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A Star is Born (1937)

Wednesday September, 4 2019 at 02:15 PM

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"Nothing you really want is ever given away free. You have to pay for it, and usually with your heart." This line from William Wellman's 1937 A Star is Born articulates the core theme of this timeless classic Hollywood tale.

Tinseltown has always enjoyed turning a mirror on itself and pulling back the glittering curtain of the Hollywood machine to reveal the often harsh realities of showbiz. Films like What Price Hollywood? (1932), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and The Player (1992) have all skillfully made their marks in that arena. However, the standard bearer in this domain has always been the one and only original A Star is Born.

One of the first films to be shot in the new 3-strip Technicolor process, A Star is Born stars Janet Gaynor as Esther Blodgett, a starry-eyed Midwestern farm girl who dreams of going to Los Angeles and becoming a famous actress. Funded by her grandmother's nest egg, Esther makes it to Hollywood only to find that she is merely one of thousands of hopefuls with exactly the same dream. After months of pounding the pavement, however, Esther catches the eye of movie star Norman Maine (Fredric March) while working as a waitress at a posh Hollywood party. Soon, with the new name of Vicki Lester, Esther becomes Maine's co-star and wife. As Vicki's star quickly rises, however, Norman's has already begun to fall, fueled in no small part by his obvious alcoholism. Although Vicki tries everything to keep him on the wagon, Norman's self-destructive freefall eventually leads to tragedy.

In 1936, director William Wellman was under contract to famed producer David O. Selznick, a man whose work Wellman greatly admired. He was also writing regularly with Robert Carson, a partnership that had begun when the two were both at MGM. When Wellman went to work for Selznick International Pictures, it had been a stipulation that he could bring Carson along with him.

Wellman had always wanted to make a film about the ups and downs of Hollywood and the darker side of stardom. Drawing in part from some real life stories of movie stars whose careers had faltered like John Barrymore, John Gilbert, and silent star John Bowers, Wellman and Carson worked out the initial story of A Star is Born and pitched it to Selznick.

Even though Selznick had previously worked on the similarly themed What Price Hollywood?, he initially said no to Wellman's idea. "Stories of Hollywood are too much of a gamble," he said.

According to the 2015 Wellman biography Wild Bill Wellman written by his son William Wellman, Jr., the director decided to get some help from Selznick's wife Irene. Irene Selznick, who happened to be the daughter of MGM chief Louis B. Mayer, was a savvy woman well-versed in the movie business who knew a good story when she heard it. Fortunately for Wellman, she loved the idea of A Star is Born and promised to use her influence on her husband.

True to her word, Wellman soon received a call from David O. Selznick who said, "It's a gamble but worth taking a chance on. We will make an epic of Hollywood - we'll tear down all the tinsel, people will know the gutty Hollywood, the tragedy, the humor, the real truth. We'll start tonight."

With a green light on the production, Wellman and Carson finished writing the screenplay. However, Selznick was notorious for bringing in a multitude of additional writers to tinker with a script once it was done, so Wellman and Carson prepared for a battle. Sure enough, Selznick brought in what seemed like an endless parade of writers to work on A Star is Born including Rowland Brown, Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell (Parker's husband) and Gene Fowler. Selznick himself contributed many of his own ideas as well. "I spent most of my pre-production days putting back all the writing that had been replaced by the bevy of writers that came and as quickly seemed to go," said Wellman.

When Wellman wrote one of the most famous scenes in A Star is Born in which a drunken Norman Maine crashes his wife's acceptance speech at the Academy Awards and bitterly rails against Hollywood, it came from somewhere personal. According to William Wellman, Jr., the scene was inspired by Wellman's getting snubbed years before for the Best Director Oscar nomination for Wings (1927) even though the film itself had won Best Picture. Not only was Wellman not nominated that year, but he wasn't even invited to the ceremony. "He stayed home alone in his apartment drinking heavily," said Wellman's son, William, Jr., "and enacting his version of an acceptance speech, one designed to let the Academy members know what he thought of them."

