Directed by William A. Wellman
Surprise! There are extra posts this week! I miscounted the movies, and since I had a specific movie in mind for next week, I needed to finish 1937. So for your reading pleasure, I present The Rest of 1937.
I had a hard time getting hold of this movie, even though there are several copies of it in my library system. I had put it on hold, but it didn’t come in, so I called the customer service line to see what was going on. The lady on the other end said, “Oh, let me place that on hold for you again; it should spark the hold then. So you want A Star is Born? Oh, here it is. I just love Judy Garland in that movie. Wait. You don’t want the one with Judy Garland? You want Janet Gaynor? Are you sure that’s the one you want? It’s rather old.” She still sounded skeptical after I assured her that, yes, I was looking for the version with Janet Gaynor. I ended up having to call a coworker to grab a copy off the shelf at the library I work at so that I could get it. Yes, young people like old movies and just because something has been remade (and remade three times) doesn’t mean that the first one is obsolete.
So what’s the story? Young Esther Blodgett runs away to Hollywood with stars in her eyes, convinced that she will become a famous actress as soon as she gets there. Esther finds that it’s harder than she thought, but soon she catches the eye of the famous actor Norman Maine and finds herself shooting to stardom, even as Norman’s career begins to fail due to alcoholism.
The Good: I had only seen Janet Gaynor in silent movies before I watched A Star is Born. I had to check to make sure it was the same actress; she made such a good crossover to talkies that I felt a little unsure. Gaynor captures the spirit of Esther Blodgett as she goes from starry-eyed girl to mature woman. She also makes sure that the film doesn’t descend into melodrama. Norman Maine, a man of humor and despair, is played to perfection by Fredric March. In his third role in an Oscar nominated movie in 1937, Adolphe Menjou plays Oliver Niles, Norman and Esther’s sympathetic agent. There was no type-casting for him, by the way. The three (large) roles he played in One Hundred Men and a Girl, Stage Door, and A Star is Born were all completely different. He did an excellent job in each. I’m always glad to see Andy Devine, and he does a good job (as always) as Esther’s brotherly neighbor Danny (and he looks so young!). May Robson gives a sassy performance as Esther’s strong-willed grandmother Lettie.
The screenplay was co-written by one of my personal heroes: Dorothy Parker. Her trademark wit is scattered throughout. Again, although the story is a good one, A Star is Born could easily have become a melodrama. Thanks to Parker and her colleagues Alan Campbell and Robert Carson, the screenplay was able to help avoid that.
A Star is Born is a study in contrasts. The costuming, art direction, and music all work together to highlight Esther’s rise to stardom. Esther starts out as a girl from the sticks; her family lives in a small, plain house in the freezing mountains. She wears simple, practical clothes. The music that underscores these homely scenes includes familiar melodies, such as “Auld Lang Syne.” When she moves to Hollywood, her simple clothes stay the same, but her poverty is evident through her boardinghouse, which is old, cramped, and falling apart. Her neighbor Danny’s suits are of poor quality and always rumpled. The music here is rather sweet and innocent. The night that Esther goes to waitress at a party for Hollywood’s elite, everything changes. The suits and dresses of the wealthy are of a much better quality and cut, and of course of the highest fashion. The homes of the wealthy are also beautiful and fashionable, clean and open. They even have more modern telephones – and Oliver’s is even gold plated. The music is jazzy and fun, because these wealthy people seem not to have a care in the world. As Esther becomes a star, her clothes become more and more fantastic. At first they are of better quality, but still conservative. They get more fashionable the wealthier she gets. Esther and Norman’s house that they buy together is amazing, too. It has spacious rooms, beautiful gardens, and even a swimming pool. The music becomes much more sweeping and dramatic as Esther’s life fills not only with luxuries, but also difficulties. However, no matter how much life changes for Esther, she is still the simple farm girl inside. She’s obviously sending money home, because when Grandmother Lettie comes to remind Esther that Esther is strong and can get through anything, Grandmother Lettie is wearing fashionable old lady clothes instead of the old-fashioned country clothes she wore before Esther left. As her house empties out around her, the gentle music is a reminder that life can get better. Although not always the flashiest elements, the costuming, art direction, and music subtly add an extra dimension to the movie.
The Bad: The story on its own is a tad melodramatic. The theme of a country girl making it big and marrying the man of her dreams is not unfamiliar, but the story of Norman’s alcoholism could be a story written by a teetotaler in the 1880s. The title would be something like “The Evils of Drinking,” and it would detail the story of a wealthy man who ended up dying broken and alone because of his inability to give up alcohol. The original ending would have ruined the movie. Luckily, due to the screenplay and the excellent acting, A Star is Born avoids becoming a heavy-handed tale; it is instead a sensitive portrayal of an all-too-common issue.
The Ugly: There’s nothing truly horrible about A Star is Born; I had to reach to even find anything bad.
Oscars Won: Best writing, original story.
Honorary Oscar Won: W. Howard Greene, for the color photography.
Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a leading role (Fredric March); best actress in a leading role (Janet Gaynor); best director; best writing, screenplay; best assistant director.
Fun Fact: A Star is Born was the first all-color best picture nominee.