A Star is Born (1937)

Even before the actors and actresses in films had their names play in the credits, people were enamored with the performers in the movies. As the movies grew in power, so did the number of people who wanted to be a star, those folks who dreamed to go out to Hollywood and make it big, against all odds. In many ways, this has become film’s underdog story, both in the business itself and in the stories that reached the silver screen.

Esther Victoria Blodgett (Janet Gaynor) is such an underdog. The highlight of her day in a small town is seeing the stars on the big screen and she knows she wants to be one of them. She makes her way out to Hollywood, but finds it’s not easy to get a role, let alone any job, in a film. Whether it’s luck, fate or tragedy, she ends up meeting Norman Mains (Fredric March), one of the biggest stars in the business, who takes an interest in her.

However, far from going on to be the triumphant tale of a star’s ascension to power, A Star is Born boldly shows all the downsides of being a star, the moments that never get talked about in interviews, the hidden drama behind the scenes, the grueling life of an actor on set and the constant pressures of the press. Esther Victoria Blodgett’s transformation into Vicki Lester loses her more than her name.

Even with this layer of film drama, the film wouldn’t be nearly as strong without the grounded human drama. The conflicts that arise from Vicki’s relationship with Norman, the constant prodding of the press harshly dissecting Vicki’s life and Norman’s drinking problem make for a human, empathetic cast that has life and personality beyond the confines of the silver screen.

Janet Gaynor was nominated for an Oscar for this film after winning her first Oscar nine years earlier. Back then, she was a silent era star and gave  rousing performances in 7th Heaven, Street Angel and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. Her performance here proves she can adapt to the style of the sound era and be solid, but she’s not nearly as good as she was in any of the aforementioned films.

Her performance in conjunction with the character of Norman Mains is very prophetic. Here, she plays the young star coming to power while the Fredric March character is going out of power. In reality this was one of Janet Gaynor’s very last films while Fredrick March went on to have a very long career for decades after his performance in A Star is Born.

The ending of the film is a bit indulgent, forcing another character into the mix of the film that doesn’t have a reason to stay in the film longer than one scene. Likewise, the scenes that come afterwards are superfluous and hollow, unnecessary for the audience to see as they add nothing to the resolution.

Rven though the film misfires at the end, it’s a strong feature with some poignant drama and mature themes weaved into the very fabric of filmmaking. It’s not quite as entertaining as Singing in the Rain or as dramatically potent as All About Eve, but when it works, it has moments that rival both films.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing