A Star is Born (William A Wellman, 1937)

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.

Fredric March and Janet Gaynor

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.

Fredric March and Janet Gaynor

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.

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19 thoughts on “A Star is Born (William A Wellman, 1937)

  1. Beautifully written, Judy. This is for me Wellman’s best movie, and your post explained a lot of the reasons why. The entire cast is wonderful, but even so I think Fredric March really stands out as Norman Maine. You described so many great scenes, but one that really sticks in my mind is when Andy Devine gets Vicki a job as a waitress at a studio party, and while serving drinks she does spot-on imitations of Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, and Mae West. It’s a delightful scene that unexpectedly shows what a wickedly skillful mimic Janet Gaynor could be sending up these larger-than-life personalities who seem so eccentric compared to her sweet, petite small-town girl.

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    • Thank you very much for commenting, R.D., and I am delighted to hear that you like this film so much too. I agree that Fredric March gives a great performance – he is great at switching his mood in a moment. I failed to mention Andy Devine in my review, but enjoyed his scenes too, and I agree the party imitations of various actresses from Janet Gaynor are great fun – I especially like your description of the contrast between her and these other personalities. I also like all her different intonations of the one line she is given for her first part, “Mr Smith isn’t in!”

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  2. Judy, your review has surely done this movie justice. What a beautifully written post! On the other hand, isn’t it sad that such a great classic hasn’t rec’vd the DVD treatment it deserves. The copy I saw was from our local lending library; the color was woefully faded and almost shameful. But the movie is so powerful, I was able to get past the poor shape of the film. The performances of the leads and the supporting players are excellent. Even after all these years, the desire for fame and stardom is still so strong in our culture, but the message of A STAR IS BORN continues to warn, “Fame may not be as great as you think it is; it may come at a high price.” Mr Finch’s comments above are also excellent. I look forward to the day when both STAR and NOTHING SACRED receive the restoration and treatment they deserve.

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    • I must agree it is a shame that the film hasn’t received better treatment – as you say, both this one and ‘Nothing Sacred’ definitely deserve to be properly restored. At least they are available on DVD, I suppose, unlike a lot of Wellman’s movies – but, when you look at the magnificent restoration of the 1954 ‘A Star Is Born’, which I’ve just watched on TV, you can’t help feeling it’s a shame the earlier version hasn’t had similar respect. On your comment about the film’s view of the desire for stardom, I’ve seen a comment at the imdb pointing out that both ‘A Star Is Born’ and ‘Nothing Sacred’ look at the price of fame, as does ‘Roxie Hart’. Thanks very much for the kind comments!

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  3. Judy,

    A great cast highlights this film and you have done it justice with this fabulous review. As you mention, there are so many great scenes. March is such a great actor, one who I personally am only starting to appreicate. I still have to see the Garland version (think I mentioned this before). keep recording it on TCM and then erase it to make room for something else.

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    • Thank you, John – I’m trying to see a few of March’s movies at the moment, and agree he is a great actor. I especially love his performance in ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ – and come to think of it there are echoes of that in this movie.

      I’ve just watched the Garland version, recorded from TV, and was a bit bewildered by how long it was, much longer than I remembered from seeing it years ago, and also about why there were some scenes which were just still pictures and voiceover – then I discovered it had been restored and had some missing parts added back in, but for some of these scenes only the audio track still exists. It’s a good movie, but I’d love to see it as Cukor originally intended, before the studio cut a huge chunk out!

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  4. “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…”

    Superbly framed Judy! The Region 1 Image DVD of this great classic is certainly nothing to disparage, but I’ll admit that a new print is very much in order. Well, as I have expressed in these hallowed halls in previous discussions, I have alwats since childhood adored this film, it’s lead performances, it’s final scene (one of the most justly celebrated in all of the cinema), it’s inspired direction by Wellman, it’s lovely technicolor, and it’s irresistible story. Cukor’s version with Judy Garland is exceptional in ways, but it lacks the homespun warmth and emotional power of Wellman’s version, and even the latter musical can’t match the full cast of the 1937 version–Gaynor, March, Menjou, Robson, et all are all magnificent. I played the final scenes of both versions to my daughter Melanie weeks ago, and she was far more moved by the Wellman’s orchestration (as well she should have been) and I just recently watched this film for the umteenth time, and it lost none of it’s lustre. It certainly competes strongly as my favorite Wellman film of them all, and much has to do with am enduring affection dating all the way back to my teenage years.

