The original timeless, emotional love story classic about fame and courage
Cross a falling star with a rising one and the result is bound to be explosive. Such is the case with this week’s eternal classic, “A Star is Born”, a film that follows the volcanic pairing of two giant Hollywood movie stars. Heavenly glamour, immensely sympathetic characters, and a heart-grabbing story come together in shimmering Technicolor to create what has become the seminal tale of love, dreams, fame, and destruction. It’s the perfect recipe for a timeless classic, and “A Star is Born” is all that and more. Nominated for seven Academy Awards (including Best Picture), it took home one statue and was awarded an additional Honorary Academy Award for its breathtaking cinematography. This film is irresistible entertainment.
The plot centers around Hollywood-obsessed North Dakota farm girl “Esther Victoria Blodgett”. Much to her family’s chagrin, she dreams of going to Hollywood to become an actress, telling her aunt, “Someday you won’t laugh at me. I’m going out and have a real life. I’m going to be somebody”. This doesn’t go unnoticed by her grandmother “Lettie”, who is the only one to encourage "Esther" to follow her dreams, even though the road will be difficult. She tells “Esther” from experience, “For every dream of yours you make come true, you’ll pay the price in heartbreak”. With her grandmother’s support, “Esther” sets out for Hollywood and eventually meets mega movie star “Norman Maine”, whose career is beginning to wane due to alcoholism. The two fall in love, and he helps her rise to stardom as his fame quickly fades. I’ll leave my synopsis at that and let you watch the film to discover what happens next.
In essence, “A Star is Born” is about how much courage and sacrifice it takes to follow one’s dreams. Heartbreak is a given, mentioned first by “Lettie”, then reaffirmed by Hollywood bigwig “Oliver Niles” as he signs “Esther” under contract and tells her “You don’t think it’s going to be easy. Nothing you really want is ever given away free. You have to pay for it, and usually, with your heart”. “Esther” does pay with her heart, and along the way we are treated to an enthralling and sobering exposé about fame and Hollywood.
“A Star is Born” hit such a nerve with audiences and filmmakers, it has since been remade three times – all as musicals: a 1954 version starring Judy Garland and James Mason; a 1976 version starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson; and a 2018 version starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. The last two are set in the music industry rather than the film business and I find it interesting that all three remakes feel more like star vehicles than just plain movies. This 1937 version is a solid film of its own with mesmerizing style and spirit, and I’d venture to say it’s my favorite of the four to date, with the Garland version a very close second (which I hope to feature on this blog in the future).
This version of "A Star is Born" was produced by David O. Selznick and directed by William A. Wellman. Selznick had produced the 1932 film "What Price Hollywood?", about an aspiring actress who meets an alcoholic film director who helps her attain stardom. In 1936, Wellman joined forces with writer Robert Carson to develop a screenplay partly based on "What Price Hollywood?”, and partly about Wellman's observations of Tinseltown after his two plus decades working there. The result became “A Star is Born”. Wellman and Carson took home the film's only Oscar, for Best Original Story (a category that existed from the first 1929 Academy Awards through 1956).
Writers Dorothy Parker and her husband Alan Campbell (and others) were brought onboard to help write the finished screenplay. And though the film gets quite somber, there is lots of wit and humor coloring the way. The fabulous screenplay earned Carson, Parker, and Campbell each a Best Screenplay Oscar nomination.
“A Star is Born” continually self-references the Hollywood movie industry from its neon lights styled opening credits, to starting and ending with closeups of pages from the film’s final shooting script. And one of the things I find fascinating is its insider glimpse at the Hollywood Studio System. I’ve talked about the studio and star system in many posts (particularly “Bringing Up Baby” and “Stage Door”), and in “A Star is Born” we get to see it in action with a humorously acerbic take. In his 1937 New York Times review of the film, critic Frank S. Nugent called “A Star is Born” “the most accurate mirror ever held before the glittering, tinseled, trivial, generous, cruel, and ecstatic world that is Hollywood”.
