Film Title: A Star is Born
Studio: Selznick International Pictures/United Artists
Silent or Talkie: Talkie
- Janet Gaynor
- Fredric March
- Adolphe Menjou
Director William A. Wellman, fresh from his uncredited directing chores on Tarzan Escapes, for M.G.M., brought the genesis for his next project to his friend David Selznick who had just launched his own studio Selznick International Pictures. It was an original story treatment called It Happened in Hollywood that he had written with Robert Carson. It told the story of a Midwest farm girl, Esther Victoria Blodgett, who comes to Hollywood to seek fame and fortune. She meets fading matinee idol Norman Maine who believes in her and helps her fulfill her dream. Esther, now rechristened Mona Lester, begins her rise to the top while Norman’s star fades. Selznick had been down this road before with a 1932 R.K.O. film called What Price Hollywood? that he’d done with George Cukor. Selznick had been dissatisfied with the final film and told Wellman that he just wasn’t interested. Wellman though thought “it was a hell of a good story and I told it to his wife Irene . . . and she went crazy for it.” David changed his mind.
What had put Selznick off the story to begin with was “the attitude of its telling.” It was a sardonic satire, and except for the leads, all the other characters were either comic or bitter. This had been part of Selznick’s dissatisfaction with What Price Hollywood? Both Wellman and Selznick genuinely loved making movies. Couldn’t they somehow bring this attitude to the story? Wellman and Carson began to write a full-blown scenario from their original story idea. With input from Selznick, of course, they went through several drafts. What began to emerge was a well-balanced tale of Hollywood. The studio head in their story, Oliver Niles, became a beneficent mogul, a man who cares about making quality films and takes a personal interest in the lives of his stars. Studio press agent Matt Libby embodied the vulgar side of the business. Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell were brought in to punch up the dialogue and characterizations. The script, as was common in the studio era of filmmaking, was passed through several hands for polishing as well.
It is often stated that A Star is Born is a remake or at least an adaptation of What Price Hollywood? It is not. Except for the obvious sharing of locales, the two films are dissimilar in tone and execution. Stories about young hopefuls trying to break into the movie business have been around almost as long as movies themselves. If anything, What Price Hollywood? seems to have served as a template of what Selznick did NOT want in this picture. It has often been speculated that the Esther/Norman story was based upon a real life Hollywood story. In fact, Wellman and Selznick went to great pains to see that wasn’t the case. Wellman stated that the familiar incidents were “just things that happened”, sometimes to himself, sometimes to others. The scene of Norman going before a judge for public drunkenness was “word for word” what had happened to him in a similar situation. The visit Oliver Niles pays to Norman in the sanitarium was based on a visit that George Cukor made to John Barrymore. And the crowd’s reaction at Norman’s funeral was taken from Irving Thalberg’s funeral in which his widow, Norma Shearer, was besieged by a waiting public looking for a real life glimpse of the famous attendees.
Eventually Mona Lester morphed into Vicki Lester and It Happened in Hollywood became The Stars Below and finally A Star is Born. Both Selznick and Wellman knew that the casting of the leads would be crucial. Fredric March was one of Hollywood’s most sought after leading men at the time. He’d won an Oscar in 1932 for playing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. After nine costume pictures in a row he was ready for a change and readily accepted the part. For a while Selznick considered either Elisabeth Bergner or Margaret Sullavan for the role of Esther/Vicki. Finally he settled on the screen’s first recipient of the Best Actress Oscar, Janet Gaynor. She had been in a career slump herself. After being a top box-office draw in the late 1920s and early 1930s, her last few pictures had not done well, and she was now seriously considering retiring from the screen. She accepted the role immediately. Other roles were filled by the crème de la crème of Hollywood character actors: Adolphe Menjou as studio head Oliver Niles, May Robson as Esther’s grandmother, Lionel Stander as Matt Libby (who later famously played Max on TV’s Hart to Hart), Edgar Kennedy as Pop Randall, Andy Devine as Esther’s friend Danny McGuire, Clara Blandick (later Dorothy’s Auntie Em) as Esther’s Aunt Mattie, Peggy Wood, Guinn Williams, Franklin Pangborn and others.
