25 February 2009

A Star is Born (1937)

A Star is Born is a rather poignant "behind-the-scenes" look at the film industry as it stood in 1937, Produced by David O. Selznick at his eponymous studio and released via United Artists. Janet Gaynor stars as Esther Blodgett, a young lady from the middle of nowhere in North Dakota who aspires to be a movie star. Esther's Grandmother (May Robinson) agrees to pay Esther's way to Hollywood, but warns her that chasing her dreams could very well cost her more dearly than she imagines. Once in Hollywood, Esther struggles to find work on the screen, being just another nameless girl amid a sea of aspiring extras. Esther finally lands a job as a waitress at a party, thanks to her friendship with assistant director Danny McGuire (Andy Devine). It is at said party that Esther meets Norman Maine (played by Fredric March), a major film star (and a major alcoholic). Quite taken with Esther, Norman pulls a few strings and arranges a screen test for her. The test goes swimmingly, and Esther is rechristened Vicki Lester and put under contract to the studio. Norman arranges for Vicki to appear opposite him in his next picture, and she is a smashing success. Vicki becomes a major star, and is soon married to Norman. All is not well, however, for as Vicki climbs the ranks of fame and stardom Norman's career takes a nosedive, causing him to hit the bottle harder than ever. Tragedy, sadly, ensues.

Janet Gaynor turns in a great performance as Esther, including one scene wherein she imitates Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn and Mae West in an attempt to get the studio big-shots to notice her at the party. She plays the role of the starry-eyed ingenue perfectly, which makes her all the more pathetic when she has to confront the true nature of the beast called Hollywood. One cannot help but feel for her when her rabid fans hound her for autographs, utterly indifferent to her suffering.

It's Fredric March, however, who ultimately steals the film--his depiction of Norman Maine is truly wonderful. Norman Maine is a character with whom I truly identify--a man who was once on top of the world, but finds solace only in drink now that that same world has left him behind. I can't help but think that I'll wind up like him one day. Having already seen him in Susan and God (1940), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), I have to say that Fredric March is easily one of my favorite actors (it's worth noting that he won oscars for the latter two pictures).

A Star is Born is also interesting because it gives a fairly accurate portrayal of the star-making process. Molding Esther Blodgett into Vicki Lester involves inventing a new life story for her (courtesy of the loathsome publicity agent Matt Libby, played by Lionel Stander, one of the better character actors of the day). It also means creating a whole new look for her, and Vicki is placed in the care of two make up artists who try to devise the perfect look for her ("Does she have to look surprised all the time?").

The story of A Star is Born is one that was told before--the 1932 film What Price Hollywood? is remarkably similar--and would be told again--in a 1954 remake--but the 1937 iteration is perhaps the best of the lot. It's definitely worth watching.

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