Made during the height of the Studio Era, many aspects of the movie business at the time are touched upon, including how the studio producer was all powerful, how studios fabricated stories and histories for their stars and kept unwanted things about them out of the press, how studios had to approve the marriages of their stars, the importance of fan mail, comment cards, and it even shows the dozens of people it takes shoot a simple scene.
There’s a fabulous sequence when the studio is transforming “Esther” into movie star “Vicki Lester”, changing her name, eyebrows, lips, teaching her to walk, speak, and more. There are constant references to many big stars of the day such as Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, and Marlene Dietrich, and “Esther” even does her best Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, and Mae West imitations to try to get noticed while waitressing at a Hollywood party. It’s all an orgasmic wink to 1930's Hollywood.
Helping blend real Hollywood with the fabricated world of “A Star is Born” is the use of authentic Los Angeles locations, which include Grauman's Chinese Theatre (and its courtyard with cement movie star handprints), the Hollywood Bowl, the Hollywood Legion Stadium (for the boxing match), the Ambassador Hotel’s swimming pool, the Club Trocadero, the Santa Anita Racetrack, and the Biltmore Bowl (where the Academy Award ceremony in the film takes place, and where actual Oscar ceremonies took place during the 1930s). It’s such a treat to see footage of Hollywood’s famous landmarks in 1930’s Technicolor, particularly if you are familiar with, or have heard of these places.
Wellman’s direction in “A Star is Born” is outstanding, keeping things moving swiftly through beautiful shots. He often quietly moves in for a closeup and backs out again, delicately focusing our attention on a moment or emotion he wants to highlight. It’s “invisible” directing at its best, placing story and emotions front and center, not reminding audiences they’re watching a film. Wanting to be left alone from producers or studio interference, Wellman stipulated in his contract that Selznick could visit the set no more than twelve times. For his efforts, Wellman received a Best Director Academy Award nomination, the first of three in his career (with a second for 1949's “Battleground" and third for 1954's "The High and the Mighty”). His Best Story Oscar for “A Star is Born” turned out to be his only Academy Award win.
Born in Massachusetts to a Boston Brahmin father, William A. Wellman's teen years included being expelled from High School and put on probation for car theft. After taking odd jobs (including playing minor-league hockey), Wellman's restlessness and desire to be an aviator had him join the French Foreign Legion during World War I as a fighter pilot in the Lafayette Flying Corps. He was shot down in battle, wounded, and sent home, and walked away with a permanent limp, being awarded the Croix de Guerre with two palms, and earning the nickname "Wild Bill" (which he kept). After being discharged, he wrote a book about his time fighting in the frontlines titled "Go Get 'Em!". While in San Diego, Wellman would fly to Hollywood using movie star Douglas Fairbanks’ polo field as a landing strip. The two became friendly and Fairbanks helped Wellman break in to the movie industry, starting with Wellman’s appearance in two 1919 silent films, one of which was "Knickerbocker Buckaroo".
Deciding he'd rather be behind the camera, Wellman began working as a messenger boy, moving up to assistant director, and then director starting with 1923's "The Man Who Won". After directing about a dozen more films, he learned of an upcoming WWI film about two fighter pilots, and talked executives into hiring him to direct it. That film became the 1927 silent classic "Wings", which won the very first Best Picture Academy Award. "Wings" is especially noted for Wellman's spectacular air combat scenes, and having seen the film in a movie theater, I can attest to how astonishing they are. It made Wellman a major director.
A versatile director, Wellman's other classics include the 1931 gangster film "The Public Enemy", the 1937 Carole Lombard screwball comedy "Nothing Sacred", and the 1942 Western drama "The Ox-Bow Incident”. He was a tough, hell-raising type of guy, and became especially known for directing male action/adventure films, particularly those that drew upon his fighting experiences during WWI. Of his 81 directed films, other notable titles include "Other Men’s Women", "Night Nurse", "Wild Boys of the Road”, "Roxie Hart”, "Track of the Cat", "Beau Geste”, and “The Story of G.I. Joe”. He was married five times (including his first marriage, while the in military, to a French woman who was killed a month later during a bomb attack). He was also married to actresses Helene Chadwick and Dorothy Coonan. William A. Wellman died in 1975 at the age of 79.
