A Star Is Born (1937)
Gaynor's Rising Star
Some day you won't laugh at me! I'm going out and have a real life! I'm gonna be somebody! - Esther
When you mention "A Star is Born" most people think of the Judy Garland musical, some think of the Barbra Streisand version and I am sure when it gets made the Clint Eastwood version will be hot on everyone's lips. But for me the best version is the original "A Star is Born" from 1937, the non musical tale of a mid western girl who dreams of becoming a star and discovers that the road to stardom is one of hard work and heartbreak. And the reason why the 1937 version of "A Star is Born" is my favourite is whilst it is manipulative it doesn't over dress the underlying story with over played romance or musical numbers. It's by no means perfect, some of the humour borders on the terrible, but with some brilliant performances this movie which is over 70 years old is still great entertainment.
Despite being called a silly girl by her Aunt, Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor) dreamed of leaving the mid west and heading to Hollywood to become a star and with a little encouragement from Granny Lettie (May Robson - Bringing Up Baby) she heads for the bright lights. Naively she thinks it will be simple and soon discovers it's not as she strikes up a friendship with unemployed assistant director Danny McGuire (Andy Devine - How the West Was Won). But when she meets star Norman Maine (Fredric March - Hombre) her luck changes as not only is he smitten with her but he gets her a part in a movie and Esther Blodgett soon becomes the new star Vicki Lester. Having married Norman Vicki's career goes from strength to strength but in contrast Norman's career dies as he becomes a drunken has been living in his wife's shadow, something which they both struggle with.
One of the interesting things about "A Star is Born" is that it nearly didn't get made as producer David O. Selznick wasn't keen on movies about the movie industry and so was initially reluctant. As such it is why unlike later movies which go behind the facade "A Star is Born" is not a scathing look at the fickle industry, but a more light hearted look filled with comedy. It still highlights the shallowness of it all as we watch Norman's star fade and he becomes second hand news whilst Press Agent Libby looks for angles to generate positive press whether those involved want it or not. But much of this look behind the scenes is done in a light hearted, friendly manner.
As for the main storyline well it is simple as we watch Esther with encouragement from her Gran head to Hollywood to try and make it as a star. Much of what follows is quite predictable as she discovers that breaking in to movies is not as simple as she initially thought and that you need to take any opportunity which comes. And as such Janet Gaynor delivers a charming performance which is full of wide eyed enthusiasm of a young girl trying to live the dream to one who through heart break learns how tough it is. What is so nice about Gaynor's performance is the vulnerability, she may have made it as a star through talent, but it was luck which started her off and so there is no career driven nastiness just a young woman who was fortunate.
But in many ways the real story of "A Star is Born" is not so much about Esther becoming a star but Norman becoming a drunken has been living in his wife's shadow. We watch how Esther's popularity troubles him, and how with his contract cancelled he has little to do other than drink and get into trouble. The interesting thing is that he is never jealous of Esther's fame but angry at the way he has been discarded by those who once supported him, who made their money off of him. And because a lot of emphasis is placed on Norman's decline it is a first rate performance from Fredric March as we watch him struggle with being a has been and learning the truth about how the movie industry used him.
March and Gaynor's performances are not the only good ones and Andy Devine reliably adds a touch of humour as Esther's friend Danny whilst Lionel Stander is nicely aggressive as PR Man Libby. But thanks to a couple of great speeches it is May Robson who really wins are hearts because as Granny Lettie she is the inspiration, the one who not only encourages Esther but in turn encourages the audience to go for the dream, make it real but be prepared for heart ache along the way.
The only real issue I have and to be honest there are various things you can quibble about such as the lack of realism when it comes to Esther's quick rise to being a star, is that some of the purposefully comical moments feel wrong. A prime example of which is when we watch Esther and Norman go on honeymoon and as Norman drives she is cooking steak in the trailer. It's meant to be funny but because it is comically stupid compared to the rest of the movie it is plainly wrong.
What this all boils down to is that the 1937 version of "A Star is Born" is my favourite because without the musical element of the later versions it focuses purely on the storyline. And as such it is easy to appreciate the heart break for Esther as she becomes a star whilst Norman struggles with being a has been used up and spat out by the movie industry.
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