A Star Is Born (1937, William A. Wellman)
Catching up with old-Hollywood mythology like A Star Is Born lays bare how much the entire American film industry has built itself up on a series of tropes. Even if you’ve seen none of the half-dozen or so versions of this story or its source, What Price Hollywood?, you surely have seen one of the numerous films that cribs elements of its plotline, in part or wholesale — The Artist and Singin’ in the Rain, to begin. David O. Selznick’s original version of the film feels flat and obvious in many ways now, and sentimental in a fashion that some modern viewers will find unpleasant, but it’s as integral a moment of cultural heritage as, say, King Kong — and it’s an essential experience almost independent of its actual quality.
The sweeping, bold-strokes tale is of one Esther Blodgett, who with the help of a rebellious grandmother runs from the blue-splattered, down-home quiet of North Dakota — a vivid cartoon of childhood and unchanging calm in this Technicolor impression — to find her fame and fortune as a Hollywood actress. In Hollywood, she becomes, as she must, “Vicki Lester” after getting a leg-up from alcoholic superstar Norman Maine, a well-known drag whose primary purpose once he’s given her a push is to soak her in all the misery he can muster and eventually, in the film’s most audaciously mawkish moment, commit suicide — in the ocean! — when he realizes what a damn pill he’s been. At the end, Vicki finds more great success and has a big gushy announcement in which she calls herself, dramatically, “Mrs. Norman Maine.” Subtle it ain’t.
Naturally, the more exposed one has been to the films made in the wake of this one, the more one will likely spend their time with this wondering if that’s really it, if it’s really going to so markedly avoid going anywhere that isn’t rote or somewhat expected. The early scenes work best, because when Esther is still hobnobbing around cheap L.A. apartments unable to find even the crumb of an extras job and marking time with a good-natured Poverty Row a.d. named Danny (played by Andy Devine, so cheerfully you keep expecting him to break into song), she finds along with us the hard, bitter facts about the cruelty and, more pointedly, the overcrowding in a town that has formulated itself on the fruition of dreams. There are more dreams than projects, rooms or studios in which to fulfill them. Inevitably, the film this seems to be setting up in the first half — of a hard-won victory in the system — is more interesting than what it finally becomes.
That is, for over half its running time, a humdrum alcoholism melodrama of weepiest and most one-dimensional variety. Maine, a stony Fredric March, only shows any warmth or kindness during a protracted honeymoon sequence that serves largely to prove that people were idiots about their damn tractor trailers even in the Depression. Once Vicki becomes the home breadwinner — even though she achieved this in part through new hubby’s string-pulling — it’s a blow to his fragile male ego or whatnot and the house becomes a toxic and drab place, with much late night binge drinking and oafish behavior as he sinks lower and lower and her star rises higher and higher. The gooey Selznick sentimentality mixed in with all this seems misplaced — it’s not much fun to watch someone enabling an abuser, and it’s hard to understand what’s really meant to be conveyed by the ludicrous suicide scene or the change of heart at the finale, which shows Vicki returning to fame after mourning and publicly memorializing Crybaby Boobie’s name. The sporadic humor, like Vicki’s business coping with her time in a hole-in-the-wall apartment with an atypically kindly landlord, isn’t much better.
Still, this is fascinating solely for two reasons: first, its glimpses into how the Hollywood of the ’30s saw itself — there’s something genuinely surreal about the classic cynical tropes of the emptiness of the great stardom dream being trotted out by the studio system itself, and from a producer (Selznick) who knew the ropes better than anyone — and then for its dazzling early Technicolor justified solely to emphasize the luminosity of Janet Gaynor, who of course is tremendously delightful to watch. William Wellman was more at home with action pictures like Wings and he doesn’t bring this the proper gravity that might justify its shortcuts and excesses, but with title in hand, he understands what it means to have a hell of a star at your disposal. Gaynor is best seen in the masterpiece Sunrise and its gorgeous brethren 7th Heaven, but once you know her from those, it’s breathtaking to see her in color — even in a mediocre print. In essence, Wellman and Selznick’s film is a historical document of vital import — worthwhile for everything except its actual story.