Bright Lights Film Journal

Eighty Years of A Star Is Born: An Actress Evaluates a Classic

Today, Cukor’s musical version is regarded as a classic, and, due to Garland’s spectacular comeback performance, it has even eclipsed the original. Yet I prefer the 1937 version, primarily because Garland’s Esther is fundamentally different than Gaynor’s. She seems content singing in nightclubs until Norman convinces her to pursue movie stardom. In Wellman’s film, motion picture fame is Esther’s own idea – no one has to sell her on it. Besides, Judy’s Esther has an unmistakable talent for singing, while Gaynor better typifies those of us not obviously gifted in show-off skills like song and dance; we just know deep down we could make magic up on that screen.

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Just call me Esther Blodgett. Like the inauspiciously named heroine of A Star Is Born (1937), I journeyed from a dusty town 1,500 miles away to seek fame and fortune in the “beckoning El Dorado,” the “Metropolis of Make-Believe in the California hills.” I have been here eight years, and am just now starting to taste a hint of success. In those eight years, I have both acted and written, sometimes professionally, and sometimes for free. I have done thankless extra work, slaved my ass off for a shot at glory, and had my heart broken into too many pieces to count. I may not be a star, but I’ve earned my Hollywood degree.

One of the films that inspired me to try my luck in Los Angeles was William Wellman’s A Star Is Born, and it is still my favorite. Now that I have learned the Hollywood ropes, I marvel at the realism of some elements (the ruthlessness of the press, the dark vein of cynicism that runs through the whole film), while smirking at Hollywood’s self-glorifying interpretation of its own mythology (the seemingly overnight success of Vicki Lester, the studio boss as “good guy”). Still, of all the movies about starry-eyed La La Land hopefuls and their varying levels of success and heartbreak, the original version of A Star Is Born remains powerful, poignant, and surprisingly relevant, even after eighty years.

It may not have singlehandedly launched all those rise-to-fame tropes we now consider antiquated clichés – the starry-eyed farm girl stepping off a bus at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the montage of diction lessons and makeovers, the actress’s first self-conscious glimpse of herself on the big screen – but it was the first to cram them into one film and make them familiar to the world through its ubiquitous screenings, revivals, TV broadcasts, and remakes over the decades.

But more than that, it broke new ground by filtering glamorous Tinseltown through a darkly cynical lens. Though Billy Wilder’s masterpiece Sunset Blvd. reaps most of the critical attention for peeling back the glamorous façade and exposing the ugly underbelly of the movies, A Star Is Born fully illustrated the unpleasant realities of Hollywood thirteen years earlier. Just imagine being a moviegoer in early 1937, an era of candy-coated Shirley Temple dimple-fests, zany romantic comedies, and frilly, historic costume dramas; the days of happy endings and strict adherence to the Production Code in safe, muted tones of black and white. With visions of chorus girls dancing in your head, you go see a picture called A Star Is Born (its title hints at a backstage musical). Entering the theater toward the end of the movie as was common then, you see up on the screen – in living Technicolor, no less – a disheveled, humiliated shell of a movie actor somberly pleading with a drunk-tank judge to be released on bail, then having cameras shoved in his face as he exits the city court a broken man, painfully aware that his only value to the public now is as a symbol of shame and disgust. This must have really stung. In fact, it still hurts to watch today. Nothing like that ever made it into a Shirley Temple movie.

If they hadn’t yet reached this level of realism, Hollywood-themed films were nothing new by the mid-1930s. The studio-Cinderella story had been played for laughs by Mabel Normand in the 1923 silent The Extra Girl, and played for melodrama by Eleanor Boardman that same year in Souls for Sale. In 1928, the avant-garde short The Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra artistically exposed the industry’s inhumane treatment of its performers. Meanwhile, bubbly Marion Davies portrayed an aspiring screen star in two different comedies, the silent Show People and the musical Going Hollywood. A long-forgotten 1930 pre-code Alice White talkie called Showgirl in Hollywood laid the foundation for A Star Is Born by touching on a few hard truths, like the industry’s overabundance of young, delusional wannabes contrasted with dejected celluloid has-beens attempting suicide at age thirty-two. Showgirl in Hollywood wasn’t exactly The Day of the Locust, though – the obligatory sunny ending prevails at the fade-out.

The most obvious cinematic predecessor to A Star Is Born was the 1932 drama What Price Hollywood? with Constance Bennett. Like Star, it features a movie-obsessed heroine who becomes an overnight sensation. Unlike Star, the actress gets her big break from befriending an alcoholic director, but marries a polo player instead. RKO’s legal department found the stories so similar that a plagiarism lawsuit was filed against the producers of A Star Is Born, but contrary to popular belief, A Star Is Born was not a deliberate remake of What Price Hollywood? and is quite a different film. Until screenwriter Robert Carson, director William Wellman, and producer David O. Selznick began developing an unvarnished drama about a rising actress married to a washed-up alcoholic actor in 1936, the world had yet to witness a full-blown, true-to-life Hollywood tragedy play out on the screen.

Audiences had also never seen a film that opens on an actual draft of the film’s shooting script. It’s difficult to imagine today, but this was a time when film industry lingo was confined to the film industry. When the camera zooms in on the first page of the script, it was probably the first time many viewers had encountered terms like “Fade in,” “Long shot,” and “Dissolve to.”

A Star Is Born dissolves from the shooting script to the rural home of Esther Victoria Blodgett (Janet Gaynor) of Fillmore, North Dakota, who dreams of crashing Hollywood and becoming a big star. Contemporary critics often complain that Janet Gaynor is not ideal for the part – too old, too boring, too orange-haired, whatever. But in the era of typecasting, she slipped easily into the role. Gaynor had risen to stardom as a very young, very sweet silent-era cutie, so by the 1930s her face was shorthand for “girl next door.” She is innocuous and common enough to be believable as an average young woman, and also believable as a star because she was a star – Fox’s biggest draw in the late 1920s and winner of the first ever Academy Award for Best Actress.

Esther’s family doesn’t understand her. She makes faces in the mirror, and practices her Greta Garbo impression by speaking to horses in a Swedish accent. She’s different, not just because is a budding actress, but because she’s not content to fritter her life away on a farm. In a touching, authentic scene (the type Hollywood has sadly lost its knack for), Esther’s feisty pioneer-woman grandma (May Robson) funds her train ride to L.A., but with one caveat: “For every dream of yours you make come true, you’ll pay the price in heartbreak.” This is the first important point the film makes, and it’s an eternal truth. We may try to avoid or deny it, but we can’t escape it. Nothing we want ever comes for free.

When Esther arrives in Hollywood, things are tougher than she expected. During the Depression any work was hard to find, much less work in the movies. In this respect, it truly was as difficult to make it in the Hollywood of the 1930s as it is today, despite the facts that:

  1. There were about five billion fewer people in the world back then (less competition for everything);
  2. Before the internet and reality television, not every human being on the planet saw himself as a potential celebrity (again, less competition);
  3. Before tax breaks lured filmmakers to Canada and Louisiana, Hollywood produced hundreds of features per year and business was booming; and
  4. In the studio era, actors got signed to contracts and had all aspects of their careers handled by professionals, rather than having to promote themselves and find their own jobs like today.

But the competition was just as fierce back then. Young, unemployed women flocked to Hollywood and Vine in droves, and they were entirely at the mercy of powerful male studio heads and producers. Today, there are countless indie filmmakers, TV stations, and streaming sites producing new content, but in the 1930s there were only eight major movie studios, and that was it. A handful of starlets got incredibly lucky and succeeded on their own merits, but the majority did not. Many ended up committing desperate acts or being abused and taken advantage of on the road to fame, others got on the bus and went back home, defeated within six months. Some, like Peg Entwistle (the starlet who famously jumped to her death from the Hollywood sign in 1932), fared even worse. In 1937 as well as 2017, transforming oneself from obscure nobody to world-famous movie star was a near-impossible feat.

As yours truly and armies of others have done since 1925, Esther steps into the Central Casting office to register for work as an extra (or “background performer,” the politically correct twenty-first-century term). Several more recent films like Ellie Parker and La La Land feature effective, darkly comic takes on the gut-wrenching audition process, but few capture the cruel discouragement of the industry as well as the sequence in A Star Is Born where Esther can’t even get into extra work. “Do you know what your chances are?” the Central Casting agent tells her, “One in a hundred thousand.” With tears welling in her eyes as she exits the office, Esther turns back and softly replies, “But . . . maybe I’m that one.” What makes this moment so heartbreaking is the way she defends herself dispiritedly, without much conviction. “Maybe.” Hollywood is a town full of Maybe, and it comes with a large side order of Maybe Not. The difference is, today Central Casting welcomes virtually anyone onto its books, although extras have a snowball’s chance in hell of ever getting discovered and being offered a legitimate speaking role. Once you submit to being in the background, you are typically treated as “background,” which is industry-speak for invisible. Central Casting is no longer a springboard to anything except invisibility.

Once Granny’s money runs out, invisible Esther can’t pay her rent. Her buddy, assistant director Danny Maguire (Andy Devine), gets her a gig serving at a party where she meets handsome but hard-drinking movie star Norman Maine, née Alfred Hinkle (played by Fredric March, née Ernest Bickel). She had already encountered Maine in an earlier scene where he makes a spectacle of himself at the Hollywood Bowl. After “that one extra cocktail,” Norman tumbles out of his seat and beats a photographer (and his camera) to a pulp. Sean Penn might have thought he pioneered the sport of paparazzi-pummeling in the ’80s, but Norman Maine was the original Brownie-smashing bad boy. Fredric March – reportedly a bit of an egotist, though not a drinker – is pitch-perfect in the role. His style and self-deprecating wit make raging alcoholic Norman impossible to hate. Though shades of John Gilbert and John Barrymore can be seen in his character, Maine may be most directly descended from Mary Pickford’s first husband, actor and hopeless alcoholic Owen Moore. Moore even appears in A Star Is Born as a director who complains – with gruesome irony – that Norman’s “work is beginning to interfere with his drinking.” Moore succumbed to his demons following a Norman Maine-style bender in 1939, a scant two years after A Star Is Born debuted. It marks his final film appearance.

Esther takes a shine to Norman, and luckily for her, the feeling is mutual. That’s one thing A Star Is Born hits right on the mark, and something that hasn’t changed in Hollywood: virtually the only way to break in is to make friends with, date, or be otherwise closely connected to an industry power-player. Regardless of talent, hard work, oodles of “it” factor, or legions of Facebook fans, Hollywood will never notice you unless you’ve got an industry connection in your corner. Yet those connections are difficult to forge; average joes have little opportunity to form close bonds with the wealthy and powerful. But it does occasionally happen, and it happens to Esther Blodgett.

A Star Is Born loosens its grip on reality somewhat when Norman Maine spends all of two minutes convincing producer Oliver Niles (Adolphe Menjou) to give Esther a screen test. Though they admit she is “a little mild for current tastes,” both men see a glimmer of that indefinable something in her and boom! she’s under contract to the studio. The comic realism in Esther’s screen test makes up for any strained suspension of disbelief. Anyone who has ever worked on a film set will see the hilarity in seven assistant directors echoing seven shouts of “Quiet!” through the sound stage. The test is a success, Esther Victoria is morphed into the more marquee-friendly Vicki Lester, a team of makeup artists gives Vicki a new “Dietrich” mouth and constantly surprised eyebrows, and Norman arranges for her to play the lead in his next picture. Using a bit of proto-Raising Arizona dialogue, the studio bigwig simply says “Okay,” and the proverbial star is born. Not without a price, though. Oliver echoes Esther’s grandmother’s words when he signs her: “Nothing you really want is ever given away free.”

At a public preview debuting Vicki Lester, the film subtly raises a taboo topic, a cloud of suspicion that has hovered over actresses since the dawn of the entertainment industry. Oliver Niles overhears a male audience member remark that “because she’s a good girl” (code for virginal), the producers might not make Vicki a big star. Oliver, an unusually kind and moral producer, looks surprised and a bit offended to realize that John Q. Public suspects actresses of having to sleep with movie producers in order to succeed. Being a good girl, Esther/Vicki does not date Norman to get ahead in her career. She genuinely falls for the lug, even though (or perhaps because) she sees the sensitive, tortured soul beneath the celebrated image. In her, he sees a fresh start; as she is transformed into a movie star, he envisions his own transformation. In one of the movie’s darkly comedic twists, Norman offers to convert from alcoholic wastrel to sober citizen if Esther will marry him – while they watch two men beat each other’s brains out at a boxing match. Norman holds Esther in his arms after a TKO and moons romantically, “Gee, that was a beautiful fight.”

Like the boxers in the ring, A Star Is Born doesn’t pull any punches. It gives Esther and Norman approximately fifteen minutes to announce their engagement, get married, enjoy a nice alcohol-free honeymoon, and lull themselves into a false sense of security before the inevitable trouble starts. Even their fifteen minutes of happiness are fraught with undercurrents of bitter pessimism. The witnesses at their city hall wedding are drunks in a jail cell. The studio’s “demon press agent” Libby (Lionel Stander) spouts a torrent of venomous trash-talk behind their backs. “There go a couple of rats I raised from mice,” he grumbles when Norman and Esther elope quietly instead of following Libby’s plan for a Santa Monica wedding: bridesmaids in bathing suits, 20,000 schoolchildren spelling out the word “love” on the beach, and bombers circling overhead.

With alarming alacrity, Norman Maine descends just as Vicki Lester ascends the ranks of superstardom. In as brief a span of time as it took Esther to become a star, her husband becomes invisible and utterly irrelevant. If his fall from grace seems exaggerated, Google “washed-up stars” for scores of celebrities who were on top of the A-list a mere two or three years ago. Soon, as many of them do, Norman hits the bottle. He shows up, boozy and embittered, at the Academy Awards ceremony just as Esther is accepting an Oscar for Best Actress. “They don’t mean a thing, people get them every year,” he says. Ever since Luise Rainer won back-to-back Oscars in 1937 and ’38 and was swiftly forgotten, there has been a steady stream of Oscar recipients who would agree that the award holds little value. In fact, the buzz about Oscar winners being cursed rages on to this day. But Norman’s words are mortifyingly inappropriate on this night. He even drunkenly (though accidentally) backhands Esther across the face in front of the whole town. In the days before TV, the Academy Awards banquet was a small, private industry event. That slap may not have been watched by the world, but it still finishes Norman’s career for good. He dries out at a sanitarium, but after a few well-chosen words from the bullying, acid-tongued Libby, he falls right off the wagon and ends up in jail. Esther volunteers to quit making films, at least for a while, to take care of Norman.

If this were a typical drama from 1937, Esther would grandly relinquish her fame to devote herself fully to wifehood, and the two would live happily ever after. The little lady would have learned her lesson about attempting a silly profession outside the home. She would nobly succumb to a woman’s “rightful place” as her husband’s constant caretaker . . . roll end credits. But no. This is A Star Is Born, a movie that dares to take it there. Norman, instead, one-ups Esther by literally walking into the sunset and drowning himself in the sea. It is a vision that still rips your heart out. It may also be the only case in Hollywood history where a man sacrifices his life for the sake of a woman’s career. We’ve come a long way, baby, but even in 2017, screens aren’t exactly packed with husbands committing suicide to avoid interfering with the wife’s profession. This gives the film not only an emotional wallop, but an unusual prescience. The filmmakers may not have intended to make a feminist statement (though they did hire writers Dorothy Parker and Adela Rogers St. Johns to work on the script), yet it can’t be ignored. There is an inherent modernity in the symbolism of a man’s career fading as a woman grows more successful and powerful.

