway premiere of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, for which he won his second Tony. March is just about always a joy to watch.

Walter Connolly gives a delicious performance as the long-suffering editor Oliver Stone. Not that Oliver Stone; this one came first, and is funnier than the current one. Providing even more fun is Charles Winninger as the country doctor. Winninger starred in two of the most influential Broadway musicals of the 1920s, as the fellow who confesses that "I Want to Be Happy" in the long-running No, No, Nanette and as the fabled Cap'n Andy in the longer-running Show Boat. "Nothing Sacred" offers a chance to watch Winninger lovingly chewing up the scenery. He is purely delectable, with double and triple takes plus a recurring gag where he unsteadily and alcoholically slopes impossibly forward. Winninger is matched, throughout, by the clowning of Lombard and March. Here is a wry and sardonic masterpiece, capped by a grand boxing bout between leading lady and leading man.

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