Starring in “A Star is Born” is the enchanting and ever so talented Janet Gaynor as “Esther Blodgett”, farm girl turned movie star “Vicki Lester”. With the multitude of high emotions “Esther” goes through from her opening outburst to her moving closing scene, this is a role that could easily be overdone – but not by Gaynor. Her honest performance is superbly underplayed and her unmistakable sweetness and uncomplicated demeanor add an innocence to “Esther’s” determination. We don’t hear much about Gaynor these days, but she was a major star and a truly gifted actress, and one need look no further than this role to see why. Beautifully performed, it earned Gaynor her second (and final) Best Actress Academy Award nomination.
Gaynor became a name in the 1926 silent film “The Johnstown Flood”, and a star with 1927’s "7th Heaven" (the first of twelve films opposite Charles Farrell – and the two became a very popular screen duo). The coming of sound only helped Gaynor's career and she became one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, consistently ranking as one of the top four box-office stars from 1930 through 1934. But with changing audience tastes, people lost interest in the wholesome roles in which she was continually cast and her popularity began to fall. Compounding her career troubles, her studio, Fox Films, merged with Twentieth Century in 1935 (forming Twentieth Century-Fox), after which she found herself no longer a studio priority. She left the studio and planned on retiring until offered "A Star is Born". It revived her popularity and was seen as a comeback. But after two more films in 1938, while still on top, she retired from movies at the age of 35. You can read more about the life and career of Janet Gaynor in my post on a film for which she won the very first ever Best Actress Academy Award, 1927's "Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans", (one of my all-time favorite films).
Also starring in “A Star is Born” is the inimitable Fredric March as alcoholic actor “Norman Maine”. March makes acting look like it’s not acting, and if you watch him you’ll see why he was regarded as one of the greatest actors of his day. He effortlessly handles dialogue with a naturalness that was unusual for the time, always listening and reacting to what’s happening around him. One could look to any of his scenes to witness it, but because Wellman uses a long steady shot of March in the scene with “Norman” and “Niles” by the swimming pool, that scene is a clear chance to really focus on March’s talent. As “Niles” explains how bad things are for “Norman”, outwardly March does basically nothing, but we see him inwardly shift through many changing emotions. It's quite a performance and earned March a Best Actor Academy Award nomination.
When Wisconsin-born Fredric March suffered an emergency appendectomy, he rethought his life, quit his banking career, and moved to New York in 1920 to become an actor. He worked as a model, and as an extra in four 1921 silent films before making it to Broadway in 1924 with "The Melody Man". After back to back Broadway shows, he went to Los Angeles with the play "The Royal Family", and was spotted and signed by Paramount Studios. March’s first film assignment was a lead role in 1929's "The Dummy”. He acted in six more films that year, and seven in 1930, including "The Royal Family of Broadway" (the film version of "The Royal Family"), which earned him his first Best Actor Academy Award nomination. He won a Best Actor Oscar statue the following year for 1931's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", tying with Wallace Beery in "The Champ" (though Beery had one vote less than March, rules at the time stated that if any achievement came within three votes of the first award, it would be considered a tie).
Now a full-fledged star, March was seen in film after film through 1938, including "Design for Living", "Death Takes a Holiday", "Les Misérables", "Anna Karenina", "Anthony Adverse", and Wellman's"Nothing Sacred". In 1938, March returned to Broadway while also making movies. He appeared in just shy of 80 films and earned five Best Actor Oscar nominations with two wins (his second win was for the 1946 classic "The Best Years of Our Lives”). His other films include "Inherit the Wind", "Seven Days in May", "Hombre", "I Married a Witch", “Death of a Salesman”, and his final, 1973's "The Iceman Cometh". He worked a bit on TV and earned three Emmy Award nominations, and his Broadway work garnered him three Best Actor Tony Award nominations with two wins (including one for the original 1957 production of "Long Day's Journey into Night"). He was married twice, including his second marriage to actress Florence Eldridge which lasted from 1927 until his death. Fredric March died in 1975 at the age of 77.
