'A Star Is Born,' in Classic, Cool Context

This Saturday at 10 p.m., KCET brings you the 1937 film "A Star Is Born," a story of Hollywood love and loss that has been told many times, both on the screen and off. The film is the latest entry in KCET's "Classic, Cool Theater" series, which aims to give you not only a great film but also an of-the-period cartoon, two newsreels and a vintage musical number. All those extras add up to what makes "Classic, Cool Theater" so special: context. In the spirit of this unique package, we're offering you a peek at the America -- and the Los Angeles -- that received the original "A Star Is Born" back on April 27, 1937.

In the preview for "The Perils of Pauline," last week's Cool, Classic film, I mentioned that its selection seemed especially appropriate in light of the recent success of "The Artist." Both films show how changing showbiz technology affected the lives of professional entertainers. A savvy viewer could make a similar connection between "The Artist" and "A Star Is Born," because both films feature lovers whose Hollywood careers take them in opposite directions. Just like how the ascent of Berenice Bejo's character coincides with the near-ruin of Jean Dujardin's in "The Artist," so too does the fresh-faced actress (Janet Gaynor) in this movie make her Hollywood debut just as her screen idol (Fredic March) is watching his star fade.

While "A Star Is Born" took home the Oscar for Best Story, it's also notable that Gaynor was nominated for Best Actress. Ten years previous, a 22-year-old Gaynor took home the first-ever Oscar for Best Actress. "Star" did not spin her career in a positive direction, however. Only two years after her favorable notes for this film, she'd wed Adrian (no last name), the designer of the costumes of "The Wizard of Oz" and by most accounts a gay man. Only seven more roles followed before her death in 1984. Indeed, Gaynor's life ultimately followed the rather sharp trajectory demonstrated in "A Star Is Born" and repeated in the various remakes and reworkings of the film.

Far more tragic stories could be told, of course. Just one day before "A Star Is Born" hit theaters, on April 26, the Nazis rained bombs on the Basque town of Guernica, an act pivotal not only to World War II but also precedent-setting for the way warfare was waged throughout that war and subsequent ones.

Take a Closer Look Back

Given how this week's film focuses on the dizzy highs and dark lows of the Hollywood scene, I pulled pictures from the UCLA Library's digital collections that show off the lives of Hollywood stars back in 1937.

"Actress Gloria Swanson arriving in Los Angeles, Calif., on Feb. 12, 1937." (Credit: Los Angeles Times photographic archive, UCLA Library)

"Groucho and Chico Marx at copyright trial in Los Angeles, Calif., 1937" (Credit: Los Angeles Times photographic archive, UCLA Library)

"Spencer Tracy and wife, Louise walking the red carpet at motion picture premiere of 'Life of Emile Zola' in Los Angeles, Calif., on Sept. 13, 1937." (Credit: Los Angeles Times photographic archive, UCLA Library)

"Burlesque entertainer Gypsy Rose Lee carrying dog at train station, circa 1937." (Credit: Los Angeles Times photographic archive, UCLA Library)

Easily one of the most telling glimpses into the city's past that you could ever hope for: a zoomable, high-res reproduction of a star map from 1937. It reads, "Official Moviegraph of the Land of the Stars -- Where They Live, Where They Work and Where They Play." And it will no doubt prove handy if you ever feel like finding out where Marlene Dietrich and James Cagney lived back in the day. No kidding -- if star maps today looked like this one, Angeleno residents would actually stop and pick them up.

A little peek into a world you might not have otherwise considered: It's LA Weekly's "today in photographs" find for April 28, 1937. The caption reads, "Ted Peckham (center), who ran an L.A. outfit called 'Super Gigolo Service,' shows 'the elite way' for a male escort to light a woman's cigarette."

See how the rich and famous lived in Los Angeles back in 1937 by checking out real estate listings for fancier homes constructed that year. There's a lavish Cliff May-designed mansion in Pacific Palisades, the striking Rustic Canyon house that architect Thronton Abell designed for himself, and one of the most stylish doorways in Los Angeles on this Streamline Moderne apartment in Cathay Circle.

Check out this video of what life and commerce were like on Olvera Street back in 1937. It's an awesome window into the past, but as a result is very much a product of its time. Oy, that narrator.

And watch Shirley Temple playing conductor for the inaugural trip of new Los Angeles streetcars on March 25, 1937:


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