Synopsis: A young woman comes to Hollywood with dreams of stardom, but achieves them only with the help of an alcoholic leading man whose best days are behind him.
Stars: Janet Gaynor, Fredric March, Adolphe Menjou, Lionel Stander, May Robson, Andy Devine
Director: William A. Wellman
Running Length: 111 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: With the release of the third remake of A Star is Born almost upon us, I wanted to go back and do my homework. That meant revisiting all three prior versions of the movie (done in one day, thank you very much!), which brought me all the way back to this Hollywood fantasy that started it all. Released in 1937, it’s easy to see why the original A Star is Born has proved so lasting and provided so many opportunities to update the story over the next eight decades. This is a timeless tale of achieving fame, finding love, and the often tortured road that leads to both.
I had seen the 1954 Judy Garland version and bits and pieces of the 1976 Barbra Streisand take but this was the first time I had watched the original and what a way to start my marathon! Directed by William A. Wellman from a script by a team that included Dorothy Parker, it’s both a biting take on Hollywood elitism and a deeply felt romance that emanates right off the screen.
Janet Gaynor stars as Esther Blodgett, a small-town North Dakota girl that dreams of going to Hollywood and making it big. Discouraged to do so by almost everyone, the one person that gives her the support (and money) she needs to take the chance is her wry grandmother (a stellar May Robson) and she uses that belief to pack up her things and hop on the next bus to Los Angeles. Like so many that held the same dream, Esther finds that just getting cast as an extra in a film is an ordeal in and of itself so she spends her time waiting for the call from central casting and doing the odd job on the side.
It’s at a waitressing job where she catches the eye of mega star Norman Maine (Frederic March) who soon becomes her champion with his friends at the studio while they begin to fall in love. Though he’s a known womanizer and notorious alcoholic, Esther (soon to be renamed Vicki Lester when she debuts onscreen) seems to tame Norman into being a one-woman man and eases him out of pickling himself in drink. As Vicki’s star rises, Norman finds it more difficult to get work and eventually his opportunities dry up all together. Though it makes no difference to her because she loves him and wants him above all things, he feels as if there is inequity in their relationship he just can’t reconcile.
Though it may feel ever so slightly quaint now, I found a lot of unforgettable moments in this earliest version of A Star is Born. From the opening scenes between Esther and her grandmother to the first meeting between the two lovers, audiences are treated to rich acting from stars at the top of their craft. There’s an incident at an Oscar ceremony that caused me to gasp in horror and who could forget that final line? It’s a tearjerker to be sure but one that shows equal strength and affection for both the male and female leads, something rare in those days.
Gaynor and March had already won Oscars before making A Star is Born so they likely knew the price of fame and the perils of stardom. Both bring that awareness to their roles which make their characters all the more vibrant and, ultimately, tragic. The two would be nominated again for their work here but only the original story for the film would take home an Oscar (Robson deserved a nomination too, by the way). It’s unfortunate that the next two iterations of the movie would loom so large in the public memory because this is the one I feel tells the story with the least amount of fat and padding – where it not for Judy Garland’s magnetic performance in the 1954 telling, the 1937 A Star is Born would easily be my favorite version. Even so, it’s a dynamite bit of Hollywood history that should be a part of your own film studies.