Hollywood’s first Technicolor movie starts with words on a screen play and goes to a great American story of a self-made soul from there. Janet Gaynor stars as a waif from North Dakota named Esther Blodgett. Wispy Esther loves the movies, I mean she really worships pictures as a means of envisioning a better life. For this, Esther is ridiculed by her spinster aunt and others in her family.
“Leave me alone”, she wearily pleads. Her grandmother, played by May Robson in one of her best performances, consoles young Esther, offering wisdom about being a pioneer in the West, forging a new way of life and loving her life and her husband no matter what the cost, even if it means breaking her heart, telling the story of her murdered husband who was downed by savage Indians to “make a new country”.
With that, A Star is Born unspools a wondrous, dangerous and glorious tale. Esther, aided by her granny’s savings, makes way for Hollywood to become a movie star. In lush pictures of the then-new American West, Los Angeles, land of motion pictures, co-writer and director William Wellman shows the Hollywood Bowl, the bright lights and boulevards and the shiny locomotives and airplanes made of hard, cold steel to transport America’s bravest pioneers to the world’s newest arts and industrial center.
As Esther Blodgett, who’ll change her name, Miss Gaynor (who co-starred in Mr. Wellman’s excellent Wings) fits the part for the time. Plucky and pert, the petite actress combines qualities of the ingenue with the womanly characteristics with which one associates a would-be rising actress. “No cowboys”, a sign says at the boarding house where she meets an aspiring filmmaker (Andy Devine, Stagecoach), indicating that the road to stardom is harsh and competitive and that it puts the artist under a kind of constant scrutiny for favor in a city built on sharp, if often snap, judgment.
The spunky young actress wants what she wants and she dares to think she might be the exception to the rule, which she dares to say out loud in a telling, foreshadowing scene which is easy to miss and dismiss in crediting Janet Gaynor’s performance. Having sighted the hand and footprints of movie stars such as Shirley Temple and Jean Harlow in the forecourt of the world-famous Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, she’s determined to go after what she wants. She even steps into the shoe prints of one of her heroes, matinee idol Norman Maine.
But Norman Maine, played with nuance, bite and melancholy by the great, handsome Frederic March (Inherit the Wind), who will meet the struggling actress a few scenes later at a movie producer’s party, is filling up on scotch and soda to the extreme. Maine’s story within a story, and that’s what it is, is a superficially humorous, cautionary depiction that’s often been proven true since this 1937 classic was made.
Whether Marilyn, Elvis or Whitney, the potential for great tragedy in the artist whose greatness lies in his or her sensitivity, authenticity and powers of keen insight and observation looms large in A Star is Born. This same tender and intelligent quality puts the artist supremely at risk, too. This is a theme which Wellman, a World War One veteran and fighter pilot, understands well as he applies his grasp to this masterpiece. And it’s best encapsulated in the simple plea “just one more look,” which, if you think about it, shows and tells the audience all it needs to know about this emotional movie and its memorable characters.
Among them are Oliver, played with empathy and precision by Adolphe Menjou (Man on a Tightrope), a producer with dollar signs in mind for movies and affection for humanity in his every action. Andy Devine’s and May Robson’s characters, too, are pivotal, especially Robson’s, to the stunning outcome of the climax that comes in a gentle scene on the beach. Each character accentuates the loving, passionate, sexually demonstrative coupling of Miss Gaynor and Mr. March. When Menjou’s motion picture businessman instructs his studio’s biggest star “you have to work it out for yourself”, he’s speaking with clarity and urgency and in the highest sense of the last two words.
Lionel Stander and a cast of extras are best described as the mob or the herd in Hollywood’s star machine, a mixture of wannabes and sycophants, representing the villainy of what makes and unmakes the movie star.
A Star is Born ends as it begins, with words written on the page, following a road trip, a wedding and a fast track toward some certain sense of loss, finally cut loose by what happens after the sound of a doorbell. It is followed, in a scene more chilling than anything in a horror movie, by a scream. Wonderfully, and achingly, if not overdoing the agony, A Star is Born fittingly caps the 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival, where I saw this film for the first time in nitrate at Sid Grauman’s Egyptian Theater.
It is a serious warning about what murders the best in man. It is framed, like this year’s festival theme, by the written word. And it emerges with an embittered, resurgent sense of man the unconquerable which is what this movie means.
The music swells up, A Star is Born tells us at The End. So, too, does the human spirit, in a powerfully poetic, cinematic deliverance for a hundred years and a lifetime, particularly when you feel like what glitters is gone for good.