A Star is Born (1937)

Title: A Star is Born (1937)
Director: William A. Wellman
Writer/s: Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell

“I wanna be somebody!”

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Forget Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga for just one minute. I promise that everything will be fine if you do. It won’t take long. This is the film that started it all. The first in a line of films that would make a plot so simple manage to stand the test of time. In 1937, a film titled What Price Hollywood? had already been made back in 1932, and so people weren’t really excited to produce another film that had a plot scarily similar to that one. The narrative was such: girl wants to make it big in Hollywood and meets a man who knows how to get her there. Unfortunately man is struggling with a drinking problem and subsequently with his own success in the industry. Once girl has ‘made it’ as a ‘star’ she becomes more popular than the man, and as her star shines brighter and brighter, his becomes dimmer and dimmer and the effects of his addiction overshadow the talented individual he once was.

At the time RKO that had produced the film were planning on suing Selznick Production Company for their plans to release A Star Is Born four years later. The plots were far too similar but luckily for the world the lawsuit never happened.

In this 1937 production we are introduced to Esther Blodgett, played by the simply adorable Janet Gaynor (whom I am now slightly obsessed with), a young woman who lives with her parents, younger brother and grandmother. The only exposure Esther has to the ‘moving picture industry’ is through going to the movies with her family. When she expresses her desire to become an actress she is met with a lot of resistance from everyone except her amazingly supportive and surprisingly feisty grandmother who encourages Esther to chase her dreams. In her encouragement though lies the warning that if she chooses to pursue this life she must also expect to have her heart broken. Heeding her grandmother’s warning and taking her offer of money for the journey, Esther sets off on a train to Hollywood, leaving the life she knew behind.

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Suddenly we are transported to: “Hollywood! The Beckoning El Dorado… Metropolis of Make Believe in the California Hills” as the titles announce. Images of beautiful people sunning themselves at hotel swimming pools, buses arriving in droves headed for Los Angeles and close ups of the famous Grauman’s Chinese Theater set the scene for Esther’s arrival in the land of stars. An homage to classic Hollywood Esther walks among the footprints and hand-prints of stars such as real-life stars Shirley Temple, Jean Harlow and the fictional Norman Maine. She evokes the classic image of the country girl searching for the lights and wonder of the ‘big city’, and I guess maybe in 1937 this is where the clichés all began…

Esther finds herself a place to stay at a boarding house called The Oleander Arms and makes friends with the desk clerk and landlord who will introduce her to a fellow tenant, Danny Maguire, an aspiring director. They become friends immediately owing to their mutual interest in ‘show business’. Esther’s innocence and naivety is obvious as she approaches studios looking for ‘extra work’. She is told categorically by a very kind, but seasoned (and hardened) receptionist that her odds of getting an acting job in Hollywood are 1 in 100 000. Even back then those odds were depressing to say the least.

Eventually Danny lands a job as an assistant director and the two of them (Esther and Danny) go to an opera at The Hollywood Bowl to celebrate. Norman Maine (Fredric March), the once great screen actor will drunkenly stumble in, and cause a scene in the theater, but not before he catches Esther’s eye. A little while later at an industry party, Esther is working as a waitress (a job that Danny organized for her) and is doing a fabulous job of ‘working the room’. I think these are some of Gaynor’s best scenes in the film, and this is mostly due to the fact that she is seriously talented in her impressions of Hollywood star’s Mae West, Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo. It is worth noting that this entire film is filled with references to Hollywood and its many stars. No one seems to be paying much attention to the lovely Esther, until Norman Maine (drunk again) sees her and after a brief conversation that is interrupted by his snobby industry girlfriend (I forget her name and it matters not) he follows Esther into the kitchen and tries to flirt with her whilst she is stacking plates. After a couple of dishes are thrown in Norman’s usual ‘devil may care’ way, they are interrupted again by his girlfriend.

That night Norman struggles to fall asleep and ends up calling his agent, Oliver on the telephone at 3am to request that he organize a screen test for Esther. Flash forward and Esther signs a contract, but not after also being told that she is a nice girl and will end up paying for her success with her heart. Quite the warning for a young girl who is starting to fall for the incorrigible Norman Maine. It is during the signing that she is encouraged to change her name and her life story. As public relation rears its ugly head, Esther Blodgett becomes Vicki Lester in a matter of minutes.