After being mobbed by autograph hounds at Norman’s funeral – a true Hollywood tale that actually happened to Norma Shearer at Irving Thalberg’s memorial service in 1936 – Esther decides this town is too rough for her. Defeated, she packs up and prepares to quit the business. Enter Granny, the voice of reason, who shows up just in time to encourage Esther to stay in Hollywood by reminding her of the bargain she agreed to: success for heartbreak. “I’m sorry I gave you the money,” she says, if Esther is just going to be “a quitter.” The triumphant final scene is a gala premiere for Vicki’s new movie at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, where Esther first arrived with only a suitcase and a dream. On an international radio broadcast, Granny offers some hope to keep the dreamers from getting discouraged: “It took me over sixty years to get here, but here I am.” Esther, a star reborn and clad in angelic white, falters slightly when she sees Norman’s footprints in cement, but finds the courage to carry on with Oliver Niles at her side. In the movie’s famous last line, Esther announces herself to the world as “Mrs. Norman Maine” to an ovation from the crowd. As corny and predictable as this line has become after eight decades, I challenge anyone to watch the scene without tearing up just a little.

The film’s ultimate comment on Hollywood’s cruelty lies just beneath the surface of its heartwarming finale. The uproarious applause Norman’s name receives comes too late. Why couldn’t the crowds have cheered for him when it really mattered? When the applause might have saved his life? Just like today, the public is morbidly fickle. The same outpouring of love can be witnessed with the death of celebrities like George Michael, for one example. It was considered fashionable in comedies to mock Michael or feature jokes at Wham!’s expense (in Deadpool, La La Land, etc.), until he died. Then the stream of “stunned” and “sad” celebrity Tweets started flowing. As The Stranglers put it, “Everybody loves you when you’re dead.”

A Star Is Born remains infinitely valuable on so many levels. As a full-color record of Hollywood in the latter days of the Great Depression, it offers a rare glimpse at Hollywood Blvd. all clean and shining, before it was inundated with traffic, litter on the sidewalks, and homeless people holding cardboard signs on every corner. A few of the movie’s iconic locations still stand: Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and its star-imprinted forecourt, the deco-fabulous Santa Anita Racetrack, and the landmark Hollywood Bowl. Others are only a memory: The grand old Biltmore Bowl beneath the Millennium Biltmore Hotel (where the Academy Awards ceremonies were held in the 1930s) was destroyed by fire in 1950, and is now two smaller ballrooms. Club Trocadero, once the swingingest spot on the Sunset Strip, was demolished decades ago. The Hollywood Legion Stadium (where the boxing match was shot) is long gone, as is the glorious Ambassador Hotel, its posh Cocoanut Grove room, and its Lido Club swimming pool. Even Esther’s little farm community of Fillmore, North Dakota, no longer exists. As of 2017, it has become a virtually abandoned ghost town.

The film also remains valuable as entertainment, as evidenced by Hollywood’s obsession with remaking it. First came George Cukor’s 1954 musical starring Judy Garland and James Mason, then a 1976 drama with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. As we speak, Warner Bros. is in pre-production on a new version starring Lady Gaga, with Clint Eastwood producing. Today, Cukor’s musical version is regarded as a classic, and, due to Garland’s spectacular comeback performance, it has even eclipsed the original. Yet I prefer the 1937 version, primarily because Garland’s Esther is fundamentally different than Gaynor’s. She seems content singing in nightclubs until Norman convinces her to pursue movie stardom. In Wellman’s film, motion picture fame is Esther’s own idea – no one has to sell her on it. Besides, Judy’s Esther has an unmistakable talent for singing, while Gaynor better typifies those of us not obviously gifted in show-off skills like song and dance; we just know deep down we could make magic up on that screen. Like the 1937 Esther, we have no way to prove it – we just feel it in the pit of our stomachs. But what if we’re wrong? Or, worse yet, what if we’re right, but we never get our big break? What if no one else sees what we feel certain is there?

At eighty, the original A Star Is Born still beautifully illustrates the struggles and pitfalls of fame while simultaneously encouraging the unrealistic dreams that fuel the film industry. It is so quintessentially Hollywood. After all, without the unrealistic dreamers like me, L.A. would not have the constant, competitive influx of new talent and new ideas to propel it forward. Even those who try and fail become an indelible part of the legend and lure of the city of stars.

As Mia (Emma Stone), the twenty-first century’s latest Esther Blodgett, sings in La La Land:

“Here’s to the ones who dream
Foolish as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that ache
Here’s to the mess we make.”

A Star Is Born celebrated its 80th anniversary with a screening at (where else?) Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood on January 24.

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Unless otherwise noted, all screenshots are from the DVD of the film.