The original “A Star Is Born” (1937 starring Janet Gaynor and Frederic March) is a Depression-era fable about the joys and sorrows of Hollywood. Though the first of its name, the story is actually lifted from an earlier Depression-era fable about the joys and sorrows of Hollywood called “What Price, Hollywood?” that I’m not reviewing for two reasons: 1) I couldn’t find it on DVD and 2) enough minor plot points are different that we can safely say that the ‘37 film was “inspired by” its predecessor. But I digress.
One of the interesting things about the three versions of “A Star Is Born” is that each is associated with a technical achievement. The 1937 film has the privilege of being one of the first three-color Technicolor movies, following Becky Sharp (1935) but preceding the two films that “made” Technicolor: Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz (1939). Unfortunately, my copy of “A Star Is Born” looks like a direct transfer from a print somebody forgot about in the back of their garage for a few decades, so the color looks like this:
But I digress again.
“A Star Is Born” is a morality fable tailor-made for Depression audiences: the story of a young girl named Vicky Lester (née Esther Blodgett) with dreams of grandeur who wins the spotlight but loses her washed-up, former-star husband, Norman Maine. When Norman commits suicide in an attempt to save her, Vicky rallies from her tragedy and makes a triumphant return in his honor. In case the audience is unclear about the film’s intended message, Vicky’s grandmother is trotted out at the beginning and the end of the picture to deliver the moral: “For every dream of yours you make true, you have to pay in heartbreak.”
Nothing is as obsessed with Hollywood as Hollywood is itself, and the film both revels in and plays against this. The film is sure to insert as many famous Hollywood landmarks as possible: an early montage shows Esther admiring the footprints in front of Graumman’s Chinese Theater, and her first run-in with Norman occurs at the Hollywood Bowl. However, this Tinseltown idolatry is put to the test as Esther is put through the studio system ringer. Early on, Esther cannot even find work as an understudy, and it takes Norman’s intervention to get her a screen test.
The screen test is my favorite scene in the film. As Esther struggles through layers of “corrective” makeup and an uncomfortable dress, bustling technicians alternately manhandle her and ignore her as if she is just a living prop. This obviously makes for a mediocre screen test, and Esther again has to rely on Norman’s help to secure her first good acting role. Fortunately, her debut is a rousing success, and a star is born.
Yet despite moments like these, the movie is still very much attached to and approving of the studio system and the Hollywood Dream. There’s no villain in the film. In the end, Norman’s tragedy and Vicky’s success are understood to be part of the cycle of the Hollywood myth.