    This line has always had me going”

    “Hello everybody…..this is Mrs. Norman Maine…”

    Yes, Max Steiner’s beautiful score (some of it directly lifted from some of his other work–TOM SAWYER especially—a tendency back in the 30’s) provides for the proper aural underpinning, and yes the Oscar scene is unforgettable and a close runner-up to the final scene in its enduring fame.

    This is one film that can be watched over and over, without losing an ounce. As befitting this great Wellman film, you have singularly done it glorious justice my friend!

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    • Sorry to be so slow in replying, Sam, I’m getting all behind again, but thank you very much for your detailed and generous comment, much appreciated! I definitely agree that this is a film which can be watched over and over – “homespun warmth and irresistible power” is a perfect encapsulation of its appeal, together with the satirical edge, of course. I’m not sure about my favourite Wellman film of them all – possibly still ‘The Public Enemy’, or ‘Wild Boys of the Road’, but this one is up there too. Thanks also for the information about Max Steiner – I hadn’t realised that he lifted some of the score here from his other work, or that this happened in the 1930s.

      I do like Cukor’s remake but find it a pity that we still don’t have a cut of the film as he wanted to make it – the restoration is beautifully done, but the film drags a little during the sections where there are just still pictures and voiceover. And three hours is something of a marathon. I do love Garland singing ‘The Man That Got Away’, though, and there are plenty of other great scenes.

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  6. I hope not irrelevant: I watched _Dead Again_ a couple of times this week (Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson) where the genre of these classic films more than just film noir is re-created and juxtaposed or turned into a 1990s version of the same story and character types. Fascinating. A suggestion: the distance between the modern story line and the classic film one was the distance between a glamorizing, strong sexual stereotyping and repressive kind of environment and a far franker, insightful still sexually stereotyped but differently-so story. the second story explains the first psychoanalytically (through the icons like the tower).

    Worth viewing,
    Ellen

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    • Thanks, Ellen, that’s interesting, especially as I have just watched a couple of noirs – I have seen ‘Dead Again’ in the past but must admit I don’t remember it very well. I should give it another look.

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  7. “You go right out there and break it yourself!” (her heart) — I like that kind of pathos.
    I saw it on YouTube and then recalled to already had seen it — possibly as kid.

    I also saw you changed your headline caption, so I changed the text on my blogroll too. Thus you’re gonna specialize a bit more, find that very interesting.

    Sometimes it’s even better for me, if I know the plot, before having seen a movie — above all if scary things are going on in there. It’s good to know, if a film is finally heading towards a happy ending though. I use to suffer quite a lot with my screen idols. Anyway, to me the HOW is more important than WHAT happens. After I got the WHAT, I can watch a film daily for two weeks, being thrilled by the HOW all the time. And then maybe I’m a bit sad to say goodbye to that film, after have decided to go on with another one.

    Don’t wonder–I decided to have comments off. I have discussion on Blogspot anyway.

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    • Thanks, Clarissa – I really changed the header for my blog because it struck me that I’ve mainly been writing about early 1930s movies and that is where my main interest lies. I’m hoping to do more shorter reviews and cover more of the films I watch that way, although I have said that in the past and not stuck to it!

      I agree with what you say about how things happen being more important than the bare plot – sometimes I prefer to be kept guessing about what will happen, especially if there is a shock twist, but I think a good film will stand up to viewing either way. And I also agree that I like rewatching movies too – often you can spot something or see something from a different angle on another viewing, though I haven’t quite stuck with the same one for two weeks. Thanks again.

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