A Star is Born is among the most iconic stories Hollywood has ever told. There are few things that Hollywood people love more than stories about Hollywood and what is a better Hollywood tale than a romantic tragedy about a young, up and coming, starlet and a fading film icon. Doomed romance against the glamorous backdrop of old Hollywood. That producer David O. Selznick didn’t stop at the premise and added to it with, arguably the finest writer of her time in 1937, Dorothy Parker, only serves to make the original, A Star is Born the truly iconic version of this iconic tale.
A Star is Born (1937) stars Janet Gaynor as Ester Blodgett, a small town, North Dakota gal with stars in her eyes. She loves to go to the picture show and dreams of seeing herself on the big screen next Garbo or Harlow or her dreamboat, Norman Maine (Fredric March). Her family wants her to keep her head of the clouds and get married, all except her granny (May Robson), who cashes in her funeral fund to send Ester to Hollywood.
Once in Hollywood, Ester struggles like most young starlets trying to stand out in a sea of starlets. There is little encouragement for her, save for Danny, the wonderful Andy Devine, a down on his luck assistant director who becomes Ester’s closest friend. It’s through Danny that Ester gets her first job in Hollywood, as a waitress at a Hollywood party. Ester however, seizes the opportunity and in a terrifically funny scene, Janet Gaynor throws herself into impressing people at the party with impressions of Garbo and Jean Harlow.
It’s here where she meets Norman Maine in person for the first time and their chemistry is off the charts. Norman is the epitome of the Hollywood libertine. We hear legendary stories about his exploits via his friend and studio head, Oliver Niles played by the sublime Adolph Menjou. Oliver has spent the past few years protecting Norman from the press but with his box office numbers dropping, he may not be able to protect his friend much longer.
The romance of Ester and Norman leads to Ester getting a big screen test and landing a bit part. That bit part bursts into a lead part opposite Norman in which her star power blows him off the screen. Suddenly Ester, renamed Vicki Lester, is the toast of Hollywood and though she and Norman marry, his fading star is set to be the downfall of their romantic bliss. While the going is good however, Gaynor and March light up the screen in one of Hollywood’s greatest on screen romances.
I completely adore A Star is Born (1937). William Wellman’s direction is superb and the script, though authored by a committee, has just the right committee to make it work. The legendary wit of Dorothy Parker is present throughout A Star is Born. Listen close and you can hear her wit coming from March’s Norman as he cuts through the B.S of the Hollywood system before his ego becomes too much for him to bear.
Janet Gaynor is the picture of innocent, loving, romance. She’s brilliant and beautiful and she simply radiates with elegance and talent. Then there is her talent for comedy, though underplayed here, I adored the few moments when her comic side comes out. I mentioned the party scene and her wonderful impressions but even a much smaller scene in which she’s traveling in a camper while Norman is driving and she’s singing and burning a steak, she has comic gracefulness that only a true star has.
Fredric March is charisma personified. He’s completely fearless, with zero care as to whether we like him or not. March is fully self-possessed and exceedingly confident. That’s what makes him such a great character for a romantic tragedy, a man who believes he’s impervious finds pain for the first time and can’t bear it. March is witty and handsome and unafraid to allow us, if no one else in the movie, to see him be wounded, vulnerable and eventually, deeply tragic.
A Star is Born (1937) is like a chemical reaction; all the pieces come together for this brilliant explosion of romance, glamour, laughs and heartache. That final line in the movie, “Mrs Norman Maine” is one of the most incredible final lines in movie history. It sums up a journey for Janet Gaynor as Ester and for us in the audience who now have this gloriously cathartic moment of joy and empathy, sadness and triumph.
A Star is Born (1937) is now among my favorite movies of all time. It’s available now on Amazon Prime and for subscribers to the FilmStruck app. It’s the first of four versions of A Star is Born that I will be writing about this week and I predict it will be the best of the bunch.