After more than seventy years, and through two remakes, Selznick and Wellman’s original 1937 A Star is Born retains its classic status. Both March and Gaynor deliver amazing performances, among the best either ever delivered. Fredric March’s Norman Maine is melancholy, romantic, abrasive, and ultimately very touching. Janet Gaynor’s naturally sweet demeanor serves Esther/Vicki well, and her sense of helplessness in trying to help Norman battle his demons is heartbreaking. She also has some great comedy moments as a waitress serving canapés trying on the personas of Garbo, Katharine Hepburn and Mae West as she offers her trays, as well as the classic transformation scene as the studio make up artists try to figure out just which “look” best serves her: “Does she have to look surprised all the time?” Adolphe Menjou brings humanity to the business of making movies, and Lionel Stander’s uncompromising, caustic Libby shows us the underbelly of the beast. Wellman’s direction is, as always, top notch. He keeps the story moving, but he never backs away from letting all his actors have their moments: Edgar Kennedy has a nice physical moment in his encounter with a hanging lamp in the rooming house hallway, Andy Devine is allowed to shine in his scenes, and Peggy Wood has a touchingly sincere moment with Esther as she attempts to find work. “You know what your chances are? One in a hundred thousand,” she tells Esther. To which Esther relies, “But maybe, I’m that one.”
Max Steiner’s score is one of his best, and that’s saying a lot. Lyle Wheeler and Edward Boyle’s realization of the forty-two sets under the supervision of color consultant Lansing C. Holden perfectly capture the settings for the story. And the script that Selznick and Wellman agonized over is perfect. There’s a lot of territory and tone to cover, and the script has no problem veering from the darker aspects of the story and still allowing the characters to have fun. Perhaps the sharpest dialogue goes to the press agent Libby. Foiled in his plans to stage a huge wedding for the press “like Lindberg in New York but with more depth” when Norman and Esther secretly elope, he sneers “There go a couple of rats I raised from mice.” Amazingly, but in true Hollywood tradition, the famous closing line of the film was penned by John Lee Mahin for a hasty retake when the ending was just not working to everyone’s satisfaction. “Hello everybody. This is Mrs. Norman Maine.” It’s a perfect line, perfectly delivered by Janet Gaynor, which makes a perfect ending, and it was an afterthought!
A Star is Born was received with critical acclaim and box-office success. It opened on April 20, 1937 at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, not coincidentally, I think, the setting for Esther’s first glimpse of Hollywood, where she literally (and later figuratively) steps into Norman Maine’s footprints, and where later she delivers one of the most famous closing lines in film history. The film was nominated six Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Original Story, and Best Screenplay. It won only Best Original Story (William A. Wellman and Robert Carson). Wellman’s Oscar that year was the only he ever won.
A Star is Born is currently in the public domain although the original film elements are held by Warner Brothers (who financed and distributed both the 1954 and 1976 remakes of the film). That means anybody with access to any old beat up, faded print of the film can legally slap it on DVD and cheaply foist it on an unsuspecting public. And they have. And because the film is in the public domain it seems unlikely that anyone will fund a full restoration of the film. And even if someone did, who knows what shape the film elements are in? The rights to Selznick’s library of films have been transferred many times over the decades, which doesn’t bode well for careful handling of the fragile three strip Technicolor negative. Still, there’s good news. Image Entertainment released A Star is Born to DVD in 2004. The case touts a “Technicolor Transfer From Original 35MM Nitrate”. And it is the best transfer of the film I have ever seen. Comparing the look of this print with color nitrate film frame reproductions in Ronald Haver’s 1980 coffee table tome David O. Selznick’s Hollywood, it looks about right. Or as right as were likely to get without a restoration. The film is definitely soft, but the colors look accurate. The print shows some sign of wear, but is really in relatively good condition. The sound is clear. This is the only DVD release of the film that I would recommend.
Film fans often debate the merits of this film versus the 1954 remake (funny, but the 1976 remake has really faded from the public’s consciousness for the most part although that version still has its adamant fans). I like the original and the 1954 remake. Both Fredric March and Janet Gaynor give top performances, and the entire picture holds up very well. It is a true classic of the behind-the-scenes genre and one of the best dramas produced by Hollywood in the 1930s. Definitely worth a look.
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