While studying at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, March was accepted into an honors society which had the unfortunate name of Ku Klux Klan. It had nothing to do with the KKK racist organization, and when the racist organization formed an on-campus group the following year, the honors society immediately changed their name. But a picture appears in the 1920 yearbook with March as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and when a student discovered this in 2017, without realizing it was not the same KKK as the racist group, the University removed March's name from a pair of their performing-arts venues. To add insult to injury, March had been an ardent supporter and fighter for civil rights for the bulk of his life. The controversial rush to judgement without doing due diligence by the student and University tainted March's reputation, and those who knew him wrote to the school in his defense. TCM (Turner Classic Movies) even did a promo to set the record straight. But as far as I know, March's name will not be reinstated. You can read more about that hapless event in a 2022 Hollywood Reporter article by clicking HERE.
The supporting cast of "A Star is Born" is stellar, and because many are staples of classic movies, a handful have been seen in films already on this blog. That includes Adolphe Menjou who plays Hollywood heavyweight producer “Oliver Niles”. In 1930's Hollywood, inside the studio the producer was king (just under the studio head) and “Oliver” represents one of those powerful men. Menjou appropriately gives “Oliver” a sense of authority, but also makes him very kind, and while it makes for pleasurable watching, “Oliver’s” generous heart and eagerness to put actors before business is one of the less realistic aspects of the film.
Adolphe Menjou followed his silent film matinee idol days with a couple of leading roles in early sound films (including his Best Actor nominated role in “The Front Page”) before finding himself regulated to supporting roles. Lucky for him, many of those supporting roles are in films that have become classics, two of which are already on this blog – “Morocco”, where you can read more about Adolphe Menjou's life and career, and “Stage Door”, where you can read some additional information about him.
Another actor assuredly recognizable to classic movie watchers is May Robson, who is perfect as “Esther’s" grandmother, “Lettie Blodgett”. A tough pioneer woman who learned that the good in life comes with the bad, “Lettie” is an inspiration to “Esther”, and Robson brings enough infectious grandmotherly warmth and tough love to make us believe “Esther” would take the leap and head for Hollywood (but be forewarned, “Lettie's” pep talk sadly contains boasts about pioneers conquering the wilderness and proudly making a "new country"). This role was just one of a long line of character parts Robson played in over sixty movies.
After a towering success in the theater, May Robson began her film career in 1927, just as she was turning seventy years old, and by 1932, she would appear in anywhere from three to eleven films a year until her death. By the time of "A Star is Born”, Robson was already an established character actress and Oscar nominee (for Best Actress in 1933's "Lady for a Day”). She’s in two films already on this blog – "Bringing Up Baby" (where I briefly mentioned her), and "Red-Headed Woman”, where you can read more about May Robson's life and career. Just click on the film titles to open those pages.
Another very popular character actor (particularly of Westerns) is Andy Devine who plays “Daniel ‘Danny’ McGuire”, “Esther’s” neighbor, friend, and fellow job seeker (he wants to be a director). “Danny” is a big fella who doesn’t quite know his own strength or the decibel of his voice, and Devine’s 6’ tall rotund build, rough-around-the-edges manner, and famous raspy voice fit the bill impeccably. Devine was a prolific actor who appeared in nearly 200 films and TV shows including many classics (particularly Westerns), and you can read more about the life and career of Andy Devine in my post on “Stagecoach”. Please check it out.
Appearing very briefly in “A Star is Born” is Peggy Wood as “Miss Phillips”, the woman “Esther” interacts with at the Central Casting office. “Miss Phillips” gives “Esther” some tell-it-like-it-is straight talk, and Wood does it with a firm but gentle hand. An actress with an enormously successful stage career, Peggy Wood only appeared in about two dozen films TV shows in her long career. Most of her film appearances were in the 1930s and 1940s, except for her most famous role, as “Reverend Mother Abbess” in “The Sound of Music”, which earned her a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award. You can read more about the life and career of Peggy Wood in my post on that classic musical.
One more actor I’ve previously written about is Clara Blandick who plays "Aunt Mattie", who tries to discourage "Esther" from becoming an actress. Like Wood, Blandick was primarily a stage actress, though unlike Wood, Blandick appeared in many films (well over 100), mostly in small supporting roles. She often played strong women like "Aunt Mattie", and has been immortalized by playing another aunt, "Auntie Em" in "The Wizard of Oz". You can read a bit more about her in my post on that beloved classic.