When the time came to cast the picture, Wellman wanted Janet Gaynor to play the role of Esther/Vicki. Selznick, however, wanted Merle Oberon. Wellman thought Oberon too mature and sophisticated for the part, and he fought--and finally won--to hire Gaynor. Gaynor, who had starred in F.W. Murnau's silent classic Sunrise (1927), had the distinction of being the first ever recipient of the Best Actress Academy Award in 1929. She had also just worked with Wellman in Small Town Girl (1936), and he knew she could bring the touching wide-eyed gentleness for which the part called.

There was no argument when it came to casting the role of washed up matinee idol Norman Maine. Both Wellman and Selznick wanted stage and screen star Fredric March. Considered one of the top actors of his time, March was also an Academy Award winner (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde [1931]) and had worked with Wellman once before on the 1937 comedy Nothing Sacred.

As production began on A Star is Born in October 1936, Selznick kept Wellman inundated with notes, memos and rewrites of the material. However, Wellman took it in stride, usually sticking to his guns and doing it the way he wanted anyway.

To add an air of veracity to the film, Wellman shot at some of Hollywood's most famous showbiz locations including Grauman's Chinese Theatre, the Hollywood Bowl, the Ambassador Hotel pool, the Santa Anita racetrack and the Trocadero nightclub. Additionally, Wellman cast several actors whose careers had significantly declined including, as Wellman, Jr. describes, "Tom Ricketts, a star in the director's When Husbands Flirt (1925), playing the butler at the Malibu home; Owen Moore, Mary Pickford's first husband and star of the silent era ruined by alcoholism; Marshall 'Mickey' Neilan, an outstanding director also taken down by the bottle. There were two child stars of the 1920s, Buddy Messenger, playing a young man delivering fan mail, and his sister Gertrude, seen at the climatic movie premiere."

When A Star is Born was released in April 1937, it was a smash hit, becoming one of the biggest box office and critical hits of the year. "It has the usual preface, attesting to the fictional quality of the characters and incidents depicted," said the New York Times, "but it is nonetheless the most accurate mirror ever held before the glittering, tinseled, trivial, generous, cruel, and ecstatic world that is Hollywood...Its script is bright, inventive, and forceful. Mr. Wellman's direction is expert." Time magazine called it "a brilliant, honest and unfailingly exciting picture which, in the welter of verbiage about Hollywood heretofore contributed by stage and screen, stands as the last word and the best," while Variety deemed it "a smash" and said, "it is one of those rare ones which everyone will want to see and will talk about."

Many critics also praised the film's use of the new 3-strip Technicolor process, which, much like the coming of sound, had been cause for debate within the movie world. Film Daily called the film's use of color "magnificent," while the Hollywood Reporter said, "the color is at all times kept subordinate. It enriches without overwhelming." The New York Times remarked on the subject, "Its color...proves Technicolor's value in a modern story."

William Wellman and Robert Carson won the Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Story for A Star is Born, and cinematographer W. Howard Greene took home a special Academy Award for color photography. The film also received nominations in the Best Picture, Best Actor (Fredric March), Best Actress (Janet Gaynor), Best Director (William Wellman), Best Screenplay (Alan Campbell, Robert Carson, Dorothy Parker), and Best Assistant Director (Eric Stacey) categories.

The success of A Star is Born sparked a number of imitators as well as two big budget remakes: one in 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason, and the other in 1976 with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. Over the years major stars including Whitney Houston, Denzel Washington, Clint Eastwood, Beyoncé and Bradley Cooper have all been attached to various plans for contemporary remakes. The remarkable endurance of A Star is Born has proven that this time-tested story of glory and heartbreak in Hollywood still resonates from generation to generation.

Producer: David O. Selznick
Director: Jack Conway (uncredited), William A. Wellman
Screenplay: William A. Wellman (story), Robert Carson (story), Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell, Robert Carson
Production Design: Lansing Holden
Cinematography: W. Howard Greene
Costume Design: Omar Kiam
Film Editing: Hal C. Kern (supervising), James E. Newcom
Original Music: Max Steiner
Principal Cast: Janet Gaynor (Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester), Fredric March (Norman Maine), Adolphe Menjou (Oliver Niles), May Robson (Grandma Lettie), Andy Devine (Danny McGuire), Lionel Stander (Matt Libby), Owen Moore (Casey Burke), Edgar Kennedy (Pop Randall), Peggy Wood (Miss Phillips).
C-111m. Closed captioning.

By Andrea Passafiume

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