William A. Wellman's A Star Is Born (1937) is perhaps the closest Hollywood has ever come to shattering its own mythology that, in the 1930s, was already ensconced around the world as a place, as well as a state of mind where only the beautiful people mingled, and where the dreams that they dared to dream really did come true. On the whole, Hollywood did its best to foster this pure fantasy as fact, quietly dispatching more glamorous than tawdry back stories before they ever escaped the greater Los Angeles area. But the shadowy world encapsulated in this film's screenplay, patched together by Wellman, Robert Carson, Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell, seems to evoke another Hollywood; one more jaded in its pursuits, more frankly dishonest in its motives and more cutthroat in attaining the pinnacle of success at any price. Into this den of iniquity arrives the innocent, Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor); a green girl spellbound by visions of stardom and romance. Unlike the Esther of 1954's musical remake, the Esther in 1937's is a true believer in the dream. But she is about to have her heart broken by the reality that is the motion picture industry. Even so, this Esther Blodgett remains the one person above the fray, the starlet who never quite shakes the stardust from her eyes even as looming tragedy beats a path to her door.
Producer David O. Selznick was not entirely certain he wanted to make A Star Is Born. In fact, initially he had turned Wellman's screen treatment down. After all, he had already made What Price Hollywood? at RKO. But it wasn't the narrative similarities between these two films that troubled Selznick. It was the effective way Wellman's original concept for the story (originally titled It Happened in Hollywood) had managed to take several real life scandals - well publicized in town - and drawn only the flimsiest of artistic sheaths across them. Yet, for all the hard boiled grittiness that Wellman brought to A Star is Born, nothing could conceal the fact that beneath his rather tough exterior beat the heart of a perennial romantic. As such, A Star Is Born looms somewhere in that great chasm between darkness and light.
Something else troubled Selznick deeply. Over the Labor Day weekend his close friend, Irving Thalberg had suffered a massive heart attack and died. Thalberg, a man still highly regarded in Hollywood today as the most prolific producer of his generation, had already attained God-like status at the time of his demise. His funeral brought out the stars, but it also created a rather garish spectacle for thrill seeking fans, who turned the courtyard of the chapel where his body lay in state into a three ring circus. The death of A Star Is Born's Norman Maine (Fredric March) would mirror this event almost verbatim, and Selznick worried that Thalberg's widow - actress, Norma Shearer - would consider its inclusion in very bad taste.
One aspect of the film that immensely pleased Selznick during pre-production was his casting of Fredric March and Janet Gaynor to play the leads. To date, March's career in particular had yielded incredible versatility. With his matinee idol good looks he could play a dapper movie star practically blindfolded. Yet, the actor had had one of his greatest successes as the infamous Mr. Hyde in Rouben Mamoulian's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932). By 1936 he was riding a wave of critical success and popularity with the paying public that placed his star in the same stratosphere as Gable's. Gaynor's star, on the other hand, had crested a few years before. Indeed, by the time she was offered A Star Is Born Gaynor had seriously been considering retirement from the movies, her radiant innocence having been eclipsed by Hollywood's more exotic leading ladies mid-way through the decade. But this Cinderella story - with its appeal of a nobody becoming world famous - was exactly the sort of fable Gaynor could do justice to. Despite the fact that Gaynor and Wellman had not seen eye to eye while working on an earlier project at Paramount, she was a hard working actress with a professionalism paralleled by few contemporaries.
The film opens with Gaynor's ingénue coming home from the movies in North Dakota. Her father (J.C. Nugent) seems utterly oblivious to Esther's daydreams about Hollywood. But cantankerous Aunt Maddy (Clara Blandick) admonishes the girl for her 'mooning' over a life that Maddy is quite certain can never be Esther's. Only Grandma Lettie (May Robson) sympathizes with the girl. In Esther, Lettie sees shades of her own pioneer spirit - that fiery 'get up and go' that is sure to perish if she remains buried in the backwoods of North Dakota. To this end, Lettie gives Esther her entire life savings, saying "I was only saving it for my funeral anyway" and places her granddaughter on a westbound train, still not entirely certain that she has done the right thing.
