Thursday 15 September 2016

Movie Review: A Star Is Born (1937)

A drama and romance set in the world of Hollywood, A Star Is Born is the classic tale of a new starlet rising just as her husband's career descends into sad oblivion.

Encouraged by her grandmother (May Robson), Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor) heads from her North Dakota family farm to Hollywood, in search of her big break in the film world. She befriends struggling assistant director Danny McGuire (Andy Devine), but otherwise cannot get a foothold in the industry. She is finally noticed by star (and frequently drunk) actor Norman Maine (Fredric March), who convinces studio boss Oliver Niles (Adolphe Menjou) to give Esther a screen test. She has a simple and natural look that Niles believes will be coming into fashion, and she is signed up by the studio.

With the help of fast thinking and faster talking studio publicist Matt Libby (Lionel Stander), Esther is transformed into Vicki Lester and receives the full studio spiffing up treatment. Cast as the female lead in Norman's next picture, she is immediately acclaimed as the next big star of the movies. After a whirlwind romance Norman sobers up long enough to marry Esther. But her continued success and his descent from glory drives him back to a pattern of self-destruction that threatens to derail her career.

Directed in colour by William A. Wellman and produced by David O. Selznick, the 1937 version of A Star Is Born holds up to the test of time remarkably well. While the bloated 1954 version is more about Judy Garland's attempted comeback, the 1937 effort is a perfectly balanced drama, allowing the story, the milieu and the characters of Esther and Norman to share the spotlight.

At 1 hour and 51 minutes, Wellman delivers an efficient and rich film. There is enough investment in depth to develop Esther and Norman into real people worth caring about. The supporting characters of studio head Oliver Niles, publicist Matt Libby and assistant director Danny McGuire also receive ample screen time and help to nurture the inside Hollywood environment.

The opposite trajectories experienced by Esther and Norman anchor the film. She rockets from unknown ingenue to stardom after her first film. He descends from the top of the heap to the bottom of the bottle at a remarkable pace. They cross paths in the middle, Norman giving Esther a key career boost, Esther doing all she can to halt his slide. Business is business, and ultimately Hollywood is the dream factory where only those who connect with the public are welcome. Esther is the new darling, Norman is the has-been, and few have time or sympathy for yesterday's stars.

Both sides of Hollywood are captured in key scenes. Oliver reaches out to Norman at a key low point, offering a return path to the screen. There are traces of humanity in this town, but Norman's ego prevents him from grabbing the lifeline, or even recognizing it for what it is. In another sequence, Libby wastes no time telling Norman exactly what he thinks of him, now that Norman is washed up. The knives come out quickly when the gloss wears off.

Esther is both protagonist and observer. She is eventually swept up by the studio star-making machine, and gets to observe its inner workings. Esther brings healthy farm-grown pragmatism to her reign at the top as Vicki Lester. Having already witnessed the fleeting nature of fame, Esther will know better than most how quickly the machine can dump and trample on its own creations.

Janet Gaynor and Fredric March both do well and generally avoid melodramatics, with Gaynor in particular radiating the honest appeal of a rural girl candid about her determination to chase a far-fetched dream. Stars are born in an explosion of perseverance, but burn out with a dark whimper.

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