A Star Is Born (1937)
“Fate Raised Her To Fame – and killed the man she loved!”
Director: William Wellman
Cast: Janet Gaynor, Fredric March, Adolphe Menjou
Synopsis: A young woman comes to Hollywood with dreams of stardom, but achieves them only with the help of an alcoholic leading man whose best days are behind him.
Although the dog-eat-dog world of Tinseltown had already been examined in George Cukor’s 1932 movie, What Price Hollywood?, the producers of which would unsuccessfully attempt to sue the makers of A Star is Born for plagiarism, it’s this movie that is generally remembered as the first of Hollywood’s infrequent self-examinations. The reason William Wellman’s version is so well-remembered more than 75 years after its initial release is because, as well as being superior to Cukor’s earlier movie, it is also better than the 1954 musical remake (directed, ironically, by Cukor) and the woeful Streisand-Kristofferson version from the 1970s. In fact, the 1937 Star is Born’s influence can be measured in the way that the majority of movies about Hollywood follow its template of acerbic wit, psychological cruelty and self-destructive excess.
The movie opens in the snowy mountains of North Dakota, where Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor — 7th Heaven, Sunrise) lives with her family. Her parents want her to marry a nice local boy, but Esther wants to be a star, and is encouraged in her dream by her Grandmother (May Robson — Dancing Lady, Bringing Up Baby), one of the West’s pioneers. Financed by her Grandmother, Esther hotfoots it to Hollywood where she’s quickly knocked back by a seemingly endless succession of rejections. One night, however, after her assistant director friend Danny McGuire (Andy Devine — Stagecoach, The Over-the-Hill Gang Rides Again) gets her a job at a Hollywood party, she catches the eye of movie star, Norman Maine (Fredric March — Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Bridges at Toko-Ri), who arranges for her to have a screen test.
Esther is good enough to win a contract with the studio, but producer Oliver Niles (Adolphe Menjou — Roxie Hart, Paths of Glory) has her earmarked for small roles until Maine again steps in to suggest her as leading lady in his latest movie. Niles reluctantly agrees, and Esther — now renamed Vicki Lester, and given an exotic past by studio press agent Matt Libby (Lionel Stander — Mr Deeds Goes to Town, Once Upon a Time in the West) — becomes an overnight screen sensation on the strength of her performance. In fact, she’s so good that she overshadows her leading man, who soon becomes her husband, marking the beginning of a rapid decline in his fortunes.
Although A Star is Born is about the fortunes of Esther Blodgett, it’s the sad decline of Norman Maine that stays in the memory. Played with just the right measure of pathos by Fredric March, one of the under-rated stars of Hollywood’s golden era, Maine cuts a tragic figure, a combination of John Barrymore and John Gilbert, with a touch of Doug Fairbanks for good measure, he’s completely aware of his declining reputation and growing alcohol problem, but cares not one jot until he meets Esther. By then it’s too late, the damage is done, but the real tragedy is that Maine is painfully aware of the way the studio system has misused and wasted his talent and has always been powerless to stop it. This strand of the story is the most fascinating of the entire movie, but it’s fatally weakened by the saintly way in which Adolphe Menjou’s studio boss is portrayed. There’s nothing wrong with Menjou’s performance, it’s just that Niles is such an excessively benevolent character that it’s a miracle he’s not walking around under a glowing halo. No doubt this was due to the writers fighting shy of biting the hands that fed them, and it perhaps explains why Stander’s vituperative press agent is so consumed with contempt for the stars he’s paid to glamorise. He’s particularly vicious towards Norman Maine once the former star’s slide begins — and, it has to be said, Maine goes from box office heavyweight to forgotten nobody with indecent haste — and one can only wonder what Hollywood’s real press agents made of the character of Libby. Either way, Stander attacks the role with relish.
The 1937 version of A Star is Born remains an absorbing study of both the nuts and bolts of the studio system — with some surprisingly frank confessions regarding the glittering facade behind which lies the truth — and the slow disintegration of a flawed but honourable man. Unburdened by the musical numbers of Capra’s version and the bloated excess of the 1976 disaster, it focuses more closely on the intimate relationship between Maine and Esther, giving theirs a warmth that the other movies lack, and thus making the conclusion all the more tragic.
(Reviewed 12th July 2014)