As Vicki’s star begins to shine, Norman’s drinking is becoming a major topic of conversation and a major cause for concern. The couple do their first ‘picture’ together called The Enchanted Hour, and it is Vicki’s name that ends up in lights. There is one particular scene where Esther/Vicki looks out at the city lights of Los Angeles, and calls it a “crazy quilt”.

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At a boxing match Norman asks Vicki to marry him, and she very casually tells him that he will have to become dependable, stop throwing away his money and stop drinking, before she does anything of the sort. When he agrees to her terms the studio jumps at the opportunity to turn their marriage into a massive publicity opportunity, and all Vicki and Norman want to do is elope. Despite all the studio’s plans the couple get married at a county jail witnessed only by Vicki’s friend Danny Maguire and a couple of prison inmates. They leave for a honeymoon in a caravan in the woods and attempt domestic bliss, but this ends rather quickly when they crash and have to be rescued by a stranger who recognizes Vicki, but has absolutely no idea who Norman is.

Norman is starting to realize that his star is waning. Even the once massive piles of fan mail have started to dwindle. His agent suggests one more picture to try and get people to start liking him again, but it doesn’t work and he loses his contract.

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At this point Norman is attempting both sobriety and playing the dutiful husband to Esther, as well a somewhat glorified secretary to Vicki. Even the press have forgotten who he is as depicted in a scene where he is referred to as ‘Mr Lester’.

Then Vicki is nominated for an Academy Award. At the 8th annual award show Vicki wins and as she makes her acceptance speech – the most defining and important moment for any young actress – Norman arrives drunk and interrupts her speech. He is angry at the Academy for forgetting him and discarding him, and accidentally slaps Vicky in front of everyone.  After being hustled away Norman quickly books himself into a sanatorium to ‘dry up’. After weeks go by Norman is visited by his old agent Oliver who offers him a role that it turns out is not the lead. Chaperoned by a large burly orderly nicknamed ‘Cuddles’, Norman lies and claims  to have other offers on the table to save face.

Not long after leaving the sanatorium Norman finds himself at a bar. He gets drunk, has a physical fight with his old publicity agent, disappears for 4 days and ends up getting arrested. Sentenced to 90 days in prison after pleading guilty, the sentencing is interrupted by Vicki who begs the judge to rather let her keep an eye on her husband. The judge relents and releases Norman into the custody of his wife.

Vicki’s love for Norman is such that she contemplates leaving Hollywood for a while in order to take care of Norman. She discusses her plans with Oliver, her agent (and Norman’s former agent), and Norman overhears this. Esther wants to stop being Vicki Lester for a while, but a glance at her Oscar (Academy award) brings her to tears.

When Norman realizes this his guilt makes him commit the ultimate sacrifice – he takes one last look at Esther and walks into the ocean, drowning himself.

At Norman’s funeral Vicki/Esther is accosted by the press and crazed fans. Jokes are made about Norman’s death, and the insincerity of the industry is made abundantly clear. Esther becomes despondent and remains depressed at her home. Her feisty grandmother arrives, and convinces her that giving up on her dreams would not be what Norman would have wanted.

In the final scenes, Vicki Lester is being honored at the famous Chinese Theater to place her own name on the pavement of stars that she once walked all those years ago, with Danny and her grandmother in tow. When called to make a statement for all the fans listening to the broadcast on the radio, Vicki steps up to the microphone and addresses the fans as “Mrs Norman Maine”. Cue the dramatic music and the film ends.

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To say that this film is all about the price of Hollywood and fame would be correct. Norman’s death and the way in which the private lives of Vicki and Norman are treated are in no way different to the way in which those in the limelight are treated today. As serious as the film gets, there are also an incredible number of comedic scenes and most of them are initiated by Norman. One of my favorites is the look he gives the bartender at the very same party in which he will meet Esther. Another hilarious scene occurs at the sanatorium when Norman (after lying to Oliver about his film offers), puts his arm over the orderly’s shoulder and says “Well, Cuddles, alone at last”, as he leads him to the dining hall for dinner.

Norman’s comments are often subtle but hide a multitude of truths. At the sanatorium he says that he may have to introduce himself to a lot of people again as they won’t know him when he’s not drinking. I guess after acting that became his identity, and that was all people knew (or rather wanted to know) of the once great Norman Maine. The fragility and the impermanence of the business they call show has never, and will never be better represented than by this film, and the magic of the three films that will follow this one again in 1954, 1976 and 2018. The truth and the tragedy remains the same – what price Hollywood? What price fame?

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