I’m going to write about the whole plot in this review – so, if you haven’t seen this famous movie, be warned! William A Wellman’s earlier films often tend to focus on outcasts in society – wandering from one town to the next and struggling to make a living. His great pre-Codes Heroes For Sale and Wild Boys of the Road are both examples of this. By contrast, A Star Is Born, starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, is set amid the money and glamour of Hollywood, and filmed in early Technicolor rather than gritty black and white. However, although his characters in this film might be rich and famous, they are still outsiders, and they make their living from performing to a greedy crowd which might turn on them at any moment – just as the street and circus performers in some of his early movies did.
Wellman was both screenwriter and director of this bitter-sweet romantic drama, and it was the only movie he actually won an Oscar for, as a writer. (Wings won the first-ever Oscar for best film, but he didn’t get the best director award.) The basic story is a reworking of George Cukor’s movie What Price Hollywood? (1932), which I’ve just reviewed on this blog, where a young actress makes it to stardom, while the established star who helped her up plunges into alcoholism and despair. But it feels very different – partly because the earlier film was a pre-Code and could get away with more in some respects, but also because of the personalities involved.
Janet Gaynor’s character, in particular, is a much softer portrayal of a rising starlet than Constance Bennett’s brassy waitress-on-the- make in Cukor’s movie. As starry-eyed Esther Blodgett, Gaynor is playing a character very similar to the sweet heroine of her previous film directed by Wellman, Small Town Girl (1936). Esther is someone who longs to escape from the frustrations of small-town existence, but who still keeps her caring values intact, and is happy to sacrifice herself when she falls in love. I haven’t seen enough of Gaynor’s roles to generalise with confidence, but suspect that this sweetness is an intrinsic part of her screen personality. In both films, people are always saying what a “nice girl” she is – even when she occasionally does things that might not fit that description.
The early scenes of the film give the background for Esther’s desperate bid to make it in Hollywood , showing her in a suffocating small-town household, with a bullying aunt who ridicules her dreams of becoming an actress. This feels similar to the claustrophobic family setting in Small Town Girl. It is only too easy to see why she accepts some money from Granny (May Robson) and heads off to the bright lights. Eleven writers were involved in creating the A Star Is Born screenplay, including Dorothy Parker and Ben Hecht – whose wit adds to the sparkling dialogue. But, nevertheless, the film definitely has Wellman’s stamp on it, and this whole small-town sequence feels very characteristic of him.
So does the following section where Esther is living in a boarding-house in Hollywood and trudging round the studios looking for work. I was especially reminded of Wellman’s Depression movies in one scene where Esther goes to a studio seeking work as an extra, and is told that every time a light goes up on the switchboard it means someone is ringing up to ask about a job – and every time the light goes out, someone is being told there isn’t any job. “Girls don’t last long on the switchboard here. They go crazy,” comments the weary receptionist.
Scenes like this one have given a feeling of how tough it could be to make it in Hollywood – but it isn’t all that tough for Esther. While working as a waitress at a party, she catches the eye of Hollywood leading man Norman Maine (March) – whose “work is starting to get in the way of his drinking”, to quote one of the film’s many famous lines. He gets her a screen test and she is soon cast opposite him in a film, with their screen romance being duplicated in real life and leading to marriage.
Our heroine is renamed Vicki Lester (rhymes with Esther), and a star is born – but meanwhile Norman’s star is waning fast, as his popularity falls away and the studio cancels his contract. He becomes a house-husband, but isn’t suited for the role, and is soon slipping back on to the booze again. March had played poignant drunks in several of his earlier films, and his portrayal of Maine is heartbreaking, alternating between attempts at gentle domesticity and outbreaks of wild anger and despair. If I have a criticism, it is probably that there are too many sweet, jokey love scenes between Esther and Norman, where the film almost turns into a romantic comedy at times. I love each of these scenes, taken separately, but maybe when you take it all together there isn’t enough portrayal of the strain which his problems would be bound to put on the marriage. In a Lux Radio Theater adaptation broadcast later in 1937, also starring Janet Gaynor, producer Oliver Niles (played by Alphonse Menjou in the film) asks Esther if she still loves Norman or just feels sorry for him, and she replies that it is hard to tell where one feeling ends and the other begins. In the film nobody asks this – it is just assumed that Esther goes on loving Norman, whatever he does to her.
I’ve seen several reviews suggesting that this movie is more seduced by Hollywood than What Price Hollywood? and some other behind-the-scenes films. However, I’m not sure this is fair. There isn’t all that much dwelling on glamour – except for a scene where Vicki is caked with unappealing make-up, including a Joan Crawford mouth. And there are plenty of scenes where the spiteful, backbiting nature of the star machine comes across, for instance in the catty remarks various people make about Norman as soon as he is out of earshot, gloating over his woes – especially the press agent, Matt Libby (Lionel Stander). Someone (Libby?) even makes a cruel joke when Norman has drowned himself, commenting “It’s the first drink of water he’s had in years”. Must admit I find the drowning scene itself hard to take – it somehow seems too smooth and easy, compared to the messiness and horror of Lowell Sherman’s death in What Price Hollywood? – but this sardonic reaction gives back some sharpness, as does the funeral scene, where fans pursue a weeping Vicki demanding autographs.
There are many great scenes in this film, but possibly the greatest is the Oscar scene, where a drunken Norman bursts in to disrupt Vicki’s acceptance speech, demanding that he should be given an award for the worst performance of the year. There’s a feeling of the dispossessed/thrown aside bursting in to spoil a smug party and screaming “But what about me?” This is even more the case in the 1954 remake, with James Mason as Norman saying repeatedly “I need a job”.
The script is beautifully constructed, with some scenes deliberately recalling earlier moments. One of these comes when Esther goes down to the courthouse to bail out Norman on a charge of being drunk and disorderly. When the judge asks her if she understands the responsibility she is taking on, she says “I do.” This wording recalls the couple’s wedding ceremony, which was also amazingly unglamorous, with the stars getting married in a police station, as people in the cells looked on through the bars. Then there is the famous last line of the film, where Vicki says to her adoring public over the radio “Hello everybody. This is Mrs Norman Maine”. Earlier in the film, Norman went off the rails when a postman addressed him as “Mr Lester”. Here Vicki takes his name, as he reluctantly took hers.
Many of Wellman’s 1930s movies are little-known and difficult to get hold of. By contrast, this classic is everywhere – available on a host of cheap region 1 and 2 DVDs with no special features. However, its public domain status means the film has not been restored (at any rate on the region 2 DVD I have, from a company called Nostalgia) and the Technicolor is sadly faded, though I’m sure it was glorious originally. All the same, the film’s greatness still comes across, even if the picture quality is less than perfect. And Max Steiner’s music is wonderful.