Along with its win for Best Original Story and nominations for Best Picture, Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay, man". Another face surely familiar to classic moviegoers, Wilson appeared in 201 films between 1920 and 1941. Born in Cincinnati to a stage actor father, Clarence Wilson began his career on stage in Philadelphia, and then toured in various productions and stock companies, debuting on Broadway in 1912's "Making Good". His first film was 1920's "Duds", and over thirty silent films followed, including "What Price Glory", "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", and "Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans”. His work increased with the advent of sound, appearing in ten films in 1931, eighteen in 1932, and seventeen in 1933, alone. Though often uncredited, Wilson excelled at playing cranky, grouchy, often comedic roles, and appeared in films with comedy giants like W.C. Fields and Joe E. Brown. Wilson’s numerous other classics include "20, 000 Years in Sing Sing", "Imitation of Life", "Maytime", "Nothing Sacred", "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm", "Drums Along the Mohawk”, ”The Front Page", and as the man with the nervous twitch in a classic already on this blog, "You Can't Take It with You". His final film was the 1941 "Our Gang" short, "Come Back, Miss Pipps". He was married once, until his death. Clarence Wilson died in 1941 at the age of 64.
Along with its win for Best Original Story and nominations for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay, "A Star is Born" also earned a Best Assistant Director nomination for Eric Stacey (a Best Assistant Director Oscar was awarded from 1933 through 1937). In addition, the film’s cinematographer, W. Howard Greene, was awarded an Honorary Academy Award for his jaw-dropping Technicolor work. The colors and lighting in this film are nothing short of magnificent, a true testament to overflowing artistry that can be found in classic movies. The studio’s assembly line approach to filmmaking put creative people under contract, gave them high-end resources at their fingertips, and the opportunity to hone their expertise in film after film after film. They became masters of their given trades and Green was one of those fortunate talents.
An early Technicolor cinematographer, W. Howard Greene was one of the great pioneers of color cinematography. His career spanned about thirty years in which he photographed just over 50 films in just about all genres, earning six Oscar nominations along the way, with a win for 1943's "Phantom of the Opera". In addition to his Honorary Academy Award for "A Star is Born", he was awarded another the previous year for "The Garden of Allah". His other famous works include "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex", "Blossoms in the Dust", "Nothing Sacred", "When Worlds Collide", and another gorgeous classic Technicolor masterpiece already on this blog, "The Adventures of Robin Hood". W. Howard Greene died in 1956 at the age of 60.
Because movies were originally in black and white, there was no Academy Award for color cinematography. Green’s Honorary Award for 1936's "The Garden of Allah" was the first to be recognized with an Oscar. After viewing all the color movies made the following year, a committee of leading cinematographers recommended Greene be awarded a Special Oscar for "A Star is Born". A third Special Award for color cinematography was given the next year for "Sweethearts", before the Academy added a Best Color Cinematography award category in addition to the existing one for Best Black and White Cinematography. In 1968, the two categories merged to become Best Cinematography, the category still used today.
Some movies have it all. They’re pleasing to the eye, make you laugh, cry, and walk away satisfied. This week’s timeless love story is one of those fine jewels. It’s a film made by Hollywood, about Hollywood, and for anyone who loves Hollywood (or just loves a great film). So sit back and enjoy “A Star is Born”! There's a 2022 Warner Brothers' restored version - make sure to watch that one!
This blog is a weekly series (currently biweekly) on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform movie novices and lovers through watching one recommended classic film a week. The intent is that a love and deepened knowledge of cinema will evolve, along with a familiarity of important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and a deeper understanding of cinema. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME page, which explains it all and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications for every new post. Visit THE MOVIES page to see a list of all films currently on this site. Please leave comments, share this blog with family, friends, and on social media, and subscribe so you don’t miss a post. Thanks so much for reading!
YOU CAN STREAM OR BUY THE FILM HERE:
PLACES YOU CAN BUY THE FILM: