A Star is Born. For most readers, it will probably be Judy Garland’s sensational musical take on this cautionary tale of Hollywood that is most familiar. Or maybe it was through the Streisand (and frankly, slightly oddball) version that you first made your acquaintance with this classic story of a young woman’s rise to superstardom.
The version I saw first though was the ‘straight drama’ A Star is Born, released in the spring of 1937. I remember being terribly impressed, in every sense of the word. And no matter how hard I tried to shake it off, the film, from its lush Technicolor photography, to the fascinating characterisations of the original Lester and Maine, has remained with me, and ultimately become my favourite of the trio.
As I mentioned earlier, the film is of a woman who strives, and eventually succeeds, in becoming a great star. It is a story which I am certain has been told many time before (and certainly many times since!). In this particular variation on a universal theme, the lady in question is Miss Esther Blodgett, a farmer’s daughter with big dreams of Hollywood.
Some time after her arrival in California, Esther befriends an established star of many years, the charismatic but troubled actor Norman Maine; an innocent romance quickly blossoms between the two. Soon enough, Esther, now going by the handpicked name of “Vicki Lester” (“Blodgett” practically reduces the publicity man to tears) has been grown and cultivated into the most admired actress of the silver screen. Maine however, her mentor and eventual husband, concurrently faces a plunging decline in popularity.
While the film is entitled A Star is Born (and aptly so), it would be very wrong to label it as a one woman picture. For equally intriguing is the story of Norman Maine, the fading actor gradually succumbing to rampant alcoholism. I have always believed that there is a great, if seemingly trivial, tragedy in the fall of a very popular actor or actress, and Fredric March, in one of his greatest performances, embodies this tragedy.
Norman maintains that he will be ready when his curtain finally comes down, and, at first, he seems to accept his rapid rejection with the utmost dignity. But in his eyes lie this irreversible unhappiness; Norman Maine, when others his age have yet to reach the pinnacle of their chosen careers, has already lost his battle in the furious world of the movies.
As for the titular star, Janet Gaynor as Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester is, needless to say, perfectly lovely. A movie star at 20, and an Academy Award winner at 22, there really is no doubt in our minds that a charming young lady like Gaynor could have swept away the hearts of an entire nation. And despite my comments about the movie’s more dramatic inclinations (compared to the subsequent musical versions), Gaynor also displays here her terrific aptitude for comedy.
An example of this is the wonderful scene in which Esther takes on a one-time waitressing job. Hoping to catch the attention of several famous directors, she puts on various impressions of the greatest stars of the day. Each of these impressions have that fabulous quality; they are so awkward you feel the need to divert your eyes, and yet are also hilariously compelling that you can’t seem to turn away. I especially loved the Katherine Hepburnesque impersonation; close your eyes and you can literally picture a high society gal twittering away in a Bryn-Mawr accent.
In the capable hands of William Wellman, the timeless story of A Star is Born is brought compellingly to life. His style, one of simultaneous drama and subtlety, can be recognised particularly in the episode of Norman’s proposal at a boxing match. At first, I was definitely taken aback by the setting he (referring to both Wellman and Maine) chose for a seemingly romantic affair. Quickly though, the imagery of the match —two people causing great pain to each other, with one ultimately standing alone — becomes a chilling representation of what the future holds for these two individuals.
Perhaps the most powerful scene of all is the one which ends with the heart-breaking suicide of Norman. In his room, Maine overhears his wife’s plans to give up her career as an actress to devote herself fully to her ailing husband. When he arrives at her side, Norman’s sole objective seems only to comfort her and make her smile; but when he sees through the window a brilliant sunset, it is clear that something has struck him. Norman understands that his sun has already set, and, in order to let the wife whom he loves dearly continue on with her life, he courageously embraces his fate.