Esther's first glimpses of Hollywood do indeed live up to her dream. But beyond the initial glamour of speeding planes, stylish mansions and exotic swimming pools lies a much harsher reality. Esther takes up residence in a tenement house, but quickly realizes that breaking into the movies will not be as easy or nearly as exciting as she envisioned. Miss Philips (Peggy Wood) - a Central Casting secretary shows Esther a room full of flaxen haired receptionists manning a litany of switchboards. Each one of these girls thought as Esther did, and each has wound up sitting behind a desk - as nameless and forgotten as their dreams. Miss Philips' message is pointedly clear: Hollywood is a place where dreams comes true for too few.
Still, Esther is undaunted. At her boarding house, she is introduced to lowly assistant director Danny McGuire (Andy Devine) who also tries to discourage her from her true calling. Instead, he takes her out to the Hollywood Bowl for a concert to celebrate his new job. There, Esther comes face to face with matinee heart throb, Norman Maine (Fredic March). But the reality of Norman - that of a rather easily provoked drunkard - clashes with Esther's star struck impression of the characters she has seen him play on the screen. She is bitterly disillusioned. Danny takes pity on Esther and arranges for her to waitress at the home of movie mogul, Oliver Niles (Adolph Menjou) for a grand party that he is giving. It may only be $5, but the room will be filled with 'important' people. Maybe, this is Esther's big break. Regrettably, her attempts to wait on guests with brutally bad impersonations of Marlene Dietrich, Mae West and Katherine Hepburn impress no one. However, while stocking dishes in the kitchen Esther meets Norman face to face. He tells her she has a great profile, but begins to break flatware when she informs him how disappointed she was with his behavior at the Hollywood Bowl.
To prove he is an upstanding guy, Norman encourages Oliver to give Esther a screen test for his latest picture. After some initial misfires, the test proves successful and Esther's film debut is a hit. The studio begins a big publicity build up for Esther, whose name is changed to Vicki Lester. She is assigned sharp shooting Matt Libby (Lionel Stander) as her press agent. At the same time, Norman and Esther begin to fall in love; an entanglement that Libby repeatedly tries to discourage. He doesn't like Norman very much, having spent a good portion of his career covering up for the star's drunken indiscretions in the press. But Oliver sees the merit in their romance. It just might be the thing to pull Norman out of his downward spiral. While the studio begins to plan a big splashy wedding for the couple, Norman and Esther elope. Regrettably, the money men have had enough of Norman and his dwindling box office. They instruct Oliver to buy up Norman's contract and Norman, realizing that he has bungled his plush lifestyle, checks himself into a sanitarium to reform his alcoholism.
Returning to his old haunts after detoxification, Norman is driven to indulge old habits when a chance meeting with Libby results in an altercation between the two. The incident is humiliating for Norman and it moves us into the film's grand set piece; Oscar night, where Esther's triumphant Best Actress acceptance speech is ruined when Norman burst into the room, drunk again, to admonish his peers for abandoning him. As Esther attempts to escort her husband off the stage he accidentally slaps her, sending shudders of shock and awe through the audience. Afterward, Norman disappears from the auditorium and becomes involved in an accident. Drunk and disorderly, he is brought before the night court and harshly criticized by the presiding Judge for having squandered his life. Esther bails Norman out and promises the Judge that she will be his guardian from now on. After she has put Norman to bed, Esther tells Oliver that she has decided to quit the movies to look after her husband. Distraught at having destroyed the one thing he loves most, Norman elects to drown himself in the sea - believing that Esther will be better off without him.
This sequence was photographed by Jack Cosgrove at Huntington Beach. But in a most morbid precursor to the filmed suicide, actor John Bowers took his own life in exactly the same manner on the day before shooting commenced - adding more than a touch of the macabre to the film's already overwhelming verisimilitude. After Norman's suicide, Esther still decides to quit the movies, despite Oliver and Libby's strenuous objections. But Grandma Lettie has different ideas. She comes to Esther's aid and comfort, telling her that very few people in life are destined for great things, but that Esther has proven to the world that she is one of them. With Lettie at her side, Esther agrees to reconsider her retirement and attend her film premiere. She is briefly brought to tears at the sight of hers and Norman's handprints in the forecourt of Grauman's Chinese Theatre. But then, she steps up to the microphone to utter the immortal last line in the film, "Hello everybody. This is Mrs. Norman Maine."
Viewed today, this version of A Star is Born remains problematic on several levels. For one thing, it's not a musical as is the '54 George Cukor remake costarring Judy Garland and James Mason. Both films ultimately play as a tragedy. But the '54's repertoire of bright and bubbly songs seems - at least in hindsight - to provide the perfect counterbalance to the tragedy rather than diffusing it. If anything, Wellman's A Star Is Born is too somber, too frank and too cruel in dismantling our fantasies about Hollywood. Worse, Gaynor and March as something of a curious mismatch as the star crossed lovers. Both are talented performers and both give meaningful, full bodied performances independent of each other’s. But together they lack the chemistry of Garland and Mason.
One can understand why Garland's Esther Blodgett would want to marry Mason's Norman Maine. He's a fallen idol with a flawed sense of self that has been artificially inflated through good PR, yet brought down by very bad press. But March's Norman is a frustrated, and at times, unapologetically manipulative drunkard with few redeeming qualities to recommend him as husband material. Gaynor's naive Esther is perhaps just the sort of misguided sheep Norman has been looking for all along. Yet, she somehow never manages to get past her adolescent adoration, even when March's Norman proves time and again that he is unworthy of her love and sympathy. At least Garland's Esther arrives at this much of an understanding, when she tearfully confronts Norman's failings - as well as her own - to Oliver between filming takes of the number 'Lose That Long Face'. But Gayor's Esther continues to dote on March's Norman as though he were simply a wounded child in need of her tender touch to make everything all better. That approach to Esther never quite worked for me. Frankly, it's a wonder to me that it ever did for audiences back in 1937.
The supporting cast are all troopers in their own right, with Adolph Menjou's empathetic studio mogul being the standout. Arguably, the film's emotional core remains May Robson's Grandma Lettie; a poignantly rendered character who bookends the narrative with thoughtful words of wisdom from someone who has lived her own dreams and can therefore recognize the importance in Esther having the opportunity to explore hers. A Star Is Born was a resounding smash hit for Selznick in 1937, just when he needed one desperately. And there is much to admire in the production; chiefly Max Steiner's brilliant score - written at the eleventh hour under great duress and recorded literally the night before sound mixing was to begin on the film. W. Howard Greene's cinematography also deserves honorable mention, contrasting the flashy playgrounds of Hollywood's ultra-rich with the stark wilderness of North Dakota. This is a class 'A' production in both content and style. A pity that some of it still doesn't quite ring true for a more contemporary audience.
There's truth enough in Kino's lack luster Blu-ray. The original nitrate elements are in very rough shape indeed, and it is a genuine shame that George Eastman House (the current custodians of the film) could not have found either the time or the resources to properly restore this film to its original Technicolor glory. We get a very faded print, with anemic contrast levels. Blacks are always a dingy gray. Certain scenes are so dark and grainy that it's difficult to tell what exactly is going on. Color throughout is muddy to mildly murky at best. And then there are the age related artifacts, so plentiful and distracting that they all but ruin our enjoyment of the performances flickering underneath.
I can't rightly say I appreciate having A Star Is Born presented in 1080p in such deplorable condition. Several years ago it was rumored that Warner Bros. was going to include this version of A Star Is Born with their Blu-ray reissue of the 1954 remake. Regrettably, this never happened and one can see now the reason why. A lot of time and money is needed to salvage these elements from complete decay. The audio exhibits slight hiss and pop but nothing that will terribly distract. As with other Kino Classics on Blu-ray we don't get anything in the way of extras except two theatrical trailers that look even worse than the feature. For shame!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)